We drove towards Matsuyama after picking up a rental car at Osaka Airport. The lady at the rental office warned us it was now Golden Week and that traffic would be very bad, accommodation sparse and tourist attractions and restaurants super-crowded. She was right. And I’d never even heard of Golden Week.
Golden Week is a series of four national holidays within seven days, and if timed correctly, it can include two weekends, which stretches it out to 10 days. In 2019, this was the case. We were going to be travelling without having booked accommodation during one of the busiest holiday times in Japan.
Paul was taking over all the booking during this period because it was his idea to go to Shikoku Island, but being an old-school traveller, he thought we could just show up at whatever place was available. Nope – those days are well and truly over. Combine that with Golden Week and we were in for a bit of surprise: instead of a planned circuitous route, our road trip around Shikoku Island turned out to be a crisscross, back and forth affair including having to go back to Honshu (Japan’s main island) because we couldn’t find accommodation on Shikoku. I kept telling myself it was the journey along the way … and it was.
Matsuyama is the largest city on Shikoku and is 345km or about 4 hours drive from Osaka. We didn’t leave Osaka till after noon, so arrived in Matsuyama in the early evening. We stayed at this AirBNB, which is a traditional wooden Japanese house. The owner was a widow who was in Tokyo for a long visit with her daughter. Her late husband was a philosophy professor and it was quite interesting to see some English language philosophy books on his shelves. That evening, we went out to get some food and cooked it in the kitchen and just chilled the rest of the night.
A traditional Japanese bedroom has tatami mats as flooring, sliding doors – some opaque, some transluscent – and a tokonoma (a recessed alcove usually decorated with a scroll and flowers). Futons are kept in the closet until bedtime; each person gets their own futon to sleep on as well as a quilt and pillow. We all slept in the same room and it was quite comfortable.
We were told there was a shrine just 50m away from where we were staying. So in the morning we went across the street and climbed up the stairs to Matsuyama Shrine.
The current shrine was built in 1865 and is in very good condition despite its age. The symbol carved on the shrine doors (see photo below) is the mon or emblem of the Tokugawa shogunate, depicting three hollyhock leaves inside a circle. Members of the powerful Tokugawa clan ruled Japan as shoguns from 1603 to 1867.
We were fortunate to have a monk in attendance at the shrine during our visit. He communicated with us using an electronic translation device; he would speak Japanese into it and we would hear the English translation. In turn, I used the Google Translate app on my phone. There were other visitors there, too: a man who’d returned to visit his childhood home. After we told the monk that we were travelling around the world for a year, he offered us omamori to protect us on our journey. We each received one.
A walk through Matsuyama
After visiting the shrine, we walked down to the town. One of the first shops we hit made these adorable wooden figures.
Matsuyama is the location of one of the oldest hot springs in Japan: Dogo Onsen, which hosts many visitors including the Japanese imperial family. The public wooden bathhouse dates from 1894 but was, unfortunately, closed for repair. The newer part of the onsen was open, but it was full and there was a waiting list. This was, after all, Golden Week.
Although we weren’t able to experience the onsens in Matsuyama, there was a public hot spring fountain near the big clock where we could soak our feet. So we took off our shoes and socks and waded in.
At the top of Mount Katsuyama above the town sits Matsuyama Castle, built between 1602 and 1628. Japan Visitor website says: “The castle is one of Japan’s twelve originally surviving castles, though the castle burnt down twice, once in 1642 and again in 1784 after being struck by lightning. The present structures date from 1854.”
“Matsuyama Castle provides an excellent example of a feudal castle. The main circle of defense (honmaru) is located on the top of the hill, accessible through multiple, well-defended gates. The main keep is one of only a few in the country that boast multiple wings. The complex also includes a secondary keep and multiple turrets … ” Japan Guide
Inside, there were fantastic displays of samurai armour made of leather and metal and decorated with fabric and feathers. Those helmets would’ve been so heavy though …
A shachihoko has the head of a tiger and body of a carp. They adorn many castle rooftops because it’s believed these mythical animals can make rain fall, thus protecting the building from fire.
A visit to an udon shop
After our morning exploring Matsuyama Castle, we were really hungry. After passing many restaurants with long queues, Paul spotted this small udon restaurant, another husband and wife operation like the curry restaurant in Osaka. We didn’t have to wait too long, maybe 15 minutes. I’m team ramen, but enjoyed my udon soup with tempura. The broth was yummy. Paul and Elina prefer udon, so they slurped very loudly when they ate (in Japan, slurping is considering a compliment).
We really enjoyed visiting Matsuyama and wished we had one more day to explore the area and visit the onsen. The hilly surrounds are quite beautiful, the atmosphere chilled and the locals very friendly; one old gentleman walked us all the way into town when we couldn’t find the right way.