Matsuyama, Ehime, Japan
Within a few hours of arriving in Matsuyama, a see a man with a white shirt, a conical sedge hat, a backpack and a walking stick hiking up a hill. He is a ‘henro’, a pilgrim, taking part in one of the world’s most interesting pilgrimages. It’s called the Shikoku-88 and the official path is more than 1200 kilometres long, leading through 88 temples around the island of Shikoku on the path to enlightenment.
It sounds interesting and, as I learn more about it during my time here, I think about coming back to take part in the walk sometime. But for now I have my own journey to take part in – a journey to discover more about this island.
I have been to Japan quite a few times – I often say that it’s my favourite country to visit – but I have never made it to Shikoku until now. For this first visit, I am going to concentrate just on the Ehime prefecture and its capital city, Matsuyama.
Getting here by plane is easy – it’s just a short direct flight from Tokyo on JAL – and I catch a morning flight so I’m already exploring by lunchtime. I love Tokyo and there is so much to do there but after the bustle of the metropolis, Matsuyama feels so relaxed. It may be Shikoku’s largest city but it still only has a population of about 500,000 people. (That means there are at least 30 cities in Japan with more people.)
There is a rich history here, though. Tradition carried through centuries that is still a strong part of the city’s framework. And, amongst all of the modern necessities of daily life, that’s what stands out here in Matsuyama.
To help you plan a visit to Matsuyama, I thought I would share some of the highlights of the city. It would be easy to spend a day seeing all of these sights. And, in my next story from Japan, I’ll have some tips for things to do in other parts of Ehime.
Keeping a watchful eye over the city from its hilltop position is Matsuyama Castle. The first fortress built here was completed in 1627 and was five storeys high. The current castle was completed in 1854 and is just three storeys high.
To get up to the stop, you can walk, take the cablecar or ride on the chairlift. I would definitely recommend the chairlift, which is a lot of fun.
Coming in through the main entrance at the top, you will see the defensive walls of the castle. Through gates, around pathways, across courtyards, you’ll gradually get closer to the inner castle. All of these steps to get to the main building were all part of the defences, creating opportunities for an invading army to get wedged in somewhere so they could be attacked from within the fortifications.
There’s a beautiful blend of the manmade with nature here. In spring, cherry blossoms fill the approaches and it’s a popular spot for ‘hanami’. In autumn, the oranges and reds are just as stunning, as you can see in my photos.
Inside the main part of the castle are exhibitions about the building, the occupants over the centuries, and the customs of the time. Matsuyama Castle is one of only 12 original castles that remain in Japan and, for this reason, it’s an important historical site. It’s also a good introduction to the city. From the top of the castle, you get amazing views – and you can even see some of the places I suggest you visit next.
Of the 88 temples on the Shikoku pilgrimage route, 8 of them are within the city limits of Matsuyama. One of the most impressive is Ishite-ji and I think visiting it is a great way to get a sense of the spiritual elements of this walk.
The temple complex has quite a few different sections, starting with the entrance path lined with shops, through the gate and into the main buildings, and then up to smaller shrines. Incense hangs in the air and worshippers pray and throw coins into the offering boxes.
At the top, you’ll find a narrow passageway that leads into the rock. Follow it into the darkness and a row of small (and strange-looking) Buddhas will lead you through to the other end.
I think Ishite-ji Temple is quite beautiful in the way that the different sections just seem to fall into the other, with unexplained artworks, statues, or collections scattered around the grounds. You would almost think it was a hippie commune if you didn’t know better. It’s definitely a highlight of Matsuyama.
Of all the sights in Matsuyama, it’s perhaps Dogo Onsen that the city is best-known for around the world. Japan has a lot of onsen (hot springs) but this is the only one that claims to be the country’s oldest. It is said that there’s a 3000 year history of using hot springs here. There is even still a special section reserved exclusively for the Imperial Family.
The Dogo Onsen area is made for visitors these days, with a long shopping arcade, hotels and restaurants. In the middle of it is the historic onsen building where you can go in to use the baths. There are instructions in English and help if you are not quite sure what you’re doing.
Nearby is a new onsen building that has only recently opened. Although it is a similar experience, the design and the atmosphere is different enough that I would suggest trying both if you have time.
I stayed in a hotel at the Dogo Onsen area called Yamatoya-Honten, which was great for walking to the hot springs and exploring the surrounding area.
Matsuyama has a few local delicacies that are worth trying when you are in the city. The first I would recommend is called Taimeshi. It’s a dish where sea bream is served in raw egg and soy sauce over rice. It has its origin as a quick and easy dish to be made at home (this is a region where it was quite easy to get sea bream).
I think it is delicious and a lovely way to get a first taste of the Ehime region. If you would like to try it, I would suggest Kadoya restaurant. It’s in a really convenient location, right next to the city’s main shopping arcades and just a short stroll to Matsuyama Castle.
Imabari Yakibuta Tamago Gohan
The second dish I would recommend trying is called Imabari Yakibuta Tamago Gohan. It’s another meal that you could describe as traditional ‘comfort food’ that’s very popular in Matsuyama.
Imabari Yakibuta Tamago Gohan is a bowl of rice covered with slices of fried pork and topped with fried eggs. You eat it with a spoon and it’s a quick and wholesome meal.
I would recommend trying it at Ehime Kitchen ef, which is not far from my other restaurant suggestion and even closer to the castle. As a bonus, the restaurant even has fresh mikan orange juice on tap!
If you’re wondering what mikan orange juice is, don’t worry, I’ll tell you very soon. In my next post, I’ll show you some of the things you can do in Ehime prefecture around Matsuyama and I can promise you that this very special fruit is going to feature prominently!
Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.