Wandering around Japan Part 4… Matsumoto, Yudonaka & Hakone

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Nakasendo Way

The next part of the trip was through the Japanese Alps and heading towards Tokyo.  We started the day getting the train from Takayama and heading to Tsumago. Tsumago is a designated protected area preserving the traditional buildings by keeping out modern disruptions. We walked along the Nakasendo way, which is one of the five highways from the Edo period between Tokyo and Kyoto. We only experienced a small part of this path, but it was beautiful and peaceful. It’s full of trinket shops and we tried gohei mochi, which is rice ball cake covered in a peanut sauce. It was very nice and tasted like rice in a satay sauce.

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Nakasendo Way

Then we carried on to Matsumoto. Matsumoto is  surrounded by the mountains of the Alps in a valley only 20km wide. It is a lovely city and is a favourite of tourists and residents. We got there in the evening and with only one night in the town we headed straight out to explore and find food. We went straight to see the Matsumoto-jo, which is Japan’s oldest wooden castle. It was a great chance to practice my night photography and as I had decided to carry my borrowed tripod on this overnight stay I improvised with a beanbag to take this beautiful image. Lit in green it stood out throughout the park that surrounds it.

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Matsumoto Castle

We found some great food in a local favourite. Full of business people ending their day with freshly cooked food. It was very much tapas style where we order a section fo meat and vegetables and each came freshly prepared and cooked. We were sat at the bar area and the chef handed over our dishes on a long wooden paddle.

Dinner in Matsumoto

The next morning we headed back to the Matsumoto-jo to go inside and experience it fully. It was extremely busy even though it was off-season and first thing. I captured this great picture of a koi. They see you walking along by the shadows you cast over the water and must be so used to be being fed they come straight up expecting food.

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Koi at Matsumoto Castle

Inside the castle is an experience. It is made up of multiple floors with varying degrees of stairs, which basically become ladders at the top. There are boards explaining the history of the castle and the samurai while you look through the small windows of each level. We queued round the whole castle, where you also have to take your shoes off and carry them round in a bag (great system!) , and finally you make it to the top for stunning views of the city. I would recommend a visit here as this was completely different from the temples and shrines we had seen.

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Matsumoto Castle

As we wandered around Matsumoto we explored several little shopping streets and stumbled across an organic vegetarian market, where we bought this wonderful sushi for our lunch on the train. It was lovely to wander freely around the city after the rush of the castle.

Vegetarian Sushi from Matsumoto

Our next destination was Obuse which is famous for chestnuts and art history including woodblock printing artist Hokusai. It was extremely busy with Japanese Tourists and at this point my mum and I decided to avoid the crowds and find a little coffee shop to relax. I would have liked more time on the places at this point in the trip as it felt rushed as we were fitting in so much. I will definitely return to the Japanese Alps if I return to Japan.

We then headed on the train to Yudanaka for another night in a ryokan. This time it was a huge hotel version, which would be wonderful in the winter for skiing, but just felt a little wrong for the time of year. It has two large onsens which changed over at 10pm switching from male to female. This time the group decided to go altogether and there were may more locals there using the amenities. It is a very odd experience being fully naked with other people in a spa like setting, but then having the shower facilities around the edge. It’s a body positive experience (I see a separate post on this coming) as all the Japanese women had no issues with stripping down, at least it did not seem that way. However when a couple of younger ladies got in they were trying to be modest like ourselves. It’s definitely an experience!

The next day we headed to the Snow Monkey Park just outside Yudanaka. It is another experience that is hard to explain. The park has been there since 1964, but unlike the interpretation of natural onsen ponds, the area is man-made. Without any snow you can see all the thermal pipes and debris from the operations. Also the monkey’s stay for the food they are given, as in reality they would migrate away from the area when it snows. Apart from this the monkey’s were free to come and go and although we were warned they would try to take things we had no problem with any of them.  I also managed to take some great photos I am really happy with.

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Snow Monkey Park
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Snow Monkey Park
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Snow Monkey Park
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Snow Monkey Park
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Snow Monkey Park

We then headed on to Tokyo, but before we explored the city we made the most of the extra day on the rail pass and tried to see Mt Fuji by going on travel day to the area of Hakone. It is a full day of travel, all by different modes, but there is very little time to stop and appreciate the surroundings you find yourself in. Again if I came back to Japan I would spend more time in this area as it was so beautiful.

Hakone Travel Plan

The day started with getting the Bullet train to Odwara, then catching a local train to Hakone-Yomoto. We then transferred to a switch back train to start the journey up the mountain to Gara. We then transferred to a funicular to got straight up the mountain to Souzan to catch a cable car. The cable car took us to the volcanic springs at Owakudoni. Here they have a speciality of cooking eggs in sulphur water so they turn black, you can then buy a bag of 5 to eat. We had one each and they were very nice. Being hard boiled they give you some salt to add and it’s a very nice protein snack surrounded by volcanic activity!

Owakudoni Black Eggs

We then got back on the cable car and headed down to Togendai-ko. Here we got on a pirate ship (yes you read the correctly) to Hakon-Machi-ko.

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Togendai-ko

We then stopped for lunch and walked through the cedar trees to Moto-Hakone-ko to get back on the pirate ship (correct again) to Togendai-ko. We then got on a bus to go walk through the silver grass.  It was a beautiful, but cloudy day and we did not get to see Mt Fuji, apart from the glimpse I got on the train in the morning. We then got back on the bus to get back to where we can catch the bullet train back to Tokyo.

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Silver Grass

That night we stayed close to the hotel for dinner and found a wonderful basement restaurant and tried some new things such as dumplings and this wonderful mochi strawberry dessert. Desserts aren’t big in Japan and there were only 3 on offer in this restaurant and it was very good.

Dessert in Tokyo

Next up the big bright lights of Tokyo!

Top Tips for Matsumoto, Yudonaka & Hakone:

  • Make the most of your time by having breakfasts and lunches on the train
  • Get to tourist attractions early to have minimal crowds
  • If you can have more time in places I would recommend it, but this trip lets you see everything
  • Don’t be afraid to go down or up to find good restaurants
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