I believe Matsumoto Castle should be on everyone's Japan itinerary. You will find this stunning castle in a small city in Nagano prefecture, called Matsumoto, and it is one of the four castles designated as a National Treasure of Japan. It's easy to see why!
The castle can easily be reached on foot from Matsumoto station (about a 15-minute walk), or there are town buses that can also get you there. I first visited the castle in winter 2010 and was blown away by its beauty. I returned in May 2012 to show it to a friend visiting from Australia. He was equally impressed with it.
The castle is surrounded by beautiful gardens that you can walk around, and there are lots of large koi (carp) swimming in the moat to amuse you for a while. If you are lucky you might even spot a turtle or two swimming in the amazingly clear water. There is also a stunning red bridge that makes for gorgeous photos. On the day we visited we were lucky enough to also be able to have a photo with someone dressed up in Samurai armor, who was wandering around the gardens. Elegant black walls dominate the castle’s exterior, and the contrast of the black against the stone walls is really stunning. It’s sometimes referred to as the Crow Castle, due to its color.
Once inside the castle there are steep stairs to climb and low ceilings to negotiate. You walk past displays of armor and various other artifacts from days gone by as you make your way to the top floor. You can also see the small wooden windows that were once used by archers and gunmen. It is truly fascinating. The view from the top is great, although unfortunately there is wire over the windows, which makes it a little difficult to take photos.
Also included in the admission to the castle is admission to the neighboring museum, which is worth a quick look too. Matsumoto is famous for soba, so be sure to have a meal of soba while you’re there. If you’re adventurous, you could also try some basashi (horsemeat sashimi), which is another local specialty!
If you are looking for a place to stay overnight, have a look at the friendly Japanese guesthouse Seifu-so.