As well as Tanabata, Japan’s second event of July is Umi no Hi. Known as Marine Day in English, this holiday celebrates the sea and everything it has given to the country. It’s also a national holiday which meant that my schools were closed and I couldn’t go to work. Capitalising on that fact, I decided to do something I’d been meaning to do for ages.
On the Friday, I packed a bag and carried two days’ worth of stuff with me to work. Almost immediately after, I hopped on a train direct to Shinjuku with a full rucksack in tow and the weekend was about to begin.
While the direct train made it easier in terms of changes, it actually meant I was on the other end of Shinjuku Station to the proposed meeting point and I soon realised the challenge I was about to face. Shinjuku-eki is huge, busy, and built like a labyrinth, and armed with about 4MB of data and Google Maps, I was going to try my best not to get lost. Casually pretending like I wasn’t using a map, I didn’t want to single myself out as a tourist, because technically, I’m not. I’ve been to Shinjuku a few times now and I live in Japan so I was at a bit of an advantage compared to Tokyo novices (but I’m not going to lie, it’s still freakin’ confusing sometimes).
Only about ten minutes late, I got to the Kabukicho exit. After meeting my friend outside the station, we did a bit of shopping before heading towards the bus station.
When travelling to the Japan Alps, you can get there by train, but it’s much cheaper to go by bus. I’d pre-booked our tickets online so all I had to do was show the staff member the web ticket on my phone and we were on board within seconds. It takes about three hours to get to the centre of Nagano Prefecture, passing through Yamanashi on the way and even though it was too dark to see outside, we still had air-con, a toilet, and a USB port to charge our phones and what else do you need really?
Because I wasn’t travelling alone it definitely didn’t feel like three hours, and not being able to see where we were meant that it felt like we arrived in Suwa City really quickly. I was still tired; after all, it was midnight on Friday after a full work week but I was definitely excited to be there. One of my friends lives in the area and given that I hadn’t seen her in over a month, I was looking forward to seeing her again.
After a slow start (on my part at least), my friends were ready for breakfast. We hopped in the car and drove to the local McDonald’s, which is the only one in the local area. Where I live, there are a few just within a half hour’s walk of my house and a couple ten minutes away from my schools so it was a nice change not seeing the Golden Arches everywhere. Between my friend’s house and the restaurant are several rice fields and as we drove past, S Club 7 blasting from the speakers and singing along, I took a moment to think: “I love my life”.
On the way back, we took a detour further out, up into the mountains for a more ‘bird’s eye’ view of Lake Suwa. At just over 13km2, it’s the largest lake in Nagano Prefecture and it’s bordered by Suwa in the south east and Okaya in the North West. Japan has its fair share of beautiful lakes (like Ashinoko, for example) and Suwako is no exception.
From where we were stood, you could see for miles, across the lake’s surface and over the two cities below. I had been a long time since I’d been able to look over that much distance, and last time I had, it’d been from the top of an enclosed tower, with the sun setting before we’d reached the open air platform.
The freedom of actually being to breathe in fresh air while enjoying the open space is something I didn’t realise I wanted until I had it.
As of Summer 2016, many anime fans may recognise Suwako as the location that inspired the lake in the critically acclaimed movie, Kimi no Na Wa (君の名は, Your Name). I will be the first to – shamefully – admit that despite watching literally every other Shinkai film, I haven’t seen his most famous work, but after visiting Lake Suwa I don’t want to watch it anymore.
I need to.
We had a very quick pit stop back at the house, and then we were off to Okaya to catch a train. From Okaya Station, there’s a direct line to Matsumoto (松本), Nagano Prefecture’s second largest city.
The journey itself took around half an hour and outside the train window, the countryside rolled past. Before that weekend, I’d only had limited – if not non-existent – experience of the inaka so I wanted to take in every second of the scenery, staring as intently as I could while still socialising.
A short walk away from Matsumoto’s main station is Nawate Dori, a shotengai (商店街, shopping street or district) dedicated to frogs… yes, frogs. Almost everything was amphibian-themed and while I couldn’t understand why, I could appreciate the novelty. It turns out that the area used to be home to a large population of frogs but after a two-day typhoon in the late 1950s, the river where they lived overflowed, causing the frogs to migrate upstream in search of higher ground. The locals worked hard in their clean-up efforts and while the river was restored to normal, the frogs never came back. Instead, they were replaced by artificial ones in an attempt to recapture the spirit of ‘Kaeru Machi’ (frog town) but in my opinion, I think they made it even more interesting.
The shotengai concludes with a huge frog statue at the entrance of Yohashira Shrine. I may have been in Japan for a while now and been to quite a few shrines, but if someone asks if I’d want to look around one, I’m going to say yes. They’re not all the same, after all.
Yohashira Jinja isn’t a very old shrine, having been built in the Meiji Period (October 23, 1868 – July 30, 1912), but it’s different in the fact that it’s dedicated to not one deity, but four. Considering that fact, it’s not a very big shrine either, but you wouldn’t be able to miss the entrance, marked by a large torii which is a deep grey instead of the iconic red. We didn’t even need a detour while heading further into the city, so if you’re in Matsumoto, it’s worth a quick look a least.
A short walk away from Yohashira is arguably the most famous place in the entire city: Matsumoto Castle. Before we go there we had a short conbini break, after all, it was midday in the middle of summer so it was the perfect excuse for ice cream. We chose which ones we wanted and sat down on a bench outside to eat them. I’d picked a watermelon flavour ice lolly that was shaped like an actual wedge of watermelon with little chocolate chips acting as the seeds. Combining the heat with me being slow meant that it melted faster than I could eat it, but it was really good.
Now refreshed, we headed to the castle. Upon arriving, we bumped into a volunteer tour guide who offered to show us around in English, for free. Without much hesitation, we said yes, figuring that it wouldn’t hurt to have an expert on hand. We got our tickets, and I’ll be adding mine to the album I’ve bought specially, alongside the one for the Kamakura Daibutsu. Probably due to the fact that it was a long weekend we were by no means the only ones to visit that day. The line to the main building meandered through the garden and it took us about 90 minutes to get to the front. Still melting in the shade, we slowly inched our way closer, with the tour guide taking the opportunity to teach us more about Matsumoto-jō.
Unlike the majority of Japanese castles, which are white, Matsumoto is known for its beautiful black exterior, earning itself the nickname of Karasu-jō (烏城, or crow castle). It’s one of the three ‘premier’ castles, alongside Himeji Castle in the west of Honshu and Kumamoto Castle on the island of Kyushu. I’d originally planned to visit Kumamoto while staying in Fukuoka two years ago, but while planning my trip the 2016 earthquake happened so I ended up not going. I was glad that in July I was able to visit at least one of the top three castles in Japan, as reconstruction work will leave Kumamoto Castle closed for the next few years at least. Himeji-jō is still high up on my Japan bucket list, especially now it’s been twinned with one of my local castles in the UK. I visited Conwy Castle during a high school trip and I’d pass every time I’d travel between university and my home town, so it’d be great to visit its new sister, in the country where I live now.
Matsumoto Castle was built in the Sengoku period, around the 16th century, and is now Japan’s oldest existing castle. Historically owned by the Ogasawara family, the fortress stood during the period of the warring states and at one point, it even belonged to Tokugawa Ieyasu himself.
The building appears to have five floors from the outside but actually possesses an extra storey, hidden away from view with no windows. Combined with some insanely steep stairs, its cleverly designed to stop invaders from reaching the top floors. But when it wasn’t being attacked, its inhabitants liked to enjoy themselves, and a special moon viewing platform was incorporated into the side of the castle. The tour guide mentioned that by relaxing in this space, you would’ve been able to see three moons: one in the sky, one reflected in the moat… and one in your cup of sake.
We’d made our way through the building, and then we reached the last flight of stairs, steeper than all the others. As we were about to go up, I made a half-jokey comment about how I shouldn’t attempt it with my luck (I’d had a nasty fall about three weeks before) but I swept aside my second of apprehension and went up anyway. And I’m glad I did.
The view was beautiful, and you could see Matsumoto framed by the mountains beyond. And I don’t know if anyone else cares, but you can see the Former Kaichi School building, which was one of the first schools in Japan when it was constructed in 1876. Education reform during the Meiji period meant that school would be accessible to everyone, taking influence from the West. It’s now been converted into a museum, and while we didn’t visit it, it’d be somewhere I’d like to check out if I’m back in the city. After all, I do work in the Japanese education system.
I gingerly went back downstairs, my sock-clad feet threatening to slip at any moment, so I made sure to hold onto the handrail and step sideways on my descent. We followed the walkway round the opposite side of the castle before visiting the aforementioned moon viewing platform and emerging into the garden once more. Outside the exit were a couple of re-enactment actors and I just had to get a photo with them (I even got to wield a spear, which was pretty cool).
Shortly after, our tour guide wished us goodbye and we thanked him for showing us around. Afterwards, we had a quick trip to the souvenir shop and then it was time to head back to Suwa, as the evening was about to begin…