Catching the train
With our freshly minted rail passes in our hands and fortfied with a most exquisite breakfast, we went against the flow of office workers to Shinjuku station this morning. It’s a route we’ve taken countless times before on previous visits and as we walk, all the details come flooding back.
We have plenty of time to catch our train. We’d left in good time, unsure of how easily we’d find the platform and so on, but there’s never a problem finding something to do, is there? When I’m in Japan, my first thought is to look for the rubber stamp. I showed a previous stamp to the chap in the Information Centre and he nodded and said “East Exit Ticket Office” - so we hot footed it from the South Exit, where we stood, to the other side of the station. I had to ask again before being directed to a corner of the ticket office where a stand was set up with all the paraphernalia, just as it always is.
Juggling book and bag and camera, I had three goes before getting a satisfactory one - so I have one for my travel journal, one for my Tokyo book and another one for …who knows?
A good start and we were still in plenty of time for the train too.
Just as in Switzerland, one stands by the mark on the platform that correlates with the seat booking in your hand and the train will come to a standstill with the door perfectly placed to simply step insde.
Which is exactly what happened!
I’ll write more about travelling by train in Japan later, but suffice to say for now that we spent the next two and a half hours whizzing through first the Toyko suburbs and then up into the hills of the central area of Honshu. As we went a little higher, the blossom was still out and the scenery was simply lovely.
Before long, the hills turned into mountains and then there appeared to be snow on the top of some of them. It was a warm, hazy day; not crystal clear but it’d do.
Our stop - and the terminus of this train - was Matsumoto. Whilst my Hero went off to sort out our tickets for tomorrow, I went in search of the rubber stamp station!
I caught up with him at the ticket counter, though found a distration of an altogether more interesting nature hanging in the window.
Hundreds of small origami shapes, cascading on strings as part of their show window display. I pointed them out to the young woman organising our tickets and admired the precision, at which she made a small bow as if to acknowledge responsibility.
Perhaps it was that which secured us a small gift from the railway company, “A small snack for you” she said..
Our guidebook said it was about a fifteen minute walk to the castle, but that there would be no sight of it until we were virtually inside. So we set off following signs through this fairly empty town centre.
We’d not gone very far when the signs ran out, but we stumbled upon this rather spectacular temple complex, so for now, all ok.
We’d both remembered that part of the route took us along the riverside and over the bridge, so we continued on our way, enjoying the warm air.
But of course, there came a point when we were stumped. Not being able to see the castle didn’t help. Fortunately, two gentlemen were on hand with not only a clear pointed direction but also a map for us to take away. I can’t say enough about how helpful people are here - there really is no language barrier when it comes to recognising where someone could use a little help. Hopefully too, that also works where expressing appreciation is concerned.
We stopped at the next corner to take a drink from one of the small springs that Matsumoto is famed for and looked across the road to where the entrance to the castle should be.
What faced us was a bland office building - not at all what we expected. But still, over the road we go…
There it was, the “black crow” castle we’d been looking for in a rather lovely setting.
Actually, with the backdrop of snow mountains, it was a specatcular setting indeed.
More tickets for the journal…
…and I didn’t even have to ask, for just across the courtyard was a table.
We wasted no time in getting inside this National Historic Monument: one of the few remaining wooden castles in the country for most have burned to the ground long ago. On this occasion, the first task on entry was to remove our shoes, which were to be carried with us in a plastic bag.
No problem with that - except the other major feature of this castle, which the guidebook failed to mention, is the staircases. They are very steep indeed - almost vertical with 40 and 50cm treads! The added emcumbrance of a plastic bag with a pair of shoes in it is one we could have done without, but we made it.
We made it past the “cute” Samurai
We made it all the way to the fifth floor, from where there was a glorious view. (Actually, one of us made it up to the sixth floor too, but declared it not worth the effort and so she (!) came straight down again.
We were in need of refreshment when we were back on terra firma, I can assure you, so we found ice creams in the “cafeteria” here in the castle grounds. Japanese vending machines are legendary….
A quick look in the souvenir shop revealed the local variety of KitKat to be apple flavour. We resisted making a purchase, though I did fall for a cherry blossom one in the 7-11 near the hotel later!
Returning to the station through the town, we spotted all the landmarks our guidebook poointed out, including this bookshop with a roof shaped like the castle.
The recommended route was via this small “old” street with a frog theme, though we found it filled with tourist trap-type shops and didn’t linger.
Far more interesting was this blue and white shop where there was quite a stir going on inside; enough to draw us in to investigate further.
A young man was creating concoctions from shaved ice, strawberries and condensed milk and having said those two magic words, we were sold. We agreed to share one between us, for they were really huge! But delicious too…
The other historic street, Nakamachi Dori was a little more interesting but we were rather weary and the afternoon was very warm. The effects of a strawberry shaved ice soon wore off too.
One thing about slowing the pace though, is that I take more notice of things like this manhole cover with a pattern of termari balls on it - one for all my crafty friends, there.
The station came as a welcome sight, as did the sight of the Azusa Exress arriving to take us back to Tokyo. We’d had a splendid first day here but the time was catching up on us. Hopefully, we’d stay awake on the train home!
One more little train-related smile though: as carriage 9 stopped right by us, we waited for the door to open. Instead, the little window popped open and there sat the guard, ready to supervise a little train coupling procedure from his office!
One last surprise remained: there in the haze as we made our way back, Fuji-san put in an appearance!
What a magical way to end a wonderful day.