TBOT Press Check, Walking Matsumoto
The mid-sized city of Matsumoto has always felt sunkissed to me. Bright. Never gloomy, though I’m sure it gets gloomy enough on certain days (maybe even on most days). For me, its rivers have always sparkled and burbled and the evening light has always cast the black castle into a strange golden grey. The trains into and out of the city are impressive — skirting cliffs, riding high above expanding valleys and through the hulking alps ranges and generally providing the drivers with, one imagines, a surfeit of excitements riding up in that flat nose of the lead car, hanging over the tracks, watching the world flit past.
The first time I visited Matsumoto was to go on press for my book Kissa by Kissa. Matsumoto: A small town a few hours west from Shinjuku, nestled in the mountains of Nagano, accessible by the Azusa Express.
I had previously sidestepped Matsumoto when I walked from Tokyo to Kyoto that first time, along the Nakasendō in 2019. My first true solo walk. Forty-three days on the road. Then, a few weeks into it all — feet bleeding in funny ways and my knees beyond confused — I had walked down into the town of Suwa along its eponymous lake. And then over Old Shiojiri Pass into Shiojiri Town itself (Shiojiri being “Salt Butt” or “end of the salt road” — an old salt road beginning on the other side of the mountains, over towards the fabulous Kanazawa and the Sea of Japan). Matsumoto was just a few miles north from Shiojiri, but in 2019 the Nakasendō took me west into the Kiso Valley.
It would be another two years before I’d come back and travel the extra twenty minutes by train and stay in Matsumoto for a few nights on that first press check. And I remember thinking: Wow, why hadn’t I come here sooner?
I liked the city of ~250,000 so much, that I added it to my Tiny Barber ten city tour in November 2021:
I’m back. And the city pheromones are flying all around — there’s life, once again, electric in the air. The city feels great, organic, small-scale, but growing. The fly-wheel of the place being not just in motion but speeding up. Or if not speeding up, sustaining. Fresh blood is replacing old. Smart people aren’t running off to Nagano or Tokyo at first chance. In practice this manifests most visibly as bodies on the street, bicycles, folks going places, small restaurants with laughing patrons, a kind of pervasive entrepreneurial hum. In more down-and-out towns the sense is that the fly-wheel is done, and the energy required to get it moving again is somewhat beyond comprehension.
Matsumoto’s population is, indeed, growing.
And of course, it was on this trip that I also visited Morioka for the first time and couldn’t help but draw lines between them:
Matsumoto seems to rhyme in spirit with Morioka. Not as many roasters, though. But, there are a lot of cafés. The plan is to visit a folk art museum on the edge of town, dip in a sento public bath, and visit a host of kissa and other delights. I come bearing recommendations from the Waltz husband and wife in Morioka, and so I’ll check out their must-visit tomorrow, too.
This was the trip that made palpable my interest in mid-sized Japanese cities. Their power / delight. Especially in the context of a depopulating countryside and growing megalopolises. It’s funny to connect the dots between a strange little trip like this and The Morioka Experience.
So It was a pleasure to head back to Matsumoto two weeks ago to press check Things Become Other Things. I was at the printers for a day peeking at sheets with a loupe and everything looked fabulous. The next day I was free to explore. I went back to Doon Shokudo, with its husband and wife team serving up eye-rollingly-good Northern Indian food. The exceptional Unagi Suppon Yamasei had moved shop right behind Doon. I didn’t get a chance to go, but when I visited their old store last year, it was one of the best unagi lunches I’ve ever had. (Exceptional wine pairings.) I walked past Shionoyu, though didn’t bathe. I spent a relaxing morning in Hangout Coffee. Had afternoon cake at the bizarrely named Kauhiya-#3 (freaking the owner out by saying: Hey, you used to have run this café in Kamakura, didn’t you? How did you know?! Well, you told me when I came here two years ago — ha ha!). At Doon I met a married couple who run an old inn in Nagano, just over the mountains in Chikuma. (They came to Matsumoto just to eat at Doon.) Their inn is called Kamesei Ryokan, and it looks amazing. The husband is American, and their family (several kids) was living in Seattle when the wife’s parents said they were going to close down their inn. Turn it into a parking lot. Inspired, everyone relocated back to Japan and this husband and wife took it over. That was 18 years ago. Now their son, recently graduated from university, is training at another inn in Gunma (I think), hoping to keep it all going for yet another generation. This was a lovely story to hear — the much more pervasive tale is one of multi-generation owners hanging up their hats with no one in tow. Even in the last few years, inns I’ve stayed at along the Nakasendō and Tōkaidō and Ise-ji have closed. So it was a heartening story, and now I’ve got to get to Chikuma and spend a night at their inn.
I didn’t visit Abe, a classic kissa that pours lattes in a fancy manner that has inspired a line out the front door all day every day. I did have chicken broth ramen with slices of duck at Menshu Takenaka. I didn’t go to Eonta on this trip, the classic jazz kissa I’ve written about in the past.
I’m grateful to have such a great printer, but doubly so to have one in such a great mid-sized city. Always a pleasure to go on press, to wander the streets of Matsumoto.
Immediately after that press check I was waylaid by the flu. I’ve been down and out for the last week. Just flat on my back. Still have an annoying cough, but at least I’m sitting upright. Production on Things Become Other Things continues onward as we hurtle towards our late-November release. Can’t wait to get this book to you!