I must confess that I always, ALWAYS fall for exotic local cuisines wherever I go. It's not that I don't appreciate the cuteness of rabbits or that I don't get grossed out by grasshoppers ... but if it ends up on the dinner plate of the locals, then give me my portion too onegai-shimasu! So when I heard about the local specialty of BASASHI while planning our visit to Matsumoto ... well you know the rest of the story ...
What's BASASHI? I'm not going to dance around trying to euphemize these two simple words ... BA as in horse, and SASHI as in sashimi. Enough said. Your imagination is exactly correct ... we're talking thin, bloody slices of raw horse meat. So if beef sashimi is beyond your acceptance, you should stop reading roughly halfway down this article.
But don't let the culinary history of the locals deter you from visiting one of Japan's most beautiful original castles. Matsumoto may present an impression a modern industrial city upon your arrival at the train station, but take a slow walk along the city's narrow side streets and you'll soon encounter vestiges of its glorious feudal past as a fortified stronghold.
Strategically situated along an ancient mountain route between the Shogun's government in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and the Emperor in Kyoto, Matsumoto has always been an important castle town in Central Japan and still boasts one of the most recognizable national symbols, the one big tourist attraction any high school student in Japan could name ...
The imposing, black-lacquered Matsumoto Castle dating from the 16th Century, best known as one of the "Four National Treasure Castles" of Japan and on par with the more internationally famous Himeji. And to keep itself on par with Himeji, the city is actually putting together an application for the castle to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But to the Japanese themselves, Matsumoto Castle is already widely recognized as THE perfect opposite of Himeji Castle, with its dark masculine defensive structures forming a stark contrast against Himeji's white plaster walls -- hence the nickname for Matsumoto's "Crow Castle" versus the "White Egret" of Himeji. For a quick visual comparison, here's a picture of Himeji from our previous visit:
As one can see, Himeji is more artistically ostentatious with its sprinkling of roof-top ornaments along the curving rooflines, and its perfectly white plastered walls decorated with large slatted windows. Matsumoto on the other hand is all about strong, masculine straight lines, rectangular crenellations, and a sloping stone base protected by a 20-metres-wide moat. Both are undisputable masterpieces of Japanese architecture, but if I have to pick just one favorite castle ... for me it would be Matsumoto.
Either Matsumoto or Himeji would make a great half-day trip if you're in the neighborhood of Kansai or Central Japan. Unlike the modern concrete-constructed museums like the Osaka Castle or the Nagoya Castle, here you get to walk on the same creaky wooden planks that had been smoothened by the feet of the warlords and his troops for centuries, climb the steep wooden staircases all the way to the top, and stick your head into the defensive crenellations and archer holes.
One of the many staircases leading to the top floors. It's not surprising that many visitors choose to descend the stairs facing inwards, as the act of carrying one's own shoes in a bag with one hand and tip-toeing down the steep stairs in nothing but slipper socks proves a little too intimidating. We managed quite okay as we've gotten quite used to carrying our own shoes at this point of our long journey.
The large collection of historical armours and weapons nicely focussed on one general theme -- the widespread use of firearms at the period of the Castle's construction in the late 16th Century and its effect on Japanese military technology of the time. There were castle construction plans and models, miniature cannons and arquebuses, and helmets and breastplates designed specifically to withstand arquebus shots, as pictured above. These designs must have seen limited use though, as the war ended soon after in Year 1600.
If you get easily bored by exhibits and explanation like me, there's always nice views of the castle grounds just outside the windows. Samurai residences and administrative manor houses were burned down through the course of history and no longer remains, and is now replaced by the lush greenery of the castle park. In case you're wondering where we were able to find this large window among the castle's little crenellation openings, this picture was taken from the Tsukimi-yagura (moon-viewing tower), a newer wing built during peacetime.
Of course the best view is always afforded at the very top of the Tenshu tower, which stands at 6 storeys and 29 metres high above the surrounding park. This is the westerly view on a sunny but slightly foggy day, with the quasi-westernized tower of the Old Kaichi school visible in the background. Unfortunately this is probably the best viewing direction IMHO, as the other three directions all have big ugly rectangular buildings in the foreground blocking the view, reminding the visitor that this is a 21st Century industrial city after all.
There are a few other attractions besides the castle. The Old Kaichi school, Japan's first westernized elementary school dating from 1873, is located just a block west of the castle. The world's largest Wasabi plantation is located near the town of Hotaka roughly 30 minutes to the north by train, if you're interested in a unique farm visit with Wasabi-flavored beer and ice-cream. But aside from these plus a handful of little specialty museums (eg.the Ukiyo-e Museum), the city really starts to drop off in terms of tourism resources. My own evaluation is that Matsumoto is a small and pleasant city to spend a day, but it's really no match for Hida Takayama or Kanazawa if you have time for only one city in Central Japan. And this is precisely why we didn't even stay overnight here -- IMHO there are more interesting places to stay in Central Japan, as I'll explain in the next few articles.
WHAT ABOUT THE HORSE SASHIMI?
OK. I've kept some of you waiting long enough. If horse meat is a taboo in your culture or if you have no interest in reading about Horse Sashimi, you can stop now. Otherwise ... I know I'll get flamed for this ...
Food Review: MIKAWAYA (Matsumoto)
Address: Nagano-ken Matsumoto-shi Chuo 3-8-14
Hours: 11:30-14:00, 17:00-21:00; Closed on Sundays
Website/Map: From Gurume Pia (Japanese)
Directions: Exiting JR Matsumoto station and walk East along Route 143 for about 8 blocks. At this point Route 143 will follow a smaller street (Ohashi Dori) to the left ... so turn left to keep following it. Finally, turn right at the next block. Mikawaya is the large antique-looking house on the right hand side of the street, right across from the Ryukoji temple. If you get lost, just politely ask a young guy where Ryukoji is. The whole walk should take about 15 minutes ... or you can take the Town Sneaker shuttle bus' Northern Course and get off at "Ohashi Dori Minami" (see Transportation section below).
If you're just waiting to see me digging into my plate of bloodied Horse Sashimi like a wild man, you may be mildly disappointed. Our review candidate is actually one of the highly cultured culinary establishments of Matsumoto, a historical institution frequented by local dignitaries and men of literature. Today it is still housed within a venerable two-storey-tall Machiya townhouse with authentic dark wood lattice windows on white plastered walls. You'd think it's a museum of some sort except for the subtle greeting written on the old Noren curtain with a few simple words:
Matsumoto Mikawaya, established in the 16th year of Emperor Meiji (Year 1883 in the Western world)
Before going further I have to point out that I live in Canada where the consumption of horses is considered somewhat taboo, due largely to the public perception of horses as companion animals or pets. But I also understand that serving horse meat is quite the norm in some regions of Italy, France, China and Japan ... incidentally all culinarily influential nations with great gourmet traditions. And on this trip to Central Japan, I felt that I owed myself an excursion to a culinary institution that specializes in this regional delicacy which I have no chance of trying out at home. That, is precisely why I chose to come to Mikawaya.
Prior to arriving in Japan I did my homework on Japanese foodie websites such as Tabelog, just to see other peoples' opinion on what to order and what to avoid at Mikawaya. Apparently the two most popular dishes here were the Sakura-nabe (literally "cherry blossom hotpot"), which appeared to be very similar to Sukiyaki but with horse meat replacing beef, and the Basashi, which was thinly-sliced raw horse meat served with a grated ginger soy sauce. As we arrived on a slow Friday afternoon, the only other client, a conservatively dressed Ojisan in his fifties, was having precisely the Sakura-nabe. In fact each table had a natural gas stove set-up just for Sakura-nabe, as you can see in the picture above. Surrounding us with its square wooden beams and latticed windows, Mikawaya was exactly how I imagined it to be -- antique, dimly illuminated, and tastefully Japanese.
Even the menu took the form of a handwritten ledger book from a century back, with each offering and its price written simply in calligraphy brush strokes of black ink. A set meal of Basashi Teishoku cost 1995 yen (CAD$20), a side order of Basashi cost 1575 yen (CAD$16), while a side order of horse meat skewers cost 1470 yen (CAD$15) ... and if you can't read Japanese? I guess you'll just have to take their word for it.
But the bad news came on the flip side of the menu -- the Sakura-nabe was available for 2940 yen (CAD$30) per person, but the minimum order was for two people. Now we had two choices: either both of us would share the Sakura-nabe, or I would order the Basashi Teishoku and leave my wife the freedom to order something else other than horse meat. Not a tough choice, given the fact that she was generally less adventurous than I was towards unfamiliar cuisine. Within 15 minutes I got what I'd been wishing for ... and then some ...
Whoa!! I never had Basashi before, and I had expected just a few thin slices of raw but only slightly moist horse meat, perhaps even torched on the outside and pre-mixed with a dressing -- kind of like how Beef Carpaccio is served in Izakayas throughout Japan. I certainly didn't expect it to be a large fillet of thickly sliced horse meat, only slightly cold, soft and still dripping with blood. Seriously ... picking up each slice with my chopsticks revealed a small dab of blood on the plate ... it was THAT raw. Now I'm not a squeamish eater -- sea cucumber intestines and coagulated chicken blood are among thing that I actually enjoy eating -- but thick, blood-soaked slices of meat that was starting to approach room temperature if I didn't finish it within the next few minutes? Just by the looks of it, that's blurring the line between enjoyment and bravado.
But of course, I had learned my lessons through travelling that I should never judge a dish by its looks. I started to rub into each slice of Basashi a generous helping of grated ginger, which I knew was provided for neutralizing any strong and unwelcome taste in the meat, and then dipped them into Sashimi soy sauce. As the bloodiness of the meat was still bothering me a little, I initiated the first slice into my mouth with a small ball of rice, as if I was having Sushi ...
And it's actually not bad! Once I got past the psychological barrier, the meat revealed a delicate sweetness accentuated by the Sashimi soy sauce and, needless to emphasize, the juiciness of the fillet cut. The texture was little different from lean beef, except that it was incredibly tender -- much more so than I would expect from a beef cut of similar leaness. Before long I was having my Basashi without the rice, and started to truly enjoy my lunch without further hesitation.
Towards the end I did find the Basashi portion a little too large for me ... I guess the blood and everything else was getting to me after all. Like any decent Teishoku set, the meal did come with all the fixings such as a soup, a cold appetizer dish, and of course steamed rice and pickles. The 1995 yen (CAD$20) was quite worthwhile for a full and interesting meal that I'll surely remember for years.
And for my wife? The tasting of one slice was quite enough Basashi for her, as she went back to work on her Pork Misoyaki. Unfortunately the quality of the pork was no different from what can be expected at any little family-run eatery, and certainly not worthy of the Mikawaya name. Perhaps we should have had the Sakura-nabe for two, which should be interesting but also twice as expensive.
It was probably not the best time to ponder this sensitive question, especially right after such a full and gracious meal ... but where DOES Mikawaya's horse meat come from? The restaurant's own literature claims that it only sources a domestic Japanese breed known as Dosanko, all supplied by licensed farms in Hokkaido. I don't know if this is supposed to make me feel better, as I've previously heard many stories of how race horse stables often file a "change of usage" for their sub-standard and retired race horses and sell them into the food chain. There are even rumours about the 1987 Kentucky Derby champ ending up in a Japanese stable upon retirement and ... well you can imagine his ending. Not that I don't trust Mikawaya's declaration though -- a 120-year-old restaurant of such high acclaim is probably the safest place to find truly uncontaminated, farmed horse meat -- but this is just something that unsuspecting culinary tourists may want to keep an eye on.
The final verdict? For me it was more of a cultural adventure than a food tasting really. The sweet tenderness of the Basashi was certainly interesting to try, but frankly the cold, dripping bloodiness started to lose its appeal after five or six slices. A half order of it would serve very well as an appetizer though, and following it with a Sakura-nabe for two would be a perfect introduction to horse meat.
Bill for Two Persons
|Basashi Teishoku||1995 yen|
|Pork Misoyaki Teishoku||840 yen|
|TOTAL||2835 yen (CAD$28)|
As one of the major JR stations in Central Japan, Matsumoto is served by Express Trains directly from Tokyo and Nagoya. Tokyo's Shinjuku Station is only 2.5 hours and 6700 yen (CAD$67) away, while the Express Train to Nagoya takes only 2 hours and cost 6000 yen. From Osaka or Kyoto it's probably easiest to just transfer through Nagoya.
If you're starting out from Tokyo, a much cheaper and almost-as-fast alternative is to take the JR Highway Bus outside the Shinjuku Station, costing half the price of the train (3400 yen) and getting you there in 3 hours.
But my own suggestion would be to combine your visit to Matsumoto with a trip to Takayama -- and a side trip to Kamikochi and see the National Park if you have the time. All this can be done by taking the Nohi Bus, which operates a Matsumoto-Takayama bus route with multiple daily departures taking 2.5 hours each way. The connection to Kamikochi is roughly halfway between the two cities, where you can get off at the hotspring resort of Hirayu Onsen (see article on Kamikochi for more information) and transfer to a short bus ride to Kamikochi. And the best part is ... Nohi Bus has a wonderful deal -- a 3-DAY, 6400 YEN BUS PASS with unlimited hop-on hop-off between Matsumoto, Takayama, Kamikochi, Shirahone Onsen, and the five Oku-Hida Onsengo towns from Hirayu Onsen to Shin-Hotaka.
You can see the Bus Timetables and details about the 3-Day "Norikura-Kamikochi Open Ticket" at Nohi Bus' English Website. Just one word of caution if you plan to use the bus pass -- it is sold only at Takayama's Nohi Bus terminal, which means that you'll have to get to Takayama first and then travel to Matsumoto and Kamikochi using the pass. It's still quite a deal nonetheless, if it fits into your travel plans. Otherwise you'll need to buy your bus tickets one by one.
Once you get here, central Matsumoto is really small enough to explore on foot, as the Castle is only about 20 minutes walk from the JR Station. But if you're lazy like us, an alternative is to take the above mini shuttle bus known as the Town Sneaker. There are a total of three routes, and we found the "Northern Course" to be the most useful, as it covers the Castle (get off at "Matsumoto Castle Kuromon"), the Old Kaichi School (bus stop "Takajomachi"), and the Mikawaya restaurant (bus stop "Ohashi Dori Minami"). It's 190 yen (CAD$2) per ride and 500 yen (CAD$5) for a Day Pass, which is not a bad deal since you get 60 yen off the Castle Admission simply by flashing your Town Sneaker Day Pass. Check the Town Sneaker's English site for the latest timetable.