Last week, I had a chance to go to Matsumoto. The local JC’s chapter invited me to give a talk on their town’s “identity” from a foreigner’s perspective. Of course, there’s the obvious — Matsumoto Castle, arguably the second coolest castle in all of Japan. And there’s the city’s location as the entrance way to Kamikochi and the Japanese Alps. But there’s so much more that makes Matsumoto so unique, especially the city’s surprisingly walkable center — the area around the station and castle
While most city centers in Japan are one ugly ferroconcrete building after another, Matsumoto’s is pedestrian friendly with sidewalks lined not with a jamble of bicycles and signs, but with enjoyable water features. And being a castle town, Matsumoto has a maze of narrow streets around its core. Two of those with a medieval feel to them that you’re likely to come across walking from the station to the castle, are Nawate and Naka-Dori.
While in ‘Moto for the JC talk, I got the chance to check out Nawate. There’s a great variety of businesses — bakeries, flower shops, even one that sold antique tools. I was mesmerized by the look of the well-worn iron tools they had. There are stairs down to the Metoba River who’s tranquil riverside made you forget that Nagano’s second biggest city is all around you. Plus, there are more water features all over the place.
At the JC’s function, I met Inoue-san from Inoue Department Store. While most of Japan’s big-name, national department stores are struggling to remain alive with the economic downturn and internet shopping, Inoue seems to be surviving relatively well. I figured out Inoue’s secret: purchasing is done not by official “buyers”, but by the salespeople on the floor. Not only do the salespeople know best what consumers want, but if they do the purchasing, they are in a better position to “sell” the consumers on the products. If you’ve seen other Japanese department stores, you’re in for a treat at Inoue’s. And if you have kids, make sure not to miss their toy section.
So if you visit Matsumoto, don’t just see the castle and leave — take time to wander around the enjoyable streets in the city’s center. You’ll see what makes Matsumoto one of Japan’s most liveable cities.