What’s Uwajima so bullish about?


Long before you step into the firszt gift shop peddling the usual range of touristic fripperies, you are in no doubt about how serious Uwajima is on the subject of bulls. In fact, the first thing you see as you get out of the station is a great bronze statue of a bull, standing implacably before the entrance. And in the gift stores themselves, every souvenir ever made in the place is probably emblazoned with the image of the bovine.

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One of Uwajima’s many bovines

Elsewhere, too, in this town in southern Ehime Prefecture, there is no escaping them. Motifs of the animal decorate shopping arcades, town maps, taxis — even manhole covers. That’s how serious Uwajima is about bulls.

Uwajima’s bullish infatuation stems from its association with Japanese bullfighting, a sport that goes back over 300 years. Unlike the Spanish variety, which always looks like some prolonged exercise in dying, Japanese bullfighting pits bull against bull in a sort of pushing battle, with the bulls being egged on by their human handlers, who stand beside the beasts. The sport is known as “bull sumo,” which it does resemble, even to the extent of having bull yokozuna, ozeki and sekiwake of the East and West facing one another in the ring. Bloodshed is rare, and the loser gets to lock horns with an opponent another day.

The bouts with the bulls take place five times a year, though an agreeable town like Uwajima really is worth a visit anytime. Anyone who does make it to the place should definitely take along a good appetite. Uwajima is located on the western coast of Shikoku, and seafood figures prominently in the local fare. One thing you cannot miss out on is taimeshi. Though it sounds like a dish that a 5-year-old might put together in the kitchen — sesame, dashi stock and raw egg are mixed together, raw sea bream and seaweed are added, and then the lot is poured over rice — oddly enough, the concoction works extremely well. But then it is hard not to like a dish that at most local restaurants comes with a mini-instruction manual on how to assemble it.

While the seafood is the toothsome side to Uwajima, its most physically impressive side is apparent from virtually all parts of town. Illuminated at night, the castle on its high hill shines white and ghostly, looking vaguely sinister as it hangs above the town. But then clamber up the next morning and you see that the structure is in fact quite a charming, pint-size affair. As with most castles, there is not a great deal to the interior. But ask a few questions of the elderly attendant and, happily surprised at the interest, he will hop out of his ticket booth and go into great detail about the castle with the spirit of one whose affection for the place obviously stretches over a lifetime.

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The attractively, diminutive Uwajima castle

If the castle is, quite literally, the high point of any visit to Uwajima, the low point is found across the river. Next to the Taga Shrine, “deifying a sex god,” as the city information pamphlet observes, there stands a museum that any sex god would be proud of. This three-story museum, whose motto would seem to be the non-Freudian “a pipe is never just a pipe,” is jam-packed from floor to ceiling with objects and pictures from around the world whose sole subject is, well, shagging. The scale of the collection is staggering. Museum staff do not attempt to hazard a guess as to how many artifacts there are, but the number must easily run into the tens — if not hundreds — of thousands. But those in search of some titillation might be a tad disappointed; this is erotica strictly for the ethnologist. I found the whole thing about as stimulating as a ham sandwich. What you do wonder about, though, is the utter obsession of the priest who spent 50 years of his life assiduously putting the collection together, scouring the world for such objects.

News photoA phallic sculpture outside the sex museum

A museum that undoubtedly finds greater favor in the eyes of the city fathers is seen in the shape of the Date Museum. Here is a collection of pictures of the Date lords, who ruled from the castle on the hill, as well as the appurtenances of their lordly lives — the swords, armor, screens, scrolls and writing cases. But pride of place clearly goes to a family tree, which indicates how the local Uwajima Date are connected with the famous Date Masamune — one of the most powerful feudal lords of the 17th century. And, well, you can’t really begrudge a small town in Shikoku seeking its own little piece of greatness by association.

The local lords would probably be happy with how Uwajima has developed. It is clean and quiet. Like most small towns in Japan, Uwajima is not exactly awash with crime. Before I entered the Date Museum, on one of the busiest intersections in town was a policeman on duty. He was still there when I left. And he apparently had nothing better to do than to sit resplendently astride his huge white Honda in sunglasses and black leathers — as immobile as the bronze bull by the station.

Coming from the urban morass of Tokyo, you do, of course, expect Shikoku to be charming. And Uwajima is quite beguilingly soporific — once you get used to all those bulls. It’s a place to relax and soak up its own particular style of southern conviviality.

The place shuts down quickly at night: The lights in the arcade go off at 8, when the mall becomes the province of young skateboarders. Walking in the streets around the arcade, you see that this is a town where the habits of what seem like a bygone age persist: Middle-aged men still practice their golf swings while waiting for the traffic lights to change. The names of shops, restaurants and bars around the arcade — Harajuku, Tokyo-do, Marunouchi, Tokyo-fu (style) yakitori — seem to yearn for the bright lights of a distant capital. But, really, Uwajima, with its bulls and its bantam castle, is far better off how and where it is.