As the cherry blossoms pop in all their pink and white glory the hordes all head for the castle.
And not for nothing. Japan’s oldest extant castle keep is a treat to behold on any day. Floating in a sea of puffy petaled trees Matsumoto-jo takes on a fairytale demeanor that only those who have timed their visit right (or those who happen to live here) will have the pleasure of experiencing.
But while a visit to Matsumoto Castle is at the top of any sane person’s to-see list, especially in this season, it isn’t the only show in town.
Once you’ve gotten your fill of (and filled your memory card with) blossomy views of the castle’s southern and western facades, take a slow walk along the sidewalk that runs parallel to the northern moat. The crowds will certainly have hauled their cameras here as well, but the opportunities for your own unique shot of a flower-fronted castle tower are innumerable, and fun to search for.
From along the eastern moat you can take in the made-for-movie sight of Matsumoto Castle’s only wooden bridge gently curving over the moat, branches heavy with blossoms hanging over the water below the snow-covered mountain peaks in the distance. (The earlier you can get here the better, as the morning sun casts its photogenic light on everything in view.)
But again, this place isn’t the only place in town to capture a moment and a memory of a blossom-regaled Matsumoto. Head south directly away from the castle’s main entrance and check out the scene along Nawate-dori, the pedestrian lane with all the old shops buildings and the frogs everywhere. (Look for the massive paper-mache trio of samurai frogs piling onto each other on the corner just before the bridge.) Down next to the Metoba River, under the towering gate to Yohashira Shrine, is a chance to sit in a spot of grass by the tumbling water in the shade of a thick flowery umbrella.
In Agata-no-mori Park, at the end of the main street heading east from the train station, you’ll find much wider swaths of grass and many more blossoms to lure you into a moment – or a couple hours – of impeccable O-hanami, the still-snowy highlands of Utsukushi-ga-hara rising up over your shoulder further east.
A walk along the Susuki-gawa River is anther option. While the cherry blossom trees run along the roads atop the river’s embankments, dashing any nascent wishes of more streamside shade blossoms, the wider view of these flowering trees curving toward the valley below Utsukushi-ga-hara is a fine sight in its own right.
Lagging a few days behind the blossoms around town are the trees getting ready to explode up in Joyama Park. If you arrive in Matsumoto to find you’ve missed peak cherry blossom season down around the castle, head for the slightly higher environs of this park where you can also climb the tower to a savory view of the Fuchu Plains and the Northern Alps towering in all their snow-capped splendor to the west. Up the road on your way to the park you just may find yourself passing by – and under – some of the best blossoms nobody else seems to know about.
You also may notice, as you start your climb toward the park, Shorinji Temple sitting quietly and spectacularly on the north side of a funky five-way intersection. Like all cherry blossoms, these too are as fleeting as they are beautiful, so hurry!
All this walking around town may seem a daunting task, even in a rewarding search for the best blossoms around. Point taken. So before you leave the castle grounds and head off on your quest, stop by the little visitor information booth just inside the castle’s main entrance. Here the good folks will be happy to rent you a town bicycle for free! Then you are indeed ready to hit the streets to find your very own slice of Japanese cherry blossom heaven.