My paradise: A holiday in Shikoku, Japan
There are many fine places in Japan to spend a long holiday weekend, but the one I think doesn’t get enough consideration is Shikoku. Maybe it’s because MWR doesn’t plan tours there, but for those willing to drive the extra miles, it’s a fantastic place with lots to do and see.
On our four-day Shikoku trip, my fiancée and I saw two of Japan’s dozen original castles, relaxed in an onsen that’s supposedly been used since the days of King David, crossed over a ravine on a vine bridge, saw one of the first bullet trains and visited one of the most disappointing tourist spots in Japan to see if it lived up to the hype. And of course we ate mikans. Always more mikans.
Matsuyama has a lot to offer for visitors looking for uniquely Japanese, and even unique among Japanese, experiences. During our short trip we took in an inspirational onsen, an original castle and one of the 88 pilgrimage temples on Shikoku.
Dogo Onsen was my fiancée’s idea I’d never heard of it but she’s a Kyushu girl and loves onsens something fierce. She let me have my castles (and suicide torpedo museums, kamikaze museums, castle ruins that doubled as massacre sites... I’m amazed she puts up with me), so this was her itinerary addition and I’m glad she added it.
Dogo Onsen is a fantastic throwback of a bathhouse, the last stubborn holdover from a much earlier age surrounded by the modern world and still holding its own. According to the onsen, it’s Japan’s oldest and has been used for millennia. The current building was erected in 1894, but then people kept adding rooms and towers and other bits over the next 30 years resulting in an elegant collection of grown together halls, and towers with a mix of black tile, upswept green copper roofs, and woodworking not usually seen outside of temples and castles in today’s Japan.
The onsen’s first brush with pop cultural fame came with its use in the 1906 book “Botchan,” by Soseki Natsume. The protagonist hates every single thing about redneck backwater “na moshi” Matsuyama except for this onsen. Given that the author was a frequent visitor when he lived in Matsuyama I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the reason you’re not allowed to swim in the bath just like Botchan.
A century later, the onsen provided artistic inspiration again for the bathhouse in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film, Spirited Away. It inspired me as well, at least to mention it in this travel article.
Beautiful as it may be on the outside, an onsen is only as good as its ambience and bath water and Dogo did not disappoint.
There are a few bathing options to choose from as there are different baths inside; we chose Soul Water and Gods Water. We were then led through a minor maze to get to where we could put on yukatas and go to our baths. This meant a lot of going upstairs, downstairs, up a single stair then back down and around the corner to get anywhere; I’d like to think the trip hazards are part of that cobbled together charm of the building. It’s easy to see where Miyazaki got some of his ideas from for the movie and a few spots look like the real life locations for a few scenes.
My first onsen, the Tama no Yu or “Soul Water,” was back down stairs, but a different set of stairs and disrobing I was greeted with a blast of cold air from outside. The windows were open to an inner courtyard, but reed blinds kept anyone from looking in.
This bath was originally built for imperial servants when the emperor visited (as extremely rare as they were, Dogo set aside a lot of space to handle the Emperor’s visits.) so has that little bit of history to go along with the relaxing water. The temperature was practically perfect, hot but not scalding, which not all onsen can seem to pull off. The onsen water as well was rather light, it’s fed directly from the source spring and is both colorless and odorless.
After steaming in the bath for a spell, the blast of cold air from outside that made me shiver before was now a pleasant end to my first Dogo Onsen experience. This was followed up by the second bath, “Water of the Gods,” which was a more impressive setting with its Buddha-headed water tank and painted back wall depicting cranes and what I thought were mountains, well that or those cranes were massive in ancient Japan.
Given its long history, a few corners are preserved as miniature museums. There’s the Botchan no Ma (Botchan Room), which is the room author Natsume Soseki liked to use when he visited, and it has pictures of people associated with the author and his book.
We were given a guided tour of the emperor’s suite before leaving. Used only a handful of times, the gold-leaf gilded rooms mimicked a palatial atmosphere, and I found them artistically pleasing to view. The suite consists of the bedroom, a rock garden, bathroom and private onsen. It cost extra, but my fiancée had this added to our trip because she knows I love to learn when I’m relaxing, even in an onsen.
Before leaving, I picked up a pink souvenir towel that again is inspired by Botchan, as the protagonist’s towel has turned pinkish as its colors ran after being used in so many onsens.
As freshly steamed as a nikuman from not one but two hot baths, now how does one get from fantasy onsen to one of Japan’s last real medieval castles? Just like they did a century ago, aboard a whimsical German train of course! (Schedule permitting.)
Dogo Onsen Station is an architectural counterpoint to Dogo Onsen. Built in 1895, a year after the Onsen, whereas the onsen was a throwback to the traditional Japan, the station embraced the new, modern Japan. Elsewhere, whether in the U.S. or Britain, I’d call its architectural style Victorian, but in Japan it’s Meiji, the reigning emperor when it was built and an example of how Japan modernized by taking Western ideas and making them it’s own. It feels like it belongs in Disneyland and not out in a city, an image that fits perfectly with the special train that stops here, the Botchan Ressha.
This “matchbox” like train is miniature and at first I thought it was just some silly fake like you’d seen in a mall around Christmastime with its small cars and chibi-engine, except it’s not. It’s a fully functioning and full-scale replica of the real German-built trains that ran around Matsuyama a century ago, which even in their day were commented on for being toy-like because of their diminutive size.
For train fans this is a must, though there are only a few of these running and the rest of the streetcars that service the station are normal streetcars, so plan accordingly. The current train is a replica; to see the original you’d need to make a trip to the city’s Baishinji Park where it is on display.
While visiting the area, we walked through the L-shaped arcade connecting the onsen to the station and saw Botchan inspired statues and a clock tower, adding to the amusement park atmosphere. We stopped into a “sesame everything” shop for sesame soft cream and ate at one of the little eateries where they served anago, a local eel and locally brewed Dogo Beer. I tried a porter which, while no Guinness, was still not bad.
A quick word about food on Shikoku- this is the land of mikan. Everywhere, all the time. I cannot fully express just how mikan crazy this island is, and I live in Nagasaki Prefecture, the prefecture with the best mikan in Japan according to the Emperor. (Or so I’ve been told.)
Most Japanese castles today, original and reproduction, are shadows of their former selves. A donjon, or keep, amidst a scenic park, maybe an inner layer of defensive walls and an original gate, but the majesty is gone. The layered defenses, several series of walls and moats that blend into a fortified city essentially extending the castle itself for miles, no longer exist. Himeji probably comes closest to maintaining its scale, but Matsuyama, with its large still-fortified footprint atop a hill overlooking its former domain, still impresses as it maintains all of its gates and most of the hilltop is walled and turreted as it has been for centuries.
Matsuyama is imposing in its stature and as the approach to it is still made up a hill with the castle looking down on visitors and helps one appreciate the scale and awe it was meant to inspire. The most imposing view was at the first inner gate to the keep; coming upon it meant passing through a walled valley topped with turrets and the keep itself bearing down on me. An invader would be at a severe disadvantage as they would be run through a series of interconnected gates positioned at awkward angles and at all times be under direct attack from every direction.
This is one of the few places where visitors can appreciate this kind of defense, though not all of these parts are original but have been convincingly rebuilt. The original castle was built by Kato Yoshiaki in 1602, shortly after the country’s unification. Kato was an accomplished soldier and sailor who served Toyotomi Hideyoshi and later Tokugawa Ieyasu in some of the battles that would shape the destiny of Japan. For his service the samurai was made a daimyo and given control of Masaki and then Matsuyama. The castle’s mascot, Yoshiaki-kun, is a cartoonish representation of the man and visitors can take their picture in the courtyard with him and the castle the real Kato built.
Kato’s castle took 24 years to finish but was worked on and modified over the years. The current keep is actually the youngest of the original castle keeps in Japan. The previous keep had burned down on New Year’s Day in 1784 and work on a replacement didn’t begin until 1820. Beset with misfortune, it took 35 years to complete – just in time to see the beginning of the end of its era as it was finished shortly after American Commodore Perry’s visit.
Japanese castles are considered “original” if their keeps are from the Edo period or older. As most castles were torn down during the Meiji period or destroyed in World War II, there are only a dozen left and only a few are rated as National Treasures. Matsuyama is a step down on the cultural scale as an Important Culture Asset, though from looking at it, it’s as good as all three National Treasure castles I’ve been to.
A surprising amount of the castle is original beyond the keep itself. Many of the towers and gates are centuries old, though arson and wartime bombings meant that other bits have had to be rebuilt in the modern era. Looking at them I’d be hard pressed to tell most of the reproduction buildings from the originals.
Inside is a typical but well-put together museum, with most everything in English, which shares the castle history and the stories of its inhabitants along with a healthy volume of artifacts.
After finishing with the castle, we had an abrupt shift in scenery as we passed the ruins of a gate and took a stroll down the forested hill to the Ninomaru Shiseki Teien. Autumn came late to Shikoku so the trees were a mix of green, gold and red, a combination enhanced by the golden sunset resulting in some beautiful shots of the castle atop the hill.
The ninomaru, originally the castle’s second palace, looks like a walled palace from the outside, but inside it has been re-imagined as a citrus-tree laden garden with tea house and koi pond. I found it interesting that the outline of the original building has been preserved in the garden walkways. The castle and ninomaru, though complimentary, are unrelated and visitors have to buy tickets to both separately. I had fun here having an impromptu photo shoot with my fiancée under the fall leaves by the koi pond.
The last stop on our Matsuyama tour was Ishiteji, the Stone Hand Temple. The name is derived from the legend of a monk who went on a pilgrimage to 88 temples on Shikoku. The monk, Emon Saburo, was originally a wealthy farmer, who one day found a monk at his door begging for food and shelter while on the pilgrimage. Saburo turned the monk away who then died. Soon after this, Saburo’s eight sons died, and seeking forgiveness, he became a monk himself and took part in the pilgrimage. He learned what it was like to be a begging pilgrim like the monk he turned away, and as he neared death he wished to be reborn with wealth to take care of pilgrims that came across his door. He died with a stone in his hand and at that time a child was born clutching a stone that read “Emon Saburo reborn.” This child grew up and restored the old local temple, now named Ishiteji.
That’s the legend; what is known is that the temple was originally founded under a different name in 670 A.D. and is one of Shikoku’s 88 pilgrimage temples. These temples are a unique feature of Shikoku and visiting them all requires trekking across the island, which predates modern marketing attempts at tourism.
At first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Out front are some very new statues of Buddhist figures, a dragon and a monk, and a tower, but the main complex is hidden from the roadside. We then passed under a long covered hall with food stalls and stalls selling charms, before coming out in front of the Niomon Gate. Built in 1381, it’s a National Treasure. The temple complex was pleasantly simple. Its plain wooden buildings and it’s subdued and natural appearance is a contrast to the colorful red or vermillion temples and shrines that are commonly seen. Nestled in a forested area, it feels to be completely in harmony with the natural beauty surrounding it.
After leaving Matsuyama, we headed for the other side of the island and the city of Kochi to visit my fiancée’s brother, though we took in a few sights as well, including Kochi Castle and the Harimaya Bridge.
Kochi Castle is one of the 12 original castles, like Matsuyama, but Kochi alone is the real life Swamp Castle! The castle was built where two rivers are close enough to make for a natural moat. The joining point was also a natural swamp. Ignoring this, twice someone tried to build a castle upon this swamp and twice it failed, but trying again this one was finally erected. I tried sharing this Monty Python joke with my fiancée but I don’t think it translated well to Japanese, nor did the one about great big tracts of land.
After its completion in 1611, it was the capital of the Tosa Domain and absolutely nothing worth mentioning happened here until it was retired in 1868. Then it became a delightful park.
The primary selling point to visiting Kochi (for normal people) is its completeness; its hilltop citadel retains all of its original structures. But if Matsuyama had the miniature train, then Kochi has the miniature castle keep. The keep and adjoining palace are quite small and contain a small Japanese-language only museum.
The castle’s most interesting part is the big Tsumemon, guardroom or “trick” gate, that obviously leads to the citadel, until an invader breaks through and realizes they are now on the opposite side of the same hill and no closer to getting up to the citadel. It’s a neat trick I’ve not seen in any other castle.
Another stand out point is the main castle gate, which from the right angle can be photographed along with the keep. According to Kochi Castle you cannot shoot the main gate and keep of any other castle in this way. I’m not sure if it’s true, I’ll have to visit a few dozen more castles to verify.
Before leaving Kochi we also stopped by the famous Harimaya Bridge. It’s a tiny red classic bridge over an almost non-existent stream that’s famous for a story about a priest and his lover, and having a movie named after it. My fiancée said that it’s also been rated among the most disappointing tourist spot in Japan, so I had to see if it lived up to the hype. Unfortunately it did not. It was not disappointing, because how can it disappoint if I expect it to? Either way, it was a quick and quirky stop that’s famous for being famous and it was free so I couldn’t complain.
Since we were in a bridging mood, on our way back to Kyushu we took a detour into Tokushima Prefecture to walk across a vine bridge. Tokushima is quite rural and our drive consisted of endless green mountains ending in deep valleys and small roads leading to other smaller roads along said mountains until reaching Kazurabashi, a bridge made of wood and held together with vines (and hidden steel cables) that has hung across the Iya valley for 800 years. Legend holds it was first built by Heike refugees who’d fled to the region after losing the Gempei War in 1185, or by the founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect, Kodo Daishi.
Regretting that I’d left my fedora and bullwhip at home, we paid our yen and got in line with the other tourists to cross the bridge. Gently swaying ancient bridge or not, it’s not as adventurous when you’re in a line going across, well to me anyway. My fiancée carefully watched her footing on the loosely spaced planks and never let go of the vine rail as she crossed a single step at a time. I stopped to take pictures the beautiful rocky river bed that cut through the bottom of the forested “v” at the bottom of the mountains and… now she wants to know how I can stop and shoot with both hands, that’s not safe. So I got a little thrill in handing my camera to another person to take a blurry picture of me in the middle of the bridge, knowing full well he could drop it and it would plummet to the river below and I’d be out $1000. I recommend not using a phone for a selfie across the bridge. If you’re willing to take that risk you’re a better traveler than I.
When we finished, we took a moment to crawl around the large rocks along the river, which were an odd grey-green color, and enjoy a dekomawashi, a dongo like treat made with soba, konnyaku, tofu and potato and sweetened with an orange miso glaze.
We’d originally planned to spend the night in Saijo and leave early the next morning without visiting any local points of interest. After getting there I discovered our hotel was next to the train station, as the passing trains throughout the night could attest, (Full disclosure- I’m a Sailor and have lived under an active runway, so passing trains are nothing to me) and that train station had an attached railway museum. My fiancée gave me one hour to explore it the next morning, so I had to work much faster than usual to take it all in.
The Shikoku Railway Cultural Center is small but with six trains is worth seeing. Two in particular excited me, a Type 0 Shinkansen and a C57 steam locomotive engine. The two designs are only a quarter century apart in age but demonstrate the rapid pace of technological innovation during the mid-twentieth century. With its bulbous nose and big windows, the Type 0 wouldn’t be considered sleek or fast looking by today’s standards, but it was the pinnacle of rail transit in its day. Sitting in the passenger cabin I noticed how little has changed for the passenger, even if the train itself has.
The C57 looked ready to take a load of passengers to Hogwarts or whatever its Japanese equivalent is. (Probably the same, but built in a tasteful early Edo style) These trains ran from the late 1930s until 1975, when this particular engine pulled its last cars for Japan National Railway, and only a year before the museum’s Shinkansen engine was built.
With minutes to spare, I returned to the hotel and we were able to get back on the road and finish our journey home. We did a lot more than this on the trip, but to write of it all would result in a small book, and besides, where’s the fun if I don’t leave a few surprises for other visitors?
Q&A with a history/travel junkie
David Krigbaum is a Mass Communications Specialist in the U.S. Navy who is stationed at Sasebo Naval Base. The first class petty officer is a history buff who loves a good adventure and is willing to share his travels with others. We sat down with David to see what makes him tick.
Q: There’s a lot of folks who don’t get off base much. You’re not one of them. Tell us why you believe it’s so important to take advantage of your location and get out and explore:
A: I come from a Navy family so I don’t really come from anywhere. Every place I live is a new opportunity to try new things or, like when overseas, experience a new culture. I don’t know if or when I’ll come back again, so I need to make the most of it. I’ve lived outside of the U.S. since 2009 at duty stations around Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Every place has been different and presented great opportunities that I could ramble on about endlessly.
Q: You took a trip of a lifetime to the Philippines, which was chronicled in this magazine last year. What destinations are next?
A: I’ve yet to decide on my next trip outside of Japan, since I already have so many planned here! There really is so much to do just in Japan. I’d like to see all 12 original castles. So far, I’ve only seen five. There are a number of World War II museums I want to see, as well as tracking down rare aircraft and I’d love to see Tsuchiuura’s restored and running Type 89 tank.
When we finally do travel outside Japan, my fiancé and I are looking at visiting South Korea, since it’s a neighbor neither of us have seen. I’d like to see their military museum in Seoul and visit Gyeonju to admire the ancient architecture.
Q: Love your blog. What’s your motivation behind it?
A: I was motivated to start the Wayfarer Daves travel & history blog because I wanted to share my travel experiences with other people who share my interests, and because I don’t care for most of the travel blogs I’ve come across. Most are written by people who I find to be completely not relatable in that they’ve quit their jobs to spend months or years on the road writing about what wows them using an overabundance of adjectives. So my friend and I, Dave Hansche, decided we’d make a blog that shared what we enjoy, the history of a place, our experiences visiting them and giving tips and advice for other interested travelers, who at the end of the trip still have to go home.
We talked about doing the blog when I was stationed in Europe and traveling to different countries over long weekends. It didn’t get off the ground until I moved to Japan and decided to stop talking about it and just do it. I started with an article I’d originally had published a few years back, and we started putting out new material after a rather grueling winter break tour where Dave and I visited Tokyo, Yokohama, Hikone, Kyoto, Uji, Nara, Osaka and walked part of the Edo-period Nakasendo through the Kiso Valley.
The last bit, hiking in the dead of winter through a miserable drizzle with a damp backpack, reminded me that an adventure is always miserable when it happens; it’s an adventure in the retelling. Also, a Jeremy Soule Skyrim/Oblivion/Morrowind playlist sounds just as good walking through a Japanese forest and old unchanging villages as it is wandering around a Welsh castle ruin.
Q: Without a doubt, you are a history buff. And, you love old planes. Japan is a great place to dig into history, isn’t it?
A: Japan is wonderful for historians because so much has happened here and this culture has a documented, sometimes historic and sometimes mythical, history that stretches back millennia. The Japanese culture itself, its castles, religious architecture, ruins and old houses are all great to get out and see, not to mention photograph.
Studying World War II here is unique as you can’t study it the same way in the U.S. In Baltimore and Boston, I visited warships that survived kamikaze attacks (USS Cassin Young and USCGC Taney). But here, I’ve visited four museums at the air bases these attacks were launched from and got to see some of their perspective, not to mention rare aircraft - some of which were kamikazes.
Not that I’m looking at these things from an ethical ‘right or wrong’ perspective, but just understanding different perspectives. When I visited the Tachiarai Peace Memorial Museum, one of the kamikaze museums, they had parts of a downed B-29 on display. Then, looking up, I realized the whole room was in the shadow of an outlined B-29 overhead, this dreaded thing that rained death from above. (Despite how that may have sounded, Tachiarai handled their whole presentation on World War II honestly and even-handedly.) It’s a very different way of seeing it than when I saw B-29s on display in the U.S.
Q: Traveling can be expensive. Got some tips for us on how not to blow your budget?
A: The key to managing a budget on a trip is planning and research.
Before leaving on a trip I’ll make an outline - Day 1: Where am I sleeping? What transit will be done? Day 2, Day 3, etc. This allows me to fill in the blanks by researching costs for trains, buses, rental cars, etc. After I sort through hotels to find one that suits my needs, I plug in that price as well. Factor in money for food, museums entry fees and special meals, and you have a rough estimate of how much the trip will cost. Add at least 20% to this amount and you’re more in the ballpark of what you’ll actually spend, because things will come up, some plan may change or you may like some souvenir you’ll regret whilst trying to get it back through the airport. If I’m fine with what this cost is, then I’ll leave it. If not, I go back and see what I’m willing to drop, such as going for a cheaper hotel that is less convenient.
Also, here in Japan you have to be able to use Japanese language hotel booking websites to get the cheapest hotel deals. Since letting my Japanese fiancé pick our hotels using Jalan and Rakuten, we’ve been finding dirt cheap, yet nice hotels around the country that I can’t find on their English counterparts.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: It’s been a pleasure being able to do what I’ve done; I look forward to the next adventure and being able to share it with everyone.
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