Matsumoto, Tsumago and basashi!

Said a reluctant goodbye to Yarimikan and its tantalising baths this morning. But not before a typically filling generous Japanese breakfast and a mochi-pounding performance at which KH also sportingly had a go.

The slippery smooth onsen tamago is one of my favourite Japanese breakfast staples and something I always miss once I’m back home. That, and the slimy nagaimo or ‘wai sang’ as we call it in chinese (left).

The mochi-pounding demo was fun. I never saw hands move that quick to lift the wet dough – which must have been heavy – and yet avoid getting smashed by the mallet. There’s a thrumming rhythm to the blows to the mochi that matched the chants of encouragement of the watching ryokan guests. Happy to say that KH came off without any embarrassing or painful encounters with the mallet and that the final sticky chewy product was also due to his contribution – okay, okay, about 1% only!

The drive from Okuhida to Matsumoto was easy but we still kept an eagle eye on the GPS and the map just the same. We had a lot of ground to cover and didn’t want a repeat of the mistake the day before. Lots of pretty scenery along the way, including this massive dam and its lake:

Massive. Impressive. But made me wonder all the same: in an earthquake-prone country, what happens if the big one strikes right here? Will the dam hold? And if not, what happens to those who live downstream? Sobering.

As the mountain roads ease gently into the plains, the cherry trees come into view, together with farmland as we wend through one-lane towns and villages. The traffic lights increase in number, as do the number of used-car lots and before we knew it, we were in downtown Matsumoto. Returning the car was a cinch. The GPS behaved and told us the right way home.

Matsumoto had a very small alpine town feel. It didn’t have the towers of Tokyo or the gaudiness of Osaka. Rather, there were few people on the streets, which were broad and roughly laid out on a grid format. But there were little touches that I found very charming.For instance, cool water from the mountains splash in little fountains scattered along the road, with ladles left conveniently for passers-by to use. There’s even a sign on the water’s mineral composition – in Japanese of course.

This is a charming tiny old bookstore sandwiched between two new buildings. Little surprises like these are part of Matsumoto’s charm.

Also, small stone markers like this were seen around town. I don’t know exactly what the story is behind this but I’d like to find out. This being our anniversary trip, it seemed just right and caught my eye:

We headed for the famous Crow castle of course – all ominous in black wood. Matsumoto-jo’s keep is the original building which dates from the 16th century. It’s not a big castle, not as big as Himeji, but still a compact castle with many original defensive elements, such as narrow windows for archers and for gunmen.

The grounds of Matsumoto-jo are traditionally a hanami magnet given that there are many cherry trees in the garden. But again, we were chasing the sakura a mite too early and few of the trees were in bloom. Those that were, framed Matsumoto-jo very prettily. We could only imagine how beautiful it would have looked if all the trees were in full bloom.

The highlight of Matsumoto for me though, was the plate of basashi – ba means horse and sashi as in sashimi. Yes raw horse meat.

We found a sushi restaurant housed in a kura in downtown Matsumoto which offered basashi. I think we paid about 1890yen for the basashi. Each slice of horsemeat was generously sized.

I’m not squeamish, but it felt a bit weird chewing on a horse. I found myself wondering inanely if I was eating a former racehorse or a workhorse. Both wrong options apparently because the meat came from a horse farm in northern Japan. You would have thought it might help to think of the horse as food if you think they are reared like chickens or cattle but nope – I still had to contend with visions of Black Beauty neighing. After all, horses, next to dogs are really man’s other best friends.

The first few pieces were manageable but there was a gamey smell to it which didn’t sit well with us. I coped with liberal doses of spring onion and ginger to mask the gaminess. And I ordered a bowl of rice to go with it. That helped.

I guess I’m always game to try anything once when it comes to food (though I draw the line at dog-meat and brains!) but I don’t think I’m a basashi fan.

At JR Matsumoto station, I armed myself with lots of information from the TI – said to be the friendliest TI in Japan, manned by English-speaking staff. I can’t say for sure they were really the friendliest but the girls were really helpful. I also got all the tickets for the next few legs of the journey from Matsumoto to Nagoya and then to Shingu. It got a bit confusing since we had to make a specific departure time to Nagoya to make ideal connections and the guy at the counter had a rather furrowed brow but he tried really hard and we managed!

From Matsumoto we travelled southwards to the Kiso Valley via limited express. We had two nights in Tsumago-juku. Arriving late in the evening, we took a cab from Nagiso station to Tsumago which cost about 1000yen. Cheaper to wait for the bus but we were tired and there was a drizzle, so we splurged on a cab. The rain and the deepening evening gave Tsumago an atmospheric introduction – if not for the big carpark on the outskirts of town.


Our first night was at Shimosagaya minshuku, easily accessible from the back by a small road and nestled in a narrow alleyway. No English spoken, but the welcome was warm. The room, like minshukus, was simple but enough for us.  Reminded me of the simple B&Bs we bunked in in Hawaii and in Europe. Though it was a bit disconcerting to see a coin-operated TV and coin-operated air-conditioning! We gave those a pass.

The highlight though, was dinner which served… grasshoppers? Praying mantis? I don’t know what the insect is but it was sweet and crunchy. Yum. I’d eaten the deep-fried bugs sold by street vendors in Bangkok but those had a residual oily aftertaste which I did not like. This one was much, much better. Dinner also included basashi – again!

Looks like the deeper we get into the country, the more interesting the food gets. Because I love food, these adventures are loads of fun. Tsumago is not only going to be interesting in terms of food offerings but also for the Big Walk that we would do the next day. We’d stay one night in Shimosagaya and then move to a swankier location the next night at Fujioto, which came highly recommended.

Lying on my futon and looking out into the night, the drizzle was a light patter on the roof. I thought it would rain the whole night but luckily the showers only persisted for a bit before making way for the moonrise. It augured well for our hike the next day.

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3 Responses to Matsumoto, Tsumago and basashi!

  1. p0nderosa says:

    I just found your blog after googling Yunishigawa, and am loving it! I am also a bit obsessed with Japan and have visited many of the places you have been to – including Yarimikan & Honke Bankyu among many of the attractions – it has been a bit of a trip down memory lane reading this!! One day you will have to check out my blog as I have also travel-blogged those ryokans/places. I was also in Japan in June this year travelling Kyushu – it was rainy season and off the tourist trail so I wasn’t expecting too many tourists but the owner of one place I stayed at told me that since the tsunami 90% of his foreign tourists bookings were cancelled, and I was the first foreign tourist to book since – it had been a few months! They had been eagerly waiting my arrival it was so sweet and so sad at the same time. Good on you for going there even though most people were cancelling!

  2. chongbrood says:

    Hi Ponderosa,
    Glad you liked the blog! Always happy to find a fellow Japan fan! It’s a very special place that is close to my heart. In fact, I just came back from another trip – this time to Tohoku. I’ll be blogging on that in a bit but need to clear my backlog for the April trip first. I hope you check in once in a while to read. I’ll be reading your blog on Japan too. The Japanese are a remarkable people and at this time, they need all the help they can get in re-building. Talking about the country and spreading the word that Japan is safe will help. So let everyone know – Japan, and Tohoku included, is beautiful, they’re working hard to get things back to normal and things are okay back there.

    • p0nderosa says:

      Oh wow, I just subscribed so that I can check in when you do the Tohoku blogs, I would love to know how it all went! My brother is currently over there in the stifling heat, hopefully I will have converted him into a fan as well 🙂

      I also have to blog my trip backlog, takes longer than you think!

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