Matsuyama is located in Shikoku Island, Japan’s fourth island. It is an underrated city, ready to be explored.
Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture) wasn’t initially in my itinerary however a friend of mine who had recently moved there invited me. I left my trip planning to my friend and instructed her to show me her city. I wanted to experience the city from a local’s point of view.
The city of Matsuyama offers a great list of things to do. The city is filled with attractions such as a castle, onsen, several temples and intricate architectures from various eras. Matsuyama is mostly visited by Japanese people or pilgrims. It is overlooked by foreign tourists who prefer cities like Tokyo, Kyoto or Kanazawa. I found Matsuyama to be a very good city. Locals were very friendly and very engaging.
Here’s an itinerary from a first time visitor that will help you see all the most popular local spots. So let’s get started!
- 1 Visit Kumanosan Ishite-ji Temple Ishite-Ji (石手寺)
- 2 Meet pilgrims on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage
- 3 Enjoy Hot Spring at Dogo Onsen Honkan
- 4 Buy some souvenir at Dogo Shopping Arcade (道後)
- 5 Hop on the vintage tram or Botchan Train
- 6 More shopping at Ropeway Shopping Street
- 7 Visit Matsuyama Castle
- 8 Eat lots of mikan and more
- 9 Getting to Matsuyama
Visit Kumanosan Ishite-ji Temple Ishite-Ji (石手寺)
The Kumanosan Ishite-ji temple, dedicated to Kūkai (空海), also known as Kōbō-Daishi, is one of the reasons to visit Matsuyama. Kūkai was a priest and scholar who introduced Buddhism to Japan. He is also credited with founding lots of temples in Japan. It is to honour him that the pilgrimage was established.
In all there are 88 temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage route and this is the 51st. It is usually very frequented by worshipers and pilgrims, however at the time we visited it wasn’t too busy. We encountered a small group of Japanese pilgrims from Niigata Prefecture, who were very keen to tell me all they knew about the temple. I found the temple and its atmosphere to be very different from others I have visited.
Kumanosan Ishite-ji is home to a number of important buildings like the Niomon Gate, which is a designated national treasure. The temple’s main hall, bell tower and pagoda are also Important Cultural Properties. There is a shrine for the goddess for safe childbirth, a treasure house, Mantra cave, and an inner temple. If you like visiting religious buildings, then you should also consider Isaniwa Shrine.
Address: 2 Chome-9-21 Ishite | Admission: Free | Hours: Always open
Meet pilgrims on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage
Shikoku might not be known overseas but it’s well known in Japan for its pilgrimage route. Each year, hundred thousands of worshipers take on the long 1,200 kilometres (about 750 miles). The route connects the historic and spiritual sites of the island. The worshipers are easy to spot: white jacket, purple scarf, conical straw hat and wooden walking stick. They also carry a book to collect a stamp from each of the temples they have visited. I got my notebook stamped too.
While in Ishite-ji , we met with a couple of pilgrims. The husband and wife duo were on their second pilgrimage, having first completed the Henro trail 5 years ago. They had started walking the pilgrimage as thanks for the wife beating breast cancer. I was impressed by their determination and tenacity. We were surprised to hear that most pilgrims travel by cars or buses, a small number on two wheels. For their second henro, they decided to walk instead.
After the temple, we took the bus back to the centre of Matsuyama and went straight to see Dogo Onsen.
Enjoy Hot Spring at Dogo Onsen Honkan
When in Matsuyama, a visit to Dogo Onsen Honkan – the oldest hot spring in Japan – is essential. The emperor used to bath in the historic onsen until 1970. You can visit the imperial family’s private baths. The beautifully designed main building has been designated “Important Cultural Property of Japan”. The iconic bathhouse has been featured in many books and movies like “Botchan” and “Spirited Away”.
The highlight of the visit is of course to get a taste of the hot spring water. Dogo Onsen Honkan offers four different options, depending on your preferences or budget. All the bathers I saw seemed to enjoy relaxing on the tatami mat with some green tea and sweets in the relaxation rooms.
As I was visiting with my friend and her one-year-old daughter, visiting the ath side of the onsen was a no-go, therefore, we only took part in the guided tour of the premises. The tour allows people to visit the “Yushinden” area allocated to the imperial family. We were also able to see the room that the author of “Botchan”, Soseki Natsume, used to write part of the famous book.
Address: 5-6 Dogoyunomachi | Hours: 6:00 to 22:00 (23:00 for level 1) | Admission: from 410 yen to 1550 yen (onsen) & 270 yen for the tour
Related post – 8 Things to do in Ehime
Buy some souvenir at Dogo Shopping Arcade (道後)
Linking the onsen to Dogo Station is Hojoen Square. There, you can find a free foot onsen and check the time with the famous Botchan Karakuri, a clock tower mentioned in the Botchan book. Dogo shopping arcade is the perfect place to shop for some souvenirs or snacks. We stopped at several shops selling Matsuyama’s famous citrus fruit and other local specialities. Shopping and walking all morning is exhausting so we stopped for a coffee break at the Starbucks just off the shopping arcade. I got a latte while my friend settled for a matcha cream frappuccino.
Hop on the vintage tram or Botchan Train
The best way to get around Matsuyama not counting walking is by taking the orange vintage tram. Known as Iyotetsu, these trams are very frequent and always seen along the main streets of Matsuyama. Rides are very cheap, 150 yen or you can get the day pass for 400 yen. Another option is to take the touristic Botchan train. The replica steam train’s name is based on the character of the book by Natsume. Now, tourists queue to experience a nostalgic ride, from Matsuyama Station to Dogo Onsen, Station for 310 yen.
More shopping at Ropeway Shopping Street
With our stomach full of caffeine and snacks, we headed towards the castle. You can’t reach the castle without walking on Ropeway Shopping Street, a one-way street lined with shops. With so many shops ranging from shops selling “mikan” based sweets, souvenirs shops to pottery shops and antiques, we got a little carried away and forgot about the time.
Matsuyama castle is located on Mount Katsuyama and accessible from downtown via Matsuyamajō Ropeway, a chairlift, or on foot. It can be a little challenging to reach if you have reduced mobility. For easy and quick access, we got on the ropeway. For the same price, you can get on a chairlift for a fun ride. Please note that the chairlift has no seatbelt so might not be ideal for young kids.
Admission: 510 yen or 270 yen (one way) | Hours: 8:30 to 17:00
Visit Matsuyama Castle
Matsuyama Castle is one of Japan’s original castles. The castle and its 21 buildings have been listed as “Important Cultural Properties”. The castle is beautiful, my photos don’t give it justice! Of course, it doesn’t compare to Himeji Castle but if you compare how busy the other castles are, then this one would come on top.
We went straight to check out the inside of the castle. Once, we were done the exploring, we headed out to wander in the garden. You can admire the views of the city and mountains. I was surprised at how quickly it got dark. If only I knew, I would have either spent less time window shopping and explored the castle grounds more. We ended up staying beyond the opening time just enjoying the tranquillity of the moment. Therefore, the main door was closed when we decided to leave. Once we left everything was dark in the garden. Plus, we couldn’t use the ropeway way. We had to use a route that wasn’t well lit and with a small child with us, that was dangerous. Luckily we had our mobile phones with us. The castle closes at 5 pm so I highly recommend a morning or mid-afternoon visit.
Admission: 510 yen | Hours: 8:30 to 17:00
Eat lots of mikan and more
Matsuyama is a great place for sweet food. If you have to try anything, don’t leave without trying these few selections. Botchan-Dango is found in any sweet shops. It’s a skewered rice balls covered with bean paste and green tea. Matsuyama pie is not like the usual pie. It’s more like a sponge rolled cake filled with bean paste. It’s delicious accompanied with some green tea. Let’s add Matsuyama’s emblematic citrus fruit, the mikan. The great warm weather favours the production of this fruit which you can find in all types: candy, cake, juice etc…
Where to eat/shop:
- Dogo Honkanmae, near Dogo Onsen – they do a very nice green tea pie
- Mikan no Ki, a souvenir shop selling mikan related products.
- Rokujiya – a shop selling one the best Matsuyama pie – Address: 14-22 Dogoyunomachi (inside Dogo Shopping Street)
- Hyota, delicious ramen shop – 6-1-10 Sanban-cho
- Taiya – its sea bream rice – Address: 1-chome 3-21 Mitsu
It’s not too complicated to find good accommodation in Matsuyama. As the main city of Ehime, it’s not short of options. See option below.
Getting to Matsuyama
By Plane: JAL and ANA have several flights daily from Tokyo Haneda to Matsuyama. Both usually have discount tickets for foreign tourists. Alternatively, you can flight with Jetstar from Narita for much cheaper.
By Train: Take JR Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen from Tokyo to Okayama (3.5 hours) then JR Shiokaze limited express to Matsuyama (count another 2.5 hours). The trip costs around 20,000 yen but is fully covered with the JR Pass.
By Boat: From Hiroshima Ujina-ko port, it’s a quick hour by high-speed boat or 2.5 hours by ferry.
Airport shuttle: The airport limousine takes travellers into Matsuyama City. The 3 important stops are JR Matsuyama Station (15 minutes, 460 yen), Matsuyama-shi Station (20 minutes, 560 yen) and Dogo Onsen (40 minutes, 610 yen).
I never knew Matsuyama had so much to offer. It can definitely be an alternative to one of these highly visited castle towns. Plus, it offers historic buildings like the castle and Dogo Onsen Honkan. Visiting a non-touristy destination like Matsuyama is a very rewarding experience. I hope you would consider visiting Matsuyama next time you are in Japan.
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