By Gabriel Phillips
Pulling into the city of Matsuyama I was immediately struck by both the heat and the crowds. Admittedly, it was the beginning of Golden Week and so I should have seen it coming, but when I had booked my holiday, I had imagined Matsuyama as a small, sleepy, coastal town that mimicked parts of the United Kingdom with hopefully better sushi.
While I maintained some drowsiness from napping on the train over, as I stepped out into the streets, I was shocked into self-awareness as a witnessed what appeared to be a miniature steam locomotive pulling itself through the streets of the city with a bizarre nonchalance that did not disturb any of the other city’s residents. Having travelled the length of Shikoku from Takamatsu, I had assumed that the towns would grow smaller as I went further Westward. This proved to be a shocking indictment of my geographical inexperience. Matsuyama is in fact a city of approximately one million people with a major castle and several large parks scattered throughout it with a high number of famous inhabitants that would put most British cities to shame.
Having been in the midst of travelling for the last few days in the blistering heat, alongside the unfortunate luck of my previous stop not having a shower, I had developed a tiredness alongside a desperate need for a wash. Luckily, as I strolled into the coin locker section of Matsuyama station, I picked up a tourist guide in English that extolled the virtues of Dogo Onsen. Naturally, I read the word ‘Onsen’ and immediately sprang into action. After some tense attempts to work the tram system, that was significantly aided by some helpful locals, I soon was on my way to the Onsen and happiness.
Riding the tram through the city, I was shocked by how pretty the city looks. It contains an undeniably Southern Spanish architectural experience. Matsuyama knows how to deal with heat and does it in an effective manner that ensures that everywhere is kept cool with the shadowy alleys close by the Eastern part of the city provides suitable shade and relief to enjoy Dango.
As I made my way up towards the Onsen, I was shocked as I realised that I had seen it before in multiple class videos on the virtues of Onsen culture and that it was in fact supposed to be one of the first Onsen in history and a favourite haunt of Natsume Soseki’s character in Botchan. As I pulled on the complimentary Yukata, I couldn’t help but notice the kind giggling from the staff as they saw I had picked one that was slightly too small, though their kindness was equally transformed to concern as I accidentally spilled milk over myself. It wouldn’t be a proper Japanese experience without some of my classic bumbling.
The next morning, I climbed up Freiburg Park, named after their twinning with the German town, before then travelling to see the magnificent castle that overlooked the city. They were truly magnificent sights, with ample greenery and hills that reminded you that Japan is a country of mountains and forests. My time in Matsuyama was far too short, even though the glimpse I took with newly made bar friends and Onsen staff did enamour the city to me. Despite its size, it retained the warmth of a small town that sought to make everyone welcome. While in Dogo Onsen, I had climbed the stairs to visit Botchan’s room. Apparently it was the only place in the area that he liked. I heartily disagree. With Matsuyama, there is a lot to like and even more to love.