The Rebuilt Charm of Matsumoto’s Nakamachi Street
Your Walking Tour
With a charming and compact downtown area that leads right to the foot of Japan’s oldest surviving castle, Matsumoto is widely regarded as an eminently walkable town.
To those making the pilgrimage from Matsumoto to Zenkō-ji Temple in Nagano City 400 hundred years ago, this would come across as quite an understatement.
The Zenkō-ji Kaido, covering fifty miles of mountainous Shinano terrain, began right here in Matsumoto, in the commercial district known as Nakamachi. And while most of that old route has been lost to time and the elements, Nakamachi is alive and well. Today we take a stroll through Nakamachi-Dori for a taste of the history of this confluence of pilgrims and merchants.
Nakamachi-Dori (中町通り) runs east-west, parallel to and a quick block south of the deep bed of the Metoba River. As most visitors to Matsumoto pass Nakamachi’s west end, on their way to or from the castle, this is where we’ll begin our tour.
At first glance Nakamachi may not seem very old. The one-way street is fairly wide by Japanese standards, with spacious pedestrian areas of brick running along both sides of this sparklingly clean, straight street. The buildings here are mostly modern as well, drawing little attention from the passive onlooker. But within a few steps we begin to see what makes this centuries-old avenue special.
To the right and the left we catch glimpses of the old merchant atmosphere, in black shop walls boasting white criss-cross patterns. These distinctive markings are the trademark of Japan’s earthen kura (蔵) storehouses. The merchant shops of Nakamachi were originally constructed from wood. After devastating fires in the 18th and 19th Centuries destroyed most of these structures, the people of the district rebuilt them in this kura style. And it is not just this meter-and-a-half-high black-and-white façade that gives the shops of Nakamachi their character. Take a look as we walk along and you’ll see.
At the end of this first long block stands a curry shop called デリー, or ‘Dehli’. A curry shop might be one of the last places one would look to see a traditional Japanese kura but this corner building is one of Nakamachi Street’s most striking if not best-maintained Edo-era structures. Above the white criss-cross markings the building’s walls are an imposing, time-stained black. The recessed, thick-framed windows and the black-tiled roofing add to this two-story piece of history.
Turning left at this corner will quickly bring you to the Metoba River and, across the Yukibashi Bridge, Nawate Street and Yohashiro Shrine, both worthy of a leisurely look. For now we will continue along Nakamachi–Dori and the kura-housed お味処黒門 (Kuromon, or Black Gate), luring us in with promises of good fish and great sake and friendly conversation. On the other side of the street we see a modest sign announcing, in both Japanese and English, the twice-daily Shamisen concerts going on in the non-descript white building set back away from the street. Green tea and sweets are part of the musical deal here at 芸游館, the ‘Geiyuukan’.
Halfway down the block we take a peek at the selection of lacquerware and ceramics at Ihara Shikki (伊原漆器). This shop, while evidently aged, displays little of the kura markings that are showing up with increasing frequency here on Nakamachi-Dori. Instead we are greeted with a weather-beaten wood storefront dominated by large and, in terms of older Japanese architecture, extremely rare picture windows. Look up and check out the street-facing windows on the second floor of the building next door for a good look at another aspect of the old Japanese storehouse character. In contrast, the ground-floor pub ‘Imagine’ across the street makes only a half-hearted effort to blend in with its kura-styled neighbors. But they do have darts. If you’re in the mood for something a bit more traditional, Matsushita offers handmade soba noodles made from locally-grown Shinshu soba flowers.
Next to Matsushita stands a beautifully-maintained storehouse inhabited by the serene and attractive ‘Cha-bo’ (茶房), offering tea, coffee, juice and sweets with a side of inside information on Nakamachi Street as Cha-bo is actually a part of the visual centerpiece of the Dori, the ‘Kurashikkukan’ – written in Japanese as 蔵シック館 which is an apparent play on words, blending the word kura with a few extra characters to make the English word ‘classic’. The kan part means a kind of building, in this case an example of exquisite traditional Japanese architecture on a large and heavily-varnished scale. Take a step inside – then take your shoes off and wander around a bit. This is our best chance to take in the old merchant feel of Nakamachi without all the accoutrements of merchandising getting in our way.
Past this midway point of the main Nakamachi strip the kura keep coming, increasingly numerous and visible. The diversity of shops continues as well, some grounded in modernity while others hold on more closely to the centuries-old Japanese spirit. The Chuo-Mingei (中央民芸) showroom has a constantly changing display of handmade crafts from local artisans, shown among two floors of western-influenced wood furniture of the highest quality and price. Yamahei (山平) occupies another impeccable kura to offer traditional and local food items including miso, wine, jam, honey and tsukudani (佃煮), specially-preserved fish, crickets and other such edibles that some say go perfectly with rice.
Significant Points & Side Streets
Of particular historical note is the Matsumoto Museum Measurement Instruments (松本市はかり資料館), located on the far corner of the very narrow side street to the left that takes in a surprisingly large amount of traffic. This museum, housed in yet another well-kept kura, holds various items of weights and measures, a clearly important aspect of the old merchant era. If we take a walk down this aforementioned narrow side street we will find Marumo (マルモ), a traditional Japanese ryokan inn containing a café that, with its rich dark wood furnishings and old world allure, takes us back a hundred and thirty years to when this place first opened.
Surprisingly in poor repair, Nakamachi Shrine is said to have stopped the great and destructive fires of the 18th and 19th Centuries from advancing past its gates. To reach this shrine (中町神明宮) turn left down the narrow lane/parking strip just past the Coto.Coto Arts & Crafts Gallery until you come to the neglected and rusting playground on the left. The shrine, though in disrepair, is well-obvious on the right.
Exercising a little curiosity and interest, one will find enough within and around the kura of Nakamachi to take up much of the day. On Saturday mornings from April through December there is a bustling morning market. Following the street running south past Yamahei will bring us to the Well of Genchi which flows with pure, crisp spring water all year round. And of course, what historical Japanese experience would be complete without a Hawaiian dining and burger joint like HuLaLa?
English-language information on Nakamachi is available on an irregular basis. For a brief yet comprehensive run-down of Nakamachi’s history and offerings check out this tourist guide pdf.
And set aside plenty of time to wander in and out of the many kura of Nakamachi Street, and all the pleasant surprises waiting for us all around.