Six Days in Shikoku: Matsuyama


I took a bus leaving the lower ropeway station of Ishizuchi-san, returned to Saijo, picked up my luggage, visited a little museum about local Saijo culture, and then hopped on a bus to Matsuyama.

Matsuyama is in northwestern Shikoku

I was hoping the bus would be faster than the train since the train goes all of the way north to Imabari before going south to Matsuyama, whereas the bus can take the roads which go straight from Saijo to Matsuyama. Well, there are two shortcut roads between Saijo and Matsuyama, and while one of them is a freeway, the bus stuck to the slow road to make stops en route.

However, I was rewarded for taking with one of the most memorable views of the moon I have ever seen. I’ll quote my diary “I saw the full moon roll like a marble between two mountains (maybe one was Ishizuchi?) and then roll up and launch into the air”. Alas, no photos.


Upon arriving in Matsuyama, I got on a streetcar heading straight for Dogo Onsen, and then checked into Sen Guesthouse. I was greeted by the co-owner from Texas. We talked about my travel plans, and I mentioned that I was planning to go to South Korea for two months, and I found out that he had lived in South Korea for a few years. He then said “If you get bored of South Korea, you can always go to Taiwan.” I can go to Taiwan? HA HA HA HA HA HA. I then explained that I had lived in Taiwan for three years. It turns out that he had never been to Taiwan, but he really wanted to go.


Much as I enjoy talking to guesthouse owners, I also really want to soak in an onsen (hot spring), and Sen Guesthouse is only a five-minute walk away from Dogo Onsen, one of the oldest developed onsen in Japan.


I went for the deluxe package at Dogo Onsen – hey, if I’m only going to be there once, why not go all the way? I went to both the large and the small female baths – the water is the same, but the large bath feels like a busy Roman bathhouse, whereas the small bath (which is only for people who pay the higher price) feels calmer and more intimate. I know that the water is supposed to have amazing properties but … I wasn’t impressed. As I’ve said, I went to a lot of onsen in Japan, so I got pretty high standards. To me, the water at Dogo Onsen isn’t in the same league as Yunomine Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture (which has the oldest bathhouse in all of Japan – it’s even older than Dogo Onsen), Noboribetsu Onsen in Hokkaido, or Tsuru-no-yu in Akita Prefecture.


But hey, a hot spring soak is a hot spring soak, and after a hike even soaking in a bad onsen like Kusugawa Onsen in Yakushima is nice (note: never go to Kusugawa Onsen unless you are desperate for a bath or you are desperately curious about bad Japanese onsen), and Dogo Onsen is way, way, way better that Kusugawa onsen.


What makes Dogo Onsen special is everything aside from the water. The architecture of the building itself is noteworthy (it helped inspire Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, though I didn’t really appreciate it since it was at night and its exterior is not well-lit. If you go for the more expensive option, it is the most deluxe treatment you’ll get at an onsen short of staying overnight in an onsen ryokan. There is a special rest area where, among other things, I wrote in my travel diary about hiking up Ishizuchi-san. It was nice to observe the other people lounging around. There was also an LED scream showing colorful patterns.


The most special part, however, was seeing the baths built for the exclusive use of the imperial family. Apparently, they haven’t been used since the 1950s since nowadays the imperial family just uses the baths in whatever hotel they stay at in Matsuyama rather that go to the public bath. The guide explains the significance of many difference features of the imperial bath, and it is impressive just how much gets lavished on the Japanese imperial family simply because of their royal status. It wasn’t so much the luxury – I imagine you could get something just as luxurious at a good onsen ryokan for about 200 USD per night (i.e. it’s within reach of the upper middle class), but all of the particular details and specific rules of the proper way to treat the imperial family because they are the imperial family. Among other things, photography is forbidden, so I didn’t take any photos in the imperial baths.


Sen Guesthouse is a good guesthouse. The lounge area is chill. They also have a very interesting selection of books, including Dogs and Demons (which I first encountered in Oboke), which I read some more of. A lot of the books were about religion, which makes sense, since Sen Guesthouse caters to henro passing through Matsuyama (if you don’t know what a henro is, read this post).


Furthermore, I cooked some of the best food I ever cooked in Japan in that kitchen at Sen Guesthouse. Other guests even commented on how good it smelled. Thank you, Muji to Go, for supplying such tasty ingredients.


The next day, I saw the nostalgia chibi choo-choo train in the photo above making its way on streetcar rails.


I basically only had time to see one thing in Matsuyama that day before I had to leave Shikoku, and naturally I chose to see Matsuyama Castle (note: nearly all of the photos in this post show Matsuyama Castle since, unlike Dogo Onsen, there aren’t rules against photography there).


I could have just walked up, but there is a chairlift and a cable car (why?), and since the chairlift was inexpensive, I decided it would be the fun way to go up.


I had already seen Kumamoto Castle, Himeiji Castle (supposedly the greatest castle in Japan), Shikone Castle, Inuyama Castle, Kanezawa Castle, and my favorite, Matsumoto Castle. Just as I felt I had seen enough temples, I also felt I had seen enough castles, and that Matsuyama caslte wouldn’t make any impression on me.


First of all, Matsuyama Castle has excellent views over the city – some of the best views I ever saw looking out from any castle (note: I visited Shikone Castle during hazy weather, so I did not get great views over Lake Biwa).


The castle itself, however, is also lovely in its own right. It is the last castle which was (re)built during the Edo period, and that is the structure which still stands there, so it has an authentic quality that castles rebuilt in the 20th century lack.


Perhaps I loved Matsuyama castle for the same reason I loved Konpira-san – just as Konpira-san and Zentsuji were the last major religious places I would visit in Japan, Matsuyama was my last Japanese castle.


The next and final post in this series will describe my journey out of Shikoku, and present some concluding thoughts.

Six Days in Shikoku: Ishizuchi – The Roof of Western Japan

There is a blue sky above with little puffs of white clouds.  The mountian ridge rises up before us, with a sharp green slope of rugged trees on the left, with the peak in the upper right side of the photo, crowned by a little wooden Shinto shrine dwafed by the massive forms below it.

This is it! This is the top of Ishizuchi-san, the highest mountain in western Japan.

The map shows that Ishizuchi-san is in northwestern Shikoku


Once I got up to Ishizuchi-jinja, the sight of the green mountains which lay beyond dazzled me.


Here’s a panorama shot of the Green Mountains Behind Ishizuchi-san (i.e. the Rugged Heart of Shikoku).


I saw Ishizuchi-jinja itself, the very important shrine on Misen (the peak at 1974 meters). Taking photos of the interior of the shrine is forbidden, so if you want to see it, you’ll have to go in person.

Since you can't see what's inside the shrine in this photo, this photo is OK.

Since you can’t see what’s inside the shrine in this photo, this photo is OK.

By itself, the shrine doesn’t look so different from a zillion other Shinto shrines in Japan.


It’s when you combine the sight of this shrine with its surroundings that you start saying ‘wow’.


Most hikers only go to Misen, since that is where Ishizuchi-jinja is. However, the true summit of Ishizuchi-san is Tengu-dake (Heavenly Dog Peak).

The sharp point of Tengu-dake, 1982 meters above sea level, the highest point in all of western Japan

The sharp point of Tengu-dake, 1982 meters above sea level, the highest point in all of western Japan

I had read that the trail from Misen to Tengu-dake was difficult, with a big drop. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it. But when I saw it, I thought – heck, this isn’t any worse than a lot of the peaks I’ve climbed up in Taiwan!


I was very grateful to Taiwan for offering so many rocky, scrambling peaks with big drops so I could build up the nerve it takes to hike up a peak like Tengu-dake without freaking out.

Bare tree trunks stick up from the slope, with majestic mountain peaks behind

On the trail between Misen and Tengu-dake

Of course, any reasonable person would be careful around sharp long drops like that, but compared to what I had been imagining the trail to Tengu-dake being like, it was relaxing.


If I hadn’t built up that nerve in Taiwan, I would have felt a lot less comfortable going to Tengu-dake.


And if I hadn’t gone to Tengu-dake, I would have missed the most beautiful sight I ever saw in Western Japan.


That’s right – the view from Tengu-dake looking towards Misen is the most beautiful thing I saw in all of my travels around western Japan (and I went further afield than the vast majority of foreign tourists who go to western Japan).


It’s so beautiful, I’m going to show you another photo.


And I’m going to show you yet another photo.


Alas, I did have a bus to catch, so I made my way back to Misen.

Along the trail, back to Ishizuchi-jinja at Misen.

Along the trail, back to Ishizuchi-jinja at Misen.

I am so glad that this was my final hike in Japan. It is one of the best.



After all of this hiking, I was looking forward to soaking in an onsen. There is an onsen right by the lower ropeway station, but I was holding out because I planned to go to one of Japan’s most famous onsen that evening – an onsen which helped inspire Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. That’s right, I was going to Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama. Read about it in the next post!


Six Days in Shikoku: Ascending Ishizuchi-san


One of the things I most wanted to do in Shikoku was hike Ishizuchi-san, one of the seven great sacred mountains of Japan. At 1982 meters above sea level, it’s also the highest peak in western Japan. It was my last hike in Japan.

The map shows that Ishizuchi-san is in northwestern Shikoku

There are four buses per day from Saijo City to the Ishizuchi-san ropeway station. I took the first one. My diary says “The bus to Nishinowkawa takes a scenic route through forested hill/mountains, [with] a dammed river which cuts through a stone gorge”. The bus must have gone near one of the 88 temples, for I saw some walking henro on the road (most likely Temple 60, which is on the slope of Ishizuchi-san).


There is a trailhead near the ropeway station, and I could have done the whole hike on foot. However, given that there are only four buses per day, I figured that I shouldn’t risk missing the last bus out. Sure, I *probably* could have made it to the last bus even if I hiked without using the ropeway, but I would have been nervous and in a rush, and that wouldn’t have been much fun. So I decided to use the ropeway and enjoy the hike without worrying about missing the last bus.


A quote from my diary: “The cable car whisked us up, with a good view of a green mountain on the other side of the valley”.


Ishizuchi is one of the most important centers of shugendo – a religious tradition which fuses Shintoism and Buddhism. It only took about 20 minutes to walk from the upper ropeway station to Ishizuchi-jinja Joju-sha, a rather large shrine complex. In addition to multiple buildings for worship, there are several ryokan where visitors can stay overnight (expensive), as well as shops selling things to visitors.

We see a wooden statue of a man in the foreground, and in the background, therough a window, we see Ishizuchi-san

In the windows of this room, you could see Ishizuchi-san itself.


After passing through the large shrine complex, the trail went downhill, then a steady uphill again. Even though September is not the hottest time of year in Japan, and we were in the mountains, everyone was sweating a little. My diary says “I was glad that most of the hike was shaded”.


For centuries, women had been forbidden on Ishizuchi-san. However, the restriction on women was lifted at some point in the 20th century, which is how I was able to hike. There is still one day a year when only men are allowed to hike Ishizuchi-san – fortunately for me, this wasn’t that day.


Eventually, the views did open up.


I’ve read that, in clear weather, it’s possible to see practically all of Shikoku, as well as the Aso caldera in Kyushu. The skies weren’t that clear when I hiked, but the distant clouds have their own beauty.


It seems that, at the time of my hike, they were (re)building one of the shelters along the trail. There was a helicopter bringing in supplies, and at one point I had to wait for a helicopter to clear before proceeding.


The degree to which Japanese people use helicopters seems ridiculous to me. One time, I witnessed a helicopter sending supplies to a place which was only a 40-minute walk away from the nearest road – at it was not a particularly strenuous trail (this was in Yakushima). When I asked the men why they were using a helicopter, they said nobody wants to carry supplies.


I’ve been told multiple times, by multiple people, that there are no mountain porters in Japan. This is not entirely true. I met one mountain porter in Japan. He’s from Nepal, he was hired to carry alcoholic beverages to a mountain shelter so they could be sold to hikers at inflated prices, and he was also trying to persuade Japanese hikers to hire him to serve as their hiking guide in the Himalayas. I also met a Japanese man who was making a very short portering run to resupply a mountain shelter (by ‘very short’ I mean that he only had to hike about one hour between the shelter and the nearest chairlift).


Taiwan does have quite a few mountain porters. Helicopter drops are still sometimes used in emergencies or for supplies which are particularly difficult for porters to handle, but porters are the default means of moving supplies in areas inaccessible to motor vehicles. Most mountain porters are indigenous people, and they earn decent pay for people living in Taiwanese mountains. I once met a 19-year-old porter who already had a wife, and a baby, and was saving money to buy a house, which he expected to be able to buy in a couple years. Very few 19-year-olds in the USA expect to be able to buy a house in a couple years.


This, of course, is tied to the stereotyping of indigenous people in Taiwanese culture. Taiwanese people tell me that indigenous people are particularly strong and suited for heavy work, unlike the Han Taiwanese (the vast majority of the population). Many Taiwanese people consider indigenous people to be unfit for any kind of work other than manual labor or singing and dancing – this makes it difficult for indigenous people to get white-collar jobs in Taiwan.


Taiwan, at least, has a group of people who are willing to work as porters. Japan doesn’t have that among its native population, and Japan is very reluctant to accept immigrants (even though the Japanese government seems to be laxer about enforcing immigration rules in the mountains than in the cities). Thus, even though helicopters require a ton of fuel, and gasoline is significantly more expensive in Japan than in Taiwan … well, the Japanese can’t hire porters they don’t have, so they use the helicopters they do have.


There are three sets of chains up to the peak. Pilgrims are supposed to use the chains to go up. If I really wanted to, I could have gone up the chains as well. However, I did not come to Ishizuchi-san for religious reasons, and I don’t like going up chains, so I went up the stairs instead.



I will describe the roof of Shikoku – and the most beautiful sight I saw in all of western Japan – in the next post.


Six Days in Shikoku: Zentsuji to Saijo

The photo shows a five-level wooden pagoda, with a bright blue sky behind it, and treen branches in the foreground on the upper-right side and center-left side of the photo.

Just one stop away from JR Kotohira is JR Zentsuji, and about a twenty minute walk away from JR Zentsuji station is Zentsuji itself. Zentsuji is the largest and most famous of the 88 Temples of Shikoku, for it is where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, was born and raised, and it is the first Shingon Buddhist temple ever established in Japan.

The map shows the location of Zentsuji and Saijo City.

The map shows the location of Zentsuji and Saijo City.

My guidebook says that, if you’re only going to visit one of the 88 Temples of Shikoku, you should try to make that one temple Zentsuji.


It’s certainly on a bigger scale than the other of the 88 Temples of Shikoku I visited, in fact, it is the biggest temple in Shikoku (though it is on a smaller scale than Konpira-san, which I had visited earlier in the day).


One of the sights of Zentsuji is the wooden pagoda, shown in the photo above.


There is a little dark tunnel which visitors can pass through in exchange for a small fee. Since I had a similar experience in Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, I decided to pass the experience here.


There is an arcade with illustrations of the life of Kobo Daishi.


Since I don’t actually know much about the life of Kobo Daishi, I didn’t recognize the episodes of his life in the pictures.


I wonder, is the picture above showing Kobo Daishi meditating in the cave at Muroto Cape (in Shikoku) and achieving enlightenment? Even I know about that incident in the life of Kobo Daishi.


I admit, I am not sure what the purpose of most of these structures are.


I know that there is a tree in the temple which supposedly was around when Kobo Daishi was a boy. Is it the tree in the photo above? I don’t remember.


After visiting Zentsuji, I returned to JR Zentsuji station, and rode trains all the way to Saijo, thus leaving Kagawa Prefecture a second time and entering Ehime prefecture. Since I didn’t take any photos on the trains, all of the photos in this post are from Zentsuji.


‘Iyo’, of course, is the old name for Ehime prefecture, and was one of the ‘four countries’ (‘Shikoku’ means ‘four countries’ in Japanese). The train station in Saijo city is ‘Iyo-Saijo’, following the tradition of Shikoku train stations putting the old domain names (Sanuki, Awa, Iyo, Tosa) in train station names.


After hearing about how sparse public transportation is in Shikoku, and travelling in Hokkaido and Tohoku, I was expecting lots of inconvenience. (Note … everything you hear about Japan being so public-transit friendly, and trains always being on time, and how fast Japenese trains are, etc. … does not apply to Hokkaido and Tohoku, though to be fair Hokkaido and Tohoku have much better public transit networks than parts of the United States with similar population density). Thus, I was pleasantly surprised that the trains from Zentsuji to Saijo were 1) not late or cancelled 2) the local trains ran about once an hour 3) I only had to make two transfers, and the wait time between transfers wasn’t more than 30 minutes. You can’t appreciate how convenient this is unless you’ve travelled extensively by public transit in regions where trains/buses only run once every three hours, and they might be delayed/cancelled, and transfers can take 2+ hours.


Of course, I should point out that I only travelled in northern Shikoku, which is where the vast majority of the population, and thus public transit services, are. I strongly suspect that public transit in southern Shikoku is no more convenient than public transit in eastern Hokkaido.


In any case, I got to spend a bit less than three hours riding trains, which suited me just fine. I appreciated spending hours riding trains in Japan since they allowed me to rest, read, do travel planning, look out the window, etc. While I was walking from the temple back to JR Zentsuji station, I picked up some snacks as well as a cold, fruit-flavored alcoholic beverage. I discovered that the cold, cheap, fruit-flavored sugary alcoholic drinks found in convenience stores all over Japan are a great thing to drink on trains – I didn’t want to be the least bit impaired by alcohol when I was doing something active like a hike or visiting an important cultural place, but I felt that a long train ride was the perfect place to dull my senses a little and enjoy the buzz. I looked out the window, though I don’t remember what I saw. I also wrote in my diary about my one-day tour of the temples in Tokushima prefecture.


I arrived at Iyo-Saijo station a little before sunset. I didn’t have any reservation for a place to sleep for the night, but that turned out to be not a problem – there are a number of inexpensive business hotels clustered around Iyo-Saijo station. I walked around, and then went inside the hotel with the lowest advertised price (I think it was about 3,000 yen per night). Nobody was inside, but there was a phone number. I called the number, and about ten minutes later, a middle-aged Japanese woman walked in to give me a room key and accept my payment. I think I was the only person, guest or staff, in the hotel building that night. There seemed to be something off about the room – as in the furniture didn’t really fit in the space or something – but since it was clean, and everything worked in the bathroom, and the bed was fine, I definitely got my money’s worth.

Why spend a night in Saijo city? Because I wanted to go to Ishizuchi-san, and to get an early start, I had to take the first bus leaving Saijo City in the morning. Ishizuchi-san will be featured in my next post.