Castles And Onsens: The Top 10 Things To Do in Matsuyama
Cherry blossom and the Matsuyama Castle, Shikoku, Japan | © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
Matsuyama is the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands just south of the Honshu mainland. But with its historic hilltop castle, serene hot spring resorts and a population that’s still smaller than 30-odd other Japanese cities, this tranquil town is on another planet to the tumult of Tokyo.
While Matsuyama isn’t trampled by international tourists, Japanese visitors have been coming here for centuries, be they pilgrims traipsing between temples or relaxation-seekers unwinding in onsens. But even the Dogo Onsen Honkan is overshadowed by Matsuyama’s incredible castle – arguably the best preserved anywhere in the country. So lace up the walking boots to climb up to the tower or strap on wooden geta sandals to clip-clop around the city – these are the 10 best things to see and do in Matsuyama, Japan.
Matsuyama-jō boasts one of only 12 castle towers in Japan surviving from the Edo period in the early 1600s. The keep looms above the middle of Matsuyama, gazing over the cityscape and the Seto Inland Sea beyond. Matsuyama Castle was built in the early 1600s before lightning claimed the original tower, forcing a three-storey rebuild in the 19th century. The centrepiece is protected by an intricate system of gates, moats and turrets, making it impossible to invade in feudal times, but captivating to explore these days. Visitors can catch a ropeway to the top or follow one of many walking paths to the top, where a small museum displays armour and other artefacts, and where 200 cherry trees blossom each spring.
At the foot of Mount Katsuyama and in the shadow of the spectacular fortress, Ninomaru served as the castle’s palace, where all the feudal fat cats had their offices and living quarters. Unlike the tower at the top, those buildings haven’t survived, but the Ninomaru Garden preserves its floor plan through stone walls splitting up elevated platforms, subterranean water features, toy-town teahouses and garden beds that bloom with different flowers throughout the seasons.
One of Japan’s most ancient hot spring resorts sits on the northeastern outskirts of Matsuyama. Dogo Onsen has lured wellness warriors for a millennium, ever since the legend of its mineral-rich waters healing an injured egret spread its wings across Shikoku. Dogo Onsen Honkan is the most famous bathhouse – more on that specifically below – but the wood-panelled tatami rooms of Asuka no Yu (opened 2017) and the affordable Tsubaki no Yu (1950s) aren’t without their charm. The timber railway station and the Botchan steam train on display at the front add to the chilled-out old-world vibes, as do the streets populated by ryokan guests donning yukata kimonos. Cherry blossom hot spot Dogo Park, the traditional Hachiman-style Isaniwa Shrine, and the 250-metre arcade between the station and the Honkan are other highlights.
Dogo Onsen Honkan
Dating back to 1894, Dogo Onsen Honkan is this city’s only architectural marvel that can rival Matsuyama’s mesmerising mountaintop castle. This bathhouse begins with a striking wooden exterior and the insides are no less impressive: a labyrinth of creaking corridors and stairways connects classic stone baths and cosy private rooms. Separated by gender, Kami no Yu (Bath of the Gods) sits on the first floor, while the small but stylish Tama no Yu (Bath of the Spirits) occupies the second. Then there’s the Yushinden – a special private area built for the imperial family in 1899 and reserved for the Emperor’s use, but since none have popped in since 1952, visitors can see it on a tour. And film buffs, take note: Dogo Onsen Honkan was apparently the inspiration behind Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
Botchan Karakuri Clock
Every country has that one book that appears on every school curriculum. In Japan, that book is Botchan. Written by Natsume Sōseki in 1906, this loosely autobiographical novel about a teacher sent from Tokyo to Matsuyama includes plenty of trips to Dogo Onsen, providing a literary time capsule of the town during the Meiji era. And to mark the 100th anniversary of Dogo Onsen Honkan, the city unveiled this clock outside the bathhouse, where figurines from the famous tome perform a mechanical jig on the hour for crowds of excited local onlookers.
Shiki Memorial Museum
Matsuyama’s literary footprint spans a lot further than Sōseki’s Botchan, and fans of the haiku should visit this museum to pay tribute to the godfather of the modern haiku, who was born here in 1867. Masaoka Shiki revived the popularity of Japan’s famed poetry style around the turn of the century, blazing a trail for a new wave of poets to dispense their pearls of wisdom using just five, seven and five syllables. A museum in his name sits on the northern edge of Dogo Park – English audio guides explain his contribution to Japan’s written word.
East of Dogo Onsen lies Matsuyama’s most famous temple, one of the 88 temples on the 1,200-kilometre Shikoku-88 pilgrimage around the island. The name Ishiteji means stone hand temple in English, which stems from the story of an aristocrat who died clutching a stone, only to be reborn as a baby holding the same thing. A three-storey pagoda dominates the temple grounds, guarded by the Niomon Gate, a designated national treasure. A row of sheltered stalls lead to Ishiteji’s maze of statues, pagodas and temples, while a 200-metre-long cave pops out at an inner temple that resembles a giant golden egg.
Dessert Shop, Japanese
Matsuyama’s Ehime Prefecture is nicknamed ‘the Citrus Kingdom’ thanks to the delicious citrus fruits that grow on Shikoku’s inland orchards. Mikan (perfectly round mandarins) are the local specialty, one of 30 varieties of citrus grown on the island. These orange fruits pop up in ice cream, juice and even sushi at the countless eateries around Matsuyama. Seafood from the Seto Inland Sea and sake made at Shikoku’s five breweries are other culinary signatures, as are sweet treats Taruto – Japan’s answer to the Swiss roll – and Botchan dango – three mochi rice balls coloured with matcha, egg and adzuki beans.
Dogo Onsen’s wooden railway station isn’t the city’s only train-based time capsule. The Iyonada Monogatari sightseeing train runs two round trips a day between Matsuyama and Iyo-Ozu and Yawatahama; its two retro red carriages shuffling along 60 kilometres of pristine Shikoku coast. The interior feels like a scene out of the Orient Express, with costumed staff serving elegant dishes and vintage chairs positioned to stare directly out of the window at the seaside scenery outside. Commuters should keep their eyes peeled for the costumed residents that greet the train at certain points, particularly in front of Ozu Castle.
Matsuyama day trips
Ozu City is worth more than just a drive-by glimpse on the train. Ozu’s hilltop fortress is as lofty as Matsuyama’s, and a little further south, Uwajima’s is equally as historic – another of Japan’s 12 original castles. Uchiko’s old town southwest of Matsuyama is another slice of unspoiled rural Japan, and the Kagawa Prefecture on the east side of Shikoku is nicknamed ‘Udon-Ken’ (Udon Prefecture) for its array of noodles. Across the Seto Inland Sea, Hiroshima is just a ferry trip away, passing the island of Miyajima and its floating torii gates en route. And within Setouchi, Kutsuna Islands and Gogoshima Islands show off beautiful beaches that make the most of the mild weather in this part of the world.
These recommendations were updated on May 14, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.