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Cherry blossom hunting in Japan: Matsumoto Castle & Joyama Park

by Elisa Flitter Fever
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To see the cherry blossom bloom in Japan. That was my dream. I guess that counts for many people, making March/April peak tourist season. In the spring of 2018, the cherry blossoms (‘sakura’) started to bloom in Japan about two weeks earlier than average. So I headlong decided to visit Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture – Matsumoto Castle to be specific – to see the blossom and did not regret it for a second!

On 9, 11 and 13 april 2021 there is this Nagano: Takato Castle Park Cherry Blossom Special Event Tour possible. Sign up now if you are there at that time and do not want to miss one of Japan’s top 3 cherry blossom-viewing spots. You will get to enjoy the Matsumoto Castle’s Cherry Blossom Festival 2021!

Couple in traditional Japanese clothes under the blossom tree @ Matsumoto Castle Japan
Couple dressed up in traditional Japanese clothes under the blossom tree @ Matsumoto Castle

Dream vs. reality

The weeks before my departure to Japan I started to run scared. Would I miss it? By the time I flew to Tokyo, the blossom was already gone. Oh no!

Now I would finally – after more than 15 years of wishing and wanting – go to Japan, I was determined to see blossom (‘sakura’ in Japanese). At least some! It was an absolute must-see for me.

Since it was not completely gone yet, the hunt for blooming blossom began upon arrival. As highly recommended for Japan, especially for this season, I booked everything in advance. It may take a bit of a detour, but not all the way to Hokkaido please!

Matsumoto white pink blossom close up Japan
White pink blossom close up

Matsumoto it is!

Matsumoto is the second largest city of Nagano prefecture, at the foot of the Japanese Alps. Apparently Matsumoto is a good spot for sakura spotting when blossom already left Tokyo… It’s April 10, 2018.

  • Blossom status Matsumoto: just beyond peak point
  • Detour: 2.5 hours by train from the Snow Monkey Park
  • My thought: worth a shot. Blossom here I come!
So lucky & blessed I got to see the cherry blossoms in Japan!
So lucky & blessed I got to see the cherry blossoms in Japan!

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto did not disappoint. Look at these photos made at Matsumoto Castle, one of the prettiest, original castles of Japan. It dates back to 1504! I love it. It’s nickname is Crow Castle due to it’s black exterior. Which contrasts fabulously with the pink and white sakura. Entrance to Matsumoto Castle costs 610 JPY.

Me & the blossom @ Matsumoto Castle
Me & the blossom @ Matsumoto Castle
Celebrating sakura @ Matsumoto Castle
Celebrating sakura @ Matsumoto Castle

Joyama Park

For flower viewing (‘hanami’ in Japanese) among locals only, go to Joyama Park in Matsumoto. It was a bit of a search to get there from Matsumoto Castle, but so worth it! It’s right behind a residential area. So pretty with all the blossom trees in bloom!

Walking around Joyama Park
Walking around Joyama Park in times of blossom

What a view! And really a nice, serene atmosphere. Walked around here for a few hours. Couldn’t get enough!

Blossom trees Joyama Park Matsumoto
What a gorgeous line of blossom trees
Lampoons & Blossom @ Joyama Park Matsumoto Japan
Cloth lanterns & blossom @ Joyama Park

Celebrate sakura

The Japanese people really celebrate their blossom. For example by a picnic under the trees with lover, family or friends. Every day it is on the Japanese news, where the blossom has opened up that day. Shop windows are sakura themed. Fake strings of blossoms are hung up above the rail station’s platforms. It’s like some sort of annual, national festivity.

By the way, if you have time to celebrate some more blossom in Matsumoto, you might want to go to Alps Park as well. From what I have heard, it must be awesome blossom viewing there. For me it was a bit too far out (30 min north of Joyama Park) since I planned to spend the night in Tokyo.

Friends picnic under the blossom tree Matsumoto Castle
Friends picnic under the blossom tree
Gorgeous white blossom  Matsumoto
Gorgeous white blossom

Besides the blossom, the castle and the park, Matsumoto has several good museums, such as a Folklore Art Museum. And good shoppping at Nakamachi-dori and Nawate-dori. See also the map below.

When to visit Matsumoto

Mix careful planning with lots of luck and perhaps you will see the blossom bloom in Japan. No matter how good your travel planning skills are, it remains a bit of gambling and requires flexibility as reality can never be guaranteed. Nature does not let itself control. And that is how it should be. However, you can make smart choices.

Blossom starts to bloom in the south (Kyushu), where it is warmer, and then crawls up the country, ending in the far north (Hokkaido). Are you planning a roundtrip through Japan and is one of your goals to see the blossom?

  • Start your trip from the south and you may end up chasing the blossom, but likely never able to catch up with it.
  • Start your trip from the north and – with luck and timing – the blossom will come towards you and cross your path at some point.

Another benefit of traveling from north (with which I mean Tokyo and Matsumoto) to south (Nagasaki) through Japan is for example that you will visit the most intense places first (Tokyo and Kyoto), with lots of sightseeing. And then when heading more south, it will become less crowded and more peaceful. Which is great because after for example 8 or 10 days of intense travel, your energy level might go down a bit. A friend of mine traveled from south to north and regretted it for this reason. After almost two weeks of intense travel she arrived in Tokyo but had no energy any more to do a lot of sightseeing there. In a next article I will explain more reasons why I would recommend to travel from north to south in Japan.

Blossom trees at the river in Matsumoto
Blossom trees at the river in Matsumoto
Blossom trees in residential area of Matsumoto
Blossom trees in residential area of Matsumoto

How to get to Matsumoto blossom

Matsumoto can be reached by train comfortably. The Super Azuza 22 (Chuo Line) takes you in 2.5 hours from/to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. For the best window view: sit on the left side of the train from Tokyo, or right from Matsumoto. From Nagano Station, Matsumoto is just 50 minutes away (JR Shinano Limited Express). Both are covered by the JR Pass.

Are you traveling to Matsumoto from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China or South Korea? Then you could consider buying the 5 Day JR Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Pass before arriving in Japan. This JR Pass covers unlimited rides on the JR conventional lines running between Nagoya, Toyama, Shinano-Omachi, in addition to Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.

I visited Matsumoto after the Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park near Yudanaka Station, which was app. 2 hours by train, and then went further back to Tokyo.

Pink blossom sakura Matsumoto
Pink blossom
On top of the hill @ Joyama Park Matsumoto blossom trees
On top of the hill @ Joyama Park

Matsumoto Castle is an easy 15 minute walk north(west) of Matsumoto Station. Take the East exit if you want to go by foot or public bus. For taxi or the Town Sneaker bus take the West exit.

Joyama Park is located northwest of Matsumoto Castle. What was supposed to be an “only a 22 min walk”, thus Mr Google Maps, ended up in a much longer steep climb up hill. Shit. Better take a taxi from Matsumoto Castle. Taxi Highland Express is one of the major taxi companies in Matsumoto. Unfortunately no local busses ride up there. My initial thought “maybe I can rent a bike there” reminded me of my trip to San Francisco back in 2006. What did I know?! LOL.

Want to make your life a little easier? Join this Matsumoto Castle & City Highlights Half-day Tour from Matsumoto Station and see: Matsumoto Castle, Nakamachi and Nawate Streets and the Kachi School Museum.

Blossom in the sun Matsumoto
Blossom in the sun

Snow Walls of Mt Norikura near Matsumoto

Coming to Matsumoto between late April and June? Too late for blossom (usually) but perfect to ride the Haruyama Bus to see the Snow Walls of Mt Norikura! Mt. Norikura (Gifu Prefecture) is the 3rd highest peak of the Northern Japan Alps. It’s about 1 hour west of Matsumoto Castle (still Matsumoto greater area). I’d suggest to get a Haruyama Snow Wall Bus Ticket (2-Day Free Pass). The pass includes unlimited bus and train travel around Kamikochi, Norikura and Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture.

No private cars allowed, visitors can only admire the towering snow wall, which can become 10 meters high on foot or by taking the bus. The Norikura Dake Alpine Snow Wall Bus (Haruyama Bus) departs from the Norikura Kogen Tourist Information Center. The bus ride takes about 45 min. The snow corridor is close to the Kuraigahara Sanso Hut in Azumi. When the sky is clear you can also see panoramic views of the mountain ranges in the distance.

Further up north (in the direction of Omachi), there is another famous snow wall (yuki no otani) in Tateyama at Murodo Station. It’s more touristy but you can easily walk to the snow wall on foot from the station. You can combine this with a visit to the Kurobe Dam (take the Kanden Tunnel Trolley Bus). From Kurobeko Station you can go to Kurobedaira Station, from where you get on the Tateyama Ropeway to Daikanbo and get on top of the mountains. Great view!

Snow Walls of Mt Norikura near Matsumoto
Snow Corridor at Tateyama (photo credits Ankur Panchbudhe)

Map Matsumoto

This map includes places and spots mentioned in this article (and more). This one is ‘smartphone friendly’; you can easily use it via the Google Maps app. Click the icon at the top left to open the menu and see the categories. To adapt the map to your own preferences and interests, (de)select a category. Via Google Drive you can copy the map to your own My Google Maps account.

Going to Japan? I wrote many other, detailed articles about it full of tips! Check all my Japan articles in the Japan Blog Archives.

Want to know the latest status of the cherry blossom in 2021? The cherry trees started to bloom already in Tokyo on March 14, 2021. For more information see this article.

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Last Updated on 03/16/2021 by Elisa Flitter Fever

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