This blog post is the first part in a three part series about my Golden Week 2014 road trip to Shikoku. Golden Week falls during late April/early May every year and consists of 4 national holidays: Showa no Hi (Showa Day), Kenpo Kinenbi (Constitution Memorial Day), Midori no Hi (Greenery Day), and Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day, also known as Boys’ Day).
“From the time I was a boy the reckless streak that runs in my family has brought nothing but trouble.” – Botchan (Little Master), Natsume Soseki
Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a young English teacher living in the blossoming city of Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku. Then called by his birth name, Natsume Kinnosuke, he would later be known to the world as Natsume Soseki, a chosen pseudonym. Often referred to as the greatest novelist in modern Japanese history, Soseki’s literary career began around 1903. While he started out writing poetry and other literary sketches, he later generated mass appeal with his 1905 novel, I am Cat.
Born in 1867, Soseki’s life ran parallel to the Meiji period (1868-1912). The Meiji period was marked by Japan’s dramatic transformation from an isolated country to a modern nation modeled in the image the western powers of the day. Soseki had a front row seat to the major economic, political, and social changes taking place in his homeland. Hence, throughout his literary works the emerging “modern” Japan is contrasted with a traditional “Japanese-ness.”
Soseki taught English at Matsuyama Junior High School in Matsuyama City (side note: I bet he didn’t have an ALT!) – currently the largest city in Shikoku. Matsuyama is an expansive coastal city that still manages to maintain that down home country feeling. Similar to the rest of Shikoku, Matsuyama remains somewhat insulated from the rest of Japan – demonstrating little of the high-paced, hectic lifestyle you’ll witness in Tokyo or other major cities.
During Golden Week 2014, I took a road trip down to Shikoku with 3 friends. We stayed in Matsuyama for about a day and were able to check out a few of the most famous destinations in the city.
While exploring Matsuyama, I pictured Soseki strolling down the local roads, relaxing at Dogo Onsen, and riding the Botchan train throughout the city. Perhaps I am a silly romantic, but I felt like I got a taste of the simpler times of old Japan.
One of the major tourist attractions in Matsuyama is Dogo Onsen. If you’re not familiar with onsen, allow me to enlighten you. An onsen is a hot spring that’s sometimes referred to in English as a spa. But, if you’re picturing women in fluffy white robes with cucumber slices on their eyes…no. Not that kind of spa. This is one of those n-a-k-e-d, let’s-all-bathe-together kind of spas.
Yes, Americans. Everyone in the “spa” is naked. No bathing suits allowed!
After washing yourself, you can relax in the piping hot baths and enjoy conversation with friends. Personally, I could never stay in onsen for longer than 10 minutes or so without needing a break. It’s just that hot. You may find that you need a nap after finishing your bath – I often felt exhausted and a little bit like I’d just been in a fist fight.
Dogo Onsen is one of the oldest onsens in Japan. It has over a 1,000 year history and was even referenced in the Man’yoshu – a very old anthology of Japanese poetry published during the Nara Period (710-794). During the Meiji period, Natsume Soseki was one of Dogo Onsen’s most famous guests. While living in Matsuyama, he regularly frequented Dogo Onsen and, accordingly, so did the nameless lead of his highly celebrated novel Botchan.
If you’re an anime fan, or even just a movie lover, you may be thinking, “Wow, that looks really familiar. Have I been there?”
…Probably not (although, hey, what do I know?). You most likely recognize it because it was the inspiration for the bathhouse in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.”
Another popular tourist attraction in Matsuyama is the Botchan Ressha, or Botchan Train.
Botchan doesn’t translate to “train” or anything even slightly related to trains. If you were paying attention earlier, you may remember that Botchan roughly translates to, “little master.” So, why does this cute little train car have such an unexpected nickname?
As you may have already guessed, the name “Botchan” comes from Soseki’s novel. In the novel, Soseki refers to the steam powered car as a “small, match-box like train.” The nickname has stuck around ever since.
The original Botchan train car was built in Munich under commission by the Iyo Railway. The Iyo Railway was the first railway in Shikoku and the 3rd private railway in Japan. The original steam powered car was eventually decommissioned after the introduction of electric train cars, but today a diesel powered replica runs between Dogo and Matsuyama stations a handful of times per day.
You are likely to get a glimpse of the train while standing near the tram line or at Dogo Station, where it stops for tourists.
Matsuyama-jo cuts an oppressive figure across the landscape and scenery of Matsuyama.
The original Matsuyama-jo (jo means castle, if you haven’t already figured that out!) was built in 1603. Various parts of the castle were damaged or destroyed and then subsequently rebuilt throughout its 400+ year history, but I believe the original structure is still standing today.
When it comes to castles in Japan, my personal mantra is, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all!” Although, I feel like I practically have seen them all. At least 25 of them, anyway. That’s almost all of them, right?
Anyway, maybe you should disregard my comments here but…I don’t know if I would put Matsuyama-jo on my “must-see” list. If you really want to be impressed by a castle, go see Himeji-jo in Hyogo Prefecture instead.
Regardless of my personal interest (or lack there of) in castles, the view from the top was exquisite.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Matsuyama has it all – cultural and historical attractions, great food, and limitless shopping. It is a beautiful place to experience a rustic, yet modern side of Japan and is a fantastic addition to any Japan itinerary.