I’ve spent the last couple days exploring the small town of Matsumoto on my way back from Kamikochi.
My train got into Matsumoto Station early in the afternoon, and I decided to walk the 3km to the hostel. Rain was threatening to make its way down the valley but I figured I had some time, and I know no better way to become familiar with a place than just wandering around. I pulled up a map and off I went.
40 minutes later I arrive at the hostel. The door is open but the place is deserted – no proprietor, no guests, nothing. There’s a big sign out front of the house and the place is clearly set up for guests, so I’m sure I’m in the right place. Maybe they just stepped out for a minute. I pull out my book (Factfulness by Hans Rosling, which I highly recommend) and settle in to wait.
A quarter of an hour later there’s still no sign of anyone. I send a quick email to the address on the reservation, then decide to walk 15 minutes up the road to the nearest 7-11 to get some cash and snacks.
In case you’re not familiar with Japanese 7-11s, let me fill you in. 7-11 is owned by a Japanese bank (7-i holdings), and they are much nicer in Japan than State-side. They’re super clean and have excellent snacks including all sorts of fresh things like rice balls with fish. Since they’re owned by a bank, they’re also the most reliable place to get cash with an American bank card (Japan is a surprisingly cash-oriented place).
I just barely beat the rain storm back to the hostel. Still no sign of the owner, nor a response to my email. At this point I’m getting a little nervous – am I going to open up a door and find a dead body? I start the kettle going then settle back in with my book and a cup of tea to wait.
Finally the owner comes in, a tiny little Japanese lady with only a few words of English. She is a little surprised to find me, and informs me that she lives downstairs – all I had to do was ring the doorbell and she would have come right up. Obviously.
Eventually the other guests arrive: an older French couple, their adult son and his Hong Kongese girlfriend. The parents speak only French, the kids French and English. I end up doing a fair amount of translation for them, since my Japanese is better than our host’s English. It’s pretty satisfying to be able to help like that. I’m impressed by the older couple – going to a remote part of a very foreign country with not a scrap of shared language is courageous!
My point, I suppose, is that this kind of thing will never happen if you only stay in hotels. Strikes me as a terribly boring way to travel, frankly.
Addendum: as I was sitting in the hostel finishing up this post, the owner’s husband wandered in with a carton of sake, and we proceeded to toast each other and trade travel stories for a while. What hotel would give you that?
OK, on to Matsumoto itself. I borrowed a bike from the hostel to get into town, then spent the morning at Matsumoto Castle. This is supposed to be Japan’s second best castle after Osaka Castle, and I would say it lives up to the title.
I wandered around town a bit, and got a lunch of Zaru Soba (cold noodles dipped in sauce). The place had a sign outside reading “we cannot speak English, so in order to provide good service we can only serve Japanese speakers”. It almost scared me off until I remembered that I speak Japanese! Also they had an English menu so I don’t know what they were on about.
After lunch I took the train up the valley, rented a bike and visited the Daio Wasabi Farm. A friend had recommended it to me, and it was definitely worth a visit. Wasabi (real wasabi, not green horseradish like you get most places) is extremely demanding to grow – it needs specific conditions, including a constant flow of high purity water. The farm has an impressive irrigation setup, and it made for some impressive scenery.
I still had a couple hours on my bike rental, so I made a big loop of the river junction, riding on little farm roads. It kind of reminded me of riding in Indiana in college, but with better colors and less head wind.Now I’m back in town, wolfing down some okonomiyaki (think of a cross between an omlet and a pancake) at a tiny place near the train station called “Octopus and Whiskey and Soda”. Not a bad way to finish a day.Tomorrow I head back for a final night in Tokyo, then I’m off to Korea.