The Official Tourism Site of Matsumoto, Nagano, Japan
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Matsumoto Winter Season Night Museum Events

Matsumoto Museum of Art and the Ukiyo-e Museum

Ukiyo-e Museum

Ukiyo-e Museum

Matsumoto Museum of Art

Matsumoto Museum of Art



The Matsumoto Museum of Art is holding a 3-month series of night museum days, in which one day each month until March it will keep the museum open for extended hours. Normally the museum closes at 5 p.m., but on night museum days, it will remain open until 9 p.m.

As a bonus, there are also special activities planned during the nighttime hours such as gallery talks and workshops, and for the first two event days, the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum (woodblock prints) will hold its own night museum events in conjunction with the Matsumoto Museum of Art (along with shuttle bus service between the two locations!).

These nights are especially nice if you’re visiting as a tourist, as it gives you something to do after most of the sightseeing spots close in the late afternoon.

Dates are as follows:
Note: Some activity details are still tentative, so may be subject to change
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Click to see a PDF leaflet.

Click to see a PDF leaflet.


Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 (5 p.m.–9 p.m.)

Special Activity: Gallery talk featuring the artwork in the Matsumoto Museum of Art’s permanent exhibits. In conjunction with the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum’s nighttime event, which will also feature a gallery talk about certain pieces (e.g. ukiyo-e with snowy scenery) and an ukiyo-e demonstration. (Gallery talks are 5:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.)

Shuttle bus service available (timetable). The museums plan to provide multilingual (English/Chinese) explanatory materials for these activities.

Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018 (5 p.m.–9 p.m.)

Special Activity: Just in time for Valentine’s Day! Tentatively planned is a behind-the-scenes tour (with flashlights!) featuring the preparations for upcoming special Yayoi Kusama exhibit in March. In conjunction with the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum’s nighttime event which will feature a special talk about the culture of romance found in ukiyo-e wood block prints. (Tours planned for 6 p.m & 8 p.m, RSVP required. Talk planned for 7 p.m.)

Shuttle bus service available. Tours/Talks in Japanese only.

Saturday, Mar. 3, 2018 (5 p.m.–9 p.m.)

Special Activity: (Tentative) Gallery talk to commemorate the special Yayoi Kusama exhibit to be held Mar. 3 to Jul. 22, 2018. Multilingual (English/Chinese) interpretation of talks planned through use of headphones. (Gallery talks are planned for 6:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m.)

Hot wine and other drinks to be served in the art museums garden.

More information

Learn more about what you can see at the Ukiyo-e Museum on exhibit page on their website or check out our info page here. For general info about the art museum, check out the Matsumoto Museum of Art website or see our page here.

Night Museum at the Japanese Court and Open-air Architectural Museum (Rekishi no Sato)

Enjoy special extended hours at the Japanese Court Museum which allows you to see the beauty of the traditional Japanese Meiji-style architecture of Japan’s oldest wooden court building lit up at night. Regular exhibits are also open during the extended hours (see more info about the museum here)

The court building lit up at night

The court building lit up at night

Dates: Saturday, Dec 9 – Sunday, Dec 10
Time: 9:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m. (extended nighttime hours from 5:00 p.m.)
Location: Japanese Court and Open-air Architectural Museum (Rekishi no Sato, Google Map)
Admission: Adults ¥400, free for junior high school students and under

For more events for December, check out the December Events (2017) blog post.

Winter Light Displays

Christmas Candle Night at the Matsumoto City Museum of Art

Yayoi Kusama's gigantic flower sculpture lit up in candlelight

Yayoi Kusama’s gigantic flower sculpture lit up in candlelight


Enjoy listening to music while strolling around the art museum garden lit up in numerous soft candle lights.

Date: Saturday, December 9
Time: 4:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.
Location: Matsumoto Museum of Art
 
 
 
 
 
 

Lights Pageant in Daimyocho and on the Chitose Bridge

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Nearly 80,000 lights decorate the trees lining Daimyocho, the road leading up to Matsumoto Castle. After viewing the lit-up trees, you can see the lit-up Matsumoto Castle just down the road.
The lights are up from early December until February 28 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (on until later Dec. 20 through Jan. 3)20171204_194838

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JR Matsumoto Station

The front of Matsumoto Station is lit up with a festive images on the side of the station building.

Matsumoto Station Illumination

Asama Onsen

Look forward to the warm glow of decorative lights when you visit Asama Onsen’s Hot Plaza. Hot Plaza offers day-trip bathing and a hot spring foot bath, while overnight stays are available at a number of traditional Japanese inns in the area. Find out more about the area here.

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Foot Hot Spring

Forest of Lights Pageant in Azumino

Twin Illlumination
The Alps Azumino National Government Park is holding an illumination event from Nov. 11, 2017 (Sat) to Jan. 8, 2018 (Mon/holiday). The displays tell the story of “The Secret of the Seven Jewels”.

The illumination will be on display in two separate areas: the Horigane-Hotaka area and the Omachi-Matsugawa area. Please see below for access information.

In addition to the light displays, various other activities will be taking place. A single ticket allows you to enter both areas on the same day. Visit the official website here (Japanese only).

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Admission

Hours: 4:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.
* Park hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., but you may remain in the park to view the lights.

Prices

Adult: 410 yen

Elementary/Junior High School Student: 80 yen

Senior (65+): 210 yen

Preschool: Free

 

Fireworks (Horigane-Hotaka Area)

A 5-minute fireworks show will take place every Saturday between Nov. 11, 2017 (Sat) and Jan. 6, 2018 (Sat) and also on Christmas Eve from 8 p.m. to 8:05 p.m.

The show will be cancelled in the event of rain or bad weather.

Food Tasting (Omachi-Matsukawa Area)

Grilled mochi, mochi in a sweet bean sauce, and baked apples!

100 yen *Limited to the first 100 people.

Live Performances (Omachi-Matsukawa Area)

Christmas Stage: Various performances (dates and times)

Magic Show: Jan. 6 (Sat)-8 (Mon/holiday) 4:00 p.m.-4:30 p.m., 6:00 p.m.-6:30 p.m., and from 7:30 p.m. FREE

Crafts (Both Areas)

Horigane-Hotaka Area

Omachi-Matsugawa Area

Miniature Aquariums Display (Horigane-Hotaka Area)

Tropical Christmas

Access

Free Shuttle Bus

JR Matsumoto Station –> Toyoshina Station –> Horigane-Hotaka Area: Dec. 23 (Sat/holiday)-24(Sun) 4:00 p.m.-9:15 p.m.

View in Google Maps

JR Matsumoto Station –> Shinano Omachi Station –> Omachi-Matsukawa Area: Dec. 23 (Sat/holiday)-24(Sun) 3:45 p.m.-9:00 p.m.

View in Google Maps

By Taxi

(JR Oita Line) Matsumoto Station –> Toyoshina Station + taxi

(JR Oita Line) Matsumoto Station –> Shinano Omachi Station + taxi

Inquiries (Japanese)

Horigane-Hotaka Area: 0263-71-5511

Omachi-Matsukawa Area: 0261-21-1212

 

December Events (2017)

Who can believe that December is already here? The last month of the year features a wide variety of events in genres ranging from the arts and culture to sports and history.

Kamiakari Bamboo Candles Illumination (in Azumino)

Over 10,000 bamboo candles light up Hotaka Shrine in their other-worldly glow. If you come by 3:50 p.m. and bring your own long-necked lighter, you can actually participate in lighting the candles!

Photo credit: Azumino Tourism Website

Photo credit: Azumino Tourism Website

Dates: Friday, Dec 1 to Sunday, Dec 3
Location: Hotaka Shrine (30 min. from Matsumoto in Azumino City) – see details here.
Time: 4:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.

Matsumoto Cross Country Race

This race takes place at the big park that surrounds Matsumoto Airport with a full view of the Japan Alps. You can watch races ranging from 1,000 meters to 8,000 meters, with age groups range from elementary school children to adults over 40. (see more event details in Japanese here. Note: entry to participate as a runner is already closed.)

Location: Shinshu Sky Park Family Sports Zone (Google map)
Date: Sunday, December 3
Time: Races begin from 9 a.m.

Christmas Candle Night at the Matsumoto Museum of Art

Enjoy listening to music while strolling around the art museum garden lit up in numerous soft candle lights.

Yayoi Kusama's gigantic flower sculpture lit up in candlelight

Yayoi Kusama’s gigantic flower sculpture lit up in candlelight


Date: Saturday, December 9
Time: 4:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.
Location: Matsumoto Museum of Art (Map)

Night Museum at the Japanese Court and Open-air Architectural Museum (Rekishi no Sato)

Enjoy special extended hours at the Japanese Court Museum which allows you to see the beauty of the traditional Japanese Meiji-style architecture of Japan’s oldest wooden court building lit up at night. Regular exhibits are also open during the extended hours (see more info about the museum here)

The court building lit up at night

The court building lit up at night

Dates: Saturday, Dec 9 – Sunday, Dec 10
Time: 9:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m. (extended nighttime hours from 5:00 p.m.)
Location: Japanese Court and Open-air Architectural Museum (Rekishi no Sato, Google Map)
Admission: Adults ¥400, free for junior high school students and under

World of Martial Arts Event

Watch and even try out 12 different kinds of traditional martial arts, including kendo, naganata (polearm fighting), sumo, aikido, kobudo (traditional Japanese weaponry), Japanese archery and more—all for free! See more details in our previous blog post about this event.

Practicing one of the weapon arts

Practicing on of the weapon arts

Location: Matsumoto City Sogo Taikukan (Gymnasium, see Google map)
Date: Sunday, December 10
Time: Participatory classes from 9:30–11:50 a.m. / Exhibitions from 1:00–4:00 p.m.
Cost: Free!

Matsumoto Cinema Select: Lost in Paris showing

A 2016 French/Belgium comedy, also known as Paris pieds nus featuring stars Fiona Gordon, Dominique Abel, and Emmanuelle Riva. See more info on IMDb.

Movie poster for Lost in Paris

Movie poster for Lost in Paris

Date: Wednesday, December 13
Time: 8:00 p.m.–9:30 p.m.
Location: Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre (map)
Cost: On-the-day tickets – ¥1,800 for adults, ¥1,400 for university/high school students.

Opera Chanchiki (Citizen’s Opera Performance)

An opera theater performance based on an old Japanese folktale and music featuring both traditional Japanese instruments and an orchestra. Performances by local opera, chorus, and Japanese instrument groups.

Image from the Chanchiki poster

Image from the Chanchiki poster

Location: Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre (map)
1st Performance: Saturday, December 16 from 6:00 p.m.
2nd Performance: Sunday, December 17 from 2:00 p.m.
Tickets: Start at ¥4,000 for adults and ¥2,500 for under 25. Buy directly at the ticket counter from 10:00 a.m–6:00 p.m.

Matsumoto Sunday Market

Enjoy good music, food, wine, beer, dance, crafts, workshops for kids and more!

Date: Sunday, December 17
Time: 10:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
Location: Matsumoto Sunday Market, 5 min from the station (Map)
Event on Facebook

Night Museum at the Matsumoto Museum of Art

The museum will open for extended nighttime hours one day each month during December, February, and March. For the December night museum day, they will hold a special gallery talk about the artwork in the permanent exhibits (see more info about other dates here). See general information about the museum here.

Outside area of the art museum

Outside area of the art museum


Date: Friday, December 22
Time: 5:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m. (also open for regular hours from 9 to 5)
Location: Matsumoto Museum of Art (Map)

Susuharai (Soot Sweeping)

This is a customary end-of-the-year cleaning ritual which is meant to purify the soot that has gathered over the year and prevent ill fortune from entering the castle for the next year. Read more information here.

Staff sweeping the soot off the castle tower

Staff sweeping the soot off the castle tower


Date: Thursday, December 28
Time: 9:00 a.m.–11:30 a.m.
Location: Matsumoto Castle’s Kuro-mon (Black gate), the castle tower entrance, and Taiko-mon (Drum gate)
Admission: Adults ¥610, Children ¥300 (includes entrance into the castle tower and Matsumoto City Museum just outside the castle)

Falcons Impress at the Traditional Falconry Show at Matsumoto Castle

Last weekend, Matsumoto Castle held its first ever falconry event!

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Historically, during the Edo Period in Matsumoto, there were samurai who served as falconers under the feudal lord of Matsumoto Castle. This event was a demonstration of these traditions.

In the old castle town of Matsumoto, there was an area called Takajomachi(鷹匠町) named after the falconers, or “Takajo” in Japanese, that lived there. There was also another area called Esashimachi(餌差町) where the small birds that were used to feed the falcons were raised (in Japanese, “e” means feed or bait and here “sashi” refers to the person giving the food).

The falconry show was performed by the Suwa Falconry Preservation Society (see Japanese website here). Apparently members of this society go through a tiered qualification process in order to become falconers! The three types of birds of prey trained by falconers are the Harris Hawk, Norther Goshawk, and the Japanese Buzzard.

The show started off by the falconers walking the falcons slowly around the performance area, so the birds could adjust to their surroundings.
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Next, the falcons flew between two people and then returned. They flew quite low! Falconers do not only train the falcons to use themselves, but the birds were trained in a way that anyone could use them, for example, in the past, the feudal lord himself.
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So since anyone can technically have the falcon to do what it was trained to do, some people in the audience got to try it out themselves (including the mayor of Matsumoto!).

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The next part of the show demonstrated how the falcons could strike other birds out of the sky: live pigeons were released and the falcons caught them with their talons right in mid-flight!

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The last part of the event was all about letting the audience take photos of the falcons and their trainers. Let’s hope this event happens again next year!

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This blog post is based off of the Falconry Show article on the Japanese website. Please check it out here if you are interested!

A Day of Samurai, Kendo, Taiko, and More at the Matsumoto Castle Festival

Every November on Culture Day, Matsumoto City puts on a huge city-wide festival that features all kinds of Japanese cultural goodies ranging from taiko drum performances to martial arts competitions, to the main event: the samurai parade around downtown!

Crowd and samurai parade participants gathered at Matsumoto Castle for the official festival kick-off ceremony

Crowd and samurai parade participants gathered at Matsumoto Castle for the official festival kick-off ceremony

The samurai parade starts off in Matsumoto Castle’s inner garden, where over one hundred people a dressed in the traditional wear of samurai, soldiers, court officials, and there’s even a princess. A taiko drum performance (video below!) and a speech by Matsumoto’s mayor officially kicks off the festivities before the parade procession marches out into the streets.

The samurai procession gathering at Matsumoto Castle before heading out

The samurai procession gathering at Matsumoto Castle before heading out

Taiko performance in the castle garden

Taiko performance in the castle garden

One of the most popular members of the samurai procession ;)

One of the most popular members of the samurai procession 😉

Besides the samurai parade and taiko, there were numerous other street performances that included not only traditional culture but also contemporary culture like street dancing and magic shows. I was lucky to run into this dance group in the photo below who performed a traditional women’s dance in beautiful blue kimono:

Traditional dance with autumn leaves

Traditional dance with autumn leaves

One of my personal favorites out of the festival events was the Kendo and Naginata Competition. It took place right in the castle garden, so you could get up close and watch the dueling, hakama-clad contestants show off their swordsmanship and naginata (aka polearm) skills.

Dueling kendo contestants

Dueling kendo contestants

En Garde!

En Garde!

There are so many events going on during this festival that it was hard to see them all (there’s also a big tea ceremony, Japanese archery competition, etc.), but if you missed something this year, you’ll always have another chance next year on November 3rd! It’s also a great time to plan a trip to Matsumoto because the autumn leaves are out in full color as well 😉

For more event info, see the event page or follow us on Facebook (we also have a Facebook event listing).

Mini Quartet Concert at the Kurassic-kan on Nov. 11

As the 4th event in the Kurassic-kan’s “Kura no Yube” series, a few members of the Shinshu University Orchestra will be putting on a mini quartet concert! One week before, the orchestra will be playing a big concert at the Suntory Hall in Tokyo, so this mini performance allows those in Matsumoto to get a little taste of the live music too 😉

If you’re a classical music fan, the cost is only 500 yen, so don’t miss out!

Event Details

Place: Kurassic-kan on Nakamachi Street (map)
Date: Nov. 11, 2017
Time: 5:30 p.m.–6:45 p.m.
Admission: 500 yen

(P.S. you can also bookmark the event on our Facebook page)

Japanese event poster for the Kura-no-Yube mini concert

Japanese event poster for the Kura-no-Yube mini concert

Free Martial Arts’ Demonstrations and Instruction

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Traditional forms of combat are alive and well in this castle town! The 11th Matsumoto Amateur Sports Association is hosting their Martial Arts Festival on Sunday, December 10, 2017. This interactive event exhibits 12 martial art styles including less seen forms of combat such as bayonet fencing and spear fighting. In addition to seeing demonstrations of all 12 styles, participatory classes will allow you to learn some of the techniques.

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The following 12 forms of martial arts will be offered: Kendo (Japanese fencing, Judo, Kyudo (Japanese archery), Karate, Aikido, Jukendo (bayonet fencing), Sumo, Naginata (polearm fighting), Shorinji Kempo (Shaolin Kung fu), Nippon Kempo, Taekwondo, and Kobudo (traditional Japanese weaponry)

Date & Time: Dec. 10, 2017 (Sun), 9:00–16:00

Location: Matsumoto City Sogo Taiikukan (5–1 Misuzu, Matsumoto City 390-0801)

Access Via Public Transportation: The nearest bus stop is Sogo Taiikukan Mae.
Take the 120 bus–Yokoda Shindai Loop Line, the 130 bus–Shindai Yokoda Loop Line, or the 32 bus–Asama Line (via Shinshu University).

Program: Public exhibition and participatory classes for each style

9:30–11:50  Open Practice & Participatory Classes

13:00–16:00  Public Exhibition

(Times are subject to change.)

*You can also bookmark the event on our Facebook events page.

Matsumoto Castle Festival Guide and Other Notable November Events (2017)

The biggest event in November is the Matsumoto Castle/ Citizen’s Festival on the third that features all kinds of cultural treats! Check out individual events below. You can also bookmark your favorites on our Facebook events page.

Castle Festival and Citizen’s Festival:

Boys and Girls Kendo and Naginata Competition

Students of kendo and naginata (a type of Japanese polearm/bladed spear) show off their martial skills in the castle garden. Part of the Matsumoto Castle Festival.

A kendo match in progress!

A kendo match in progress!

Date: November 3
Time: 9:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.
Location: Castle Honmaru Garden
Free admission into the garden

Castle Autumn Tea Ceremony

Enjoy traditional matcha green tea among the fall colors right in the castle garden. Part of the Castle Festival.

Relax with matcha and special Japanese sweets

Relax with matcha and special Japanese sweets

Date: November 3
Time: 10:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.
Location: Castle Honmaru Garden
Cost: 500 yen per seat (includes matcha and a Japanese sweet). Free admission into the garden.

Samurai Procession

A parade of samurai, ninja, and Japanese princesses and lords in downtown Matsumoto. Part of the Matsumoto Citizen’s Festival and the Castle Festival.

Samurai parading through the streets

Samurai parading through the streets

Date: November 3
Time: 12:00 p.m.–3:30 p.m.
Location: Castle and Downtown

Taiko Performance at Castle

Powerful taiko drum show at the castle, performed as the Samurai Procession departs toward downtown Matsumoto.

Photo credit: Matsumoto Castle homepage

Photo credit: Matsumoto Castle homepage

Date: November 3
Time: Two performances, one at 12:00 p.m. and another at 3:00 p.m.
Location: Castle Honmaru Garden

Japanese Archery (Kyudo) Competition

Catch a glimpse of Japan’s longbow archery tradition. Part of the Castle Festival.

Photo credit: Matsumoto Castle homepage

Photo credit: Matsumoto Castle homepage

Time: 8:50 a.m.–4:00 p.m.
Location: Kyudo Dojo (map)
Cost: Free

More Events in November

“Twin Illumination: Secrets of the Seven Jewels” Light Display

Elaborate displays of lights set up in the Alps Azumino National Government Park. See a video from the park’s Facebook page here.

Twin Illuminations poster

Twin Illuminations poster


Illumination from a previous year (from Azumino's tourism website

Illumination from a previous year (from Azumino’s tourism website)

Date: November 11, 2017 (Sat) through January 8, 2018 (Mon)
Location: Alps Azumino National Government Park (15 min by taxi from JR Toyoshina Station)
Cost: Adults – 410 yen, JHS and younger – 80 yen, Seniors: 210 yen

Kamikochi Closing Ceremony

A ceremony that marks the last day of Kamikochi’s open season. Dress warm if you plan to go! (Also listed on the Kamikochi website here with a photo)

Date: November 15
Time: St at 11:30 am
Location: Kamikochi, Kappa Bridge

Falconry Performance at Castle

Falconry has been a samurai tradition since the Edo Period (1603-1868). See it action at this live stage performance in the castle garden. Check out a photo on the bottom of the Autumn Events page on the Castle website.

Date: November 19
Time: 10:30 a.m.–12:00 p.m.
Location: Castle Honmaru Garden (Free admission into the garden)
*There will also be a free lecture (in Japanese) about falconry from 1:30–3:30 p.m. in the Ote Community near the castle.

Traditional Japanese Shamisen Music, Dances, and Songs and Culture Festival

Japanese Title (Matsumoto Arts and Culture Festival)

Japanese Title (Matsumoto Arts and Culture Festival)

See performances by students of traditional Japanese including traditional songs sang along to shamisen music and dances performed in kimono. Songs are of two types: hauta (唄, short songs that are a part of geisha culture) and nagauta (長唄, long songs). There will be several different songs and two different traditional dances. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see the classical culture of Japan!

Date: November 19
Time: St at 1:00 p.m.
Location: Matsumoto Performing Arts Center, Small Performance Hall (map)
Cost: Free!

Old-fashioned Guns Impress at Matsumoto Castle

This past weekend, the 29th Old-fashioned Gun Firing Exhibition was held at Matsumoto Castle! I didn’t get to see the show in person, but thanks to one of the bloggers (Nishimori) from the Japanese web page (see article here), we have a couple of nice photos to share from the event!

Twice a year, Matsumoto Castle hold a special gun show where you can see (and hear!) old-fashioned matchlock guns and muskets fired on the castle grounds. The shows are performed by different old-fashioned gun clubs from Matsumoto and other parts of Japan. It’s not only impressive to observe the guns themselves, but the gun club members dress in traditional samurai armor so you can really imagine what it might have been like to be a soldier at that time.

In formation and... bang!

In formation and… bang! (Photo credit: Nishimori)

The old-fashioned gun clubs posing in front of the castle.

The old-fashioned gun clubs posing in front of the castle. (Photo credit: Nishimori)

Matchlock guns like the ones fired at the exhibition were supposedly used at Matsumoto Castle, which has specially constructed windows that allowed the soldiers to shoot from inside the keep.

Also, if you love to learn about old-style guns like these, then you won’t want to miss the superb matchlock gun museum inside of Matsumoto Castle! Here, there are over 140 matchlocks and other armaments on display (Learn more about the gun exhibit on the Matsumoto Castle website).

If you missed the actual shooting demonstration, you can see it twice a year in the spring (April or May) and in October. (Event info here)

Matchlock guns, some with beautiful designs, in Matsumoto Castle

Matchlock guns, some with beautiful designs, in Matsumoto Castle

Asama Hot Springs Torch Festival: Night of Flames and Fun

“Wear clothes that you don’t mind getting holes burned in” was the advice I got when asking how I should prepare for Asama Hot Springs’ Torch Festival (called “Taimatsu Matsuri” in Japanese). My work colleagues and I had been invited to participate in the festival and when I first imagined what a “torch festival” would be like, I envisioned a procession of people each carrying their own little handheld torch through the town like you see in movies about medieval Europe.

Not even close.

The torches were not small, handheld fire sticks—they were humongous, flaming bundles of straw that weighed hundreds of pounds, were taller than me, and required at least ten people just to drag through the street.

Torch passing under the lantern light arches

Torch getting carried through Asama Hot Springs

Constructed from the straw, these giant torches represent the success of the autumn harvest. Every year in October, several groups ranging from the local kindergartens to the traditional inns in Asama Hot Springs make their own torch, and on the day of the festival, they light them on fire and bring them burning to the local shrine as a kind of offering. Once they arrive at the shrine, the torches are thrown into a huge fire which continues to grow as more of fiery offerings arrive. The fire creates thick plumes of smoke that rise into night sky, which also have an important role to play: the guardian spirit who has watched over the crops and the harvest here on earth “rides” the smoke to return to his home in the heavens.

Our group was to carry the torch for Umenoyu Hot Spring, one of the largest. So to get ready for the ceremony, we donned our festive happi coats, wrapped a towels around our heads (to help keep burning ashes off of our hair), and drug our torch into the road to await the official bringer of the fire.

Lighting of the torch

Lighting of the torch

Once lit, it was time to carry the torch to the shrine, as task requiring a total of one hour and whole lot of strength. Though I say “carry,” I think “drag” is probably a better word. Our torch was so big and heavy that it took six or seven of the young men in our group to surround the body of the torch and support its weight using their backs, while the rest of us grabbed the two attached ropes in order to pull and drag it along the path.

Ready, set, heave!

Ready, set, heave!

To my surprise, as we moved down the street, they continued to douse torch with water, at first almost extinguishing the flame. It didn’t take long to figure out why, however: the longer we heaved smoldering bundle of straw through the streets, the stronger and stronger the fire grew, burning through the core of the torch and causing chunks of fiery straw to rain down onto our heads and back. It quickly became difficult to keep the fire tame, no matter how much water we poured on top. At times the flames grew so tall that they threatened to scorch the lantern lights hanging across the arches above the streets.

Pouring buckets of water on the torch

Pouring buckets of water on the torch

Torch passing under the lantern light arches

Torch passing under the lantern light arches

Chunks of flaming straw falling off the torch

Chunks of flaming straw falling off the torch

Besides all the fire, another one of the fun “highlights,” if you will, of this festival is getting your face smeared with torch soot. Not only the torch carriers themselves, but even most of the spectators (whether they like it or not) end up with a layer of charcoal black “make-up” on their cheeks before the end of the night. My first thought was that it must be some kind of rite of passage that proves you were actually there, but in fact this little “ritual” does have some meaning, as it is said to help protect one’s good health for the next year.

There is no escaping getting black smeared all over your face.

There is no escaping getting black smeared all over your face.

Needless to say, we all had our faces smeared black by the time we reached the bottom of the hill below the shrine. Our last task was to muster our remaining strength, drag our torch up to the big fire, and shove it into the flames (which felt more like an inferno when we got close to it). Luckily, after making it up the hill, we just needed to give our torch a good shove before firefighters clad in spiffy, silver fire-proof suit took over, quickly deconstructing the bundles of straw and tossing them into the fire.

Mission complete—the guardian spirit was now riding home with the help of our torch’s smoke! And for us, it was time to head back and take dip in the hot spring :)

Firefighters burning the torches as they arrive

Firefighters burning the torches as they arrive

Mission complete!

Mission complete!

If you want to see this fiery festival for yourself and maybe get your face rubbed in torch soot, the Torch Festival takes place every year on the night of the second Saturday of October. The best part is that you’ll be right in the center of Asama Hot Springs, one of Japan’s best hot spring towns, with plenty of beautiful ryokan and hot spring hotels to stay at, or for a quick visit, there’s the big public bath, Hot Plaza Asama.


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