The city of Matsumoto sits amidst grand, sprawling views of the Japanese Alps. A treat to look upon, especially in the wintertime, when snow-capped mountains greet the eye each morning.

Nagano prefecture’s second largest city, Matsumoto is most famous for its castle but it is also locally recognised for its onsen (hot spring baths). With a history dating back more than 1300 years, Asama Onsen, Matsumoto’s hot spring area, was once frequented by feudal lords and samurai - and the very same springs that fed those noble baths feed the baths of today. The area has long been lauded for its ‘water of beauty’, highly alkaline water that does wonders for the skin. Flowing at a rate of around 1500 litres per minute, the springs are amongst the most prolific in Nagano prefecture, promising purity and deep therapeutic benefits.

Asama Onsen has undergone a revitalisation of late through a plan put in place by Jiyujin Hotels, the Matsumoto Jujo project. Jujo means something like ‘ten stories’, a reference to the art, architecture, and design that were used as the inspiration for the property’s concept and for the communal goal of revitalising the entirety of Asama Onsen – into the resort that it was when samurai still ruled the land. One aspect of the project is to restore the Koyanagi property, a ryokan (traditional inn) whose history dates back to 1686 which was designed as a book lover’s dream with its old onsen converted into a bookstore. Another is to build a neighbouring design-led hotel. There is also an onsite bakery, shop, café, and apple cider brewery.

Each detail is considered, including Matsumoto Jujo’s logo, which was designed by artless Inc. in collaboration with crest artist Shoryu Hatoba. The combination of letterforms and a pine tree - a symbol of the city of Matsumoto - evokes the idea of moving forwards with the times, whilst also celebrating the history of the land. Just as the pine has become synonymous with Matsumoto, the crest has become a symbol of the hotel, elegantly placed at the entrance and in the reception, a traditional public bathhouse now turned into a chic café. Warm oyaki (doughy, roasted dumplings) and hand dripped coffee are provided upon arrival. The decor is bold with black accents on the walls yet softened with earthy wooden furniture, beckoning guests to relax and unwind with a good read. The café is a collaboration with Tokyo-based coffee stand Artless Craft Tea & Coffee and is open throughout the day for both hotel and day guests searching for a caffeine fix. After check-in, guests are guided to their accommodation annexes (around a three-minute walk away), taking in the scenery of the historic onsen area in which Matsumoto Jujo sits.

The lobby of Matsumoto Honbako (one of the two hotels located within Matsumoto Jujo) is an industrial masterpiece with concrete walls, each inlaid with shelves that are stacked with books. Dark wooden furniture offers a welcome respite and a place from which to peruse the wide selection of encircling books. Bright red carpets, cushions, and cocoon-shaped chairs encased in shiny white plastic (a nod to the eccentric design of the seventies) give the interiors a retro yet modern aesthetic and offer yet more comfy corners in which to settle with a good read. One of the primary reasons for designing the communal areas like a bookstore is the fact that Asama Onsen has no bookstores. In this way, Matsumoto Jujo aims to attract a community of bookworms, encouraging locals and tourists to appreciate and peruse their wide selection of literature – over 10,000 individual books, including Japanese classics, Western novels, architectural series, designer photo books, and manga.

The communal areas have been divided into different rooms each with their own theme, the pinnacle of which is a former onsen transformed into a sunken lounge area for those who want to relax with a drink in hand. Ceiling mirrors have been installed to shape the large bookshelves and to give the illusion that the walls of books are infinite – the design of architects Tanijiri Makoto and Yoshida Ai, whose aim was to create a space where the past and present intersect.

The guest rooms at Matsumoto Jujo are complete with their own open-air baths featuring unparalleled views of the sun setting over the Japanese Alps beyond. A minimal, refined feel can be found in each of the spacious rooms and the colours reflect the Japanese landscape, culture, and local architecture of Matsumoto, imbuing a sense of calm in which to slumber.

Dinner at the restaurant, 365 + 2 (367), is a feast. So named after the length of the Shinano-Chikuma River, the longest in Japan, whose fresh, clean waters flow through the lush agricultural soils of both Nagano and Niigata prefectures. Chef Christopher Horton (formerly of INUA in Tokyo) based the concept around ‘local gastronomy’ and incorporates a number of ingredients from nearby mountains, rivers, and sea. The menu is a magnificent culinary journey, from the headwaters of Mt. Kobushigatake to the waters of the Sea of Japan and as far north as Sado Island. Each dish is a tale of Japan's unique topography, presented as a love letter to Japan's rich abundance of excellent ingredients.

Matsumoto Jujo fosters a feeling of inclusivity, attracting both overnight and day guests to meet, make merry, and improve the mind within its walls. It’s rare to find projects that push revitalisation with the intent of creating a community for others, however, Matsumoto Jujo has achieved this with ease.

Amy Tang
Amy Tang