Day 104: Mt Fuji and Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture, Japan

After three days in Tokyo, we picked up our rental minivan and hit the road. With four adults, three children and numerous backpacks and suitcases, it was a tight but comfortable fit in the Nissan minivan. The built-in GPS and my unlimited-data Japanese SIM card for my iPhone to access Google Maps proved invaluable for navigation. Paul would take the first shift driving and Greg the navigating. The rest of us: me, Chris, Elina, Mika and Hannah, chose seats that we’d end up sticking to for the rest of the road trip.

It took a while to get out of the Tokyo urban area.

Magnificent Mount Fuji

Mount Fuji is the highest volcano in Japan at 3,776.24 m (12,389 ft), 2nd-highest peak of an island (volcanic) in Asia, and 7th-highest peak of an island in the world. It is a dormant stratovolcano and is one of Japan’s three holy mountains.

My favourite iconic image of Mt Fuji: Hokusai’s woodblock print South Wind, Clear Sky, 1830-32.

In less than two hours drive (about 100km) out of Tokyo, we saw the mountain’s looming form.

We were all awestruck when we saw Mt Fuji from inside the van.
A different angle of the volcano taken from the van.
When we stopped at Lake Kawaguchi to view spectacular Mt Fuji and to have a picnic lunch, the clouds had drifted in and covered its peak.
A tick off Elina’s bucket list.

Some family photos in front of the snowy peaks of Mt Fuji. Hannah was a bit camera-shy for the family pic, but didn’t mind posing for the ones below.

We loved that the cherry blossoms were out. They were really beautiful.


After lunch at Lake Kawaguchi, we drove 130km (about 2 hours) to the city of Matsumoto, in Nagano prefecture. We stayed at a pretty neat place called LBase. Below is a pic of Mika and Elina on a hammock in our room.

Matsumoto Castle

The next morning, we visited the impressive Matsumoto Castle, which is built of wood and is one of the surviving ‘original castles’.

“Matsumoto Castle is one of five castles designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and the oldest castle donjon remaining in Japan. Construction began in 1592 of the elegant black and white structure with its three turrets. Because of the elegant black walls, Matsumoto Castle is sometimes called ‘Crow Castle’. Inside the castle are steep stairs and low ceilings leading past displays of armor and weapons from the Sengoku Period (Warring States Period) when the castle was built. The narrow wooden windows, once used by archers and gunmen, provide amazing views of the Japanese Alps, Matsumoto City and the koi and swans circling in the moat below.” (from Visit Matsumoto)

Our first Japanese castle — and probably the best.
Matsumoto Castle was also known in Japan as ‘Crow Castle’.

“The typical castle consisted of multiple rings of defense, with the so called honmaru (“main circle”) in the center followed by the ninomaru (“second circle”) and sannomaru (“third circle”). The castle tower stood in the honmaru, while the lords usually lived at a more comfortable residence in the ninomaru. In the town around the castle, the samurai were residing. The higher their rank, the closer they lived to the castle. Merchants and artisans lived in specially designated areas, while temple and entertainment districts were usually located in the outskirts of the city or just outside of it.” (from Japan Guide)

View from the top of the castle.
Behold my kingdom!
A couple of apprentice samurais. Photo by Chris

Frog Street (Nawate Dori)

Not far from Matsumoto Castle is Nawate Dori, aka Frog Street. The street has been around since the 1500s. Chris had found this unique street after a Google search and we had a great time strolling down the pedestrian-only street.

Old wares: tanukis and fish-shaped pot and kettle holders to hang over the hearth.

I began to be intrigued by tanuki, whose statue was everywhere in Japan. I Googled him and found out that tanuki is a Japanese raccoon dog but is depicted in art form as a trickster and shapeshifter who is very well-endowed.

My brother and I loved watching the 60’s-era Japanese Gojira films as kids, including Mothra vs Godzilla and Ghidora, the Three-Headed Monster. I was showing Greg the toy Gojira above and he said something I didn’t know – that the monster was actually a metaphor for the atomic bomb. I guess as a kid you don’t think about those things. ‘Course, I had to Google that…

“In the film, Godzilla symbolizes nuclear holocaust from Japan’s perspective and has since been culturally identified as a strong metaphor for nuclear weapons. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka stated that, “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind. Director Ishirō Honda filmed Godzilla’s Tokyo rampage to mirror the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stating, “If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.” (from Wikipedia)

The girls play at a water feature overlooking the river.
Close up of the water feature.
We ate at this tiny restaurant. I think most of us ate noodles.

On the road again …

After a night in Matsumoto, we said goodbye and drove towards the Kiso Valley in Gifu prefecture to walk from one Edo-period postal town to another. Stay tuned for the next post!

Goodbye, Matsumoto!