Matsuyama: A Literary Adventure
Matsuyama — and its historic bathhouse, Dogo Onsen — are immortalized in Natsume Soseki’s famous novel, Botchan. The city celebrates its literary past with enthusiasm. The author’s influence can be seen in the most unlikely places.
Enjoy some Botchan dango, a snack sold everywhere in Matsuyama. This dessert is made up of 3 small balls of mochi with sweet bean paste. It’s usually tri-colored and comes on a stick, which makes it convenient to eat on the go.Ride the Botchan Ressha, a replica of the trains described by Soseki in his book. You can even buy okonomiyaki named after the characters in the novel. Sketches of the characters also decorate the main tourist sites.
As if that wasn’t enough, the city boasts of another famous author, the haiku poet Shiki Masaoka. Matsuyama Castle has a red post box for visitors to leave their thoughts… in haiku form.
After enjoying Matsuyama, hop on a short train ride to Ozu. The small town keeps their tradition alive. You can watch fisherman use birds to catch fish on the beautiful Hijikawa river.
Let’s begin our trip to the area with a historical bathhouse in Matsuyama.
- Matsuyama: A Literary Adventure
Dogo Onsen: Bathe in History
Dogo Onsen is one of Japan’s oldest hot springs. The onsen’s history dates back over a thousand years.
Approaching the bathhouse, you feel like you’re stepping back in time—or into a movie. The bathhouse served as inspiration for the Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away.
Once you step inside, the twisting passages and unexpected staircases enchant you. They’ve delighted generations of guests… including novelist Natsume Soseki, who featured the Onsen in his novel Botchan.
Dogo Onsen’s water has a high mineral content. It’s said to be especially good for rheumatism.
According to legend, the local people found a heron soaking injuries in the hot spring water. When the bird recovered, the people knew they found a good thing.
News of Dogo’s healing properties spread, attracting royal attention. In 1894 the current bathhouse was built. Baths were added for the private use of the Imperial family in 1899.
There are two baths at Dogo, both gender segregated.
Kami-no-yu (water of the gods), is the larger, more crowded bath. During the day, from 11:00am onwards, the atmosphere gets festive. Tourists arrive in waves to experience Dogo’s famous waters.
If you stay in the Dogo area, beat the crowds by visiting the bath in the early morning. The Kami-no-yu bathhouse opens at 6:00am. You can also beat the crowds by going late at night — closing time is 11:00pm, with last entry to the bath at 10:30pm
The bathhouse is as much of an attraction as the baths themselves.
- Bath only: 410 yen
- Upgrading your ticket allows you extra time to soak up the atmosphere after your bath. Enjoy tea and a snack served in the second-floor tatami room while wearing your rental yukata. Recharge in style.
Admission: 840 yen
- The next level gives you access to the Tami-no-Yu (water of the spirits).It’s a significantly less crowded bath, and you get a tour of the Imperial Area.
Admission: 1250 yen
- The final level allows you to relax after your bath with tea and Botchan dango — in a private room on the top floor of the bathhouse.Admission: 1550 yen
Even if you only buy a bath ticket, you can still explore the bathhouse.
Take a peek at the third-story room Natsume Soseki liked. It’s now a mini-museum. All the information is in Japanese, but the view from the third floor is spectacular.
Buying one of the upgraded tickets gives you access to an aspect of Dogo the casual visitor misses. Splurging on a little extra is well worth it.
If you want to experience Dogo’s onsen water without the crowds, join the locals at Tsubaki-no-yu. Its stark, minimalist design is as striking as Dogo’s historic charm.
Tsubaki-no-yu is popular with elderly bathers. There are poles for agility exercises. You can combine your bath and your fitness regime.
If you don’t have time for a full bath, there are foot baths around the Dogo area. The easiest to find sits beneath the Botchan Karakuri Clock at the entrance to the Dogo shopping arcade.
When the clock strikes the hour, the characters from Botchan come to life mechanically. The clock displays scenes from the novel — including the bath.
Matsuyama Castle: Among Japan’s Best
Like Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama Castle is an incredibly preserved historic site.
The castle dominates the center of Matusyama, overlooking the city from the top of Mt. Katsuyama. There is a forest and a moat surrounding the castle. It’s a pleasant oasis of greenery in the middle of busy Matsuyama.
The hike to the castle is not difficult, but save your energy for the castle itself, especially in summer. The ropeway offers a quick ride to the top. Take the tram to Okaido, and walk up the beautifully preserved cobblestone street.
- Castle Admission: 510 yen
- Castle Admission & Ropeway: 1020 yen
As you climb towards the main keep, it seems like every gate you pass is a national treasure of some sort.
Matsuyama Castle is one of Japan’s 12 original Edo-era castles. The castle survived both feudal and modern wars. The battlements are especially impressive. You can easily visualize the role the castle played in defending the city.
Inside the Castle
Within the castle, history jumps to life. The castle has an extensive collection of feudal objects, complete with English explanations. As you walk through the castle, the story of its lords enchants you. I enjoyed seeing the crests of the three families throughout the castle. The displays chart their rise and fall.
With so much to take in and so many steps to climb, you’ll be glad you skipped the hike to the top of the castle. The collection of artifacts rivals any museum. My favorite was the armor you can try on and take a photo in.
If you go all the way to the top of the keep, you get an incredible view. You see not only Matsuyama city, but also the Seto Inland Sea and the outlying islands.
Outside the Castle
There’s so much of Matsuyama Castle to explore you’ll be ready for a break by the end of your visit.
In spring, join the crowds sitting under the cherry blossoms in the castle’s courtyard. If you’re thirsty, check out the small selection of teahouses near the ropeway.
Once you’re refreshed, walk down the mountain, and make sure you stop at Ninomaru Park.
It was once the castle’s second circle of defense. The daily business of Matsuyama Castle took place here; none of the lord’s residences or offices survive today. The foundations are still visible. The layout was preserved and converted into a garden.
Bansuisou Villa sits below the castle, hidden among the trees. It’s hard to find this fairy-tale house unless you know it’s there.
The Villa was built in 1922 in a French architectural style. It’s better suited to the Loire Valley in France than downtown Matsuyama.
Once a center for Matsuyama’s elite, it’s now an annex of the Ehime Prefectural Museum of Art. The museum itself is a short walk away within the castle moat.
The Museum of Art has a rotating exhibit which covers everything from modern art to anime to old masters.
Entry to Bansuisou (1st floor) is free, but if you want to go upstairs it costs 300 yen. The second floor has most of the art. Check the website before you go; Bansuisou often hosts concerts or weddings
Admission to the Museum of Art
Admission price for special exhibitions – varies
For More Information
To See What’s on Display: Ehime Museum of Art Website
Ozu: Fishing with Cormorants (Birds)
One of the most unique sights you’ll see in Ehime is the summer tradition of ukai.
Ukai is the practice of using cormorants to catch fish. Cormorants are a type of large bird.
There are only a few places in Japan where ukai can still be seen. Ozu is one of them.
The historic castle-town sits in the Hiji-kawa River basin.
The town is very picturesque. Walk around the areas as you wait for it to get dark. Take in the Edo-period buildings the samurai and merchant classes built.
Get a Ticket Ahead of Time
To view the cormorant fishing, you must buy a ticket in advance.
I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss out. I reserved my tickets by calling the Ozu Tourism Association in advance.
Tickets can be purchased over the phone or in person at the Tourism Office. You can reserve them online as well. Unfortunately, the site is in Japanese only.
For More Information
Ozu Ukai (Cormorant Fishing) Information (Japanese Only)
There are nighttime cruises from June to September. You can take a midday cruise on Sundays and during the Obon period in August.
You can bring your own food. If you don’t want to, enjoy a bento prepared by the Tourism Association or dine in style with a fancy premium course.
If you choose the bento option, the meal comes with a bottle of green tea. If you want alcohol, you must buy your drinks ahead of time. You don’t need to feel self-conscious. Your fellow Japanese tourists will come prepared to drink!
No matter which course you’ve chosen, you walk together with everyone else to the river and get on your boat. Experienced punters steer the boats along the river, and you take in the local sights. They include a beautiful old teahouse.
The Cruise Itself
Ozu Castle lights up at night. The castle provides a beautiful backdrop for your cruise.
Bento’s get taken out and eaten. If you don’t have a drink, chances are some friendly Japanese tourist will invite you to share one.
After you eat, the fishing boats appear.
At the front of the boats sits a large metal basket with glowing embers. The fire provides light and attracts the small, sweet fish known as ayu to the surface.
The cormorants sit on the surface of the water. They glide along until they catch a glimpse of a telltale ripple. They dive. They surface and flutter onto the deck of the boat.
A collar prevents them from swallowing the fish. The fisherman removes the fish, replacing it with food the cormorant can swallow. The bird dives back into the river, and the hunt begins again.
The fire, the fisherman’s traditional garb, and the gentle lapping of the water against the boat all combine to make you feel like you’ve slipped back in time… if you can overlook the whir of camera lenses all around you.
If you’re still hungry when the boat returns to the launching platform, try ayu on a stick. It’s grilled over a charcoal fire.
I’ll be honest… having seen the cormorants cough up the ayu fish, I was in no way tempted to try one.
Getting to Ozu
Ozu is accessible via the JR train line from Matsuyama Station. Get off at Iyo-Ozu Station.
Have You Been to the Area? Drop us a Haiku!
Are you planning to visit Matsuyama? Have you been there already? Why not follow the example of the old poets and record your travels with a haiku?
Post your poetry in the comments below, or invite a friend to join you by sharing this article.