matsuyama

From Takamatsu, I headed to Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku (population about 500,000). I really liked Matsuyama from the moment I stepped off the train station - it’s a beautiful town with trams (somehow I always like a city more if it has trams), interesting historical sights and an atmosphere that is relaxing but not too sleepy.

Matsuyama is famous for a few things - being the setting of Natsume Souseki’s Bocchan, considered one of the most notable Japanese novels of the last century; having a hilltop castle with nice views over the city; and Dougo Onsen, (apparently) the oldest public bathhouse in the country. I’m not sure how famous they are, but the local citrus fruits are also incredible (the same goes for most of Western Japan). There are so many varieties!

Dougo is kind of a small resort town-within-a-town, with covered shopping streets and various hot springs facilities scattered near the station. It’s just a 20-minute tram journey from the city centre. I was lucky enough to find a very affordable (but still nice) hostel just up the street from the main building of Dougo Onsen, so that’s where I headed after first getting into Matsuyama.

After leaving my stuff at the hostel, I decided to go back to the city centre for a few hours. It was still early in the afternoon, and I wanted to do some more walking and exploring before soaking in the onsen.

I ended up climbing up the hill to Matsuyama castle. There is also a cablecar system, but the climb isn’t really very long or steep at all, so it was nice as light exercise.

It was very quiet, and the views got progressively more impressive as I walked up. Eventually, I could see out to the inland sea and the mountains surrounding the city. I always end up getting on some kind of a hill or a mountain or a skyscraper viewing platform when I’m visiting somewhere new. Wandering around on the street level is good for learning about the atmosphere of a city, but looking over and past it from a high place really helps relate it to the geographical context. And in Japan, that context is usually quite striking.

Although I don’t really consider myself a castle person, I ended up visiting four and a half castles on this trip (Himeji, Kanazawa, Matsuyama, and the ruins of Edo castle in that park by the Imperial Palace in Tokyo I somehow never knew about before.. I’m not even counting the ‘ruins’ of Naoshima castle, because there was really nothing but a signpost there). Matsuyama was actually my favourite to visit, simply because it was so quiet and the views were great. There were a handful of other visitors, but no queuing to get up and down the steep wooden steps or rushes of visitors blocking traffic by meandering in front of windows.

After walking down to street level, I took a tram back to Dougo, nipped to the hostel to get my towel and a change of clothes, and headed for the hot springs.

dougo-onsen-main-building-phoenix

The main building is currently under renovations that are supposed to go on for a number of years, so the fancier 2nd floor is not accessible, but the cheap public bath on the first floor is open. Since I’m travelling alone, I didn’t really mind, as doing the whole room-hire thing would probably be a lot more enjoyable with someone. Instead, I decided to try all three of the hot spring facilities included in the Dougo Onsen: the main building, Tsubaki-no-yu, and Asuka-no-yu. It was a fun 3 hours or so, during which I naturally took no pictures.

The three facilities are a short walk from each other, and they all have separate entry fees (which are very affordable considering it’s such a famous landmark). Entry to the first-floor public bath in the main building is only 410 yen. It was really just a regular bath with an about 50/50 mix of local aunties and tourists. I guess that’s the charm of it - despite its long history, it is a public bath and the point of it is to be accessible.

The two other baths had a different vibe, and it was fun to compare them. At 400 yen, Tsubaki-no-yu was even cheaper than the main building. It also wasn’t any fancier - just one large hot bath with stone carvings of cranes decorating the walls. It was a lot more quiet, though, with just a couple of other visitors when I was there.

I saved Asuka-no-yu for last, as it was supposed to be the fanciest, and was definitely a nice way to finish up my mini onsen tour. It’s the newest of the facilities, opened in 2017, and also has some private rooms to hire on the upper floors. The public bath on the first floor, however, was also really nice and significantly more luxurious than the other two (although the entry fee was just slightly more expensive at 600 yen). In addition to the indoor bath, above which was a large painting that was illuminated with an animation every half-hour, there was even a small outdoor bath with a garden. I was also the only person there for most of the time, so I was able to spend about 20 minutes in the outdoor bath with absolutely no-one else in sight, looking up at the stars. It felt pretty great.

For less than 1500 yen, I got more than enough onsen relaxation - it’s physically pretty tough to soak in hot water for so long! It was just what I needed, though. I didn’t really let my feet get off easy during this trip.

The next morning, I decided to go visit Ishiteji temple, which is one Shikoku’s 88 pilgrimage temples not far away from Dougo Onsen. I’d heard there is an interesting back route through a bamboo forest, and I was eager to see it for myself. The route started at the parking lot behind Isaniwa shrine, which was a pretty nice temple in itself. It also had a cute (and useful) guidance image to the appropriate way of purifying yourself.

To be honest, the walk to Ishiteji temple ended up being pretty creepy. At first, I could follow a path through the thicket, which was lined by stocky bamboo shoots and strange stones. The ground was littered with random objects, such as wooden bowls and shoes. The path led me to a large wooden structure, which towered over a stone lantern and a sole statue.

After I passed the large wooden structure, the path disappeared, and it became difficult to know which direction to go. Finding where to go from this dilapidated shed was particularly confusing. I tried to go to multiple different directions, only to be blocked by thick woods or thorny vines. At one point, I started feeling genuinely scared at the thought of being lost, which was the first time I’ve experienced that in Japan. The stone statues, household objects and abandoned vehicles in the forest also contributed to an unnerving feeling I couldn’t really shake.

Eventually, I managed to find a way out of the woods, finding myself in a cemetery. From there, it was a short walk to the Ishiteji temple grounds, which were extensive and odd. First, I encountered a giant copper dome and a group of statues similar to the one I’d seen in the woods (it seems someone at the temple has the hobby of ‘decorating’ the woods).

On the other side of the road was an entrance to a cave, which turned out to be a shortcut to the main building of Ishiteji temple. The narrow cave was filled with jizo statues and wasn’t a particularly calming place to walk through. At least it was relatively well-lit.

I felt relieved to finally reach the main temple area - the forest walk combined with the ominous cave had been enough excitement for my morning. I couldn’t really call Ishiteji a ‘normal’ temple - even in the main temple grounds, there was a somewhat strange atmosphere, although it could just be my bias after emerging from the cave.

After wandering around the temple grounds for a bit, I headed back towards Dougo on the main road. In a nearby parking lot, there was a self-service stall selling local citrus fruit at very cheap prices (I got a bag of kumquats for 100 yen and they were the best I’ve tasted). Although it’s so close, the same fruit would be multiple times more expensive on the Dougo shopping street.

I went to grab my backpack from the hostel and walked back to Dougo train station. On the way, I had time for a coffee in a really nice café called Dogo no Machiya. It was in an old, long & narrow building, with a small garden in the middle. I sat there reading and enjoying the tranquility for a while, before taking the tram back to Matsuyama station to head to Hiroshima.

(There is also a direct ferry that goes from Matsuyama to Hiroshima in less time, but that is not included in the JR Pass, so I decided to take the train, although it may be a more time-consuming and less romantic option. However, the difference in journey duration isn’t really that dramatic, especially considering that the ferry ports are also quite far away from the city centres. Anyway, for anyone who wants to get from Matsuyama to Hiroshima and doesn’t have the JR Pass, the ferry is probably the better option).