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Road Trip!! Special Passes for Tourists

Convenient access to some of Japan’s more remote regions with the following ETC (tolls) discount passes.

Central Nippon Expressway Pass (CEP)

Explore the central area of Japan’s largest island.

Requires:
– Non-Japanese passport if you are a visitor/proof of permanent residence in another country if you are Japanese
– Driver’s license that is valid in Japan  (or International Driving Permit)

Rates
The pass can be purchased for a period of as little as 2 days (5,000 yen) and up to 14 days (16,000 yen). Other optional areas can also be added.

For more information on rates, participating rental companies, routes, and more please visit the Central Nippon Expressway Company website.

*NEW* Japan Expressway Pass (JEP)

The new, expanded special discount ETC pass allows tourists to explore Japan from top to bottom (Hokkaido pass sold separately).

Requires:
– Non-Japanese passport if you are a visitor/proof of permanent residence in another country if you are Japanese
– Driver’s license that is valid in Japan (or International Driving Permit)

Rates
7-day pass: 20,000 yen
14-day pass: 34,000 yen

For more information on participating rental companies, routes, driving tips, and more please visit the national expressway information site DoRaPuRa (E-NEXCO Drive Plaza) website.

Reservations
Reservation must be made through participating rental companies listed on the above websites.

*WINTER DRIVING*

Please note that areas within Nagano Prefecture require winter tires or tires with chains. Your car will be inspected before you are allowed to drive on certain roads. Fortunately, rent-a-car locations in the area typically offer their rentals with winter tires or chains at no extra cost.

In addition, certain mountain passes are also closed during winter months as a result of heavy snowfall.

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

Matsumoto Soba Festival

The 14th Matsumoto Soba Festival was held at Matsumoto Castle this past three-day weekend October 7 – 9 (Sat – Mon), 2017. Soba, which means buckwheat, is also used to refer to buckwheat noodles. Due to the high altitudes and harsh winters of Nagano Prefecture, soba has long been cultivated as it is a robust crop that can withstand the elements.

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Since the festival was held on the outer edge of Matsumoto Castle, you could also enjoy the view of the historic wooden structure while browsing the various stalls. While the castle is walking distance from JR Matsumoto Station, temporary bicycle and scooter parking was also available at businesses around the castle.
 

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20171008_143011With nearly 20 soba vendors from all over the country, there was a variety of tasty noodles and broths to try. Soba is served both hot and cold.  While Nagano Prefecture is especially famous for its soba, other vendors representing prefectures such as Hokkaido, Fukui, and Fukushima allowed visitors opportunities to savor their spins on the dish.

 

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Soba noodles served cold in a tsuyu broth and topped with grated radish, chopped onions, and bonito flakes.

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Rows of food stalls offered freshly made soba and also dried soba to take home. Local fruits, vegetables, crafts, and more were also being sold, including apples, another Nagano specialty that is now in season. Other food trucks and stalls offered tacos, grilled meats, crepes, and more.

If you missed the festival, fear not, you can still find many local restaurants offering great soba year round!

Tsukimi–A Timeless Tradition of Appreciating the Beauty of the Moon

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Tsukimi means “moon viewing”, and in Japan, gatherings are held to view the harvest moon—often in conjunction with harvest festivals. Tsukimi is officially celebrated on the 15th night of the eighth month according to the lunar calendar.

Matsumoto Castle Tsukimi

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Live music being performed within the castle.

Matsumoto Castle is celebrating tsukimi with live music performances and tea ceremony demonstrations on the castle grounds. The event is being held this week 9/29(Fri)–10/4(Wed) 5:30–8:30 p.m. It is free to enter the castle grounds and ¥500 to view the tea ceremony up close and receive freshly whisked matcha or green tea. Other light snacks are also available for purchase.

Come bask in the radiance of the moon and illuminated castle while listening to traditional music. Instruments include the shamisen and the koto, and the sound of the music floating across the grounds leaves you feeling that you have been transported back in time.

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A flower display exhibiting the Japanese art ikebana and sweets called dango add a sense of festivity to the occasion. 

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Japan Alps Kamikochi – A Serene Summer’s Day in the National Park

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Whether you’re an avid hiker or just looking to take in the world-famous scenery on a stroll at the base of the mountains, Kamikochi is an unforgettable outdoor experience. Even on a hot summer’s day, like the one I visited on, I was treated to a cool breeze, icy-cold water, and plenty of shade on well-maintained paths. Unless you hire a guide, you cannot access the park in the winter, but spring, summer, and fall give you a unique landscape depending on when you visit. The green season offers a barrage of colors including vibrant greens and other colors from the various foliage and sediment.

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Taisho Pond

Even before entering the heart of the park, you are treated to a expansive reflection of the mountains on Taisho Pond.

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Shimizu River

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Some of the clearest water you’ve ever seen.

In order to preserve the environment of the park, there are strict regulations including not allowing cars into the area. The regulations, higher altitude, and natural springs make for fresh air and stunningly clear water.

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Kappa Bashi (Kappa Bridge)

The view of the Kappa Bridge overlaid on Mt. Hotaka is one of the most famous images of the park. Crossing the suspension bridge, you can gaze out over the pristine water of the Azusa River.

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Kamonjigoya

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This century-old mountain hut now serves as a restaurant as well lodgings and makes for a great place to rest before visiting the nearby Hotaka Shrine and Myojin Pond. Try a classic summer dish, grilled ayu.

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Raised in the nearby river, this sweet-fish is fresh and juicy. Grilled over an open fire, the salted skin makes for a delicate crust while the meat is kept moist. You can eat the entire fish from head to tail!

Replenish your salt levels after your trek!

If eating fish heads isn’t your thing, not to worry, there is other food such as soba (buckwheat noodles) and cake available for you to enjoy.

Myojin Pond

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This area is said to be sacred to the gods and thus known as a place where the gods come down.

Myojin Pond has two areas: Ichino Pond and Nino Pond. The Hotaka Shrine sits just in front of Ichino Pond.

Although you cannot ride in them, two boats float on the pond and are used during a local festival.

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Hotaka Shrine

Ichino Pond

Ichino Pond

Nino Pond

Nino Pond

Tashiro Pond and Wetlands

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Although it has been steadily filled in by natural decay and sediment buildup, water still flows through this area, creating a stark contrast between the orange sand and the surrounding greenery.

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Mt. Yakedake

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Signs of the eruption that occurred 100 years ago still remain.

Mt. Yakedake is still an active volcano. It’s activity is constantly monitored and the current level is level 1.

Access and Accommodations

Details on how to get to the park and more information such as hotel and campsite information are available on the official English website here.

Amongst the Clouds and Flowers at Tatamidaira

Boardwalk through the meadow

Boardwalk through the meadow

After hearing Tatamidaira at the top of Mt. Norikuradake had a beautiful flower meadow abloom with alpine wildflowers in the summer, I decided to venture up to the top in mid-August. Like Kamikochi, the higher elevation areas of Norikura are closed to personal cars so you need to take a bus from the Norikura Visitor’s Center (you can get to the Visitor’s Center by car or using a bus from Shin-Shimashima Station). I recommend getting the round-trip ticket, which is cheaper than two one-way tickets, unless you plan on hiking back down. The other options are to hike or bicycle (serious hill climb) up to the top.

Tatamidaira

Tatamidaira

Tatamidaira is a crater basin that was created from a volcanic eruption long, long ago, and is surrounded by several of the mountain peaks of Norikura. The bus arrives at the Tatamidaira visitor’s center which is located at 2702 meters (8,865 feet), making it the highest bus stop in Japan. From here you can easily walk to the flower meadow and see Tatamidaira’s pristine lake, Tsurugaike Pond. If you arrive earlier in the day, there are also a couple of short hiking trails (15 – 90 minutes, one way, depending on the trail) that let you climb to the summits of the surrounding peaks: Mt. Fujimidake, Mt. Daikokudake, Mt. Maoudake, Mt. Marishitendake, and Mt. Kengamine.

Tatamidaira

Tatamidaira

For the alpine flower meadow, the peak season is mid-July to mid-August. A nice wooden boardwalk lets you walk around the meadow and get a close look at many species of rare flowers which come in all sorts of shapes and colors. You’ll also see some huge boulders lying around the meadow which probably tumbled down from the mountain peaks years ago. I’m a big fan of wildflowers so I loved being surrounded by hundreds of cute little flowers!

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Giant boulders lying around the meadow.

Giant boulders lying around the meadow.

Tatamidaira

Now, the one tricky thing about going to Tatamidaira is the weather at the top. Even if it’s a perfectly sunny day in Matsumoto, there are often clouds hanging about the summit of Mt. Norikuradake. The day that I went to Tatamidaira, I could see a few clouds from the Norikura Visitor’s Center, but I figured they wouldn’t be a problem. However, as you can see from the photos, when I arrived at the top, I was enveloped in a thick cloud that made it impossible to see anything past a few meters in front of me. Though being stuck in a cloud is a unique and mystical experience in itself, I couldn’t enjoy the beautiful scenery to its fullest.

Tatamidaira inside of a cloud

Tatamidaira inside of a cloud

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The highest bus stop in Japan! This is what the scenery looks like when you're not in a cloud.

The highest bus stop in Japan! This is what the scenery looks like when you’re not in a cloud.

Another thing you want to keep in mind is the temperature difference. It is cold! Even when the summer is blazing down below, at 2,700 meters it’s going to feel like late fall or early winter. I went in mid-August and was wishing I had brought light gloves and a decent sweater. You’ll definitely want a windbreaker, preferably waterproof, too.

Buses run to Tatamidaira from July to the end of October and you can count on seeing something different every season! See the bus schedule here.

There are all kinds of unique bus stops at Tatamidaira. This one features the "raicho" or rock ptarmigan which you can sometimes spot at Tatamidaira.

There are all kinds of unique bus stops at Tatamidaira. This one features the “raicho” or rock ptarmigan which you can sometimes spot at Tatamidaira.

Disaster/Emergency Warnings and Safety Tips App

Yesterday morning, when a missile passed over the northern part of Japan, 12 prefectures were alerted via their areas’ emergency alert systems which included sirens and warnings via mobile phones.
In light of this, we wanted to direct visitors and residents of Matsumoto to information and resources that may be of use to you during an emergency.
Please note that we are not experts and cannot bear any responsibility in the event of a disaster or emergency or for any loss or damage resulting from the use of third party websites or applications.

Although Japan is a relatively safe country, there is still a chance that you may find yourself awoken by a siren and/or a warning alarm coming from your phone.

Sirens: Typically, sirens are accompanied by loud speaker announcements that indicate what the sirens are being sounded for.
If you don’t hear any announcement accompanying the sound of siren, the chances are that the warning is not emergency related as sirens are sometimes used to indicate that it is a certain time.

Phone warnings: Warnings may appear on your phone for disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and landslides. These warnings will indicate how you should react including if you should seek shelter or evacuate. Please see the information below on an app that will provide warnings in English, simplified and traditional Chinese, and Korean.

安全確保アプリSafetytips

Information Resources:

 Safety Tips App

The Safety Tips app is a free app created by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).  It is a push-enabled app that was originally designed to issue warnings for events including earthquakes and tsunamis. The app offers other functions in addition the warning function such as communication cards. It will allow you to add up to five locations that you would like to receive warnings for. Find out more about the app here. You can download the app via the JNTO or search for “Safety Tips” in your app store.

The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA)

The JMA provides information on natural disasters including earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. Their Emergency Warning System is detailed here and more information can be found on their homepage.

General Advice:

  • In most cases, you should not run outside during an earthquake. You may be hit by falling debris, so try to wait until the shaking stops.
  • If an earthquake occurs and you’re near the coast, move inland. Objects can be swept away in even shallow water.
  • If you are on or near a volcano and notice trembling or smoke, leave the area.
  • If there is heavy rainfall, either suddenly or continuously, and you are near a mountainous area, move away from the mountains, especially if you are near an area with few trees, which may be more susceptible to landslides.

Ishii Miso Brewery with Tour, Lunch, and Miso Ice Cream!

I recently found out about the Ishii Miso Brewery located right in central Matsumoto so I wasted no time in going to check out – especially because they offer free tours, a special lunch with miso-inspired dishes, and miso soft-serve ice cream!

Ishii Miso was founded in 1868 and what makes it so special is that it is a now rare example of miso maker that still uses traditional methods to produce their miso. I took advantage of the short tour they offer so I could learn more about the process of making miso and Ishii Miso itself. The tour is free, can be done in both English or Japanese, lasts about 10-12 minutes, and once you’re done you can brag to all your friends about your expert miso knowledge, so I definitely wouldn’t skip it!

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Part of the miso brewery

The tour starts in the “first year miso room” where you are greeted by huge, wooden fermentation barrels. These barrels are all around 100 years old and contain 4.5 metric tons (almost 5 US tons) of fermenting miso! Most miso makers now use stainless steel containers to ferment miso, but wooden barrels are much better because the wood allows aeration and the beneficial bacteria – yeast and lactic acid bacteria – can actually establish themselves in the sides of the barrels, helping to improve the flavor and protect against unwanted bacteria.

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The year-one miso barrels

At Ishii Miso, perhaps their most prized product is their three year fermented miso. I was really surprised to learn that the not only is each 4.5 ton batch of miso transferred to another barrel at the end of each year, but they also “flip” the miso (a process called tenchi-gaeshi 天地返し
in Japanese) once per year as well to aerate it in order to help the beneficial bacteria do their fermentation work as well as to help even out the flavors. The transferring and flipping is done by hand (with a shovel!), and according to tour guide, takes a whole day to complete for one barrel. Ishii Miso also makes a one year fermented miso, which also undergoes the flipping process one time during the year.

Ishii Miso worker in a barrel

One of the works transferring the miso to another barrel

Unfortunately, less than 10% of the miso made in Japan is still made using traditional methods. Most miso is mass-produced in a factory using additives and heat to speed up fermentation so that a batch can be finished in 2-3 months. But, this fast-miso doesn’t have enough time to build up the complex flavors that you would get through natural, slow fermentation, so more additives and chemicals are added to attempt to make up for the loss of flavor. After trying Ishii’s miso or other traditionally made miso, you’ll definitely notice the difference whenever you eat miso made with mass-produced miso.

Big pots of miso soup and tonjiru soup

Big pots of miso soup and tonjiru soup

On the tour, you’ll also learn other interesting facts about miso making in Japan like the regional differences due to the kind of koji (a kind of malted grain made with a beneficial fungus) used kome koji(rice malt), mugi koji (barley malt), or mame koji (soy bean malt) – and why miso gets gradually turns a darker brown color the longer it ferments (hint: it involves the increase of a compound called melanoidin produced through the Maillard reaction – the same reaction responsible for browning meats, bread crust, and coffee).

After the tour, check out the Ishii Miso Shop to taste their miso pastes, miso pickles, and other miso products. Of course, you can buy your favorite products to take home with you. I definitely recommend eating the special miso-inspired lunch, too! It includes a big bowl of tonjiru (miso soup with vegetables and pork), miso-grilled rice ball, rice ball with seasonal miso sauces like wasabi miso, miso pickles, salad with miso dressing, and a little miso ice cream. I’m also a big fan of the miso soft-serve ice cream, which is made with Ishii’s three year miso, so I’d recommend giving it a try too!

If you plan on having lunch, be careful about the time. Lunch is only available from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM, but you can get soft-serve ice cream and buy things in the shop anytime between their opening hours of 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM.

See access info, hours and more on our Ishii Miso page here.

Miso rice balls

Miso-grilled rice ball and rice ball with different miso pastes

Tonjiru - hearty miso soup with veggies and pork

Tonjiru – hearty miso soup with veggies and pork

Miso soft-serve ice cream with 3-year miso

Miso soft-serve ice cream with 3-year miso

Entrance to the cafe and shop

Entrance to the cafe and shop

Japanese Culture Experience Days in Nakamachi! Plus a New Nakamachi Guide Map, Website, and Shop Signs in English!

Japanese Culture Experience Days at Kurassic-kan in September

Come to Kurassic-kan on Wednesday, Sept. 6 and Saturday, Sept. 23 between 10:00 and 16:00 to enjoy special Japanese cultural activities, plus get a free gift for participating! Here you can try your hand at various traditional arts, crafts, and other activities (mostly for free!) including:

  • Origami – the art of paper folding where you can create colorful figures out of paper
  • Japanese calligraphy – write your name in Japanese and favorite kanji characters
  • Tea ceremony/Matcha green tea making – experience the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and learn how to make matcha, a special kind of green tea
  • Japanese paper fan decorating – decorate your own folding paper fan just the way you like and keep yourself cool the rest of the summer
  • Traditional Japanese toys – try out old-fashioned Japanese toys like the koma (spinning tops), kendama (a kind of cup and ball game), takeuma (stilts), and more
  • Sake tasting – try a specially brewed sake made just for the Nakamachi area!
  • Kimono wearing/rental – choose from your favorite design and walk around Matsumoto in a kimono (fee required)
  • Rickshaw rides – enjoy a fun ride through Nakamachi on a rickshaw! (fee required)
  • Ninja experience – learn cool ninja skills like how to shoot darts using a blowgun (fee required)

(*Activities may be subject to change)

After participating in the activities, fill out a short survey to get a free gift – a roll of specially designed masking tape decorated in the characteristic “namako-kabe” pattern, which is the black and white crisscross pattern found on the walls of many of the old buildings in Nakamachi.

The name namako-kabe has an interesting origin, coming from the word for “sea slug” (namako) and walls (kabe). If you look closely at actually pattern on the buildings when walking around the town, you’ll notice that the crisscross patterns are made up of rounded, embossed lines that supposedly look like sea slugs, which have a similar cylindrical shape. Although this pattern makes the buildings quite beautiful, it also had practical applications too, as it helped protect them against fire, strong winds, and rain. The namako-kabe masking tape will make a fun souvenir to remind you of your time in Nakamachi!

Namako-kabe walls in Nakamachi

Namako-kabe patterned walls

New Nakamachi guide map, website, and shop signs in English!

Finding your way around Nakamachi Street just got a whole lot easier with Nakamachi’s new guide map, website in English with a shop directory, and soon-to-be-finished shop signs in English that will posted in front of every shop so you will know exactly what kind of place it is.

Nakamachi Guide Map in paper form will be distributed soon, but until then you can download a PDF version here.

Nakamachi English guide map

Nakamachi English Guide Map (click to download the PDF)

Check out the new English version of Nakamachi’s website here to learn more about its history, what events and sights there are to see, and find shops & restaurants with the handy, searchable shop list. You can also download the guide map from the website, too.

English shop signs are also coming soon and will be posted in front of each shop. These signs will let you know what kind of shop or restaurant it is, whether there is Wi-Fi available or not, if credit cards can be used, which restaurants allow or don’t allow smoking, and more. Keep an eye out for them in the upcoming months!

Nakamachi shop sign

Preview of the shop signs being prepared for Nakamachi Street

Sightseeing in Matsumoto Now Easier Via the Town Sneaker!

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Starting this month, the local bus line, the Town Sneaker, is now nearly 3 times as convenient! The number of buses per day has increased from 35 to 103!

Four Main Routes:

NORTH for Matsumoto Castle, the Former Kaichi School

Weekdays: Departs every 30 minutes! Weekends: Departs every 20 minutes!

First bus: 8:30am Last bus: 5:15pm

SOUTH for Aizawa Hospital, Yumehiroba Shonai

Departs every 30 minutes!

First bus: 7:30am Last bus: 6:35pm

EAST for Nakamachi, Agata-no-mori

Departs every 20 minutes!

First bus: 8:40am Last bus: 8:00pm

WEST short course for Marunouchi Hospital & Nagano Prefecture Matsumoto Regional Office, long course for the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum

Departs every 30 minutes!

First bus: 8:10am Last bus: 6:40pm

*Please note that portions of these routes have changed starting August 1*

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Japan Ukiyo-e Museum Access

Added to the Western Route is the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum which holds the world’s largest private collection of ukiyo-e, painted screens, and old books. Be sure to take the bus that runs the full “long course”!

Passes and Ticket Books

  • Town Sneaker One-day Bus Ticket
    At ¥500 for an adult ticket, you get unlimited rides on the Town Sneaker. This ticket also gives you discounts at other locations throughout Matsumoto including Matsumoto Castle and museums.
    Available for purchase on board or at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal
  • MATSUMOTO ONE DAY PASS
    This pass can be used on Matsumoto City’s local bus lines such as the Town Sneaker and also lines running to areas on the outskirts of the city including Matsumoto Airport and both Asama and Utsugushigahara Onsen. This pass also gives you discounts at other locations throughout Matsumoto including Matsumoto Castle and museums.
    Available for purchase at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal
    Adults: ¥800 Children: ¥400
  • “La Coupon”
    13 tickets for the price of 10!
    Available for purchase at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal

★The Matsumoto Bus Terminal is located here. It is open everyday from 6am to 8pm. ★

  • Sightseeing Pass
    A separate Sightseeing Pass that provides access to Matsumoto Castle and the city’s museums is also available for purchase at each of the sites included in the pass. The pass is valid through September 30, 2017, but each site can only be visited once. Further information about the pass is available in both Japanese and English here.
    Adults: ¥800 Children: ¥370

NAGANO NAVI

You can also search for bus routes and times with the app “Nagano Navi”.


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