Travel

Don’t build castles in the air, go see Ehime Prefecture’s real ones

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

I’m more than happy to start my day off on a literal high point, but as we tackle the steep incline up to Matsuyama’s hilltop castle, I am beginning to doubt our chosen method of arrival.

It’s an unseasonably warm day in this coastal city in northwestern Shikoku, the capital of Ehime Prefecture. Despite our early start, it feels as if the temperature has crept up 10 degrees just in the time it took to cross the sprawling parkland at the base of the castle. Our decision to forgo the chairlift that whisks most visitors to the summit now feels a bit unwise.

Soon, however, the path we’re following curves up into the woods, bringing a blessed bit of shade. It switchbacks through a forest of long-needled pines and eventually deposits us below Koraimon Gate, the doorless entryway (and recognized Important Cultural Property) to one of Japan’s few remaining original castles.

With only a dozen extant castles scattered around the Japanese archipelago, Matsuyama’s fortress is truly a gem. Perched far above the city, it was the seat of power of the Matsudaira lords for 2½ centuries. While an errant lightning bolt in 1784 caused a raging fire that took down at least a third of the castle’s buildings, the current structure dates mostly from the 1820s, one of the last great fortresses rebuilt before the end of the feudal era.

Today, it’s a castle that appeals to a multigenerational crowd. Shuffling along in the slippers we are asked to wear, my husband and I examine arrow slits and aged Edo Period (1603-1868) maps in the well-curated museum. My 4-year-old revels in banging the taiko drum housed in an outdoor tower and dressing herself in a suit of samurai armor that feels heavier than her. Our entire family appreciates the views from the donjon’s highest level, although the steep vertical stairs between floors make for an interesting challenge in our oversized footwear.

As impressive as Matsuyama Castle is, I find myself more enamored with the Ninomaru Garden back down at the bottom of the hill. The original quarters of the lord and his family are gone, razed in a fire in 1872. Even the foundations have been left buried beneath the dirt to protect them from the trampling feet of the 21st century.

Instead, a series of pools have been constructed over the former layout. Seasonal flowers line the exterior, from plum blossoms to sakura (cherry blossoms) to the occasional azalea. In the rear of the garden, stepping stones lead to a traditional tea house, ringed by a bamboo enclosure. It’s billed by the tourism association as a “lovers’ garden”; indeed, numerous couples stroll hand in hand around the water features and a photographer snaps copious photos of a bridal party in a colorfully blooming corner. From most points in the garden, a quick glance up the hill reveals the imposing silhouette of the donjon, never far from sight or mind in this old castle town.

As the lunch hour approaches, we board one of Matsuyama’s old-fashioned but convenient trams and rattle our way down the thoroughfares of the city center. Near the end of the line, not far from the famous Dogo Onsen bathhouse — one of the oldest springs in Japan — we score a table at the restful Nikitatsu-an restaurant. The specialty of the house are traditional kaiseki multicourse meals, but they’re paired with the popular beers that are churned out at the attached microbrewery. First produced in 1996, the beers are apparently best quaffed after a dip at the historical bathhouse. I find they complement our lunch just fine without the pre-meal soak, and the food itself rates highly as well. My Hiruzen set comprises a variety of tiny dishes, with fresh vegetables fried as tempura, locally caught sea bream and a small cup of firefly squid. Though the menu left the price as a bit of a mystery, I am shocked when my entire meal totals only ¥1,200.

The mountain road from Matsuyama to Ehime’s northern coast normally takes no more than an hour by car, but we’re tempted off the route by signs for Nibukawa Onsen. In winter, many city residents brave the snowy passes to bathe in the collection of alkaline hot springs along the village’s eponymous river. In summer, the campsites just outside town are brimming with nature enthusiasts seeking a forest escape.

Our visit seems to fall in one of the area’s long shoulder seasons. The onsen hotels seem fairly deserted; upstream, the parking areas along the gorge are completely devoid of cars. We swish our way along a silent forest trail and spend a delightful hour skipping rocks in the placid river. We linger much longer than initially anticipated, lulled by the serenity of the environment.

It’s late afternoon when we roll into the coastal city of Imabari. There isn’t much to entice the casual visitor here, but there is a castle. It’s donjon is the complete antithesis to Matsuyama’s — mere decades old, compared to Matsuyama’s centuries; barely above sea level, in contrast to Matsuyama’s elevation. And yet, strangely, I find myself quite taken with this fortress.

Built just meters from the lapping waves of the Kurushima Strait, the original castle was the personal fortress of local daimyo and famed Edo Period castle builder Takatora Todo. He added special touches, like an extra-wide moat to counteract the growing use of long-range firearms and sluice gates to control the height of the protective water barrier.

Sadly, Todo’s masterpiece was dismantled and replaced in 1610, only six years after its initial construction. The original building was moved to Kameyama near Kyoto and Todo soon followed. The Matsudaira clan moved into Imabari Castle by the 1630s to fill the void. Their seaside castle lasted until the Meiji Restoration but then fell to progress. The gleaming white donjon reflected in the tidal moat today dates from 1980, but as we walk the walls along the moat’s enclosure, examining the structure from all sides, I find myself willing to forgive its lack of antiquity.

With daylight on the wane, it seems only fitting that we end our day as we started. The are no signs and our GPS is minimally useful, but we eventually locate the winding narrow lane that leads us up to the heights of Mount Chikami. It’s yet another hike from the parking lot up multiple staircases to the viewing area but the effort is worth it. From the circular platform, the Inland Sea stretches out before us. The late afternoon sun glints off of the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge, part of the Shimanami Kaido toll road and the longest suspension bridge in the world.

This stretch of steel and its subsequent brethren span the distance between the larger islands that dot this corner of the Kurushima Strait, eventually linking up to Honshu. They’ll carry us home tomorrow on the round-about route back to Kyushu. But for now, we simply admire them from afar, seeming for all the world like silver threads on the cobalt water. It’s the perfect physical and figurative high point on which to end our day.

Entrance to Matsuyama Castle costs ¥510; the chairlift up the mountain — advisable in warm weather — also costs ¥510 for a round-trip ride. Entry to the Imabara Castle donjon’s museum is ¥500, but it’s free to walk the grounds and around the moat.