Things to see in Ehime, Japan
The man selling fruit and vegetable by the side of the road doesn’t speak much English… and I only speak a little Japanese. But he’s pointed out a few things on his stall and I have reacted suitably impressed. I’m not planning to buy anything so I say my thanks and start to leave. Before I have had a chance to go, he has thrust a small orange into my hand. A gift to welcome me to Ehime.
This small orange – called a ‘mikan’ – is a symbol of Ehime prefecture and you’ll find it everywhere. It’s sweet, has no seeds, and is easy to peel – similar to a mandarin. The region produces about 250,000 tons of the fruit every year and it’s extremely popular. Even the prefecture’s mascot is a dog fused with a mikan, a strange (but cute) orange character called Mikyan!
I thank the man for the mikan and continue on my way. Interestingly, it’s not the first one I’ve been given today and, by the time I get back to my hotel this evening, I will have four of them in my bag. Because if there’s one thing that Ehime has more of than oranges, it’s kindness.
As I mentioned in my previous story, this is my first time to Japan’s Shikoku island and, hence, my first time to Ehime. It is a quick and easy flight from Tokyo on JAL but you instantly feel like you’ve arrived somewhere different. From the bustling neighbourhoods and busy tourist attractions of Tokyo – to the laidback charm of the prefecture’s capital, Matsuyama.
I’ve already given you some suggestions for things to do in Matsuyama that you would easily be able to spend a day doing. So now I want to have a look at what’s around the city in other parts of the region.
Ehime has always been an industrious part of Japan. As well the oranges, another one of the products it’s particularly famous for is Tobe pottery. The pottery gained notoriety particularly because of how robust and durable it is, making it perfect for the production of everyday objects like cups and plates.
But the pottery – which is called Tobeyaki or Tobe ware – has a contradiction. Although it has a reputation for being strong, the artwork on it is usually extremely delicate and gives off an impression of softness. The indigo colouring on the white background traditionally depicts animals or plants, although there are more modern designs now.
When you visit Tobe, about 10 kilometres from Matsuyama, there are quite a few shops to pick up some Tobe ware items to take home with you. You can also learn a bit more about the production process and see some factories. If you’re interested, there’s even the opportunity to paint your own designs on items.
Another product that put Ehime on the map was wax. I had never thought too much about it but I guess I assumed that wax came from bees and other animals. However, it can also come from plants and, in Japan, the berries from the sumac tree are used to make it.
One of the most productive wax-making areas in the country was around the town of Uchiko, about 50 kilometres from Matsuyama. It reached its zenith in the late 19th and early 20th century when it made about a third of Japan’s output. The production of wax here brought a lot of wealth into the town and impressive public and private buildings were constructed and a lot of them have been protected in the historic Yokaichi and Gokoku district.
The economic boom in Uchiko came to an end in the first half of the 1900s as cheap substitutes for wax were discovered and the spread of electricity meant people didn’t need nearly as many candles. The last wax merchant in the town went out of business in 1924.
But this means that there was not much development in the traditional part of town after that and many of the buildings from the time have been preserved. Probably the best one to visit is the Kamihaga Residence. It gives you a sense of the wealth of the families here and also a look at the style of architecture and living conditions of the time.
Also in Uchiko, you’ll find a wonderful wooden theatre that was built with the wealth of the town in 1916. For the class of people who were living here at the time, entertainment and the social aspects surrounding it were very important, so the theatre was host to all sorts of traditional Japanese theatre like kabuki, bunraku and rakugo.
It was restored in the 1980s and is still used for performances about 60 times a year. During the day, though, you can go inside and have a look around to see the different elements that make up this local style of theatre. Of particular interest are some of the original ways of creating trapdoors and stage rotation.
From Uchiko, it’s just another 15 kilometres to the small city of Ozu. The castle here is one of the main tourist attractions – but I actually think there’s somewhere else that’s the highlight. It’s called Garyu-Sanso.
Garyu-Sanso is a villa built on the Hiji River near the edge of town. It was finished in 1907 and is made up of the main building, a tea house, and the gardens. Although the space isn’t huge, there is so much detail to discover in a design where every single decision was carefully made. Everything is in a certain place for a reason – whether it’s to create a frame for a view to the river, to represent the four seasons, or even to catch the reflection of the moonlight.
Iyonada Monogatari Train
To get out of Matsuyama and visit all these places, you can go independently by car, by public transport, or with a local guide. But to get back into the city, there’s probably no better way than on the Iyonada Monogatari Train.
This retro train has just two carriages and only runs on the weekends and national holidays. The interior is decked out for a luxury journey and you can get meals served onboard (for me, it’s afternoon tea). The track goes along the coastline and there’s plenty to see on the way.
But the most enjoyable aspect is the way the local community gets involved. At various spots along the way, residents will dress up and come to greet you. At one station, a couple have dressed up their cat and dog in costumes. Even local people going about their business will stop and wave at the train. At one point, we see a soccer game that has stopped playing so they can all cheer as we go past.
I can’t imagine something like this happening anywhere else – whole communities taking time to wave and cheer to make a journey for others more enjoyable. Then again, this is one of the reasons I love Japan so much. And in Ehime, it’s even more evident.
The reason why people dress up as the train passes by is the same reason that I was given mikan oranges by others. It’s kindness, pure and simple, and it leaves me with a huge smile on my face and a wonderful impression of this part of the country.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.