Matsushiro is one of Nagano’s hidden gems, located in the south part of Nagano city conveniently close to the Interchange. This historic castle town has a wealth of cultural and historical assets ranging from vintage samurai residences to WWII tunnels. The area is also famous for its beautiful blue folk ceramics, known as Matsushiro-yaki.
This castle town ‘built from 100,000 stones,’ was the domain of the Sanada family, a samurai clan which ruled for 250 years from 1622 until just after the collapse of the Tokguawa Bakufu in 1868. We visited last Saturday, and lucked out with the weather but not with the rentacycles – apparently they go into hibernation from December.
First we visited the museum where many of the Sanada family treasures are on public view, including samurai armour, swords and calligraphy. Then we visited the Samurai residence, built for his mother by the 9th generation lord. The tatami rooms and sliding doors still carry the vestiges of a bygone era and it wasn’t hard to imagine Lord Sanada taking his tea looking out over the carefully landscaped garden.
Next we stopped off at the Bunbu Gakko, a set of original classrooms dating back to 1855 where martial arts skills as well as brains were once honed at the school. Lessons on the curriculum included Kendo and Jujutsu, as well as Chinese studies and Dutch (the official language for communicating with aliens at the time!). The halls are still used today for Kendo and Kyudo tournaments.
Last stop before lunch was the WWII tunnels, an impressive network of about 13,100 meters of underground tunnel which was blasted out of the rock towards the end of the war by conscripted Korean laborers. The Bushido ethic of the time made it impossible for some sections of the Imperial Japanese Army to contemplate surrender, and the Underground Headquarters were part of a desperate plan to evacuate key institutions, including the imperial family, government, and military HQ, in the face of the imminent American invasion.
Next stop was a local lunch of nagaimo, a Matsushiro specialty which turned out to be a type of yam, mashed into paste. Matsushiro is a major nagaimo growing area, as the sandy soil along the Chikuma River is perfect for growing them. Then we headed on to the day’s main attraction…a Kimono experience! The Ecole de Matsushiro Club offers lessons in a range of Japanese traditional arts such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement and traditional musical instruments and we had timed it just right for a Kimono workshop complete with Origami lesson!
Finally, it was time for the last stop of the day, at Matsushiro Onsen, a luxury hot spring resort which used natural spa waters to heat the bath. The high iron and salt content turns the water a muddy-brown colour and makes for a memorable Onsen experience.