Travel

Matsuyama: Under the radar, home to the contemporary

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Matsuyama inspires images of the past thanks to its location on the trail of Shikoku’s 88-temple pilgrimage, a rich tradition of haiku and a centuries-old onsen hot spring that inspired the bath house in the film “Spirited Away.” There’s nothing wrong with taking in some history, but all this looking back can give the impression that Ehime Prefecture’s capital city is just a diorama of yesteryear.

That image quickly falls away when navigating the crowded Gintengai Shopping Arcade on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Packs of older women peek into clothing stores while junior high school students line up to buy crepes from a stall down an alley. A singer-songwriter strums on an acoustic guitar in front of a CD store. It’s even possible to encounter a costumed version of the prefecture’s mascot, the mikan-dog hybrid Mikyan, hanging about just outside the entrance to the enclosed street.

Matsuyama is under the radar when compared to other getaways across the archipelago, yet it is well enough connected to make a weekend trip from Tokyo doable.

Matsuyama is a great place to take in the contemporary, ranging from art to hotels boasting “minimal luxury.” The city remains under the radar compared to other getaways across the archipelago, yet enough major airlines and low-cost carriers make the just-under-two-hour flight, making a weekend trip to Ehime Prefecture’s most bustling area doable, with plenty of time to enjoy the city, and get some rest.

Okaido is the most happening neighborhood in the city and a great first destination for visitors. Grab a one-day ticket (¥700) for the Iyotetsu Tram and get off at the Okaido stop. The area is sandwiched between the Okaido Shopping Arcade and the Matsuyama Ropeway Shopping Street. Walk down the former to see an abundance of stores, food stalls and cafes.

Lights, camera, relaxation: The 1,000-year-old Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama was inspiration for the bath houses in 'Spirited Away.' | GETTY IMAGES
Lights, camera, relaxation: The 1,000-year-old Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama was inspiration for the bath houses in ‘Spirited Away.’ | GETTY IMAGES

The Okaido Shopping Arcade connects to the equally bustling Gintengai Shopping Arcade, leading to an area near Matsuyamashi Station featuring a Takashimaya department store full of popular food stands (current hit — teeny-tiny croissants). On top of the building is a ferris wheel, which you can ride for free if you snagged that tram pass.

The Matsuyama Ropeway Shopping Street, meanwhile, works best as a place to snack. It’s a solid starting point to enjoy mikan oranges, Ehime Prefecture’s signature food. A few steps from the tram station is 10Station, which sells dozens of varieties of orange juice created in the area. Get wild and try the mikan beer, or learn the subtle differences of the fruit by getting a juice flight. A few minutes down the road is Shirasagiya, a Japanese confection store specializing in daifuku (stuffed sticky rice cakes) packed with fruit. The mikan flavor delivers, but don’t sleep on the kiwi.

For something a bit more hearty, head out to Udon Kutaro. Its noodles have earned it a mention in the Michelin Guide, though just as vital to each dish is the locally sourced meat and vegetables used for the tempura. Whatever you get, order the tempura asparagus on the side, as big as a shoehorn and tasty.

Belly full, it’s time to look at some art. The city hosts a variety of events throughout the year — the Dogo Onsenart event, where various hot springs and hotels in the Dogo area host art exhibits, recently wrapped up and probably won’t be back until later this year at the earliest — but for something permanent, take a trip to The Museum of Art, Ehime, for a mix of Western and Japanese paintings. The Seki Art Gallery, tucked away a few minutes from the onsen district, meanwhile, houses a more eclectic collection of drawings and sculptures.

Matsuyama claims a lot of quality lodging options, from the economical Hotel Dogo Yaya (featuring a breakfast buffet with about 20 types of mikan) to the artier Dogo Miyu. If you really want to splurge in pursuit of relaxation away from Tokyo, choose the Setouchi Retreat Aonagi hotel up in the mountains above the city.

The building was designed by the architect Tadao Ando as an art museum in the final years of the bubble era, but eventually morphed into a destination for “minimal luxury.” Aonagi offers only seven rooms, each with views of the sea. It also serves a kaiseki– (traditional multicourse) influenced dinner for guests and connects to a nearby golf course.

None of it ties to the history of the surrounding area, save for a reminder of late 20th-century capitalist excess. Yet, as you sit back and watch the sunset over the ocean, time is of secondary concern as you relax in one of Matsuyama’s most modern spaces.

Matsuyama is served by Matsuyama Airport, which connects directly to both Haneda and Narita airports (from ¥10,000, 1½ hours one way). Matsuyama Station is connected to Okayama Station (three hours, ¥6,800 one way) on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen line.