This week the first of the cherry blossom reports were announced in Japan, obviously fans of the distinctive pink sakura went crazy and I became all nostalgic for our honeymoon there last year.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, cherry blossom viewing is one of the highlights of the year for both locals and visitors to Japan and so many events are planned around it.
The difficulty there, of course, is that no one knows exactly when the sakura is going to bloom. So it’s just a case of booking your ticket and crossing your fingers that you hit the right time. And when you do, it’s pretty special.
After our introduction to Japanese onsens in Shibu, we took a train from Nagano to Matsumoto. The city is often used as a base for the surrounding Japanese Alps so is popular with hikers, which means you’re never too far from a stunning view of the surrounding mountains. But within the city itself it is Matsumoto-jo, the oldest wooden castle in Japan which is its main attraction. Construction of the building, which is also called Crow Castle on account of its black walls, began in 1592.
Surrounded by a lake it honestly does look like its part of a film set and this was especially the case when we arrived and discovered that the cherry blossom was in bloom. This meant that we had arrived in time for the Matsumoto-jo Sakura Matsuri, a festival which begins three days after the cherry blossoms are officially declared in full bloom (a whole very specific procedure in itself we heard). Having already seen the sakura in Tokyo, we were super excited to see more.
One of the things which kept surprising me in Japan is how cheap it is to visit tourist attractions. In some countries (including the UK) it often feels as though the prices are bumped up for visitors and days out can quickly get pricey. But in Japan, while accommodation and travel tends to be expensive, there are other things to save money on. Unlike stately homes in the UK which can costs upwards of £20 ($25), it cost us just a few pounds each to visit Matsumoto Castle.
Like all homes in Japan, visitors are requested to take their shoes off when walking around the castle – so remember to wear socks! Although the tall structure is now mostly empty, aside from a number of display cases, there are information boards on every floor explaining what would have taken place there and it was really cool to imagine Samurai running back and forth during battles and archers peering through the narrow wooden windows out across the city.
Nowadays the views are much more sedate, with koi and swans in the moat below and snow-capped mountains in the background (punctuated, of course, by the ever-present Japanese photo shoots going on below.)
The staircases within the castle are very narrow and visitors go up and down the same steps, so there was quite a lot of tight turns and squeezing past one another. Tall people are advised to watch their heads.
That evening we returned to the castle for Matsumoto-jo Sakura Matsuri, which sees the castle and its sakura trees illuminated. The festival goes on for ten days after the official announcement of the cherry blossom season and entry is free. As we soon discovered it is a very big deal and it felt as though the whole town had turned out to enjoy the festivities. If you’re into photography get there early, as keen photographers started gathering in the prime spots way before the sun set in order to capture the perfect shot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many long-range camera lenses in one place!
There was definitely a sense of occasion in the air though and, like many situations in Japan, it was a real family occasion. Small children ran around thrilled to be eating the celebratory dumplings which are popular at fesivals; old ladies dressed in beautiful kimonos paused to have their photos taken under the sakura and office workers milled around in suits, entertaining visitors to their companies.
Japan has a huge army of older volunteers and its very common to be greeted at train stations and information centres by a friendly man or lady who wants to practise their English and help you out. There were so many times during our trip when these wonderful ambassadors of their country went above and beyond to make sure we got to where we needed to go. The festival was no different and there was a food stall being run by a very enthusiastic team. As usual, I had no idea what the system was for ordering food, but somehow ended up with some noodles and dango (sweet Japanese dumplings). Unfortunately the sticky sakura-coloured sauce they came in did not go down well with me and Mr A was forced to finish them.
As darkness began to fall, musicians began playing from the castle’s tsukimi yagura (moon-viewing pavilion) It felt like such a special moment to witness as a hush fell across the crowd and everyone looked up.
The first performers were flautists and they were followed by a female group who played more traditional Japanese instruments. We wandered around the garden taking photos of the beautifully lit-up cherry blossom trees and people-watching, before the final performance of the evening.
There were so many special moments during our trip to Japan that we ended every day by saying “that was our best day” and Matsumoto Castle was no different.