While Japan boasts dozens of castles dotted around its islands, only twelve of them are considered “original”. Of those dozen, four are located on the little-visited island of Shikoku.
Matsuyama Castle (also known as Iyo-Matsuyama) is one of Japan’s hilltop fortresses, perched on a peak in what is now the downtown area of the capital city of Ehime Prefecture. The first castle keep was begun here in 1603. Then it was rebuilt again in 1642. Then a cataclysmic lightning strike on New Year’s Day in 1784 – which you’ll find mentioned on at least 50% of the captioned sigh boards at the site – leveled the keep and many of the surrounding buildings. The main tower wasn’t rebuilt for good until 1854. That may not seem that old compared to some sites in Japan but considering how many of the nation’s castles were lost to both the furor of the Meiji restoration and later World War II, it’s a pretty impressive feat.
While many castles feel like a repeat of the same exhibit over and over (to me, at least), Matsuyama had a few tricks up its sleeve to keep it interesting. The castle has multiple towers from which one can grab a view of the city below and surrounding hills, not just the main keep. Steep steep stairs – an original feature – and low-hanging ceilings make sure visitors are always paying attention and focusing on the architecture. 🙂 And for those with kids in tow, youngsters can try on a suit of samurai armor (authentically heavy!!!) and beat one of the large drums in an outlying tower.
The castle grounds are one of the best places in Matsuyama to enjoy the cherry blossoms in spring. While we were just a few days too early to really enjoy the sakura spectacle, it’s easy to imagine how amazing the grounds will look covered in a carpet of pink.
Matsuyama can be reached via a ropeway from the eastern side of the castle grounds. Or, if you’re feeling sprightly, you can tackle one of the mountain paths up to the keep. Frankly, despite the incline, it wasn’t as bad as we anticipated and with our four-year-old, we were able to reach the main gate from the parking area near the Ninomaru Shiseki Garden in about 15-20 minutes on an unusually warm spring day.
Even if you take the ropeway up, I recommend descending via the southwestern path because the Ninomaru Garden is a hidden gem. A water garden recreates the outlines of the old feudal lord’s residence while the back half of the garden is devoted to more traditional landscaping with stone lanterns and a very wabi-sabi teahouse tucked in the corner. There’s always something in bloom here, making this a popular spot for wedding photos (and dates that may eventually lead to wedding photos 😉 ).