Matsumoto is surrounded by mountains and acclaimed for its beautiful views.

I arrived here in the winter and found the city to be spotlessly clean, in fact I think I could safely recommend Matsumoto as an example for all other northern cities. I left my bag at my French run hostel and went for a walk. Compared to Hong Kong getting to the roofs in Japan is near impossible, as all roofs and staircases are locked. However, here I managed to go jump over the gate and access an outside staircase.

Panorama of Japanese Alps and Matsumoto Castle on the left.

In comparison to the Chinese, who actively replace their old buildings with new ones, the Japanese actively try to preserve their rich architectural heritage. Both the good and bad moments of their history have helped them evolve into the nation and the people they are today, which is why they put so much value on the past. For the Japanese the past and future seem to go hand-in-hand. Today, Matsumoto is a pretty standard city with its historical role during the Edo Period as the only real point of interest.

The main, and seemingly only, historical attraction in Matsumoto, is its castle. Matsumoto Castle was built more than 400 years ago, making it the oldest castle in Japan and a good example of what many other castles from that period would have looked like. Compared to European castles of the same era, Japanese castles were built less with stone and more with wood and bamboo. Due to neglect and structural problems the castle started to lean to one side. Some people believed that it began to lean sideways due to Tada Kasuke’s curse.

Legend has it that the castle had a curse put on it by a wealthy farmer (Tada Kasuke’s) in the 17th century. Tada, along with 27 other farmers in the region, wrote a letter to protest the rise in taxes and sent it to the castle magistrate. The protest soon turned into a riot, the Jōkyō Uprising. The local ruler relented and sent the farmers a signed document stating that the taxes would be lowered. Tada and the other 27 farmers were then executed without trial. I wonder if the families of feudal Japan were killed as well as the family leader, like in China, during the same time, so that sons could not seek revenge. Before his death Tada Kasuke cursed the ruling family, who suffered terrible luck for the next 200 years. To break the curse, the ruling family donated a statue of Tada to a nearby shrine, where he was honoured as a forerunner of the human rights movement. Since then the castle has been through two major renovations and the leaning is now fixed.

Matsumoto Castle. The keep and moat.

Another interesting feature of the castle is that it was built on flatland rather than a hill. As a result it acquired the name Hirajiro, which means ‘flatland castle’. Because of the way it appears from the back it was also nicknamed Crow Castle.

200 metres north from the castle grounds stands the former Kaichi School, built in 19th century, it was the first junior high school in Japan. Now it is one of the last surviving schools from the early Meiji Era, during which Japan started to westernise its political, military, economic and educational systems. The school is now a museum displaying some of Japan’s best collections of education documents and historical materials.

The school’s weather vane.
School kids with red and white inverted caps.
Frozen tennis court.
Playground with swings.

On my visit to Japan, a country so developed it could be from 2050, I noticed a curious phenomenon. On every street corner, much like you find Starbucks in London or NYC, and in every little side alley, I found vending machines selling drinks and snacks. Along with the more common vending machine offerings like drinks, snacks and condoms, everywhere from small villages to Mt. Fuji there are also vending machines that sell noodles, pizzas, t-shirts, ice-creams, baguettes, fruit, salads, flip flops, umbrellas and even guitar strings. I was stunned by the sheer volume of them, you can of course blame it on progress and the move toward automation.

Image crop of barbie-looking-girls smoking and a man giving them an ashtray in Tokyo.
Image crop of barbie-looking-girls smoking and a man giving them an ashtray in Tokyo.

It seemed to me that although automated sales of things like cigarettes is sorted, surprisingly disposing of the leftover waste is more difficult. The absence of bins on the streets can be an issue in large metropolitan areas, as you have to carry your empty packaging for blocks. If you walk and smoke in a non-smoking area you will be approached by a special officer with a portable ashtray, just like a personal servant from the slave era.

Tobacco machines are unique here too, they dispense cigarettes only when authorised by a face scan or ID card check. A purchaser’s legal age is determined via technology that allows the vending machine to identify their age by using a digital camera to study the amount of wrinkles on their face. The system compares facial characteristics such as, bone structure and crow’s feet, against a record of more than 100,000 people. If the user fails the age test they can still use the machine with an ID card. In Europe such machines are banned allowing cigarettes to be consumed by everyone.

Let’s go back to the drink vending machines. Popularity of vending machines in Japan greatly depend on the fact that Japanese are generally more insular and it’s easier to deal with a vending machine (avoiding social contact) than going through a proper behaviour and etiquette in the convenience store. However despite the efficiency, vending machines take less space than a beverage stores, they are cost effective, secure and many other reasons that might fit the obvious. However in reality I suspect that vending product companies such as Coca-Cola, Kirin, Asahi, Suntory and others figured out the way to get around traditional distribution via trading companies, to avoid paying fees, and to go direct to the consumer.

Now individual vending machines are branded and stock only their branded products, from waters to soups, cold (blue labels) or hot (red labels). Despite all these sugary drinks being equally unhealthy and rubbish, what I really liked is that these machines offered hot drinks. It’s a great idea for the winter, wherever I went I’d buy a hot juice or a lemon tea in a screw cap aluminium bottle and keep it inside my jacket.