Cherry Blossoms and Hanami Festivals at Last!
Matsumoto was my original destination before I got derailed by promises of canoeing and cherry blossoms in Minakami. When I finally made it to Matsumoto it was with relief that I found the cherry blossoms still in full bloom, and a cherry blossom festival on at the castle the night I arrived. Unfortunately although the flowers were blooming, the weather was not suitably spring-like. It was freezing and started to snow again as my tour guide friend Charles and I tried to watch the concert of eerily beautiful Shinto music being played at the castle. Frozen hands won out over culture and we left the other few diehards to have dinner in the restaurant next to the castle, which had shark fin soup on the menu.
Charles left for his hostel and for Osaka, while I nervously made my way a bit later on to my hotel. It had been recommended by the tourist info centre – it was surprisingly cheap at $35 a night with a view of the castle and cherry trees, and the room looked relatively nice, if old-fashioned. But the hallways were permeated with an intense cloying incense smell and the landing on the stairs up to my room was lined with black and white photos from the 60's, with a carved wooden statue of lunging black bear. It seemed kind of ancient and eery, and moreso, it reminded me of the French movie Delicatessen, where the hotel owners eat the guests. The place gave me the creeps. On top of there being no other tourists visible, there was no wifi, meaning I had no easy connection to the outside world.
I was suspicious and reluctant, but I had nowhere else to go. I was half expecting to be drugged during the night by the waft of incense rendering me unable to breathe and then immobile. There was no defence I could think of to muster. So I crammed myself in the tiny tall tub in my miniature bathroom for a bath, and I fell asleep.
Waking up unharmed the next morning, I went downstairs to buy an entrance ticket to the castle from the hotel, the old manager came out offering me a ticket – “Present, present”. Instead of having me for dinner, he gave me a free ticket to the castle, and later a free bike to ride around the rest of the city for the day. It seems my instincts were a little off. I would highly recommend the place for anyone going to Matsumoto, just breathe deep before you get into the hallway.
I was lucky to get to the castle early, it was a beautiful sunny day and there was a lineup stretching halfway through the grounds by the time I made it back out. Under the cherry trees surrounding the castle I saw my first live hanami parties – where Japanese people come out to picnic under the cherry blossoms. There were blue tarps laid out with families, friends, and one large group of old people with an ghetto blaster dancing tai chi style to some songs. It was lovely to watch.
Later in the day as I rode around some of the picturesque streets of the town, I saw a traditional wedding. I thought there was much more to see in Matsumoto than Nagano – I would have stayed longer but I was in a hurry to make it to Takayama for the spring festival starting the next day.