Another weekend, another adventure. This time Leandi joined Hannah, Ryan and I for a mini road trip west to the island’s largest city of Matsuyama. Ehime prefecture had until now been untouched territory for all of us. Any big city will always have a number of things to do, but this place especially looked to have some noteworthy stops.
We all got right out the door after work on Friday so that we could arrive by early evening. The drive was only 2 hours and quite a bit shorter than expected. We really hadn’t done much for planning the event; we just read about some of the offerings on the internet. On the way over there, we secured a hotel room. Once checked in we hit the ground running and went out to explore the nightlife. Rather than trains this was a city with a tram system, which I always think adds a nice touch to any cityscape. We started the night at an izakaya and then walked around to a couple different establishments. My companions were all yearning for something dance clubbish, hoping that the larger city would offer something a bit more vibrant than the offerings of Takamatsu. It didn’t. The party was a bit dismayed but I was more than happy with sitting down to talk over refreshments. Come on, why would anyone actually want to dance? Come 3am, we finally decided to get back to our rooms to prevent the next morning from being lost.
I found a new friend too.
When we awoke, we walked a mere 3 minutes from our hotel to the Dogo Hot Springs, which at 3,000 years are the oldest in all of Japan. The area surrounding the hot springs included a well developed shopping arcade. There were also a number of little tourist attractions scattered about which made this a really nice area. The many people walking around wearing their yukatas, which are like a Japanese version of a bathrobe, really added to the atmosphere. The hot springs were nice, and located in a really nice and historical building. We had to get our tickets, stow our shoes, and get cleaned up as per usual but found ourselves basking within moments. I personally don’t care for hot bodies of water in any form. Hot springs, hot tubs, or even a normal bath leave me feeling overly warm, sweating and uncomfortable. I think that hot springs are generally a waste of money unless I can enjoy them for their history or beauty. As Japan’s oldest, this certainly fit the mold. The building was really quite large and included some tea rooms, a small museum, and even special quarters for when the emperor of Japan came to bathe. Ryan and I were ready to get out after only 20 minutes but since the women were going to take a while we snuck some breakfast from a shop down the arcade. Once the girls were ready, we had to disguise our eating without them by getting a little something more as they ate. This brought us to a nice little cafe, where I was served the thickest toast I have ever seen.
Would you like a slab of toast?
Already becoming a late morning, we needed to get a move on. We piled into my car for easy access to a few of the locations and set off. The first stop was the nearby Isaniwa Shrine. We were enticed by its description as ”one of the three great examples of God of War architecture in Japan” though in reality we didn’t make the connection with its unapparent greatness. I did however decide that Shioto is more interesting to me than Buddhism on the basis of culture and tradition. Buddhism can be found all over Asia and Shinto only in Japan which makes its traditions and practices seem that much more representative of the culture of the people. Finally, the garb worn by the Shinto priests looks better. Despite this, we next went to the Buddhist temple of Ishiteji which blew Isaniwa away.
This temple is considered by many as the jewel of the 88 temple pilgrimage circuit. We walked around the sprawling grounds amid the familiar architecture and Buddhist statues, but there were several aspects of this temple that set it apart from others. First we went though a little museum with cultural relics. They were significant I’m sure, but they were also reminiscent of the million other Buddhist objects I’ve seen before so we blazed though this section. Right outside the exit though, there were a handful of well carved slaps depicting events from the life of the Buddha. From there, we continued through the complex and came to a cave. In all my illustrious (Japanese) temple excursion experience, this was a first. We proceeded inside the black hole to find there was almost no illumination save for some faint LEDs wherever the cultural properties lay. My camera flash revealed a number of paintings and statues throughout the space. We soon found another branch to the tunnel that continued on for another 200 meters or so. We carefully navigated the steep incline and finally emerged on the other side of a mountain. There we found some sort of large dome filled with odd wooden sculptures. Given absolutely no signage or logical explanation as for why this structure existed, it was an odd place to find ourselves. We worked our way back through the black hole to the main grounds again where Ryan and I raced up a grueling length of stone steps to be rewarded with a wonderful view. Of note, one of our visuals was a giant Buddhist statue on a mountain overlooking the city. If one were able to touch the head of the statue, they would then be absolved of making the temple pilgrimage.
One of several impressively carved stone slabs.
We got back to find the ladies chatting up some older man. He worked as a tour guide and translator and was happy to show us around a little bit. As we had already seen most things, he instead stuck to some of the more in depth bits we wouldn’t be likely to pick up as foreign tourists. The significance of the rare 3 pronged pine needles, the meaning behind some of the calligraphy, and also an area with bags of soil from each of the 88 temples were things we had missed. He was a nice guy, but we couldn’t decide if it was his kindness or creepy old man-ness that was the source of it. It would seem we would have our chance to find out as he invited us to join him for dinner at a some restaurant. We didn’t have any concrete reason to decline, so numbers were swapped and we headed off to finish out the day’s itinerary.
The next stop was the Dogo Brewery. We were all excited about this place because Japan has almost nothing for microbrews. There was a tour offered, but we turned up a little too late to enjoy it. Instead we had to settle for taste testing the different sakes and shochus that they make alongside the beer. It was nice to have the sake varieties back to back to make the most of flavor comparison, though for the shochu it only showed me three more flavors not worth drinking. We each bought our beer of choice (having an option beyond lager is really something special here) and took it down the road to enjoy. There was foot bathing area on the sidewalk where people could revitalize their feet in the hot spring water. We settled in, cracked open our drinks and enjoyed the bliss of the moment for about an hour.
This was a highlight of the trip. Spa cuz it was there, beer cuz we could.
When it was time to meet the guy, we got sorted and walked just a bit down the street. He said that he knew a great yakitori restaurant about a 10 minute walk from there. We had no idea where we were going, but 10 minutes stretched into an hour. We were all getting cold, hungry, and frustrated, especially at his persistent stopping at places along the way. He got flowers for the girls and miscellaneous gifts for everyone else, which simmered our mood a bit, but still frustrating. Finally when we arrived to this hole in the wall restaurant there was no room to seat us, and it looked to be a half hour wait. (Though the owner/chef/sole employee wouldn’t confirm that because it would be rude to suggest that a patron be wanted to hurry. Oh Japan…) Were that the case, there was no way we could have been convinced to delay quelling the angry cries of from our stomachs. We finally did get in though, and the food was fantastic. We had various parts of the chicken (leg, neck, heart, and kidney) on skewers and some assorted side dishes. Finally we settled up and left to an arcade while he went off to sleep. He was an odd duck, but turned out alright in end. Ryan absentmindedly turned over his phone number to him, so now when he comes to Takamatsu as he expects to in a few months, Ryan my have some additional bonding time. After milling about the shopping area and contemplating karaoke, we opted to return home and get a decent night’s rest.
Sunday morning was to be our last, so we just needed to tie up a few loose ends locally and then drive to the castle. After parking, we had a long walk up the mountain to where it was located. We opted against riding the cable car; hoofing it at least one way seemed like the right thing to do. At the top, the castle was one of the unexpected treats of the trip. This one was perhaps second only to Himeji Castle in grandeur. We had to pay a few dollars to get in, but its expansive design had multiple floors to be explored. There also were numerous historical objects like swords and armor throughout, and their English explanations were very worthwhile and informative. We learned a lot about how the wrath of Zeus burned what seemingly everything to the ground. We probably spent an hour walking, reading, and trying on armor before finally taking the cable car back down to where we parked. This brought us to the end of our time in Matsuyama, so we grabbed some sushi for lunch and hit the road.
This is only a portion of the castle.
All in all, it was a fantastic weekend with friends. It’s always great to drop into some new part of the country and see what there is to see. Countries with storied pasts are so packed with history that driving only a short distance reveals new cuisine, traditions and sights. I believe that I’m actually getting to a point where I have seen and done more in Japan than most of the Japanese. By the time I leave this place, I’ll feel that I’ve truly conquered it. On my big island of Shikoku, there are still several places left to explore, though it will take another few of these weekend road trips to make that happen.