Going by the book in Shikoku

by Chris Bamforth

A classic, once noted Mark Twain wryly, is what everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read. Thus, Japan has such grand works as the hefty 11th-century “Tale of Genji,” which can claim universal respect, but relatively few readers.

One classic, however, that notably defies Twain’s dictum is the novel that appeared a century ago this year and quickly became one of the most-read, best-loved works in Japanese literature. “Botchan” brought fame and success to its author, Natsume Soseki, and it also threw the limelight on its setting — Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku.

The smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is also its least visited, though this anniversary year of “Botchan” is certain to have seen more visitors than usual to Matsuyama. This spot figured, however, on the tourist map long before “Botchan,” or even “Genji” saw the light of day.

With their country’s great profusion of thermal springs, the Japanese have always had a fondness for getting into hot water, and the Matsuyama spa of Dogo Onsen is one of the oldest and best known. The spa gets a mention in Japan’s earliest book, the eighth-century “Kojiki,” but local legend has it that the spa has been in use for 3,000 years — though that would date it to well over a millennium before the earliest written record of Japan.

Old-world character

The present building at the spa, Dogo Onsen Honkan, leaves no doubt about its being one of the most remarkable buildings in the country. Constructed in 1894, this is a magnificent, rambling edifice that it is impossible not to adore. Handsomely bedecked with lanterns that lend the place a spectacular old-world character when illuminated at night, Dogo Onsen Honkan easily makes the grade as an Important Cultural Property. And perhaps a greater accolade is that it clearly served as the model for the bathhouse that appears in Ha-yao Miyazaki’s acclaimed anime “Spirited Away.”

Though visitors to this part of Matsuyama may stay at one of the many hotels also offering hot-spring facilities clustered nearby, it is to this historical heart of the spa that many clump along in the evening in their crisp hotel yukata and geta. No less charming is the interior, which, with its wooden fittings, overhead fans and period lights is an atmospheric throwback to the Meiji Period (1868-1912).

It quickly becomes obvious, upon entering, that Dogo Onsen Honkan featured in “Botchan.” Here you can visit the Botchan Room, consume the three-colored sweet dumplings known as Botchan dango and view the stills in the main corridor of the staggering number of filmed versions that have been made of the novel. Indeed, elsewhere in Matsuyama, the Botchan Square, Botchan Densha (steam train), Botchan Stadium and numerous images of Botchan himself never let you forget about the fictive person who put the place on the map.

Botchan is very evident in the wares on sale in the covered thoroughfare connecting the Dogo Onsen terminus of the pintsize Bo-tchan Densha with Dogo Onsen Honkan. As around many a tourist spot, this is packed with stores enticing visitors to drop a little money and drag some Matsuyama knickknack off to the folks back home.

Ceramics and weaving

Cutting a rather different image, though, to the shops hawking the usual array of toothpick holders and thermometers, are those selling Tobe ceramics.

Situated just over 10 km to the south of Matsuyama, the town of Tobe has been making fine ceramics, largely porcelain, since the 18th century. Fashioned for the most part in simple color schemes of blue and white or eggshell, Tobe ware is an elegant exercise in subdued design.

Also executed in largely dichromatic patterns, and the only rival to Tobe ware as the more refined sort of local produce on sale in the stores around Dogo Onsen, is “Iyo kasuri.” Iyo is the name by which Ehime Prefecture, of which Ma-tsuyama is today the capital, was formerly known, and kasuri is the Japanese word for ikat — a kind of fabric in which the yarns are tie-dyed before weaving, thereby producing decorative white patterns against a dark background. First developed in India, ikat had reached Iyo by the early 19th century, where it was made in distinctive indigo and white designs.

At Matsuyama’s Mingei Iyo Kasuri Kaikan, the rubbernecker can learn everything they ever wanted to know about ikat and view the entire manufacturing process, from the pungent tie-dyeing in vats to the hand-weaving on wooden looms.

Striking individuals dressed in much plainer colors can often be seen in Matsuyama, especially beyond Dogo Onsen Honkan around Ishiteji. This is the 51st temple on the 88-temple pilgrimage route that snakes 1,400 km around the whole of Shikoku. The real pilgrims on this course are instantly recognizable, not only by their plain white tunics, broad-brimmed hats and staves, but also by the weathered look on their faces from having long braved the elements.

Looking markedly less authentic are the pilgrims who are ferried in by the bus-load. At the base of Ishiteji’s three-tiered pagoda are displayed pink bags of sand taken from each of the 88 temples. By placing their hands in turn on each of these, the less-energetic sort of worshipper can make a vicarious pilgrimage of the 88 in a couple of minutes instead of a couple of months on foot. Ishiteji is a pleasant enough temple, but a structure of much more imposing dimensions is located in the center of the city.

Situated on a hill 130 meters above Matsuyama is its castle, one of the few original fortresses in Japan to have survived from the Edo Period (1603-1867). Though the present structure was not completed until a relatively late 1854, Ma-tsuyama Castle, with its lofty perch, is one of the more attractive in the country. It is a great complex of high stone walls, fortified gates, turrets, and with a solid central donjon at its core. And from here, the whole of Matsuyama spreads around before stretching out toward the glittering, island-strewn Inland Sea.