Located on rural Shikoku island, Matsuyama provides strong literary connections as the setting for one of Japan’s best-loved novels and the birthplace of one of Japan’s four haiku masters. The city is also home to several attractions off the main tourist track, including one of Japan’s last remaining castles, and a bathhouse that inspired an Oscar-winning anime film.
Matsuyama is the capital of Ehime prefecture in the north of Shikoku island and a relatively small city by Japanese standards. Easily reached from the Hiroshima or Okayama regions by bus, this underrated city is often missed by first-time visitors to Japan, making it an excellent spot for those seeking a more authentic Japanese experience.
At the heart of the city, Matsuyama Castle looks down upon the surrounding area from its elevated position on top of a steep hill, while the historical Dogo district offers visitors a glimpse into a past Japan with its traditional wooden buildings where tourists ride rickshaws dressed in kimonos.
Although English is not widely spoken in Shikoku, the locals have a welcoming approach and warm hospitality which you’ll struggle to find in cities like Tokyo.
Hop on a replica steam train
Start your day of sightseeing by heading over to the city’s Dogo Onsen area on the old-fashioned Botchan train. This replica steam engine takes its name from the famous Japanese novel Botchan by Natsume Soseki, in which the author claims the train’s carriages to be “as dinky as matchboxes”. The novel is required reading in Japanese schools and is set in Matsuyama during the late 1800s, telling the story of an arrogant schoolteacher from Tokyo attempting to settle into life in the countryside. The trains run directly from Matsuyama Station to Dogo Onsen and tickets cost ¥800 (£6.10) each.
Relax at a Studio Ghibli-inspired bathhouse
One of Matsuyama’s most popular attractions is Dogo Onsen, a traditional bathhouse founded in 1894. The main building is often claimed to be the inspiration behind the bathhouse in the animated Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, which is similar in appearance with its three-storey wooden structure. Inside the main building, a maze of passages leads to tatami mat relaxation rooms and two gender-separated public baths.
For visitors to Dogo Onsen, an entrance fee of ¥420 (£3.20) will buy you access to the stone bathing rooms for up to one hour, where you can soak up the gentle hot-spring water direct from the source in a friendly neighbourhood bathhouse atmosphere. For a small additional cost, you can purchase a face towel and soap to keep. It’s also worth mentioning that unlike the majority of hot-spring resorts and bathhouses in Japan, there are no restrictions from tourists with tattoos entering.
The Asuka annexe building also has packages available to purchase from around ¥1,200 (£9.20) per person which includes entry to a relaxation room after your bath where you are served green tea and sweets.
Indulge in some traditional cosplay
After a traditional Japanese spa experience, you’ll find several small shops around the Dogo Onsen area that offer yukata rentals for tourists. Yukata are a casual style of kimono usually made of cotton and are often worn by Japanese people during summer festivals. At the KiruKiru kimono store, staff are on hand to help visitors to choose the right kimono for their body shape and size and assist with dressing and accessorising to complete the look. Prices start from around ¥5,000 (£38.25) for overnight rental.
The traditional streets and buildings around Dogo Onsen act as the ideal backdrop for a DIY photoshoot while rickshaw drivers are also available to take visitors for a spin through the streets to complete the experience.
Try the local cuisine
Dogo’s main covered shopping street is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants specializing in Japanese cuisine making it a convenient place to stop for lunch. Alternatively, try stopping at Dogo Beer Hall, a restaurant and brewery featuring locally produced beer and sake. Other noteworthy lunch venues include the café at the nearby Glass Museum which offers Italian influenced dishes in a garden-side setting, and Dogo no Machiya, a traditional townhouse with a bakery and café serving up sandwiches and burgers.
Visit a famous Buddhist temple
After lunch, walk 15 minutes from Dogo Onsen to Ishiteji Temple. This Buddhist temple is number 51 on the ancient Shikoku 88 Temples Pilgrimage, a 1,200km (746mi)- loop of Shikoku island that takes around six to eight weeks to complete on foot.
The temple’s extensive grounds are home to shrines and buildings more than 700 years old, and interesting landmarks include a shrine to the god of birth whose stones are said to help couples with fertility, a 16m (53ft)-high statue of revered Buddhist monk Kukai, and a cave that leads to a hidden second temple. The complex’s central courtyard contains a three-storey pagoda and bell tower, where visitors are encouraged to ring the bell for peace.
Try your hand at Japanese haiku in the birthplace of a poetry master
Matsuyama is the birthplace of Masaoka Shiki, a Japanese poet and an important figure in the development of haiku, the short-form poems that typically consist of only three lines. The Shiki Museum is located between Ishiteji Temple and Dogo Onsen and is dedicated to the life of this legendary Japanese poet. Visitors can learn about Shiki’s life and works through the museum’s exhibits and there is also the chance to try writing your own haikus on traditional Japanese paper called tanzaku.
Pro tip: After visiting the museum, keep an eye out for one of the city’s 90 wooden haiku boxes where you can submit your composition for publication!
Explore Matsuyama Castle
Situated approximately 20 minutes’ walk from Matsuyama Station, Matsuyama Castle was built in 1603 and is considered to be one of the few remaining authentic Japanese castles. The majority of castles in Japan today are concrete enforced replicas of the original buildings as many of them were destroyed during the bombings of World War II. Matsuyama Castle is one of twelve remaining castles in Japan that retains its original structure although some of the castle was reconstructed in 1820 after lightning struck the building and a fire broke out.
The castle is situated on top of a steep hill and is accessible via a ropeway with two options available for visitors; a cable car that you ride with other people, or a chairlift option with far-reaching views of the city on the descent. Inside the castle, the five-storey keep contains exhibitions with English explanations detailing the castle’s history, and visitors are also able to try on samurai armour.
From the castle, head back into downtown Matsuyama for some dinner where you’ll find most of the city’s restaurants and bars are concentrated. A wide of range of international cuisine can be found here from Korean to Italian in addition to traditional Japanese fare. For a great-value retro atmosphere try Hanbey, a 1950s-themed izakaya adorned with advertising posters and memorabilia from Japan’s Showa period, or Kiyomaru, a restaurant specialising in juicy breaded tonkatsu pork steaks, whose menu often features more unusual items like breaded bananas.
Pro tip: most restaurants in Matsuyama don’t have English menus so depending on how adventurous you’re feeling, ask the staff for recommendations for the best dishes.
For post-dinner drinks, there are bargains to be found at many of the city’s ¥300 (£2.30) bars which can be identified by their large signs displayed out front. Flankey’s is a popular standing bar serving draft beer for ¥300 (£2.30), while Moon Glow Piano Bar is a live music cocktail bar with a vibrant atmosphere.