The much-awaited autumn break during my first year of teaching in Japan almost didn’t happen simply because I put my alarm on snooze and overslept. Lesson learned – get out of bed at the sound of the alarm!
Still dazed from my photo-finish dash to catch the bus from my apartment to Shinjuku Station, I slept through most part of the 3.5-hour ride. At half past ten, we arrived at Nagano Station and from there took the Dentetsu-Nagano train line towards Shinshu-Nagano.
The first stop of the trip to the temple town of Nagano is of course to visit the most famous temple – Zenkoji.
According to legend, the golden triad was the first Buddhist image to arrive in Japan in 642. The temple’s name “Zenko” literally means “Yoshimitsu’s Temple”, from the Kanji reading of Yoshimitsu Honda, who enshrined it in his home.
Entrance to the temple is free but if you want to visit the inner sanctuary there is a ¥500 fee. This includes the O-Kaidan Meguri or “Tour in the Pitch Dark Tunnel” which is a brief walk in an underground passageway done in total darkness. If you touch the key set just beneath the sacred image, it is said that you can gain enlightenment and enter the Paradise of the Amida Buddha.
Lunch meant eating ramen in one of the standing stalls in the station because I had to catch the Shinonoi Line bound for Matsumoto. Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s three premier historic castles (the other two are Himeji and Kumamoto). Also called Crow Castle because of its pitch black exterior, it is a short five-minute bus ride or a 15-minute walk from Matsumoto Station.
The castle has six stories and two main gates – the Kuro-mon (black gate) and the Taiko-mon (drum gate). It is a flatland castle because it is not built on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain.
It has a windowless third floor, which is the castle’s safest area, as it cannot be seen from the outside. Other distinctive features of the castle are the stone drop, to prevent enemies from climbing up, and sama, openings for archers.
After checking in my hotel and doing a leisurely stroll to find a place for dinner, I went back to the castle grounds and took more pictures. This time the black exterior stood out and made it appear as if the shot was in black and white.
The following morning, I decided that I haven’t had enough of the castle’s grandeur, so I took one last stroll to Matsumoto Jo Park and enjoyed the stillness of the cool autumn air before heading to the station to catch the train and bus to Kamikochi.