Friday, 13 April 2018

Gardens and castles

Saturday 7 April - It is still cold but at least it has stopped raining. My leg is almost back to normal and we have formulated a plan to head to Matsuyama on Sunday, stay there a few days and then walk part of the 88 temple pilgrimage from there back to Temple 1 at Bando. This walk is 360km  - a manageable distance - and as there are good transport links along this section, if my leg decides to play up then we can always make use of the buses and the trains.

When we walked the whole of the 88 temple pilgrimage four years ago, by the time we reached Matsuyama we were exhausted and in no state to do this last section of the pilgrimage justice and there are large parts of the route that I cannot remember at all - I must have been catatonic. It seems a good idea to revisit this part of the walk again and this time experience it properly rather than resenting every sodding, bastard kilometre,

We spend our last full day at Takamatsu at Ritsurin Park, one of Japan's best known gardens. The wind and rain have whisked away the delicate cherry blossom petals which now lie strewn across the floor under the avenue of trees, but the immaculately manicured pines and the meticulously designed lakes and bridges are a delight.

On Sunday morning we visit the castle gardens at Takamatsu before we leave. The castle itself is no more, it was destroyed during the Meiji period, though the solid walls remain and have been extensively restored. The castle's situation was unusual in that it was built, not on top of a hill, like most Japanese castles, but on flat marshland adjacent to the sea, which floods the moat through a sluice gate in the grounds.

Port at Takamatsu
The train journey from Takamatsu to Matsuyama is a pleasure; the Yosan Line travels between mountains and sea for much of its length and offers us spectacular views of the mountains of central Shikoku including Mount Ishizuchi, the highest in western Japan and much loved and revered by the people of Shikoku.

Matsuyama is a big city which acts like it's a small town. I don't know if it's the old-fashioned feel of the historical centre with the famous old baths at Dogo Onsen and the Botchan steam train that trundles around the streets, or whether its the relaxed way that people wander around the shops in their bathrobes, or whether it is just that wherever you are in the city you can generally see a green and tree-covered mountain or hill somewhere close by, but somehow Matsuyama feels like a cosy place despite the fact that it is home to half a million  people.

Dogo Onsen
Botchan train

Normally at Matsuyama we stay at the fantastic Sen Guesthouse, but the owners are out of town for a couple of days. So we plan to camp out for two nights and then stay at Sen for two nights. We tramp out  along a long and busy road to a place which looks promising on the map  - a park with toilets and a henro (pilgrim) rest hut. It turns out to be an overgrown graveyard with no toilets and no hut as far as we can see.

Mick is not keen on camping here and announces he is going to pull out the credit card. 'I know we're on a budget Ellie, but we're not  destitute. We can go into a hotel if necessary.' I know from experience there is no arguing with Mick once he has decided on something and anyway if he Mick is paying for the room why would I argue anyway?

So we book two nights at the Number One Matsuyama Hotel. I don't imagine it is really the number one in Matsuyama- it is up against some pretty stiff competition and it only costs us (costs Mick) the equivalent of £70 per night for the two of us, but it is a very nice place and the buffet breakfast is fantastic. We stuff ourselves on rice, various forms of egg (raw, omelette and scrambled mixed with prawns), noodles, fried chicken, salad, tofu, sausage, tomatoes, seaweed and little fishes I don't know the name of and I also have natto, fermented soy beans. Mick doesn't have any natto as he says it looks like snot (which it does).

Hotel Number One also has a sento (hot bath) on the roof. I stand in the hot water with my legs cooking gently and the rest of me feeling distinctly chilly as I peer over the neon roofs of Matsuyama city and think how lucky I am do be doing this right now, right here.

Number 1 Hotel, Matsuyama
Matsuyama has a fantastic castle and grounds and we spend a lovely day here. On the way out we get talking to a local retired man. He tells us he lives 8 kilometres away in south Matsuyama and that he walks to the castle and back as often as he can to keep himself fit. I am sure that regular exercise is one of the reasons for the famed longevity of the Japanese. At the cable car station he points to a box next to what looks like a rock. Inside the box are bundles of paper and he searches through them for some English ones and pulls two out triumphantly. 'I write a poem every time I come here', he tells us. The slips of paper have space for name and contact details and to write a haiku poem - a three line poem of 5, 7 and 5 syllables. We have fun having a go at this and put our completed poems in the box. 'Make sure you put your address,' our friend tells us. 'In case you win a prize'. We both thought this highly unlikely but completed our details anyway.

Matsuyama Caste

Collecting the haiku forms

Posting our completed efforts

Tuesday 10 April - Today we leave the Number One hotel and check in to Sen Guesthouse for two nights. This is the third time we have stayed here and it will be our last - Matthew and Noriko and their daughter Sana are moving to the island of Shodoshima in May. Matsuyama's loss will be Shodoshima's gain; many foreign pilgrims have been helped at Sen guesthouse over the years and it is a great place for meeting other walkers and travellers from around the world. 

On the roof at Sen Guisthouse

We spend the next two days enjoying being tourists. At Ninomaru Park a couple are having their wedding photos taken. They look fabulous.

So we muscle in to their wedding shots.

In the gardens we also come across a suikinkutsu:

It is now 12 days since my leg packed up and it is back to normal. We have also spent the last 6 nights in accommodation. It is time to get back on the road.

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