As you may know, Japan is comprised of four main islands – Honshu, Kyushu, Hokkaido, and Shikoku. Only Shikoku is not connected to Shinkansen (the new trunk line high-rapid railway) network, it is kind of left out in most travel planning. However, the disconnection could be a good thing because the island preserves so many hidden treasures for those who love to explore the country without the waves of crowds. In fact, many locations in Shikoku are listed in the Japanese national “hidden treasures”: Iya Onsen, Shimantogawa, Shōdoshima, and Besshi Copper Mine, just to name a few. So, I was visiting Hiroshima and I put Matsuyama and the Dōgo Onsen (Hotspring) on my itinerary in the end. If you are looking for something new, I had a great time in these places and I am going to show you what it’s like during the cherry blossom in spring.
Something about… Matsuyama
Matsuyama is the capital of the Ehime prefecture and the largest city in Shikoku. Ehime prefecture has a population of 1.3 million, and it ranks 26 in terms of size out of the 47 prefectures in the country.
The city was founded in 1889 and it was developed as a typical Japanese castle town. Known for its hot springs (onsen) in the city, it’s one of the oldest in Japan; The Dōgo Onsen Honkan is a Meji period wooden public bathhouse dating back to the year 1894. Apart from the historic onsen, the Matsuyama Castle is also one of the twelve castles in Japan that are considered “original” (i.e. it is not rebuilt after being destroyed or damaged during the wars). More, eight of the eighty-eight temples in the Shikoku Pilgrimage are located in the city.
So you see, the city has retained so many historic flavors from different eras throughout the history of Japan, the historic elements are reflected by the Buddhist temples, old buildings, antique tramway, shops, and traditions – it is one of the best places to truly dive into the historic nostalgia of this fascinating country.
Two-day itinerary in the city of Matsuyama:
(Day 1) …>>> Okayama > JR Railway > Matsuyama: Botchan Ressha, Matsuyama Castle, Saka no Ue no Kumo Museum and Bansuiso > Check in to a hot spring resort in Dōgo Onsen
(Day2) Explore Dōgo Onsen and the area > Ishite-Ji > Ferry > Hiroshima >>>
and in fact, check out the other perfect place to experience the cherry blossom for a day trip from Hiroshima to Iwakuni and Miyajima!
In a nutshell, I took off from Okayama and spent 2 days in Matsuyama. On day 1 we went to the city center – Matsuyama Castle Town (for the cherry blossom) and the main shopping streets; for Day 2, I visited the Dōgo-onsen shopping street, Ishite Temple, and Dōgo park for more cherry blossom excitement. So here we go! Day 1 in Matsuyama.
Going to Matsuyama
Matsuyama is located at the corner of Northeast Shikoku and charmingly surrounded by the Seto Inland Sea. In fact, it’s a little far from the other two main cities in the country (both three hours away from Takamatsu or Okayama). But well, I thought my plan was perfect to hit one bird with two stones – Okayama > 3 hours train to Matsuyama > 2.5 hours ferry to Hiroshima, and then I met the most amazing cherry blossom I have ever seen. No complaints.
Both rapid bus and JR trains are available @ the Okayama station. The costs were roughly the same, the time required was roughly the same, the level of comfortableness was also the same – basically, it’s up to your personal choice. If I really have to point out each method’s problem, I didn’t have to change vehicles taking buses or enjoy higher flexibility with my traveling schedule taking the train: Express bus Okayama – Matsuyama.
The “Botchan Ressha”
The replica steam locomotive ride – 坊っちゃん列車 – was based on a novel written by a great Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石) of the Meiji period, setting in the city of Matsuyama.
The train ride is a perfect nostalgia for many Japanese locomotive fans because it was an authentic experience: from the old-fashioned tickets, the chimes, to the old uniforms that the crew wearing when there on duty on the train, explaining the history and character of the car and the city.
The train is quite small and it only runs about 6 times a day – check out the timetable on the website to learn more about their schedule and route. (The train runs from Togo onsen to Matsuyama station): Botchan Ressha website.
In fact, the city of Matsuyama is not big, and the train itself was interesting enough for me to let the vehicle just move around the city, me sitting by the window, and enjoying the city’s street view (P~E~R~F~E~C~T)
Matsuyama Castle Town
It’s definitely a super highlight of the city.
Do you know that there were thousands of castles in Japan since the Sengoku Period; Unfortunately, the majority of them were destroyed due to fire, disasters, or war over the years. Today, about a hundred castles were rebuilt and restored, and the Matsuyama Castle is one of the twelve “original” castles left standing (the most famous castle on the list is the Himeji Castle.)
Once we settled in the hot spring hotel we took the steam locomotive and headed straight to the Matsuyama Castle. The cherry, yes, yes, yes, was in full bloom and everyone was excited. The whole experience was fun – the mascot character, the historic sites, the chairlift and ropeway, and the cherry blossom were just perfect for different types of visitors.
A package ticket of the castle includes entrance to the castle, transportation up and down the castle, plus the famous udon lunch. There are three ways going up the Castle: 1. Chairlift, 2. Ropeway, and 3. On foot. For my chairlift experience uphill, I had a little peace and quiet to myself in my own car and it was fun. Note that it is also more popular and the queue is longer than the ropeway.
The Matsuyama Castle Udon is definitely one of the highlights and not to miss in the ticket’s package.
Open Hours: 9:00 am – 4:30 pm
Ticketing: 510 yen (suggest taking the ropeway)
How did I get there: In the city center with very clear signs at Okaido station by tram
About the mascot of Matsuyamajo: http://www.matsuyamajo.jp/event/yoshiakikun/#calendar
Saka no Ue no Kumo Museum
Matsuyama has a very rich literary heritage, and Ryōtarō Shiba is one of the most well-known novelists in the city. The Saka no Ue no Kumo (Clouds over the slope) is an important Japanese historical novel set in the Meiji period. The triangular museum with concrete exterior itself was designed by the famous Japanese Architect, AndoTadao (安藤忠雄), and inside the premise, it has shown plots of the novel and pictures of Matsuyama from the Edo period.
Bansuiso (Bansui Mansion) was up the slope on the same road of the Saka no Ue no Kumo Museum and the final stop of the city tour bus. It was an elegant French-style mansion building constructed in 1922 and now it was a multi-functional venue for private parties and functions. It has also areas opened to the public for visitors to appreciate the architecture and small exhibits.
After spending a day in the Matsuyama Castle and the city center, we reached the better part of our stay in the city – The Dōgo Onsen.
Why Dōgo Onsen?
Why is Dōgo Onsen special? It is, to me, for these “tri-factors” –