Japan has so much to offer outside of Tokyo. Sure, there’s endless amounts of cool things to do in Japan’s biggest city, but you have to understand that it’s just not an accurate representation of what ‘all of Japan’ is like. Having already spent time in Tokyo on all of my previous trips, this time I decided to pretty much avoid it completely. So as soon as Pedey and I arrived in Japan back in April, we headed straight to a different area of Japan that we were eager to explore: Nagano Prefecture!
PS. Watch the video above then check out the accompanying story below!
The Nagano region is mostly mountainous and has some really good ski resorts and natural hot springs, but my reasons for wanting to go there were more specific. Firstly, I really wanted to visit the city of Matsumoto and see its famous castle! And secondly, there was another place I’d read about that I’d always wanted to go to that was supposedly one of the top 3 best cherry blossom viewing spots in all of Japan. The plan was to pick up our Toyota Soarer, aka. #ProjectJZZ30 from our friend’s workshop in Saitama then drive up to Matsumoto, stay for the night then visit Takatojoshi Park the following morning…
We’d be going to many different car events and track days during the course of our two-month-long stay in Japan, so this little side trip was going to be more about sightseeing than anything else. Obviously I love cars, but I also really love nature and Japanese culture in general, so whenever I go to Japan I always make sure to plan a good balance of car-related activities and general sightseeing. Conveniently enough, when I planned out the route for this road trip I realised that we’d be driving right past a race track that I’d always wanted to visit too!
Sports Land Yamanashi in passing Yamanashi Prefecture was only a 10-minute detour from the expressway, so we decided to stop and check it out on our way. Typically it was right in what felt like the middle of nowhere, up in the mountains in an incredibly cool location.
There wasn’t anything happening at the track that day, but there were a number of interesting (and some very abandoned-looking) cars dotted around the facility. This ZG-inspired S30 didn’t look like anybody was coming back for it anytime soon; although I hope I’m wrong in my assumption!
While we were there, the track manager came out to talk to us and he could speak just enough English for us to have a chat. He was so kind and showed us around and made us feel really welcome, which was really cool! I hope I can come back here for an actual event one day.
As we continued onto Matsumoto I started seeing signs of cherry blossoms! The higher altitude in Nagano means the cherry blossom season comes a bit later; roughly two weeks after Tokyo. Even though we traveled by expressway pretty much the whole way, the drive was so beautiful. Nothing beats the hazy late afternoon light in Japan on a clear day… There’s just something so magical about it!
We arrived in Matsumoto just before sunset, so we went out for a quick walk to check out the city. My first impression was that it was so small, quiet and peaceful. Unsurprisingly it was also a lot colder!
Matsumoto Castle was just as impressive as I’d hoped it to be in person. One of the most famous castles in Japan, it was built in 1504 and is special basically because it’s survived. While most castles in Japan have been destroyed or burnt down then recreated, Matsumoto castle’s keep has been kept in tact including the original wooden interior. It’s hard to get across in photos just how big it is! We sat for a while, watching as the last rays of sunlight drenched the castle in gold, while bright orange carp swam around below us in the petal-filled moat. To my disappointment, strong winds had blown away almost all of the cherry blossoms surrounding the castle…
Although there were a couple of trees still blooming nearby, I wasn’t able to photograph the castle with any cherry blossoms in the foreground – damn!
The next morning we got up early to do a tour of the castle, which opened at 9am. Conveniently, the hotel we stayed at (Southern Cross Inn Matsumoto) was really cheap and less than 300m from Matsumoto castle! As we discovered when we walked outside, the guy next door also happened to own a really nice Evo 10 and an NA1 NSX, both in matching black on black wheels. Living the dream!
The castle tour was actually really awesome but super hectic! The inside of the castle is crazy; there are so many floors and tiny stairwells, some with massive steps and overhanging beams, so you really have to watch where you’re going! You have to take your shoes off too, which was kinda funny, but also pretty slippery on the wooden floors. Plus it was a Saturday so there were heaps of people in there. At the very top you’re rewarded with spectacular views with the snow-capped Japanese Alps in the background.
As I mentioned, the only downside was the lack of cherry blossoms. Although best viewing time here is generally from around the 5th to the 15th of April, just like everywhere this varies from year to year. The week before I’d found out the season was on its way a little earlier than usual, so I’d actually rearranged our trip to go to Nagano first, but we were still a few days too late thanks to the stupid wind!
There were a few random trees with deep pink blossoms like this dotted around the park, and they were cute but still very small. Despite this, I really I don’t think anything could’ve made me like Matsumoto more than I did; it was so lovely and as well as being quiet and beautiful with a super relaxed atmosphere, the main thing that stood out to me was how nice everyone was. I’d gladly go there again in a heartbeat if I had the chance!
Next up was ‘part two’ of our road trip. We checked out of our hotel and drove about an hour south in search of this magical cherry blossom park I’d heard so much about. The question was, had it been affected by the same harsh winds as Matsumoto? I could only cross my fingers and wait to find out!
After managing to finally find a parking space for the Soarer in a random car park at the bottom of the hill, a local shop gave us a pamphlet including a map and how to get there. We followed the pink lanterns and after walking up a series of different roads and a healthy amount of stairs, we made it into the park and were met with this sight!
Takato Castle used to be the main feature of the park, although it was destroyed some time ago, hence the name Takatojoshi which means Takato castle ruins. These days the park is well-known for its some 1500 cherry trees, a special variety with dainty extra-pink blossoms. The trees are absolutely massive, and were apparently planted in 1875 when the park opened up to the public.
Another thing I should add in here is that originally I’d stumbled across a photo similar to this one which was what made me fall in love with the idea of visiting this place. When we arrived, I very quickly realised that these photos are taken from an aerial point of view.
The Takatojoshi Cherry Blossom Festival is held each year, generally for the whole month of April. It gets super busy but the park is quite large so there’s still enough space to find your own little spot and chill out if you want. We got a bunch of different foods from the stalls and found a quiet place to sit for a while. Candied sweet potato (we call it kumara in New Zealand!) is a popular snack food in Japan. I swear you’ll never think of it the same after you’ve eaten it dusted with sugar!
As we sat and admired our surroundings, every so often a gust of wind would shower us in pink petals, to the sound of ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhhs’ from other people around us. The atmosphere was truly magical; it was like being inside of a painting.
It was hard to leave, but we had to get back to Tokyo for the Cannonball Festival the next day. At least I got a ‘sakura flavoured’ ice-cream for the road!
Our trip to Nagano was short, sweet and filled with beautiful memories that I’ll never forget, and if you’re thinking of doing a Spring trip to Japan I simply can’t recommend it enough! If you’re unable to rent a car you can still make it to these locations using public transport, but driving is certainly a lot more fun. Either way, get out of the city and explore!