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Published: July 31st 2018
Greetings from a small city called Matsuyama (half-a-million people, about the same size as Sheffield!), on the island of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. I am so happy to be here for a number of reasons. Firstly, and mainly, as I indeed made it safely here on Sunday evening, following a night of Typhoon Jongdari passing directly overhead back in Kyoto. Secondly, as after the tourist-hotspot of Kyoto, it is a great relief to be off-the-beaten track here, with the only other (few) tourists around being the polite, gracious and wonderful Japanese people! And finally, as it’s just a fantastic place and I have had a very enjoyable few days here indeed.
I believe I last wrote after being a bit concerned about my travel plans on Sunday, with Typhoon Jongdari fast approaching on Saturday evening. It is for times like these that I carry with me on my travels my travel bottle of brandy – after a short swig from this magical bottle, my nerves for the approaching typhoon quickly subsided, and I began to realise that experiencing a typhoon is actually, surely, part of the Japanese experience. All in all, it really
didn’t seem that bad. Although I woke, probably around 2am or so, to the roaring sound of the wind outside, it really didn’t seem that bad when I looked out of the window – there was indeed a strong, sustained wind, but the rain seemed quite light. The next morning, all seemed normal again in Kyoto, and in actual fact, the typhoon had brought about a great change in the funkiness of the humid atmosphere – it now felt fresh and clear, and the distant mountains were very clearly visible now. It was almost like the typhoon had vacuumed away the humid, stale and really hot air of Kyoto and brought freshness in its path – really quite welcome actually! And as I thought, the shinkansen bullet trains were indeed not affected at all by the typhoon. After packing my bags and taking a bus to Kyoto Station, I was able to take my first two trains with no problems at all – first from Kyoto to Shin-Osaka, and then from Shin-Osaka to a small city called Okayama. Amazing, that right after a typhoon, the country seems to return back to normal again. This was quite a contrast to my
experiences of Hurricane Earl in Guatemala back in 2016, both Hurricane Earl and Typhoon Jongdari having been Category 1 on the hurricane scale when they both made landfall. Hurricane Earl brought trees, roofs and bridges down, and cut out the water, electricity and internet connection all around me for about two days. This contrast was a great first-hand experience of what I again have taught in my years as a Geography teacher, that natural disasters affect developing countries far worse than developed countries due to their lack of preparedness. Japan, in all ways it seems, appears very prepared for its disasters.
Having said this, the local express (not shinkansen) train line which was to take me from Okayama to Matsuyama was indeed cancelled for the whole day. I did anticipate this, and I actually thought it would be very difficult to get a bus ticket, given the number of passengers who must have been affected by this. This was not so, and I managed to book myself on the next coach leaving for Matsuyama two hours after arriving in Okayama, giving me some time to spend in Okayama during which I enjoyed a very relaxing noodle lunch in a
Me as a samurai!
nearby air-conditioned fast-food joint. So finally, just after 2pm, I was making the last leg of my journey by bus, from Honshu to Shikoku. And what a spectacular journey it was. We first began by crossing Japan’s Inland Sea (the overall name given to the body of water between the islands of Honshu and Shikoku) over the spectacular Great Seto Bridge. This was not just one bridge, but a series of six bridges and five viaducts, spanning 8.1 miles in total, making it the world’s longest two-tiered bridge system. It was quite spectacular. And the island of Shikoku continued to impress, with a very different feel to Honshu – far more rural, less developed, and actually even more beautiful with its rugged, mountainous landscape and forested hills in all directions. For the whole journey to Matsuyama, we went through tunnel, followed by luscious, forested mountain valley, followed by tunnel and so on. It was a beautiful journey, and maybe even better having taken it by bus. And by the evening, I checked into a really quite swish hotel, the APA Matsuyama-jo Nishi – similar in price to my two previous business hotels, but a bit beyond a business hotel I
The Great Seto Bridge
Linking the Japanese main island of Honshu with the island of Shikoku. At 8.1 miles long, it is the world's longest two-tiered bridge system, and is made up of six major bridges and five viaducts.
think in terms of size and grandeur. Ah, this is the life.
I have had two full days here in Matsuyama, and my travels continue to keep me really quite busy indeed, but very enjoyable still. This has been quite different to many of my previous trips, where each destination has only had one or two attractions, giving me lots of time to just chill and relax in my hotel room – on my Japanese journey so far, there are so many possible sights to see to choose from, that each day I have been out from about 10am, returning around 7pm. Still, I don’t feel tired, and travelling in Japan seems to actually be filling me with wonderful energy.
Yesterday was a packed day in terms of sightseeing. I first started out by heading towards the amazing Matsuyama-jo, the castle on top of the nearby hill, Mt Katsuyama, towards which my room has a stunning view, and which is actually located right in the middle of the city of Matsuyama. Unfortunately the path up which is nearest to the hotel was closed, seemingly due to fallen trees and mudslides brought upon by the recent torrential rains here
The Inland Sea
Honshu on the left, Shikoku on the right
in this part of Japan. Fortunately, however, this meant that I walked all the way to the other side and took the amazing chairlift up to the top – a little perturbing given there was no safety barrier or seatbelt or anything, making it very easy, if one wished, to just slip out of the chair and fall to the ground below – not that I did this of course, but it did make it a bit scary as well as enjoyable. And what a beautiful castle it was – I enjoyed a good hour or so looking around my first Japanese castle. Quite different to the European version of a castle, the Japanese castle is built with a typical Japanese-tiered flooring system, and a curved roof. They were still used as buildings of defence, during the shogunate (warlord) era of Japan, where clans and samurai would often fight with their neighbours during the feudal times before the Meiji restoration of 1868. Matsuyama castle was built in 1603, so it has lots of history. The tour also included being able to lift up a samurai “katana” sword, which actually seemed quite light, and even put on some modern samurai armour.
I enjoyed both of these experiences very much. Following my visit, I walked back down the hill through lush forest towards the city centre, and ended up in the Takashimaya department store (I wondered why the name was familiar, along with the bookshop chain Kinokuniya, until I remembered that both these large Japanese stores have branches in Singapore, my stomping grounds for a year back in 2006-2007). I didn’t realise it, but happily found out, that the large ferris wheel that I can see from my hotel room is actually entered on the top floor of the Takashimaya store. To my even greater happiness, I was told that a trip on the wheel is actually free for foreigners – interesting, and I was definitely up for it! Although I actually found the experience to be quite nerve-racking – I don’t usually fear heights, but this felt a bit different, and I had to do some breathing techniques, particularly towards the top, as I felt some kind of panic attack was coming on… I shall remember this for next time I think. After this, I took a tram to the east of the city, to first visit the Ishite-ji Buddhist Temple
(and then the Dogo Onsen, more on this below). This temple is actually number 51 of a total of 88 temples, and a pilgrimage to visit all of them is actually one of the things Shikoku is most famous for. Following in the footsteps of Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi (774-835) who apparently achieved enlightenment on Shikoku, and founded one of Japan’s three main schools of Buddhism, Shingon (the other two being Zen and Pure Land), pilgrims, known as henro, make the mammoth journey of 1400km, visiting all 88 temples, in around two months or so. I certainly was not up for such a pilgrimage, but was happy to visit Temple No. 51, apparently one of the most impressive. I happied away a good hour or so in its grounds, including quite a memorable experience of a tunnel. I saw an entrance into the large hill just behind the main temple area, and stepped foot inside to see two long, dimly-lit passageways – one straight ahead, the other to my right. Immediately stepping foot inside, however, I felt a very bad feeling emanating from both tunnels, I did not like it one bit. It was all I could do to stay
and take a couple of photos, and when I had my back to the tunnels to take a final photo of the main entrance, I had the worst sensation of bad feelings from behind me. It was a real relief to get out if I’m honest. A short while later, a local, friendly Japanese gentleman, called Shinji, struck up a conversation with me. He was a fascinating character, and I very much enjoyed listening to him speak (yes, he spoke, I listened…!). He started off in Japanese, then moved on to very broken English, and finished off with actually quite fluent English – he told me it had been a while since he had last spoken English, the practice must have improved his fluency. He in fact had lived in many international places, working as a celloist, including New York, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Brazil. What struck me was what he told me about the tunnel, when I asked him. He says it’s where old people go when they want to meet the spirits of their ancestors, who dwell inside the tunnels. He said that only old people go there. When I told him of my fear in the tunnel,
he told me that he had the same fear when he was young, but now that he is older (72 years old) he actually enjoys going inside the tunnel as there he can meet with his parents, uncle, and other passed-away ancestors. I found this very interesting, and was glad to hear an explanation for my bad feelings inside the tunnel – I believe I am quite sensitive to these things.
And finally, from the temple it was a short walk to the nearby Dogo Onsen, perhaps actually Japan’s most famous onsen, and the main attraction in Matsuyama. Dogo Onsen was built in 1894, though its origins are legendary - apparently during the time of the gods, a white heron was found healing itself in the spring which feeds the onsen waters today. The bath house was recently made famous by Japan’s apparently greatest modern literary figure, Natsume Soseki, when he wrote about it in his 1906 novel “Botchan” , based on his life in Matsuyama, and Dogo Onsen, as a schoolteacher. It is also apparently the bath house which was the inspiration for the 2001 Studio Ghibli film “Spirited Away”, the production house’s most famous cartoon film I
believe in the west as it won an Oscar in 2003. I shall have to watch this again when I return, although I could indeed see the similarity between the spirit bath house in the film and the Dogo Onsen. I very much enjoyed a soak in the steaming baths of the onsen, and its atmospheric surrounds. This brought my sightseeing to a close yesterday, as I took a tram back to my hotel in the blissful, post-onsen state of feeling squeaky clean and dreamily tired once more!
Today was a bit less packed in terms of sightseeing, but still very enjoyable. It was actually quite nice to take it a bit more slowly. I started out by just missing a train to the nearby town of Uchiko, famous for wax production, and having undergone a recent mini-renaissance in domestic tourism due to its very atmospheric Yokaichi Historic District, packed with old Japanese homes, tea-houses and the like. It was two hours until the next train, which was actually quite nice as it forced me to slow down a bit for the day. I chilled away a couple of hours around the station, to include a good talk with
APA Matsuyamajo Nishi Hotel
View from my tenth-floor room
an American gentleman who had been living in Japan on the JET (Japanese English Teaching) programme for five years and just next week is due to return home back to New York. He told me that the other small town which I planned to visit today, Uko, has actually been badly affected by the recent floods and landslides, and that if I wanted to visit, I should be prepared to be handed a shovel to help with the clean-up. Much as I would love to do something to help the locals with their clean-up after the devastating weather they have been having, I am not too sure that this was to be part of my plan for the day. It did also help to slow me down for the day as well, and after the train came and took me to Uchiko, I enjoyed a lovely amble around the quiet town, with only a few other (Japanese) tourists around. (Incidentally, I have not come across any hordes of Chinese tourists since I have been here, what a great relief indeed after Kyoto). My walk around Uchiko involved a stroll through the Yokaichi Historic District, to include the beautiful Kamihaga Residence,
once belonging to the Kamihaga family who had made their fortune, along with many others of the town, in the production and exportation of high quality white wax. My wander also included a wonderful visit to the Uchiko-za kabuki theatre, where although there was no kabuki performance (traditional Japanese dance and drama theatre) during my visit, it was actually really quite beautiful to see. After a couple of hours, I caught a train back to Matsuyama, glad to have caught the one I did, as the next one wasn’t for another three hours – it appears that not only are the trains here on Shikoku far less regular than on the mainland, the recent floods and landslides have also caused parts of the track to be out-of-service, and buses to replace some of the journeys. It seems the island of Shikoku was quite badly affected by the torrential rains earlier this month. Upon returning to Matsuyama, I very much enjoyed another onsen in an entertainment building just opposite the station, with around ten pools in total, ranging from freezing cold to boiling hot, with lots of bubbly ones too. I could very much get used to the Japanese onsen culture…!
APA Matsuyamajo Nishi Hotel
View from my room towards Matsuyama city centre, and a rainbow after the typhoon has passed!
My visit to the entertainment building also involved my first experience of the Japanese pinball-type game “pachinko”, which I played, but had absolutely no idea what was going on, apart from lots of small ball bearings bouncing their way down and ending up in a hole at the bottom…! I shall have to read up on the game instructions for this somewhere…!
So I have returned to my hotel once more squeaky clean, and writing up this blog entry for my wonderful adventures on the island of Shikoku. I have very much enjoyed my time here, it has been fantastic to get off the beaten track for a bit, and see a different, more rural and relaxed side of Japan. Tomorrow, I return once more to the tourist trail, though I am very much looking forward to it. I plan to take a ferry from Matsuyama Port, across the Inland Sea, to the city of Hiroshima, just north of here on Honshu. I hope to be able to write my next entry again from there, in a few days’ time. I am looking forward to learning more about World War Two from the Japanese perspective there, particularly as most
of my education and understanding of the war have been focused on the European perspective. I am sure there will be much to learn while I am there.
For now and until then, I will end this one here. Thank you for reading, and I wish everyone all the best.
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