Just about everyone we know has come to Japan to ski during the winter. As we were kind of unfit, kind of on a budget, and kind of un-insured to ski (oops) we decided that experiencing in Japan for snow sports would have to be on a separate trip at another time. However, we still wanted to see the beauty of Japan in the winter, and had our fingers crossed to see snow – so we decided to include a few days in the Japanese Alps on our itinerary.
Easily reachable on our JR pass from the Kansai region, we decided to base ourselves in a city called Matsumoto. Surrounded by seven snow-capped peaks and well connected by transport with plenty do see and do around the area, it was the perfect base for exploring the Japanese Alps.
We took a shinkansen from Hiroshima to Nagoya and then onward to Matsumoto. The afternoon sun pouring through the windows made me a little sleepy, and I don’t remember much of the journey until I was startled by blinding white sun pouring through the window. Pulling aside the curtains I gasped as for the first time in my life, I saw snow – freshly fallen on the earth either side of the train tracks, the trees in the distance looking like the ones you find inside a Christmas snow globe – I couldn’t believe it!
On our first full day of exploring, our first stop was the famed Matsumoto-jo, Japan’s oldest wooden castle and one of four national treasures (Himeji-jo Castle is another – you can read about our visit to Himeji here). Black and white, the castle was both beautiful and had a somewhat foreboding presence – it was beautiful, especially against a backdrop of stunning snow-capped peaks.
As we paid our entrance fee and made our way into the castle grounds, we were approached by a Japanese man named Shoji. Shoji was a volunteer with the Goodwill Guide Group and offered to take us on a tour through the castle – for free. Whilst at first we were reluctant – after all, everywhere we’d been prior nothing was ‘free’ – we decided to take Shoji up on his offer. We’re so glad we did! We learnt so much more about Japanese castles and their history, why they were built the way they were, how the castles were defended and so much more. Shoji spoke great English and loved to tell jokes, and the best part was just how enthusiastic and proud he was of his country’s heritage and his home of Matsumoto – it was very heart-warming. We took a photo together along with the resident castle ‘prince’, and with a bow and “Arigato!” Shoji left us. It was so nice to have a positive experience with a free service. If you visit Matsumoto Castle, be sure to take up the offer of a free guide!
We spent the rest of the afternoon looking into sightseeing options to nearby towns for the following few days, pricing up both bus trips and car hire. However, on day two that all went out the window – because on opening our window, we saw a sea of white – white rooftops, white cars, white streets – white SNOW falling from the skies! It was snowing! It was one thing to see snow on the ground from the train window, but to see it falling from the skies, and the expanse of white before us was magical!
The unforeseen snowfall meant a ‘snow day’ – we decided to stay in our cosy room, have some down time and enjoy our warm heater. Eventually though we ran out of food, so after putting on every item of clothing we owned, we went out into the snow for a quick bite to eat and to stock up on more food. I managed to convince Mike that photographing Matsumoto Castle again in the snow would be really awesome, and despite the freezing cold, wet snow we managed to have an empty castle park for ourselves and got some amazing shots. I also built my very first snowman!
We decided to spend our third and final day in the alps making use of our JR pass and to take several trains around the country side – it wouldn’t cost us anything, and was a perfect way to see the scenery. We jumped on a local train to Nagano and then a shinkansen to Itoigawa. From Itoigawa, we took a journey on a single carriage slow train, meandering through snowy mountains, rushing rivers and snowfall to the ski-town of Hakuba.
If we thought we’d seen snow the day prior in Matsumoto, well, that was nothing compared to the snowfall in Hakuba! Whilst wandering the streets and exploring the town, we came across PILES of snow, covering everything! I was even able to make my first snow angel! Whilst famed for its ski resorts, Hakuba is also home to many onsen – public bathing facilities, normally outdoors and near hot springs. We decided to give it a go, and found an outdoor onsen with an incredible view of the surrounding mountains.
Our first visit to the onsen was definitely an interesting experience! As there are different baths for each gender, Mike and I split up for our ‘baths’. There was a severe lack of english signage within the change rooms, so I decided to hide quietly in the corner and waited for another lady to come along so I could follow her lead! Removing all clothes – yep, all of them – and placing them in a locker, I then moved outside and sat on a small stool to ’shower’ before entering the bath. Despite snow falling around us, once in the baths I found that I was struggling to not faint – it was so warm! I spent most of the time sitting half out of the waters, just to keep awake! It was an awesome experience though, incredibly relaxing and despite the initial ‘shyness’ you soon realise this is just the way things are in Japan – and at the end of the day, we were all women. We all have the same bits and there’s nothing to be shy about!
Jumping back on a train after our lovely stop in Hakuba, we returned to Matsumoto and were greeted with the most incredible sunset over the train tracks. The sky was so clear, the mountains standing majestically in the distance – it was the perfect end to our snow filled days in the Japanese Alps!
- How to get there?
Matsumoto can be reached by train from Nagoya, a major shinkansen hub however note that Matsumoto does not have a shinkansen station – you’ll take the JR Rapid. The beautiful journey through the mountains takes about two hours.
- Where to stay?
We stayed in a great little hotel called Souther Cross Inn. It was small – like most places in Japan – but it was so nice to have our own space and our own bathroom. This room had everything – heating, hairdryer, TV, slippers and a fridge! Despite not speaking any English, the managers were wonderful in checking us in, giving us free toiletry items, loaning us umbrellas when it was snowing – plus giving us gifts when we left. There was also a coffee machine! We loved it, and it was just a five minute walk from Matsumoto Castle. You can book a room here.
- Where to go?
Matsumoto has enough sights to keep you occupied for about a day or so, but is well connected to other locations in the Japanese Alps for day trips. You can consider both Nagano and Kamikachi (in season), visit the famous snow monkeys, visit the ski town of Hakuba and check out the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway – a cable car that whisks you through the alps! Unfortunately being slightly out of season and the snowy weather limited our opportunities to explore as much as we wanted to, but we loved our visit to the Japanese Alps!