Famous throughout Japan for its balmy weather and rich farmlands, Ehime prefecture boasts some of the best-quality produce in the country. The residents of Matsuyama, the prefecture’s mellow castle town, know how to make the most of these riches. The result is a buzzing food scene packed with character.
With the sea on one side and the fertile green valleys of Shikoku on the other, Ehime prefecture has a reputation for yielding some of the finest produce in Japan. The prefecture’s capital, Matsuyama, is the perfect place to explore a vibrant regional food scene that includes everything from the famous tai-meshi – an entire sea bream slow baked with rice – to rare setoka oranges, with their delightful jelly-like texture and distinct fragrance.
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Matsuyama’s most iconic culinary item is the humble botchan dango – named after the hero of Natsume Soseki’s 1906 novel Botchan. These dumplings are coloured with green tea, egg yolk and red adzuki, before being arranged traffic-light-style on a stick. The best in Matsuyama are commonly thought to be those made at Shirasagido, a long-established confectionery in the Dogo Onsen arcade. You can opt to eat it on the spot (100 yen (£0.75) each), with which you also get a cup of tea – the perfect accompaniment to the delicate flavour of the dumpling.
In Japan, sea bream has long been associated with celebrations. The reason for this is that the word for bream – tai – is the same as the word for congratulations, medetai. To celebrate your arrival in Matsuyama, try a meal of tai-meshi. For this classic Ehime province dish, a whole sea bream is cooked with kelp on a bed of rice in an earthenware pot, infusing the rice with the rich flavour of the fish. There is a fierce rivalry between the purists in the northern Hojo district of the city who insist the dish use whole cooked fish and nothing else, and the restaurants in the southern district of the city who make the dish using slices of sea bream sashimi over rice. Goshiki, a famous restaurant on Sanbancho Street, is regarded as one of the best places in the city to try the northern style.
Hidden on the fourth floor of a building next to the Okaido arcade, Café Bleu is the work of Masato Ikegawa and his partner Atsuko who have created a very special atmosphere amidst the jumble of paintings, vintage knick knacks and shelves of art books. Light but meticulously prepared international food can be enjoyed here to a background of blues, jazz and folk music alongside regular live musical performances. A throwback to the bohemian coffee houses of the 1970s, the servers here are friendly and respectful. Food is served until midnight, and draft beer and generous cocktails are also available.
Yakitori in Ehime prefecture is completely different from the grilled chicken served elsewhere in Japan. Here, rather than being grilled on a skewer, chicken is pressed between two hot plates, lending the yakitori a deliciously satisfying crust. At Yakitori Torojiro, located in the Okaido arcade, service is quick, the staff speak excellent English, and the food is perfectly fresh and, of course, delicious.
For a welcome break from the touristy hustle and bustle around Dogo Onsen, grab a meal at Dōgo-no-machiya. This restaurant is housed in an elegant Edo-era merchant house, with a beautiful traditional façade opening onto the Dogo Arcade. Food is resolutely untraditional and revolves around burgers and sandwiches as well as some of Ehime Prefecture’s superior fresh orange juice. The beautifully preserved dark-wood rooms, Japanese garden and a tatami room are the perfect place to take a breather from the crowds.
Located amongst an elegant row of antique shops in the shadow of Matsuyama Castle, is Sohsoh. The menu at this refined but affordable eatery is predominantly vegetarian, committed to seasonality and always perfectly fresh. Highlights include beautifully light vegetable tempura, stuffed tofu, home-made kimchi as well as locally grown daikon, mushrooms and radishes. For any meat eaters in your party, the restaurant carries small plates of fish and seafood. An extra point of interest is that the food is all served on local ceramics and lacquer-ware.
To the uninitiated, Matsuyama’s signature cake, taruto, might easily be mistaken for a Swiss roll. As with Nagasaki’s castella, the origins of this sweet treat actually lie in Portugal. The story goes like this: in 1647, during the Edo period, Sadayuki Matsudaira, the lord of Matsuyama, was conducting an inspection of two Portuguese ships docked in Nagasaki Bay. Keen to stay on the right side of the powerful Japanese lord, a Portuguese sailor offered the fierce daimyo a bite of his tart. Matsudaira was transfixed and commanded the Portuguese officials to yield the recipe to him, and taruto has been in production ever since. The recipe has changed over the centuries, as the inclusion of sweet adzuki bean paste and yuzu juice has lended the cake a decidedly Japanese taste. To try the best in the city, take a bus bound for Kuma Kogen from JR Matsuyama station and get off at Amayama stop. Ichiroku Honpo is located directly in front of the stop.
A number of cities in Japan boast local variants of okonomiyaki, and Matsuyama’s version – known as mitsuhamayaki – is one of the best. This is the dish that feeds the hungry workers in the city’s busy docks. Made with soba noodles and heaps of chopped cabbage bound together with a thick batter and fried on a griddle before being doused in a sweet and spicy sauce, this hearty dish is particularly recommended for dealing with troublesome hangovers. Yaki Yaki Teppan Grill Himawari on Ichibancho is the place to eat it in town without having to trek all the way to the docks.
Located in a shipping container parked on the corner of Minami-Horibata Street and Hanazonomachi, Hi5 is impossible to miss. The tone at the eccentric crepe and burger joint is set by the owner, who is keen to chat to customers and to facilitate conversations between international visitors and his regulars. The relaxed atmosphere, sense of inclusivity and great location make this the perfect place to watch the world go by.
Ehime prefecture, for which Matsuyama is the capital, is known as the Citrus Kingdom. Around Matsuyama, more than 30 types of citrus are cultivated, and rare varieties such as beni-madonna and setoka are known for their strange, almost jelly-like texture. The long-standing joke here is that there are so many oranges that the taps run with orange juice. This is now a reality at Matsuyama Airport’s Orange Bar, where for 350 yen (£2.65) per glass, customers can serve themselves the juice of local varieties so rare they are unlikely to find them anywhere else on Earth. Orange-based gelato, ice cream and jelly are also available.
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