Nestled in the mountains of Nagano prefecture, Matsumoto is a nice place to stay for a few days, with a relaxed atmosphere and a number of interesting sights. It's also easy to get out of the city to enjoy the area's range of natural scenery. For dramatic alpine views and hiking, Kamikochi is the place to go, but I just wanted a day-trip out into some gentle countryside to meander around, so I chose Azumino.
About half an hour on the train from Matsumoto, it's an overwhelmingly flat part of the country, but with handsome mountains in the middle distance, which even in May were still peaked with snow. Much of the land is given over to farming, with flooded rice-paddies and wasabi fields stretching away to the hills: it's not often that I find myself able to see for a kilometer with my view unimpeded by buildings.
I got off the train at Hotaka station, and visited two nearby sights: the Rokuzan Museum displays Rodin-inspired sculpture by a local artist, and Hotaka-Jinja is an impressive shinto shrine. A couple of kilometers away there's Daio Wasabi Farm, an entertainingly touristy place where you can admire the wasabi fields, try dishes such as wasabi ice cream (surprisingly tasty), and buy a whole host of wasabi-related gifts and food. (I recommend the wasabi sesame dressing.) On the way you can stop off at Tokoji, a charming Buddhist temple with an attractive garden, a population of interesting statues and carvings, and a secret tunnel to explore.
Close to the next station of Ariake is the Takahashi Setsuro Museum of Art, a delightful little museum displaying the beautiful lacquer paintings of another local artist. This and the Rokuzan are part of the Azumino Art Road, an eclectic collection of fully thirteen museums dotted around the area: there are many different kinds of exhibits, from owl-themed micro-art and modern sculpture to local history and silkworm cultivation.
A couple of final things that the area is known for are its soba dishes - that's what I had for my lunch - and Dosojin roadside guardian deities. There are hundreds of these standing by the roads around the area, stationed here for centuries to ward off evil spirits and diseases, and it's fun to look out for them as you're walking, cycling or driving around.
Hotaka and Ariake stations are on the JR Oito line, about a thirty-minute ride from Matsumoto station.