In Nagano Prefecture, there are quite a number of places of interest to visit. This article highlights two of them – one is a sight for sore eyes, while the other might make your eyes sore..
松本城 Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto City is the second largest city in the prefecture, and it is most famous for the visually impressive Matsumoto Castle.
While not as large and impressive as Himeji Castle, Matsumoto Castle is one of the more beautiful castles in Japan. It’s particularly unique because it’s a black castle, as opposed to most Japanese castles which are white. There’s another black castle in Okayama, but that one is a reconstruction of the original, and the interior is basically a modern-looking museum, complete with air conditioning, elevators and a souvenir shop to boot... not very “castle-esque”. Matsumoto Castle is not a reconstruction, so although there are a number of displays inside that look like they belong to a museum instead, the place still has an authentic feel to it.
As with any original castle in Japan, stairs are steep and ceilings are low, so you have to watch your step when you're inside Matsumoto Castle. You can climb up all the way to the top (fifth) floor to get a paranoiac view of the surroundings. The castle is surrounded by a moat filled with water (this has to be emphasized because castles where the moats that are not filled with water exist), and visitors have to cross a bridge to get to the entrance. So even from outside, the view of the castle is pretty cool.
Matsumoto Castle is rather easy to get to from JR Matsumoto Station – it takes about fifteen minutes to walk there. Alternatively, you can get there by bus in about five minutes.
松代大本営 Matsushiro Underground Imperial Headquarters
Not too far away from Matsumoto and Nagano lies a small, quiet town called Matsushiro. It's not a particularly famous tourist destination, and nor is there much to see there. Matsushiro is known among the locals as a place to see preserved samurai residences, but less-known is the fact that a World War II Underground Imperial Headquaters was built there. Matsushiro Underground Imperial Headquarters is a relatively new and rather controversial “tourist attraction” - if it can called one.
Towards the end of World War II, as it became imminent that the enemies would take the fight to the mainland, the Japanese military began construction of an underground complex to serve as a wartime headquarters, as well as an alternative palace for the emperor. This complex, a series of interlinked tunnels, was built underneath some mountains – to be precise, Mount Maizuru, Mount Kobo, Mount Minakami, Mount Saijo and Mount Zo. It was never completed, but by the end of World War II, the workers had already finished excavating around six thousand square metres of floor space.
Who built the complex? Mainly thousands of Korean civilian conscripts, who worked under terrible conditions... the death count during the construction of the complex was very high.
The public is allowed access inside the complex under Mount Zo, but only up to four hundred metres. The rest of the complex is fenced off. For added safety, visitors have to wear a helmet they can borrow for free at the entrance. Entrance is free.
For all its historical significance though, there’s not much to see inside the complex – you'll come across rocks, rocks and... more rocks. So is the place worth visiting? Considering the lack of eye candy and the rather mundane, boring-looking tunnels, as well as the pathetically short distance that you are allowed access to, the casual visitor would not find it particularly interesting. The former underground navy headquarters in Okinawa is much bigger and cooler, and it also has more things to see. If you’re a history buff though, this is the place for you.
If you're interested in visiting the underground imperial headquarters, the entrance is 1.5 kilometres from Nagano Dentetsu Railway Matsushiro station – you'll have to walk there from the station. Unsurprisingly, since the complex is not exactly a place the Japanese are proud of, there are few signs that point you there – a map or a GPS will be useful here.
While Matsumoto Castle and Matsushiro Underground Imperial Headquarters are not as famous as the other "mainstream" attractions for foreign visitors (Himeji Castle is head over shoulders above Matsumoto Castle in terms of fame and popularity, while the underground headquarters is hardly advertised at all), these two places are worth checking out if you wish to visit central Japan, and/or you're more into the less well-known but nevertheless interesting places of interest.