Social Distancing in the Hills of Matsumoto

Sat, Mar 21, 2020

Out here on the eastern fringes of town it’s pretty easy to practice the social distancing so critical right now. Easy for you to say, Kevin, you live out there. What about us visitors staying downtown?

As I mentioned in my last post, I don’t know if anyone is even visiting Matsumoto right now. On a beautiful day last week there was hardly anyone around down at the castle. The few people I did see were all Japanese. Frankly I’d be shocked to see foreign visitors walking around Matsumoto these days.

But for anyone actually traveling around Japan right now, there are a few things you might want to know.

Matsumoto Castle is still closed. Originally scheduled to open back up on March 19th, the castle, and all other city facilities, are now closed until March 24th. That means all the museums and libraries, though the visitor centers are still open. Otherwise it’s business as usual here in town.

And that, I think, may be cause for concern.

Compared to much of the developed world, Japan has seen a surprisingly low number of coronavirus cases. The spread may have been slowed by the sudden closing of schools nationwide and the other measures that have been taken, at amusement parks and entertainment venues across the country. Yet the rate of testing has also been low, relative to neighboring South Korea in particular. This leaves me to wonder if the numbers in Japan are extremely, artificially low – which in turn can lead to a false sense of confidence and a lack of vigilance among the general population in making sure those numbers don’t start to spike.

So what if you happen to be here in Matsumoto and want to practice proper distancing? What can you really do?

Besides going down and enjoying the sparsely-populated Matsumoto Castle grounds (the inner gardens are still free to enter, though the castle itself is closed), my advice is to head for the hills.

This is a shot from the top of a big hill called Koboyama, a little southeast of town. More than a big hill, the top of Koboyama is actually a kofun, a burial mound of the sort that was common in Japan in the 3rd to the 6th Century before Shinto practices were supplanted by Buddhist beliefs brought over from China. From this vantage point you get a great view of Matsumoto backed by the Northern Alps to the west. Information on a great, laid-back hike that starts right there at Koboyama can be found in this recent post.

Closer than this are a few other easy yet satisfying hikes. Starting at a striking orange torii shrine gate next to a small lake is the walk up to the hilltop Chikato-jinja Shrine. The low-down on that can be found in this post. Make a point to keep walking uphill beyond the shrine for a view from the modest wooden observation deck.

Easier to find, perhaps, is the hike up Higashi-yama to the Hayashi Castle Ruins. It should be noted here that the term “ruins” is merely the most common translation of the Japanese word for where something used to be. Indeed, there was a castle up on Higashi-yama four hundred and some years ago, until Takeda Shingen rampaged through the area, destroying everything he could find. About all that is left are some man-made contours in the earth and a few stones at the top with noticeably square holes in them – ostensibly part of Hayashi Castle once upon a time.

This hike can be a simple up-and-back, or you can explore the wooded hills a little further. This post gives some good starting info, including how to make a loop that includes more castle ruins – in this case actual castle walls, albeit rather small ones. Nevertheless, this is a great hike to make if you want a couple of hours in the woods, a safe distance from all the people still walking around downtown.

The path leading down the back side of the Hayashi Castle ruins.

If hiking through the woods is not quite your thing, you are not completely out of luck. The Yamabe Winery is maintaining its normal hours in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and the outbreak that, at least on the surface, isn’t happening. Unfortunately bus service between downtown and the winery is wholly geared toward the needs of people who commute from the valley into town in the morning, and head back home late afternoon. And with rent-a-cycle service sketchy at best right now your only option may be a taxi. But try the visitor center in the train station anyway, you never know. 

By the time you read this the whole coronavirus situation may be a thing of the past. But the hikes around the hills of Matsumoto will remain. As will the winery, as long as there’s no cabernetvirus outbreak.