Last April, I received an opportunity to join my professor from KU Leuven, Dr. Prof. Schmidt, on a study-trip to Matsumoto. This, accompanied by several KU Leuven schoolmates as well as famous historian and professor at Matsumoto’s Shinshū University Ōgushi Junji, and his seminar students.
On our study-trip, we would visit the Old System Matsumoto High School Museum (Kyūsei Matsumoto kōkō kinenkan 旧制松本高校記念館) and a guided tour to a tunnel in Satoyama, said to be dug by forced laborers in the last months of the Pacific War. Later on we would visit Shinshū University and hold an impromptu seminar on the topics covered that day, before the obligatory nomikai (飲み会). On our second day, we would join our professor in the morning for brief breakfast and recap, before spending the rest of the day visiting the center of the city.
A historic castle town and city in Nagano Prefecture, Matsumoto is now known as a popular destination for those looking to visit the mountain scenery or traditional hot spring resorts located around the Northern Japan Alps . The castle, Matsumoto Castle, is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Japan. In more recent history, Matsumoto is lesser known for being targeted by doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo in 1994, leading to 8 deaths by a Sarin gas terror attack. On a more positive note, Matsumoto has also birthed famous artist Yayoi Kusama.
I met up with a junior student of KU Leuven studying in Tokyo (kohai, 後輩) for our highway bus from Shinjuku to Matsumoto, were we met up with a good friend and KU Leuven classmate of mine studying in Kyushu University. Our first evening was fairly uneventful as it was too late to explore the city. We ended up joining one of the Shinshū University students for some snacks and a few drinks in a Japanese-style bar, mostly catching up on life, before calling it a day and heading towards our hostel, close to Matsumoto Castle.
After meeting up with our professor and a KU Leuven PhD student currently doing research in Kobe University, we joined professor Ōgushi and his students on a bus ride to our first destination, the Matsumoto High School Museum.
Located in an impressive forest park, Agatonomori Park (あがたの森公園), the museum is set in the historical Matsumoto High School, a Taisho-era elite prep-school for Imperial university entrance examinations, and the only one still completely intact today. The building gave some insight of the pre-war elite Japanese eduction system, and especially of note was the high levels of expertise these students had over the German language.
Our next visit was to Satoyamabe (里山辺): a guided tour through a mountain tunnel (地下壕) dug, according to our guide, under horrible conditions by mainly Korean and Chinese forced laborers in the last months of the Second World War. The tour was held by a local non-profit organization called the Matsumoto Forced Labor Investigation Team (松本強制労働調査団), who feel this too belongs to Matsumoto’s history and should not be erased from public memory.
The tunnel was constructed under order of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. Nagoya Aviation Works (三菱重工業株式会社名古屋航空製作所), whose factories were moved to Matsumoto City after an earthquake in December 1944 struck their main facilities in Nagoya. According to our guide, the company planned to built an underground plant to build parts for Mitsubishi’s successor to its Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter aircraft, the Mitsubishi A7M Reppū (烈風).
Local records of the town note approximately 7000 citizens, although official records contain only several hundred people, leaving much of Matsumoto’s wartime situation unknown. It should be noted that the billboard outside of the tunnel has been partly vandalized to hide the reference to forced labor, a topic sensitive amongst certain Japanese nationalists.
Although Matsumoto is not a particularly large city, it is home to several universities, including Shinshū University. Founded in the 19th century and nowadays focusing primarily on interdisciplinary research, the university has a fairly good reputation within Japan, and offers a beautiful setting for any potential exchange student.
We concluded our evening with an expected dinner and some drinks, but beforehand we a short class related to professor Ōgushi’s seminar; reflecting on our brief experience touching upon pre-war elite education, and on the other side the bleakness of daily life for forced laborers during the Second World War.
During the morning, we joined our professor for breakfast at a vegan bakery maintained by an alternative lifestyle couple he acquainted as PhD student in Tokyo. I’m hoping one day I too can have such experiences, visiting lifelong friends in Japan during my period as student, perhaps even as PhD student, in Japan. One can dream.
Afterwards our goodbyes, my professor had duties in Tokyo, we headed to the nearby Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum, which had an interesting display of Meiji and Taisho-era billboards (kanban, 看板). After a brief detour to a local hot spring (my friend from Kyushu University, despite now living in Fukushima, had never had the experience), we headed to the center of the city, to Matsumoto Castle.
s Built in the late 16th century, Matsumoto Castle is one of few castles in Japan remaining almost completely intact, retaining its feudal era wooden interior rather than being rebuilt using concrete such as Osaka Castle. Designed as a fortress, much of its design caters to the use of long-range weaponry or entrapment, such as the hidden sixth floor used for unexpected attacks and hiding supplies.
The idea that those without a visible Asian ethnic background are able to converse in Japan is not quite widespread, especially so in more touristic areas such as, take for example, Matsumoto Castle. While reading out loud a warning sign written in Japanese (warning visitors to be careful not to hit their heads upon ascending the stairs), an elderly man working there as local guide repeated, to my amusement (and very much to my friend’s annoyance), in somewhat broken English (not judging, he tried) the same message. Upon responding in Japanese, we were once again replied to in English. Thanks.
Our final stop was the Nakamachi District and in particular its Nawate-dōri (なわて通り), a quaint shopping street running along a river. The street is commonly known as Frog Street, selling various trinkets related to frogs, due its historic association with, well, frogs. The story goes that a typhoon destroyed parts of the area, leading to the local frog population seeking shelter elsewhere. A symbol of this street, citizens built a ‘frog shrine’ in hopes of the frogs’ safe return (return and frog are both pronounced kaeru, 帰る and 蛙), but alas.
Regardless of the lack of actual living frogs, Nawate-dōri is incredibly charming and a pleasant area to spent our last hours in Matsumoto at.