Ron Lam

Japan-based writer and traveller, specialising in design, lifestyle and travel journalism. Ron previously served as an editor of MING Magazine, ELLE Decoration and CREAM.

Reliving the history: Matsumoto city in Nagano prefecture

06 2020 | issue39

Every May, we would pay a visit to Matsumoto city in Nagano prefecture to take part in the 69 Artisan Street event. Friends from Tokyo, Nara, and Kyushu would also come to Matsumoto for this event, which is a great opportunity for me to meet my friends.


The event’s schedule is similar every year. We attend the event’s seminars and then go to Sanjiro for soba noodles. Then we would go treasure hunting in some antique shops and enjoy a cup of coffee and read at a café in Shioribi. In the evening, we would go to the event’s celebration dinner. But this year is very likely to be different. When I was writing this article, the Japanese government had declared national emergency status. Although the emergency status doesn’t include Nagano prefecture, I believe the 69 Artisan Street and Crafts Fair Matsumoto will not be able to proceed as scheduled given the severity of the pandemic outbreak.


When speaking of Nagano prefecture, Japanese people would think about skiing, hot springs and apples. But when you talk about Matsumoto city, the Matsumoto Castle and wood crafts will first come into people’s mind. Matsumoto was an important city when Yanagi Soetsu was promoting the mingei movement, famous for its woodworks. The city is rich in historical heritage and faces the Hida Mountains, sitting next to hot spring attractions. That’s why Matsumoto has been a hotspot for domestic travel in Japan. In recent years, Matsumoto has also become an ideal place to live for young people who long for rich culture and lifestyle.


Japan is facing an ageing society. Many cities would launch different initiatives to attract young people. As a result, more and more people are moving to Matsumoto. Matsumoto’s city government has been making initiatives to help immigrants settle down in the city. For example, there are shop maps made specifically for immigrants and sharing sessions where senpai would share their experience of settling down in the city. There is also a pragmatic policy initiative that works closely with homestay businesses to provide discounts for short stays. You can get one night’s stay for free every seven days’ stay. These policies bring more convenience to people who are interested in settling down in Matsumoto. But what makes this small city so attractive? What do young people see it in Matsumoto?


The Crafts Fair Matsumoto, founded in 1985 and in which Ryuji Mitani was involved, brings crowds to Matsumoto in May every year. Thousands of people would come from all over Japan to Matsumoto and visit a forest park’s plaza that used to be a school infrastructure and appreciate crafts from different Japanese artisans. In the 1980s, Japan was still living its prime time as the economic bubble grew bigger and bigger. People were materialistic, producing and consuming lots of products. Even though the Crafts Fair Matsumoto was also a commercial event, but it brought a deeper meaning to material consumption. Under those blue and white booth tents, consumers and manufacturers would meet each other and appreciate the human emotions embedded in crafts, reviving the city’s past as the city of crafts.


This is Yamaya which was originally a store selling cigarette. The original signboard is still reserved after it was renovated and reformed into Gallery 10cm by Ryuji Mitani. 


Today, Crafts Fair Matsumoto has over 230 participating units, a drastic increase from the 1st Crafts Fair Matsumoto which only have 45 units participated. Every year, 30% of the participating units will be new participants. Crafts Fair Matsumoto provides young artisans a good opportunity to get their works out there while bringing in a stable number of tourists. This also helps to maintain Matsumoto’s unique city image.


Crafts Fair Matsumoto is a starting point for young artisans, who will later return after they achieve their goals. Matsumoto’s boutique shop Laboratorio’s owner Ifuji Masashi first came to the city because of the Crafts Fair. At that time, Masashi just started to make his wood crafts after leaving a wood artisan studio where he learned wood making. He brought his works to the Crafts Fair Matsumoto and exhibited them. After a long time, Masashi started to think about moving to a place where the climate is suitable for wood making, Matsumoto came into his mind. After settling down in Matsumoto, he opened the Laboratorio in 2009, selling crafts, homewares and food ingredients from across the country. The emergence of Ryuji Mitani’s exhibition gallery 10cm, Shioribi Bookstore Café in the city pumped new blood into Matsumoto, turning it into a both traditional and young town. People who are new to Matsumoto also see new lifestyles because of this. All these are made possible by organic development instead of any planned strategies.


One thing about Matsumoto that appeals to me is that it has well-preserved old buildings in the city. It is interesting to find out that people who are working or doing business in these old buildings also treasure them. When I am walking in the streets of Matsumoto, I would often see a shop with two signboards. One is the original and old signboard of the shop while the other one is the signboard of the current business in that building. People here value the past of Matsumoto, not willing to replace the city’s past with today’s achievement.


Matsumoto’s charm attracts people. Perhaps the city’s beauty lies in its emphasis on valuing history and culture instead of its robust prospect. Matsumoto brings back the past and gives it adequate modernity.