Frogs, Springs and Shrines: Matsumoto’s little discoveries

I was glad to return to Matsumoto. The last time I was here was in 2011 and while we covered the major sights the last time ie the black castle, this time I was happy to just wander around and soak in the town’s laidback vibes. Even back then in that earlier visit, Matsumoto had come across as a town with more of a communal, village feel than a city. It’s the sort of place where you slow down your pace, throw out the schedule and just go with the flow.

Matsumoto has wide boulevards but these have little vehicular traffic. Most of these are intercut in a grid with smaller lanes. These lanes are a rewarding afternoon’s exploration. Moving away from the train station especially, in the older sections near the river and the castle, you’re likely to see old restored warehouses or kura, with a hidden shrine or two in the backlanes or maybe a street dedicated to frogs? Keep your eyes peeled and your level of curiosity high and you might find a surprise or two. As I did. 

curtains of wispy wisteria

curtains of wispy wisteria

Matsumoto’s lanes are built for cycling. They are flat and straight. And because traffic is not very heavy, cyclists can have some peace of mind. We didn’t cycle but we walked from the station. I would love to cycle here one day.

Coming straight from the Kurobe Alpine Route in the late afternoon, we arrived at the JR Matsumoto station ready to hop on another train for Nagano 50min away. But on the spur of the moment, we decided to just store our luggage in the lockers and go for a walk around Matsumoto.

We headed for the lanes parallel to the river. According to the Lonely Planet, those were the most atmospheric Matsumoto had to offer, with a profusion of cafes and boutiques and craft shops mostly converted from former kura. The kura remain as they were – strong thick white walls with dark grey tiles and details, but the contents have changed. Hip artisan products, hand-made jewelry, wood carvings and crafts now call out tantalisingly to the shopper in me.

What I love most about wandering in the streets of small Japanese towns is the unexpected delight of finding details unique to each town, often tucked away unobtrusively and missed unless you keep an eagle eye out for them. In Unazuki Onsen, they were the small oxidised bronze statues of graceful sprites and faeries but in Matsumoto, they are the abundant water fountains flowing with sweet, cold water from the mountain springs surrounding the town. We saw a few like these:

And being Japanese of course, each came with a helpful explanatory table detailing carefully the chemical make-up of the water.

Across the river, a casual glance into an alley caught my attention. In a small clearing barely 20m into the alley stood an old weather-beaten shrine, complete with a torii gate:

I wondered what its story was. I would love to find out. I loved the way the gate gleamed turquoise in the afternoon sun, its dark wood slats looking comfortably at home as it must have for years, the wooden pillars of the torii a rich brunette tanned and glazed by years in the sun. Who worshipped here? Why did it now sit a bit forlornly, looking a bit forgotten, in this small clearing flanked by squat 20th century blocks. I guess it would stay a mystery for me always.

Nearby was another mystery – a tiny sardine of a kura, a graceful sliver of the past sandwiched between two ugly buildings of today. It sat oddly back from the road, almost a bit defiantly, as if to thumb its nose at progress, happy to remain in its old skin, laced with the cheery green of a small garden.

Matsumoto’s river is the border between the old and the new. Unlike so many other rivers which have been concretised and cemented over into canals, this one is running gloriously wild with river plants a luxuriously messy green patch intent on reclaiming their banks:

Across the river is a street dedicated to Kaeru – frogs. The Japanese word for frogs also sounds like “coming home” as well as the ability “to shop”. Which suits this little street just fine since it houses interesting shops and even a shrine for the froggie gods.

charming curio stand

charming curio stand

for fast frogs and slow frogs

for fast frogs and slow frogs

not frogs but owls too

owls also welcomed in Matsumoto

stop and say a prayer for kaeru - a safe return

stop and say a prayer for kaeru – a safe return

I didn’t say a prayer then. Does this mean I can’t return? Ah but I love this street and because I do, I’m sure the froggie gods will welcome me back someday. Ribbit. 

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