Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Frogs and Balls in Matsumoto

Crow Castle, Matsumoto
Our next stop was Matsumoto, which sits between the Japanese Alps and The Utsukushigahara Heights, so is a popular area for hiking. We were just here for a day, but felt that we could happily spent a bit longer, which would have enabled us to fit in some museums, including the Museum of Art, which has a big exhibit by Yayoi Kusama, that looks a bit like giant, colourful triffids.

Crow Castle, Matsumoto
The main draw of this historical town is the Karasu-jo, or Black Crow Castle. This is the oldest wooden castle in Japan, and was the domain of the Ogasawara clan. Its main keep, the unusual secondary donjon, and one of the turrets were built during 1592-1614; the additional turret and moon-viewing tower, were added in 1655, and are less fortified, because by this time the city was at peace.

Crow Castle, Matsumoto
It is a nice looking castle, especially with the moat around it and the mountains in the background, so it is perhaps not surprising that many people come here to have any fancy photos taken. If you are planning to go inside the castle, do leave plenty of time as there can be queues in peak season. You may also want to book up a guided tour with one of the Good Will Guides volunteers. They do wait at the entrance, but can be in demand when it's busy.

Former Kaichi School, Matsumoto
Not far away from the castle is the former Kaichi School, which is the first elementary school in Japan, dating back to 1876. Before this time, it was only the children of the samurai that would receive any formal education. It is an attractive looking building, and apparently has some quite interesting information inside.

Nakamachi - dori, Matsumoto
One of the main attractions of the city is that it actually has quite a lot of well preserved older buildings, and this is particularly evident in Nakamachi Dori. The many black and white earthen-walled buildings are called Kura, and were storehouses.

Basashi, raw horse sashimi
There is nothing specific to do here, which seems to have been a surprise to a few disappointed visitors on trip advisor, (not quite sure what they were expecting), but it is pleasant and interesting to walk down, and there are a number of places to eat here.

Nawate - dori, Matsumoto
If you fancy trying the basashi (raw horsemeat sashimi), as Nic did, then we can recommend Say (Soan Annex) Restaurant in Nakamachi. He rather enjoyed it; I opted for something else. If you are craving something western, there is also a decent, despite the slightly odd Hawaiian theme, burger place called Hu-La-La.

Frog, Matsumoto
Another street worth a visit is Nawate Street, which once acted as the border between the Samurai and the commoners. It is a little kitschy, partly due to all of the frogs. You definitely can't miss the big ones, but you will see plenty of little ones in the shops along the street too. I don't know what the obsession with frogs is here, but they even have an annual frog festival in June.
Frog, Matsumoto
I also quite liked a few of the shops in Matsumoto. One of the things that I was looking for here was a Temari Ball. It is hard to buy many souvenirs when you are travelling for long periods, but one of the things that we often buy is something that can eventually go on our Christmas tree.

Temari Ball drain cover, Masumoto
I think Christmas decorations are an area where a little bit of bright kitschiness does not harm at all, so I think tree decorations are an ideal way to incorporate a bit of touristy stuff that you wouldn't normally have out.

Temari Ball, Masumoto
Not that these Temari balls are something that I would be unhappy to have out all year round. They are a real art form, made by weaving silk threads in beautiful geometric designs around a ball. Given that this is where they originated, supposedly made by the wives and daughters of the Samurai, it was surprisingly hard to find them for sale, but we did find a shop with lots of them, and spent a while picking out our favourite.

Strange Bar Jun, Masumoto
Our final visit in Matsumoto was to a bar that we had heard about and felt we just had to go and try. It is called Strange Bar Jun, and specialises in Japanese Whisky, but the real novelty was that it apparently plays the Monty Python soundtrack all the time. As it turned out, that wasn't playing when we got there, but there was plenty of evidence of the owners love of it all around the walls. And it wasn't long before we heard the voices of Eric Idle and the rest of the Pythons ringing out around us. The owner clearly knows it all off by heart, but I do wonder how much most of the customers understand.

Strange Bar Jun, Masumoto
Regardless of the music though, this was an excellent place to spend the evening. The owner really knew his Japanese whiskies, and was very happy to spend lots of time talking to us about them, and recommending which ones he thought we would enjoy. I hadn't even realised that Japanese made whisky, but as it turns out they are one of the top producers worldwide, and have recently been taking numerous awards and accolades. I can't pretend to be an expert on whisky, but these were certainly up with some of the best Scottish ones I've tried.

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