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Nagano City’s hidden gem: Matsushiro, a town of samurai and history

Nagano City’s hidden gem: Matsushiro, a town of samurai and history

As I come from Nagano City, I’m pleased to have this opportunity to introduce a part of my hometown Nagano. Nagano City (長野市 Nagano-shi) is the capital of Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken) and it has many exciting spots for visitors to explore. This time, I’d like to introduce the Matsushiro (松代) area, which is located in the southern part of Nagano City.

 

Matsushiro is a former castle town where you can experience a historical atmosphere. Many of the buildings and old samurai residences were built during the Edo Period (1603–1868), and remain as they were back then. The town is very compact, so you can cover many of the sights by foot in the same day. In this article, I will introduce a walking course around Matsushiro, where you might even feel that you are taking a step back in time.

 

Matsushiro Castle Ruins

The first destination will be the Matsushiro Castle Ruins (松代城跡 Matsushiro-jо̄seki), which is probably the most well-known attraction in Matsushiro. From Nagano Station, take the bus to Matsushiro Station bus stop (松代駅 Matsushiro-eki) and walk 5 minutes to reach the castle ruins. From Nagano Station, it will take about 30 minutes and cost you ¥630. Although the name of the bus stop is “Matsushiro Station”, you can’t find the station any longer because it has already been demolished.

 

A remaining gate during the cherry blossom season. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

Matsushiro Castle was owned by the Sanada clan (真田家 Sanada-ke) who used to rule over Matsushiro-han. “Han” is an old way of calling municipalities used in the Edo era. The Sanada clan was also famous for their family symbol, the Rokumonsen (六文銭). Since these are ruins, the castle is no longer standing, but there are still old gates (門 mon) and stone walls (石垣 ishigaki), and you can feel like you are stepping into the past. I recommend visiting during spring, when you can view the castle against a backdrop of beautiful cherry blossoms (桜 sakura).

 

Matsushiro Castle Ruins (松代城跡)
Address: 44 Matsushiro, Matsushiro-machi, Nagano-shi, Nagano 381-1231
Access: From Nagano Station, take a a 30-minute bus ride to the Matsushiro Station bus stop and walk 5 minutes to reach the castle ruins.
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00
Admission: Free

 

Sanada Treasures Museum

Outside the Sanada Treasures Museum. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

After visiting the Matsushiro Castle Ruins, let’s learn more about the Sanada clan. A short 3-minute walk away is the Sanada Treasures Museum. As its name suggests, the Sanada Treasures Museum (真田宝物館 Sanada Hо̄motsukan) contains a collection of treasures donated by the Sanada clan. These include items such as samurai swords and armour, furniture, calligraphy works, and historic documents.

 

Sanada Treasures Museum (真田宝物館)
Address: 4-1 Matsushiro, Matsushiro-machi, Nagano-shi, Nagano 381-1231
Access: From Nagano Station, take a a 30-minute bus ride to the Matsushiro Station bus stop and walk 3 minutes to reach the Sanada Treasures Museum.
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00 (April–October) / 09:00–16:30 (November–March) (Closed on Tuesdays and during the year-end holidays)
Admission: ¥600/adult

 

Former Sanada Residence

Former Sanada Residence. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

The Former Sanada Residence (新御殿 Shingoten) was a palace built in 1864 by Sanada Yukinori for his mother-in-law. Later on, it became the private residence for the Sanada clan. In Japan, it is rare that palaces are built separately from castles, and the Former Sanada Residence is one of these places. Even until today, it remains an important cultural heritage.

 

Former Sanada Residence in spring. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

The Former Sanada Residence is famous for its Zakanshiki (座間式) garden, a style of garden that is best enjoyed from a fixed viewpoint, usually while seated. The garden has elements of shakkei (借景 borrowed scenery), using “borrowed scenery” such as Nagano’s mountains in the background. The residence also has some cherry blossom trees, so I highly recommend you to visit in spring!

 

Former Sanada Residence (新御殿)
Address: 1 Matsushiro, Matsushiro-machi, Nagano-shi, Nagano 381-1231
Access: From Nagano Station, take a a 30-minute bus ride to the Matsushiro Station bus stop and walk 3 minutes to reach the Former Sanada Residence.
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00 (April–October) / 09:00–16:30 (November–March) (Closed 29 December–03 January)
Admission: ¥400/adult

 

Old School for the Literary and Military Arts

The Old School for the Literary and Military Arts. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

Less than 200m from the Former Sanada Residence is the Old School for the Literary and Military Arts (松代藩文武学校 Matsushiro-han Bunbu Gakkо̄). This school was opened in 1855 as a place where children of Matsushiro-han’s samurai could study academics as well as martial arts like archery, judo, and Japanese fencing.

 

The buildings remain almost exactly as they were when they first opened, something that is rare in Japan. As such, many historical dramas have shot scenes and done filming at this school. Perhaps you might have even seen this building in a drama before!

 

Old School for the Literary and Military Arts (松代藩文武学校)
Address: 205-1 Matsushiro, Matsushiro-machi, Nagano-shi, Nagano 381-1231
Access: From Nagano Station, take a a 30-minute bus ride to the Matsushiro Station bus stop and walk 5 minutes to reach the Old School for the Literary and Military Arts.
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00 (April–October) / 09:00–16:30 (November–March) (Closed 29 December–03 January)
Admission: ¥400/adult

 

Former Yokota Family Residence

The Former Yokota Residence. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

Other than the Former Sanada Residence, you can also see a few other old samurai residences in Matsushiro, such as the Former Yokota Residence (旧横田家住宅 Kyū-Yokota-ke Jūtaku) pictured above. The building remains unchanged from when the Yokota family lived in it, so you can get a look at how the houses in the past were like. There are also maple trees planted in the garden, which are very beautiful in autumn.

 

In addition to the Former Yokota Residence, nearby you can also find the Former Maejima Family Residence (the oldest samurai residence building in Matsushiro), the Former Shirai Family Residence, and the Higuchi Family Residence. A small fee is required to enter the Former Yokota Residence, but the others are free to visit.

 

Former Yokota Residence (旧横田家住宅)
Address: 1434-1 Matsushiro, Matsushiro-machi, Nagano-shi, Nagano 381-1231
Access: From Nagano Station, take a a 30-minute bus ride to the Matsushiro Station bus stop and walk 13 minutes to reach the Former Yokota Residence.
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00 (April–October) / 09:00–16:30 (November–March) (Closed 29 December–03 January)
Admission: ¥400/adult

 

Zozan Shrine

The entrance to Zozan Shrine. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

From the Former Yokota Residence, a 5-minute walk will bring you to Zozan Shrine (象山神社 Zōzan-jinja), which was built to deify Sakuma Zozan (佐久間象山), a scholar who was active in the 19th century. Although he studied and worked as a scholar in Edo (an old name for Tokyo), Zozan was from Matsushiro.

 

Zozan Shrine in autumn. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

Since Zozan is deified as a God of Study in this shrine, many students come to pray for success on their high school or university entrance exams, including myself! Thanks to Zozan, I successfully passed both entrance exams. Zozan Shrine is also a great place to view autumn leaves in Matsushiro, as there are beautiful maple trees planted around the shrine.

 

Zozan Shrine (象山神社)
Address: 1502 Matsushiro, Matsushiromachi, Nagano-shi, 381-1231
Access: From Nagano Station, take a a 30-minute bus ride to the Matsushiro Station bus stop and walk 10 minutes to reach Zozan Shrine.
Opening hours: Open year round
Admission: Free

 

Zozan Underground Vault

Entrance of the Zozan Underground Vault. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

From the shrine, it is a 5-minute walk to get to the Zozan Underground Vault (象山地下壕 Zо̄zan chikagо̄). During World War II, the Japanese government ordered to make this underground shelter for the evacuation of Emperor Hirohito from Tokyo. The government had also planned to relocate their functions to Matsushiro. The vault was designed in a grid shape and is composed of three shelters, which extended to a total of 10km. The construction ended at the end of the war, taking only 9 months and accomplishing 80% of the scheduled construction. Since it was during the war, the environment for workers was terrible, and it is said there were some casualties.

 

Inside the Zozan Underground Vault. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

From 1989, part of the shelter became open to the public. You can go and see the inside of the shelter free of charge. Inside the shelter, air temperature remains at 14–15°C year-round, so you will feel cool when it’s summer, and warm when it’s winter. If you are interested in the history of World War II, this will help you to learn the history.

 

Matsushiro Zozan Underground Vault (松代象山地下壕)
Address: 1460-3 Matsushiro, Matsushiro-machi, Nagano-shi, Nagano 381-1232
Access: From Nagano Station, take a a 30-minute bus ride to the Matsushiro Station bus stop and walk 20 minutes to reach the underground vault.
Opening hours: 09:00–16:00 (Last admission at 15:30. Closed on the third Tuesday of the month and during the New Year holidays)
Admission: Free

 

Chikufudo’s chestnut desserts

Chestnut dorayaki. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

After exploring the sights of Matsushiro, you might be feeling hungry. Just walk 15 minutes from the Zozan Underground Vault and you will reach a dessert shop: Chikufudo (竹風堂 Chikufūdо̄), which is also located near the Matsushiro Station bus stop.

 

Originally from Obuse, a town famous for chestnuts (栗 kuri), Chikufudo is famous for their chestnut confectioneries, and my favourites are the dorayaki (どら焼き) and oshiruko(お汁粉). Usually, dorayaki doesn’t have chestnut but Chikufudo’s version has it! It is chewier and sweeter than regular dorayaki, so I highly recommend that you try it for yourself.

 

Oshiruko with chestnut soup. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

My other recommendation is their oshiruko, a rice-cake in sweet soup made with chestnuts. Usually, Japanese people eat oshiruko on New Year’s Day and the soup is made of azuki (小豆 red beans). But Chikufudo’s version uses chestnut paste (栗あん kuri-an) instead of azuki.

 

You can have oshiruko and dorayaki for dine-in at Chikufudo. Dorayaki is also available for take away. These are mouthwatering and if you like to eat sweet treats, you must try these when you are in Matsushiro!

 

Chikufudo Matsushiro Branch (竹風堂松代店)
Address: 10-1 Matsushiro, Matsushirotonomachi, Nagano-shi, Nagano 318-1231
Access: From Nagano Station, take a 30-minute bus ride to the Matsushiro Station bus stop and walk 3 minutes to reach the shop.
Opening hours: 08:00–18:00 (08:00–19:00 in July and August) (Closed on New Year’s Day and every Thursday in January and February)

 

Relax in an onsen at Matsushiro-so

Matsushiro-so’s façade. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

At the end of the day, it’s time to relax at an onsen (温泉 hot spring), and I recommend visiting Matsushiro-so (松代荘Matsushiro-sо̄). From Chikufudo, you need to walk just a few minutes to the Matsushiro Station bus stop. From there, hop on a bus and get off at Matsushiro Onsen (10-minute ride). But be careful, there are only two buses that run between Matsushiro Station and Matsushiro Onsen.

 

Large public bath in Matsushiro-so (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

The onsen at Matsushiro-so has a very unique feature. The water has plenty of iron minerals, so the water becomes a golden colour when it comes into contact with oxygen in the air. The onsen has the smell of iron, but it’s still worth to see and soak into. Matsushiro-so is an accommodation so if you have the time, why not stay a night here? If not, you can still visit the onsen as a day trip visitor. It costs ¥500 to use the onsen.

 

Matsushiro Spa Matsushiro-so (松代荘)
Address: 3541 Matsushiromachi, Higashijo Nagano-shi, Nagano 381-1221
Access: From Nagano Station, take a 35-minute bus ride to the Matsushiro Onsen.
Opening hours: 10:00–22:00 (Open throughout the year)
Admission fee: ¥510/adult

 

Map of Matsushiro Walking Course

For reference, below is a map of the course I just introduced to you. As you can see, all the places are very near each other, and make for a fun day trip from Nagano City. Due to COVID-19, there might be some changes in the operating hours of each place, so please check their homepages for updates before visiting.

 

 

Sanada Jumangoku Festival

Marching starts from Matsushiro Castle Ruins. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

The Sanada Jumangoku Festival (真田十万石祭り Sanada Jūmangoku Matsuri) is an annual autumn festival held to give thanks to the Sanada clan for their 250 years of good governance on Matsushiro-han. The Sanada clan produced one of the most popular warlords in the history of Japan. Sanada Yukimura was especially popular, and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) even made a historical drama series in 2016 which featured him.

 

Marching through the Matsushiro town area. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

The festival has about 250 participants in each year. During the festival, some of them wear old armor of bushi (武士 warrior) and some of them wear old-style clothes. The participants march from the castle ruins and go through the Matsushiro town area.

 

At this festival, you have the chance to meet a historical figure’s descendant in Matsushiro. Every year, descendants of the Sanada clan also participate in the festival. The current descendant who participates is Mr. Sanada Yukitoshi, a professor at Keio University.

 

Unfortunately, in the last two years, 2019 and 2020, the festival has been cancelled. In 2019 it was canceled due to a strong typhoon, and in 2020, of course it’s because of COVID-19. I really hope that the festival can be held safely next year.

 

Getting there

The Matsushiro area is just a small part of my lovely hometown of Nagano City, and there are still so many more attractive tourism spots there. I am not sure when I will have another opportunity to introduce Nagano City or other cities in Nagano Prefecture again, but if I have the chance, I would love to try to do my best! Hope to see you in Nagano.

 

ALPICO bus bound for Matsushiro. (Image credit: ALPICO GROUP)

 

Matsushiro is located in the southern part of Nagano City. From Tokyo, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train) from JR Tо̄kyо̄ Station (東京駅), and which will take you to JR Nagano Station (長野駅) in only 1.5 hours.

 

From Nagano Station, you can take an ALPICO bus to Matsushiro. You can pay by cash, or with ALPICO’s proprietary IC card. To get to the Matsushiro area, you need to take the bus No.30 from bus stop No.3 at Nagano Station’s Zenkoji Exit (長野駅善光寺口 Nagano-eki Zenkо̄ji-guchi).

 

Header image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau

Additional text: Carissa Loh

 

Writer’s profile:
WATANABE Mamoru(渡辺守)

Moved to Singapore in 2018 as a Representative Officer of Nagano Prefectural Government. He was born in Niigata and raised in Nagano, and is happy to see more and more Singaporeans coming to his hometown of Nagano.

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