Be spirited away in Ehime
Pilgrim paths and ancient baths; Ehime is as much about the journey as it is the destination.
Ehime prefecture is made up of the north-west crescent of Shikoku and several islands extending out towards Honshu and Kyushu. It’s the last stop on the Shimanami Kaido, a series of bridges connecting Honshu to Shikoku that offers a spectacularly scenic bike ride over the Seto Inland Sea. It also contains 26 of the 88 temples on the circular Shikoku pilgrimage, as well as Japan’s oldest bathhouse, the highest peak in western Japan, bull sumo wrestling and an island ruled by feral cats.
Matsuyama is the prefectural capital and Shikoku’s largest city.
Most pilgrims wind up (or down) at Dogo Onsen, a public bathhouse with a 3,000 year backstory that was the inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s ‘Spirited Away’.
Dogo Onsen is Ehime’s emblem, discovered in ancient times as a source of medicinal waters and frequently described in art and literature ever since. The communal, multi-level bathhouse has two separate baths plus tatami rooms for relaxing; after soaking away your troubles you can sip tea on the second floor or head upstairs to a private room. Elsewhere, the impressive Matsuyama castle is also an interesting site, reachable by a ropeway or brief hike to the castle hilltop in the center of town.
Uchiko is an easy day trip from Matsuyama. Once a prospering merchant town, you can still walk along Yokaichi street and enjoy the picturesque Meiji period mansions, picking up local souvenirs on the way. Head further for Uwajima’s cheeky sex shrine and accompanying museum for a different kind of traditional experience. You can also witness togyu or bull sumo wrestling at certain times of the year.
An increasingly popular tourist spot is Aoshima “Cat Island”, famous for its feral felines that outnumber the local population by six to one. You can catch the ferry from Matsuyama to the cat kingdom, which is actually an old fishing village. Bring food for the cats and gifts for the mostly elderly local residents – Aoshima was never meant to be a tourist attraction.
Near the border with Kochi prefecture, sacred Mount Ishizuchi, “stone hammer”, is the highest mountain in western Japan and one of Japan’s seven holy mountains, drawing hikers and climbers from spring to autumn and skiers in the winter. You can make the pilgrimage to see the collection of stone hammers at the Joju shrine complex via a leisurely ropeway, or with a more challenging two-hour climb involving iron chains and a whole lotta’ upper arm strength.