Matsumoto has existed in a fertile valley east of the dramatic Japanese Alps since the 8th century. This small city is dominated by the famous Matsumoto Castle and gardens, which erupt into colour every autumn while snow coats the surrounding peaks. You can lose yourself along ancient streets of traditional storehouses, sample Japan's recent artisan beer trend at Matsumoto Brewery or hike on the banks of an icy alpine river as it tumbles through the foothills.
For an authentically Japanese experience, look for a Matsumoto hostel that has private tatami (futon) rooms or a place with indoor and outdoor hot springs. You could choose a historic wooden house with free bike rentals to save on transport costs or keep meals on budget by cooking for yourself in a communal kitchen. Most hostels in Matsumoto have dorms and private rooms, and some have female-only options.
Downtown Matsumoto is compact, meaning you can walk between the castle, historic Nawate-dōri's quirky stalls and the traditional storehouses of Nakamachi Street to pick up wood crafts and local cuisine. Close to the castle are teahouses where visitors can take part in ancient drinking ceremonies. Outside the city, the Utsukushigahara Highlands rise up to 2,000m of lush green peaks steaming with hot springs and wineries. The area near downtown turns pink with cherry blossom every spring and is popular for hiking and cycling.
The black towers of Matsumoto Castle are one of the most popular sights. Spend an afternoon exploring the preserved interior of Japan's oldest wooden castle and admire the views from the 6th-floor observation deck. A short walk away are the vast halls and spiritual atmosphere of Yohashira Shrine. Across the river, Matsumoto Timepiece Museum houses a curious collection of clocks that date back to medieval times. Foodies can visit Daio Wasabi Farm (25 minutes' drive away) to taste noodles, juice and even ice cream flavoured with Matsumoto's famous green herb.
If you're travelling to Matsumoto by train, the journey from Tokyo takes 2.5 hours and from Nagoya it's 2 hours. You'll arrive at JR Matsumoto station, a 10-minute walk from Nakamachi Street. Shuttle buses from Shinshū Matsumoto Airport take 30 minutes and will drop you at Matsumoto Bus Terminal, close to the train station. The compact centre is easily explored on foot once you're here, or you can use the Town Sneaker buses to loop around the city during the day.