After Tokyo, we took the SUPER AZUSA train directly to Matsumoto, in the Japanese Alps. Matsumoto is a great city to explore this area from, and very well connected to get to outdoor adventures. The town itself is very charming with views of snow capped mountains surrounding the whole area, and worth some time to wander around get a more laid back vibe of Japanese life.

We stayed in a traditional Japanese style room (with a PRIVATE BATHROOM, I cannot recommend this enough) at the Matsumoto Hotel Kagetsu. I was quite pleased with our stay here, and would recommend the hotel based on the impeccable service and fantastic location in the cute city center.

The most important place to visit in the city is certainly Matsumoto Castle, the oldest existing castle in Japan! The grounds surrounding it are lovely to stroll through, but it’s also worthwhile to visit the inside and witness the breathtaking views of the city and mountains through the top floors.

It’s probably also worth mentioning that you can buy samurai Hello Kitty stickers in the gift shop here.

Another site for fans of art & polka dots is the Matsumoto City Museum of Art. Japanese artist Yayoi Kasuma was born in Matsumoto, and they have an impressive permanent collection of her work & installations here. Don’t forget to grab a polka dot branded Coke on your way out!

If you’re lucky, you might spot one of the polka dot busses in town… 

On a side note, did you know that eating RAW CHICKEN is a thing in Japan? Chicken sashimi! I was skeptical, but apparently the chickens are specially bred for this and it’s totally safe. We sampled it at Torishin, a crazy packed yakitori restaurant. Ask for the set menu and they will hook you up.

The main reason we wanted to visit this area was to get some hiking in, and from Matsumoto you can take a train/bus ride to Kamikochi National Park (it takes about an hour or so total). This is an epic area from which you can start many hikes- but note that some trails are not going to be open or advisable until high summer due to snow on the peaks. We hiked up to the hut at Dakesawa, which was a moderately strenuous hike for those not used to high altitudes. 

As soon as we started the hike we saw a WILD MONKEY on the trail! Amazeballs! We noticed many people wearing bells, which we thought were to ward off the monkeys on the trail. But as we were descending the mountain we spotted- get this- a BEAR charging up the hill parallel to us! Yes, there are black bears in this forest! So, just keep that in mind when walking…

A nice way to unwind back in Matsumoto after the bear & monkey sightings is a trip to the extremely chill Elbow Room bar. The owner does not speak much English, but beers are easy to come by, and the groovy Japanese lounge playlist is worth the visit alone. The owner even gave me a mix CD as I was leaving the bar after I commented that I loved the music!

One more quick note- the best meal on our whole trip to Japan was here. An extremely enthusiastic staff, adorable hand illustrated menus, and some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had in a way cool traditional shoes off Japanese setting. Just order lots of small plates to share like pickled fish guts and the kimchi & pork. Everything goes great with the spicy ginger beers!

I happily could have stayed a bit longer to have some more laid back time- the crisp clean air and friendly people make Matsumoto & the Alps quite a treat to visit.

Oh! And don't forget to grab a local bear beer at Matsumoto station before you leave!