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Experience Hiroshima, Ehime and Okayama – Japan’s Mediterranean region (Part 2: Ehime)

Experience Hiroshima, Ehime and Okayama – Japan’s Mediterranean region (Part 2: Ehime)

The second stop in our Setouchi tour was Ehime, a prefecture in Shikoku, an island located southwest of Japan’s main island of Honshu. It faces the Seto Inland Sea and enjoys mild to warm weather, not unlike the Mediterranean. From what we experienced, Ehime’s legacy is history and culture. We were about to embark on the cultural part of our travels. Ehime’s Chuyo (central) area is easily accessible from Hiroshima via the Shimanami Kaido, and that’s where we were headed after leaving Ikuchijima in Hiroshima. But before reaching our destination in the castle town of Matsuyama, there was one more stop along the way.

Point 7: Dolphin Farm Shimanami

A dolphin comes up for air at the Dolphin Park Shimanami.

A bottlenose dolphin comes up for air at the Dolphin Farm Shimanami.

The 80-km Shimanami-Kaido route connects Onomichi City in Hiroshima to Imabari City in Ehime on the opposite shore, spanning six islands and seven bridges in the Seto Inland Sea in between. While we travelled by private car to get from Hiroshima to Ehime, we heard that the route is popular with cyclists as well. Along the way, there are rest stops and places of attraction for cyclists like this three-year-old Dolphin Farm.

A lucky little girl is about to get a chance to swim with a dolphin.

A lucky little girl is about to get a chance to swim with a dolphin.

The farm offers tourists the opportunity to touch the dolphins and even swim with them. There are six bottlenose dolphins and two Risso’s dolphins (hana-gondo) on the farm and they each have names. The youngest is five years old and the oldest, 20. They used to live in the wild in the waters off Wakayama but were captured for the farm.

This dolphin is responding to commands from his trainer and performing tricks on cue.

This dolphin is responding to commands from his trainer and performing tricks on cue.

The dolphins are trained to perform simple tricks and are conditioned to swim with humans for fun, shared Ms Joko, the leader of the dolphin caretakers at the farm. They are given a health check every day. When we visited, two of the dolphins got curious enough to come closer to us and replied to our greetings with high-pitched squeaks and chirps. How to get there: By car, bicycle or on foot. Address: Ko-1673 Hakatacho Kanoura, Imabari 794-2302, Ehime Prefecture. Prices: Watch: adult 500 yen, children (4 years old and above) 400 yen; Touch: 5,000 yen (including rental equipment); Swim: 60 min (15 Mar-31 Oct) 9,000 yen, 30 min (1 Nov- 14 Mar) 5,000 yen.

  • For Touch and Swim, participants must be 4 year old and above, children below school age must be accompanied by adult.

Must-eat:

This rest-stop caters to cyclists who take the Shimanami Kaido. Lots of bicycle bays are available for cyclists to park their bikes while they take a break.

This rest-stop caters to cyclists who take the Shimanami Kaido. Lots of bicycle bays are available for cyclists to park their bikes while they take a break.

Ehime's local mascot Mikyan is prominently featured on the vending machine.

Ehime’s local mascot Mikyan can be seen prominently featured on the vending machine.

This salty vanilla soft serve at the rest stop is a must-try.

This salty vanilla soft serve made with Hakata sea salt, is a must-try at the rest stop.

Pick up a bottle of orange juice or two to sample the local citrus fruits. There are six types for sale here.

Pick up a bottle of orange juice or two to sample the local citrus fruits, which are a specialty of the Setouchi region. There are six types for sale here.

Salty vanilla soft-serve ice cream at the nearby rest-stop. The souvenir shop also stocks an array of orange juices from a variety of oranges, as well as other local produce.

Related Post:  Experience Hiroshima, Ehime and Okayama - Japan's Mediterranean region (Part 1: Hiroshima)

Point 8: Dogo Onsen

Sculptures of the white heron adorn Dogo Onsen.

Sculptures of the white heron adorn Dogo Onsen.

Do you like onsen? Do you like Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away (2001)? If your answer to both questions is yes, then you will appreciate the Dogo Hot Springs public bathhouse, located in Matsuyama City of Ehime Prefecture. Said to be approximately 3,000 years old, legend has it that a white heron put its injured leg into hot water gushing out of a crevice in some rocks, and was miraculously healed. That’s why the Dogo Hot Spring Main Building is surrounded by sculptures of this white heron.

The sculpture of a white heron sits atop the highest point of the Dogo Onsen Main Building.

The sculpture of a white heron sits atop the highest point of the Dogo Onsen Main Building.

You can really get into the whole Edo period vibe by getting a rickshaw ride in front of Dogo Onsen.

You can really get into the whole Edo period vibe by getting a rickshaw ride in front of Dogo Onsen.

This three-storied wooden bathhouse was built in 1894, and has been patronised by generations of the Japanese imperial family, as well as many prominent personalities. Meiji Era novelist Soseki Natsume (I Am A Cat, 1905) wrote about the main building of Dogo Hot Spring in his novel Botchan, and there’s a Botchan Room in his honour at the bathhouse. So you see, Dogo Hot Springs is not just any onsen – due to its history, it has been designated as important cultural property by the government of Japan. In fact, it was the inspiration for Yubaba’s bathhouse in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away. We were lucky enough to have been brought on a guided tour of Dogo Hot Spring, because there’s so much to learn about the building’s heritage.

The imperial resting room in Dogo Onsen.

The imperial resting room in Dogo Onsen.

The actual imperial bath in Dogo. It has not been used for decades!

The actual imperial bath in Dogo. It has not been used for decades!

The imperial bath opens into a private rock garden.

The imperial bath opens into a private rock garden.

The squat toilet used by the imperial family in days of yore. There is no flush; excreta is simply collected below and disposed of.

The squat toilet used by the imperial family in days of yore. There is no flush; excreta is simply collected below and disposed of.

Inside the imperial onsen, things have been kept the way they have been since the building was constructed, including the squat toilet with wooden frame, wooden buckets and the furniture. No-one has used the imperial facilities since 1955, as these days, the imperial family prefers to check in to a hotel with an onsen on the premises. But for the man on the street who has no access to these restricted areas, how is one to know which part of the building the imperial onsen is located? Look for clues in the façade. At the rear of the main building, you will see an oriental dragon gargoyle guarding a certain door with three roofs. That’s the imperial onsen. It takes up only a very small portion of such a massive bathhouse. The hot spring is located on the ground floor, while a rest area occupies the second floor and a private lounge is on the third.

The imperial entrance to Dogo Onsen. Note the dragon and the phoenix on the gabled roofs.

The imperial entrance to Dogo Onsen. Note the dragon and the phoenix on the gabled roofs.

In keeping with tradition, the drum in the small red room at the very highest point in the building is sounded at three intervals every day: six times at 6am, six times at 6pm, and 12 times at noon. This used to serve the purpose of reporting time in the past when there were no clocks.

According to tradition, a large drum inside the red room at the top of the Dogo Onsen Main Building is sounded at six-hour intervals to report the time.

According to tradition, a large drum inside the red room at the top of the Dogo Onsen Main Building is sounded at six-hour intervals to report the time. The public rest area is on the second floor while a private rest area is on the third floor.

The building relies on natural ventilation for temperature regulation, which means no air-conditioning and no heating. During the summer months from June to September, bamboo screens are put up, and for the colder months from October to May, shoji screens are used. If it gets too hot, a large ice block is put in front of an electric fan to cool the room. Even the water to make tea is heated with charcoal and not gas or electricity.

Our guides listen intently to the Dogo Onsen guide at the rest area on the second floor of the main building. The green tea is brewed with water that has been heated by charcoal.

Our guides listen intently to the Dogo Onsen guide at the rest area on the second floor of the main building. The green tea is brewed with water that has been heated by charcoal.

The senbei served at the rest area have different patterns on them. The senbei on the left sports the facade of the Dogo Onsen and the senbei on the right sports a tsubaki, or Japanese camellia.

The senbei served at the rest area have different patterns on them. The senbei on the left sports the facade of the Dogo Onsen and the senbei on the right sports a tsubaki, or Japanese camellia.

During hot days, the staff will put an ice block in front of a fan.

During hot days, the staff will put an ice block in front of a fan.

There are 18 streams of water flowing into the hot spring and blended by the staff; water temperature is kept at about 42 degrees Celcius. Two types of onsen experience are available – Kami-no-yu (Water of the Gods) is economy class and Tama-no-yu (Water of the Spirits) is more luxurious.

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Opening hours:

6am til late; check at the bathhouse for various closing times.

Prices:

Public bath Kami-no-yu (Water of the Gods) only – 410 yen per adult, 160 yen per child (age two to 11), no yukata provided, no toiletries, bring your own towel or rent one for 40 yen. Kami-no-yu 2F – 840 yen per adult, 420 yen per child, bring your own towel but a yukata is provided, also includes 1h use of the rest area on 2F where tea and senbei will be served, as well as access to the Exhibition Room and Botchan’s Room. Tama-no-yu 2F (Water of the Spirits) – 1,250 yen per adult, 620 yen per child, toiletries provided, both yukata and towel are provided, also includes 1h use of the rest area on 2F where tea and senbei will be served, as well as access to the Exhibition Room, Botchan’s Room and a look at the Imperial Family’s Bath. A detailed fee table is available in English at the ticket concourse area.

Tsubaki no yu, or Water of the Camellias, is just a short stroll away from the old bath house.

Tsubaki-no-yu, or Water of the Camellias, is just a short stroll away from the old bath house.

Asuka-no-yu is located opposite Tsubaki-no-yu. It is a luxurious bath house with private onsen rooms fit for royalty.

Asuka-no-yu is located opposite Tsubaki-no-yu. It is a luxurious bath house with private onsen rooms fit for royalty.

In contrast to the old public Dogo Onsen bath house, Asuka-no-yu is completely air-conditioned.

In contrast to the old public Dogo Onsen bath house, Asuka-no-yu is completely air-conditioned.

Even the senbei and the tea are different. Of course, the prices here are northwards of that of the public bath house.

Even the senbei and the tea are different. Of course, the prices here are northwards of that of the public bath house.

The yukata offered at Asuka-no-yu are designed in collaboration with BEAMS, a Japanese high street label.

The yukata offered at Asuka-no-yu are designed in collaboration with BEAMS, a Japanese high street label.

For the onsen-hopper, you might be pleased to know that there are two other bathhouses within walking distance. One is Tsubaki-no-yu and the other is Asuka-no-yu. The latter, which just opened in 2017, offers the ultimate lavish experience. It’s completely air-conditioned, and has five private rooms and two extra special private rooms each with an attached private onsen. I personally think that it’s awesome for honeymooning couples, since most onsen separate the two genders. You just need to remember to set a timer and get out within 90 minutes, because that’s the maximum amount of time you can have the room for.

The five private rest rooms inside Asuka-no-yu each depict a legend related to Dogo Onsen.

The five private rest rooms inside Asuka-no-yu each depict a legend related to Dogo Onsen.

An intricate wood carving adorns the wall of this private room.

An intricate wood carving adorns the wall of this private room.

Doesn't the private bath inside Asuka-no-yu remind you of the imperial bath?

Doesn’t the private bath inside Asuka-no-yu remind you of the imperial bath?

Tattoos are okay at all the onsens. After a relaxing dip at an onsen, you can stroll around the shopping arcade in the area just clad in your hotel’s yukata.

A small but vibrant shopping arcade is situated adjacent to the three bath houses.

A small but vibrant shopping arcade is situated adjacent to the three bath houses.

Must-buys:

Japan-designed and woven hankies and Imabari towels.

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Point 9: Botchan Karakuri, Hojo-en Square, Botchan Train

A free public footbath is located in Hojo-en Square.

A free public foot bath is located in Hojo-en Square. The water is hot, even on a rainy day such as this one.

The mechanical clock is modelled on the traditional Dogo Onsen Main Building and features characters from Natsume Soseki's novel 'Botchan'.

The mechanical clock is modelled on the traditional Dogo Onsen Main Building and features characters from Natsume Soseki’s novel ‘Botchan’.

Hit up the Botchan Karakuri (mechanical clock) and Hojo-en Square (foot bath) before hopping on the Botchan Train. The clock was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Dogo Hot Spring Main Building. Every hour, the clock will chime, music will play, and characters from Soseki Natsume’s Botchan will pop out of the clock. You can watch all of this while dipping your feet in the free foot bath at the square in front of Dogo-Onsen Station. At this point you might have seen the Botchan Train parked nearby and thought: “That’s a really huge toy train.” It’s actually in operation, and connects the Matsuyama city centre to Dogo Hot Springs! Watching it choo-choo out from its berth is a truly magical experience. The Botchan Train is a reconstruction of the type of steam locomotives which ran from the 1880s to the 1950s, and a tribute to the Soseki Natsume novel.

This gleaming locomotive isn't just for show - it actually works!

This gleaming locomotive isn’t just for show – it actually works!

It doesn’t run on coal like the steam engines of yore, but is powered by diesel. The rest is legit old-school though. The seats are wooden, there’s no air-conditioning or heating, and at the terminal, the engineers have to uncouple the engine and the passenger car by hand. The staff who attend to the train wear an especially smart black-and-white uniform with a jaunty cap, and the conductor has a cute oyster clasp handbag for his things.

Check out the wooden interior of the Botchan train. The glass windows were closed because it was raining that morning.

Check out the wooden interior of the Botchan train. The glass windows were closed because it was raining that morning.

At the terminal station, the engine has to be uncoupled by hand and turned around, just like in days of yore. It's worth staying a while to watch this.

At the terminal station, the engine has to be uncoupled by hand and turned around, just like in days of yore. It’s worth staying a while to watch the engineers do this.

Our guide Lily-san and the conductor share a good laugh. You can see his smart uniform better here. Love that handbag!

Our guide Lily-san and the conductor share a good laugh. You can see his smart uniform better here. Love that handbag!

The Botchan train schedule at Matsuyama terminal station.

The Botchan train schedule at Matsuyama terminal station.

The ticket can only be purchased at the station and not online, but you can check out the train schedule on its official website. Don’t throw away the stub – it can be used to exchange for a ferris wheel ride at Matsuyama city centre.

Prices:

800 yen per adult, 400 yen per child.

Point 10: Tobe-yaki and Tomisoba

Go wild shopping for kitchen ceramics at Ennosato.

Go wild shopping for kitchen ceramics at Ennosato.

Our next stop was a 40-minute drive out of Matsuyama city to Tobe, the hometown of Tobe ceramics. You would definitely have seen Tobe porcelain before – they’ve a white base with handpainted designs, usually in indigo. At the Tobe Sightseeing Center Ennosato, we tried our hand at decorating a ready-made ceramic cup. For inspiration, you might want to take a look at the ceramic ware already on sale before you start on your own. You can’t collect your masterpiece on the spot though. Ennosato will mail it to your home address after glazing and firing your piece.

Walk around the retail area on the ground floor of Ennosato before going to the second floor to paint your own ceramics.

Walk around the retail area on the ground floor of Ennosato before going to the second floor to paint your own ceramics.

Tobe ceramics sport simple designs in primary colours. The staff there explains briefly how we are supposed to use the paints.

Tobe ceramics sport simple designs in primary colours. The staff there explains briefly how we are supposed to use the paints.

From left: Sabrina Cao of Weekender.sg, Sock Peng of Mylovelybluesky《蓝天白云数格子》and our translator Hisako-san get cracking on doing some art.

From left: Sabrina Cao of Weekender.sg, Sock Peng of Mylovelybluesky《蓝天白云数格子》and our translator Hisako-san get cracking on doing some art.

When you’re done, head to Tomisoba (address: 485 Ominami, Tobe-cho, Iyo-gun 791-2132, Ehime Prefecture) for a satisfying meal of homemade buckwheat soba. It’s listed in the 2018 Michelin guide, so you want to head to this tiny 24-seater restaurant early to avoid a queue. A meal at the meticulously decorated Tomisoba is a delightful experience.

Tomisoba.

Tomisoba.

Tobe ceramics on display at Tomisoba.

Tobe ceramics on display at Tomisoba.

The painted pattern on this quaint little sink at Tomisoba aptly features soba flowers.

The painted pattern on this quaint little washbasin at Tomisoba aptly features soba flowers.

Three years ago, the owner, Yamada Tomio, decided to convert his own residence into a restaurant. Each nook and cranny has been utilised to showcase Tobe’s heritage. The walls, the lamps, wash basin – you’ll find beautiful Tobe-yaki everywhere you look.

The interior of Tomisoba is warm and inviting.

The interior of Tomisoba is warm and inviting.

The Japanese seating arrangement at Tomisoba exudes old world charm.

The Japanese seating arrangement at Tomisoba exudes old world charm.

For those who prefer to sit on chairs at a Western-style table, they can too.

For those who prefer to sit on chairs at a Western-style table, they can too.

Must-eat:

Our appetiser of crunchy vinegared cucumber and fermented Job's tears. Perfect balance of textures, sweet, salty and sour.

Our appetiser of crunchy vinegared cucumber and fermented Job’s tears. Perfect balance of textures, and sweet, salty and sour flavours.

Freshly grated wasabi, grated daikon and julienned scallions are indispensable accompaniments to a serving of cold soba.

Freshly grated wasabi, grated daikon and julienned scallions are indispensable accompaniments to a serving of cold soba.

Look at these beautiful soba noodles. I can attest that they were firm and al dente.

Look at these beautiful soba noodles. I can attest that they were firm and al dente.

One can never get enough of soba. Here's the other soba dish.

One can never get enough of soba. Here’s the other soba dish.

This is a regional dish not easily available elsewhere, I think. It comes in sweet or savoury form. This is the sweet version, drizzled with honey and dusted with soy bean powder.

This is a regional dish not easily available elsewhere, I think. It’s a lump of soba dough and comes in sweet or savoury form. This is one of the two sweet versions, drizzled with honey and dusted with soy bean powder.

This is the other sweet version, served in a red bean soup which is not too thick or sweet.

This is the other sweet version, served in a red bean soup which is not too thick or sweet.

This is the savoury version, served in a light broth. You pinch off bite-sized pieces with chopsticks and dip it in the sauce provided.

This is the savoury version, served in a light broth. You pinch off bite-sized pieces with chopsticks and dip it in the sauce seasoned with sesame, red pepper flakes and possibly bonito.

Go for the Soba Zukushi set, which only costs 1600 yen and features four courses. The soba is al dente and has just the bite, and everything else is just perfect. Be warned though, that there’s no English menu here and the hosts speak only Japanese.

How to get here:

Self-drive. For more information on Ehime, visit the official Visit Ehime Japan website. Tomisoba is our very last stop before travelling to Okayama!

To read Part 1: Hiroshima, click here.

To read Part 3: Okayama, click here.

Want to find out more about how you can plan a holiday in Hiroshima, Ehime and Okayama? Meet the writer herself (me) at an exclusive forum hosted by Shikoku Transportation Bureau, Okayama Prefecture, Ehime Prefecture, Hiroshima Prefecture. I’ll be speaking together with Weekender.sg‘s editor Sabrina Cao, and Sock Peng, the owner of Mylovelybluesky《蓝天白云数格子》. High-tea will be provided and there’s a chance to win attractive prizes* at the event!

Event details:

Date: 10 November 2018 (Sat) Time: 2-4pm
Venue: DBS Asia Central @ Marina Bay Financial Tower 3, 12 Marina Boulevard, Singapore 018982 *Prizes: SilkAir return flight ticket (Singapore-Hiroshima), JR Nationwide 7-day pass, Kumanofude make-up brush, Imabari towel, Kurashiki canvas tote bag.
Register your interest here.
Unless otherwise stated, all of the images in this post have been taken by me with a Huawei P20 Pro.

About The Author

Rachel Chan

Rachel is a media content strategist who started her career in traditional TV and newsprint companies. She has 10 years of writing experience under her belt and is currently the editor of entertainment website thepoppingpost.com.

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