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Sunday, May 3, 2009

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Pale beauty: Matsuyama Castle, built between 1603-27, has been compared with the castles of Himeji and Wakayama, which are also multiwing, hilltop fortresses. From its upper reaches, visitors are able to take in panoramic views of the city toward the mountains in one direction, and over the Inland Sea in the other. JEFF KINGSTON

Encore Matsuyama!

The capital of Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku has something for all — and then more


Special to The Japan Times

Nibbling a sweet mikan from Ehime, prime terroir for Japan's citrus, I decided to explore somewhere I had a vague feeling might be an interesting off-the-beaten ramble.

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Deep sleep: A reclining Buddha next to Koshoji Temple in Uchiko. JEFF KINGSTON

Never averse to a break from Tokyo,I booked a ticket to Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime Prefecture. What I knew about the place came from "Botchan," a wretched novel by Soseki Natsume that is mostly about the troubles a math teacher from Tokyo encountered while teaching in Matsuyama in the early 20th century.

The city embraces "Botchan" as one of its claims to fame — there is even a wooden Meiji Era (1868-1912) tram named after it — but one wonders if anyone actually read it since it is a silly tale that mostly disses the locals. The book ends with the eponymous protagonist back in Tokyo, relieved to have escaped the boonies.

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In the pink: A premises in the city's seedy "entertainment" zone. JEFF KINGSTON

For me, it was a serendipitous journey punctuated with friendly people accustomed to a less frenetic pace of life. Nestled in western Shikoku along the Inland Sea, Ehime is one of the undiscovered beauties of Japan, with a picturesque coastline that gives way to undulating landscapes inland. It's a prime rambling zone.

Matsuyama is a beguiling castle town and a gourmet oasis. It is perhaps best known for Dogo Spa, supposedly the oldest onsen (hot-springs establishment) in Japan. One of Matsuyama's charms is the convenient trolley system, and from downtown it takes only 10 minutes on a tram to reach the venerable Dogo facility frequented by Botchan.

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Old stager: Uchiko's 1916 kabuki theater now hosts rock concerts, too. JEFF KINGSTON

In his day, the first-class service included a private room and a girl to scrub your back and then pour green tea for you afterward as you nibbled sweet dango (dough balls on a stick). You can still pamper yourself in similar style — minus the back scrub, alas. For ¥1,500 for 80 minutes, it's the relaxing way to go, since the main bath is much more raucous.

Afterward, ask to be shown the Emperor's private chambers and bath. This section has only been used 10 times, and not since when it was used by Emperor Showa in 1950 and his brother in 1952. It features a toilet that apparently was never used, although the attendant delights in pointing out that the tray filled with sand at the bottom can be slid out to inspect any royal stool!

For some 1,300 years, Dogo has done well by catering to bathers, revelers and pilgrims. The bar across the street from the bathhouse serves locally brewed beer that hits the spot the green tea missed. Exiting the bar, it's a short stumble to the pink zone of Dogo's seedy back streets. I found it baffling that the burly, scowling touts, whose job is to lure customers into their joints, are the scary type that most sane people would avoid like the plague. Yet this business model seems to work if the number of establishments and range of services on offer is any indication.

From the profane, it is a short walk to the sacred, as Ishite-ji, the venerable No. 51 on the great pilgrimage circuit of Shikoku's 88 temples, is just down the road. It is a beautiful temple with a pagoda, flapping pennants, giant sandals (a healing talisman devoted to the cure of the pilgrims' foot and leg ailments) and a "secret" passage to the hill above, where there is an odd mandala-shaped building with many wooden Buddhist statues inside. Clearly someone had an inspiration, but I couldn't find anyone to explain what it was.

Pilgrim-watching is interesting — they dress in shades of white, carry staffs and mostly travel on buses in groups rather than walking the 88-temple circuit. This may be the quickest way to notch up temple visits, but surely it must lower the karmic merit earned. Many of the pilgrims enter the temple grounds, rush over to the calligrapher's window, where their scroll is inscribed attesting to their passage, fork over a wad of dosh, take a quick look around and then scurry back to the bus. This is veneration on a tight schedule.

Only 10 minutes away by taxi is Matsuyama's other castle: Dogo-jo, an over-the-top love hotel with its own reflecting pond, which the government seized after nonpayment of taxes and is auctioning off online. It's now closed, but the massive scale of the castle is amazing, a testament to the dreams of someone who imagined that there was heaps of money to be made from tapping into the samurai-wannabe market.

The real castle is even more impressive. The fortress of Matsuyama-jo was originally built between 1603 and 1627. As one ascends through a series of gates, marveling at the massive stone keep and graceful roof lines, it is like a medieval time machine. Peering through the narrow arrow slits that command the way in, it's clear that the odds could not have been very high for attackers.

Inside, there is a museum of sorts, with some impressive armor, but the main point is to scramble up the steep and slippery staircases to the top. The hilltop location provides panoramic views over the city and toward the mountains in one direction and the Inland Sea on the other.

Thirsty from the climb, I opted for the chairlift that descends through cherry trees and leaves one headed in the right direction — the extensive entertainment district behind the LaForet Building. It's a wild place in which to wander amid the throngs at twilight, and one is spoiled for choice. Based on a local tip, though, I settled on Sake 8 for some incredible seafood and a few flagons of local sake, including a very tasty Shirokawa-go. But probably the best place for fish in town is inexplicably at Misaki Ryoji Monogatari, which is one of the dreary shopping malls on the outskirts. There one feasts on ise-ebi (crayfish), awabi (abalone), hana-saba (a type of mackerel) and superfresh local delicacies for much less than you'd pay in Tokyo.

Waking to a beautiful day, only slightly the worse for wear, I rented a car and visited the restaurant's main branch at the end of a gorgeous two-hour coastline drive to the Misaki Peninsula. It's worth the drive simply to sit gazing out of the wall-to-wall picture windows overlooking the Inland Sea. Just beyond is a scenic park with a lighthouse at the end and an abandoned cannon emplacement on the hill above — apparently now something of a lovers' lane — with a dreamy view of passing ships steaming through the straits between Shikoku, Honshu and Kyushu.

Driving back, I stopped off in Uchiko, a lovely restored town with wonderful old buildings, including a wax factory and a stunning kabuki theater far larger than one would expect in a place this size. There must have been lots of money in candles in the old days. There are still occasional kabuki performances and it sometimes serves as a venue for local rock bands. Down the street is the traditional Matsunoya Ryokan (Japanese-style inn), but there is an Italian restaurant on the ground floor in case you hanker after some homemade pasta.

If they had sidewalks, they would probably roll them up at 8 p.m., but for a quiet interlude there are some lovingly restored rooms in guesthouses — Nakahaga is very nice, with a spacious room and loft in a restored traditional warehouse next to a garden — that offer a charming alternative to urban Matsuyama, which is less than 30 minutes away by train. Flying back to Tokyo,I knew an encore was in store.

From Haneda Airport it takes 1 hr 25 min and can cost as little as ¥22,000 if you book ahead. Sake 8, www.sakehachi.com; Misaki Ryoji Monogatari, www.misaki.or.jp; Nakahaga Guest House, nakahaga.ybb.ne.jp


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