Jen and I are trying to be more diligent about posting promptly after our escapades, so this time we’ve decided to split the blogging between castle and non-castle related material (Although I will also post some of my castle pictures). Trust me, you are in good hands with Jen’s castle-geekery. She purchased a subscription to a Japanese castle magazine (complete with collectible three-ring binder in which to keep the volumes) which contains all variety of deathly boring mundane details… err. I mean, fascinating technical specifications…
At any rate… We took off on a Friday afternoon, after springing Jen from the embassy, grabbed some bentos, jumped a shinkansen, and arrived in Marugame after 9 pm. Our hotel had a view of the bay and islands (not apparent until the next morning when I had a lovely soak in the onsen while enjoying the sea breezes) but due to a typhoon, it was also quite damp. We did discover that the vending machines in the hotel sold both whiskey and squid jerky… I can’t say that either of us decided to partake, but it’s nice to know if we ever had a desperate squid-jerky craving…
We spent our first day huddling under our umbrellas, visiting a famous garden, and the first of the castles. (It was around this point that I discovered Jen had brought photocopies of the castle magazine volumes that contained information about the castles we were about to visit…) Aside from the two tourist attractions, Marugame is an industrial and rather un-extraordinary little town that seemed composed primarily of cranes (steel, not feathered) and travel agents. The garden was beautiful — exceedingly well tended, and peopled with packs of touring grannies and hopeful ducks. When we looked up the site online, all we found pictures of was a large red bridge, but in fact some of the sweetest corners of the garden were the small bridges and islands perched over flotillas of white lotus flowers.
Next, we hopped a train to Matsuyama as the rain increased to a downpour, and had a very cozy ride through the rice paddies. Matsuyama has an adorable street-car public transport system, which chugged along to the Matsuyama castle area. (Note that this was a 2-castle day. Jen was a happy camper.) Walking down the road toward the castle we stopped in a mikan specialty shop and treated ourselves to a mikan juice tasting set — three different types of clementine juices, ranging from quite sweet to downright tangy. Citrus is one of the specialties of Ehime prefecture in Shikoku, and mikans are a particular favorite. I will let Jen tell you more about Matsuyama castle, but let me just say that we both agreed that it was one of our favorites.
We lingered in and around the castle until it closed, and then re-boarded a street-car toward our hotel. The hotel was right next to another famous feature of Matsuyama: Dogo Onsen. Dogo Onsen is one of the oldest onsen in Japan, with literary references to it dating back to 759. It has one bath which is reserved only for the imperial family, and is reputed to have healing abilities. Some of you anime geeks will also recognize it as the main building in Spirited Away. The building is quite beautiful, with privacy screens hanging in front of all the upper balconies, a taiko tower on the roof, and egrets all around. There was always a group of Japanese girls in colorful yukata having their photos taken in front, and also a handful of rickshaw runners wearing sports-tabis waiting to pull you around the district in their cart. After some intensive debate we settled on dinner first, onsen later, and so we set off in search of food.
We were distracted on the way by a temple up a massive set of stairs. This turned out to be Isaniwa shrine, which is not one of the 88 temples of the Shikoku pilgrimage, but was very cute. The pilgrimage is a sequence of temples visited, traditionally on foot, but now by all manner of transportation, by white-clad Buddhist pilgrims. When I told some of the Japanese ladies at the embassy that we were headed to Shikoku, they said “What are you, a monk?” It’s one of the things that Shikoku is famous for.
Some of you are probably less impressed by our non-Japanese food adventures, but let me tell you, it’s not everyday you find yourself a D.O.C. pizza italian joint. For all you heathens out there, D.O.C. stands for ‘Denominazione di Origine Controllata’, and is the high holy grail of neapolitan pizzas, made with only certain ingredients, in certain ways, and baked in a wood fire oven. Our favorite pizza place in DC had D.O.C. pizzas, but Shikoku was not a place we had anticipated finding a D.O.C. restaurant. We also ordered mussels cooked in sake and garlic, and attracted some stares when Jen (lacking bread for dipping) started just drinking the liquid with a spoon. It really was that good.
After dinner, we immersed ourselves in the onsen. The room was lovely, with a nice statue in the center, but it was also crowded. We had to wait a while to get a shower-seat (you have to wash yourself before getting into the water) and then again as we got out. Since there are fewer gaijin (foreigners) in Shikoku, we also got stared at a lot more than usual. The staring is usually subtle, but after being here for a while it’s also always clear when everyone is trying to watch us without looking like they’re just staring. We also opted for the least expensive option — there are other baths with different water (other minerals, other temperatures, other rooms) as well as spa-like perks, and even tea service, none of which we tried. Having concluded a two-castle day, we were happy just to turn in and watch some bizarre Japanese game-show on tv before falling asleep.