Nature & Scenic Views

Japan Travel Inspiration 02: Hop onto a Retro Sightseeing Train from Matsuyama to the Charming Old Castle Town of Ozu

LAST UPDATED May 31, 2024

Japan's railway system offers an unparalleled travel experience that's hard to forget. Personally, I can't seem to shake off the memories of my first train ride in Japan - the sights, sounds, and sensations are forever etched in my mind. It's hard not to fall in love with train travel in Japan, whether taking the local trains through the Japanese countryside or the high-speed bullet trains that glide effortlessly at breakneck speeds.

That said, embarking on a journey aboard the Iyonada Monogatari is a special experience. This sightseeing train route, stretching from Matsuyama City to Ozu Castle Town, offers more than stunning views. It invites passengers on a culinary adventure through Ehime, showcasing local delicacies ranging from fresh seafood to zesty citrus oranges. With the Iyonoda coastline and vast ocean horizon visible from the window, this train ride is also a pivotal part of my exploration of Ehime’s castles, starting at the grand Matsuyama Castle and culminating at Ozu Castle Town.

In Ozu, there’s a rare opportunity to stay overnight in Japan's first-ever castle experience. This is coupled with an unforgettable stay within historic merchant structures that have been elegantly converted into a boutique hotel experience at NIPPONIA. This route is truly a bespoke castle experience, with fascinating history standing out as truly unique!

  • Visit Matsuyama’s Majestic Castle with Stunning Views of the City

    My first stop is the iconic Matsuyama Castle. I have visited Matsuyama Castle several times before, and I am always mesmerized by the awe-inspiring beauty of the surrounding castle grounds. My previous walks from the castle base to the top of the hill never failed to impress me, with the massive stone walls draped in a gorgeous green forest canopy as if it came straight out of a medieval fairytale.

  • For an easier ascent, I headed to the Matsuyama Castle Ropeway to take a swift ride up to Mt. Katsuyama, where Matsuyama Castle sits. My choices are between a comfy cable car and a single chairlift, but I prefer the freedom of my legs dangling from my chairlift as I made my way up to the mountaintop.

  • Several volunteer guides were on the castle grounds, showcasing their knowledge of the beloved Matsuyama Castle. As I made my way up, I made sure to listen to the guides — a grin flashed on one face as they pointed to the concealed gates designed to ambush enemies, much to the awe of the castle’s visitors. Described by the guides, the castle's main Honmaru is a complex structure with robustly fortified gates. I silently thanked the guides for also pointing out the right way, lest I also get lost in this bustling castle.

  • My previous visits to Matsuyama Castle had never included the chance to delve into its three-story interior. However, this time, as I stepped inside, I was instantly transported back in time by the authentic wooden architecture that harked back to the era of feudal clans who once ruled these lands. The sheer size of the wooden beams, likely hewn from trees from Japan's ancient forests, surpassed anything I've encountered in modern structures.

  • Stepping back outdoors, I was greeted by the delightful weather of the November afternoon. However, the allure of springtime at the castle complex is irresistible, particularly when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. Just imagining the castle amidst a sea of cherry blossoms, with the sweeping view of the city below, makes me contemplate scheduling a visit during spring.

  • Fuel Up with Coffee and Dessert at SPOT COFFEE STAND

    Before heading to my train ride, I stopped in for a caffeine break and a bite to eat at the SPOT COFFEE STAND near the castle. Open at 8:00 am, Masa-san, the barista and part owner serves cafe lattes, macchiatos, and other artful coffees to locals and tourists who stop in for a chat or quick drink. His sister, the other half of this coffee shop business, makes pound cakes and other desserts — the perfect way to fuel up for a day of exploring!

  • Embark on a Luxury Sightseeing Train with an Exquisite Lunch on the Iyonada Monogatari

    After enjoying coffee and cake, it was time for one of the trip's highlights— a ride on the Iyonada Monogatari sightseeing train! The retro train was waiting for me at Matsuyama Station, ready to take me on a two-hour scenic journey through coastal countryside towns along the Iyonada Sea.

    One of the train cars is designed with the color palette of citrus fruits which Ehime is known for, while another upgraded train car features comfortable lounge chairs, retro-modern décor, mandarin-shaped light bulbs, and wash sinks made from Tobe ware— an Ehime-made porcelain known for its striking blue and white designs.

    Furthermore, the train allowed me to taste some of Ehime's local cuisine. For this particular ride, I enjoyed a lunch prepared by a local chef using Ehime-grown ingredients. Whether riding during the morning, lunchtime, or afternoon tea, I would have in for a treat.

    What made the train ride even more special was the warm welcome I received from the locals. Along the railway line, I noticed groups of residents waving enthusiastically to the passengers every time the train pulled out of a station. Their smiling faces and hospitality to share their love for their region with visitors made me feel truly welcomed, and I was grateful for the opportunity to experience such kindness from strangers.

    Eventually, all good things must end, but there are always more good things to come. As I finished my boxed meal, and the magnificent Ozu Castle came into view—the start of my next historical castle journey in Ehime.

  • Take a Historic Journey Back in Time in Ozu Castle Town

    My final stop on this day is to the once bustling castle town of Ozu. Once on the verge of succumbing to the fate of many small towns, facing economic decline and dwindling population, Ozu has recently experienced a new lease on life with their beautifully restored old town center.

    Nestled in a basin in one of the flattest plains surrounding the river, Ozu's prosperity dates back to the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods, when it became a vital production and trading post for silk, wax, forestry, and paper industries. The Hijikawa River, the town's primary source of transportation, provided a convenient mode of transport that connected smaller towns upstream to Ozu and the Seto Inland Sea, carrying some of the region's prized goods to the rest of Japan and the world.

    One of the goods that gained popularity in Europe and America was the white wax made from berries of the sumac tree. I am quite familiar with this wax, having purchased one of the thick, handmade candles as a souvenir during a past visit to the region. In fact, it even got me through a few blackouts during typhoon season, which I can attest to its quality.

    Today, Ozu's old castle town center still bears the results of its mini-industrial revolution. Many historic merchant residences, storehouses, and nostalgic storefronts have been transformed into fashionable shops, cafes, and the boutique NIPPONIA Hotel, where I would be staying the night.

  • Admire the Craftsmanship at Ozu Castle, Japan’s First Wooden Castle Accommodations

    While I won’t have the luxury to experience this on my visit, Ozu Castle happens to be Japan’s first castle offering overnight accommodation, offering a rare insight into what it was like to stay in a castle during the feudal era.

    A regular daytime visitor like myself can still explore this newly reconstructed wooden castle. As is explained to me by the castle guide, the original Ozu Castle was constructed in the early fourteenth century, serving as a residence for several commanders who ruled over Ozu. Despite its devastating dismantling during the Meiji Restoration, hope was not entirely lost. Over a century later, Ozu Castle was reconstructed using the same techniques and tools employed in its original construction.

    Thanks to the surviving photographs and wooden models available in the castle exhibition, modern carpenters could reconstruct the castle with incredible accuracy and attention to detail, culminating in completing the four-story wooden tower replica. As an overnight guest, you will have the rare opportunity to admire the exceptional effort from the comfort of your futon bed, as you gaze at the massive hinoki cypress wooden beams, pillars, and intricate framework within the tower structure.

  • Your stay begins with an exceptional performance, as you are greeted by retainers on horseback dressed in feudal clothing and are greeted by a party of castle welcomers by the sounds of conch shells and muskets’ blasts. Together, you’ll recreate the moment when the castle lord entered the castle during the feudal era.

  • You're also in for a treat with an exceptional meal based on recipes and cooking techniques dating back to the Edo era, combined with modern cooking techniques. After your meal, you’ll head to the Koran Yagura, one of the original turrets.

    There are many exciting accommodations within Japan, but staying in a Japanese castle, with all of the pageantries of feudal Japan, is amongst the most unique experiences you will find in any of the 47 prefectures of Japan.

  • An Elegant Stay in Ozu’s Historic Properties with NIPPONIA Hotel

    While a castle stay wasn’t on my cards for this trip, I’m still in for an equally extraordinary accommodation stay in one of Ozu’s restored buildings. NIPPONIA Hotel is a boutique chain of high-end hotels that specialize in finding historically significant properties that they tastefully restore, taking pains to maintain the original atmosphere of the properties while upgrading their amenities.

  • One of the best parts about staying at a NIPPONIA hotel is that no room or building is the same. After checking in, NIPPONIA's concierge led me into my room. The room I stayed in was called OKI, a two-story dwelling that once belonged to a prosperous merchant, complete with a private entryway and garden. The handcrafted hinoki cypress bathtub, another of NIPPONIA's signature features, is one of my favorite things about NIPPONIA Hotels. Although it can comfortably fit two people, sitting solo in this wooden tub, filled to the brim with hot water, is truly an opulent experience I couldn't miss.

  • For dinner, I went to Le Un restaurant at the castle's base. As the name suggests, Le Un offers French-inspired cuisine, with local Ehime vegetables and seafood taking center stage in each Tobe-ware dish.

  • During my autumn visit, each dish reflected the season, like the creamy kabocha soup or the beef slices with greens and burdock root, designed to evoke a forest floor. The menu, crafted by the in-house chefs, successfully showcases Ehime's abundant produce while telling a flavorful culinary tale of the region. As the evening unfolded, I sipped on one of Ozu’s craft beers as the castle lights turned on its night-time show. From the restaurant, it was a beautiful view to finish my dinner.

  • While I could hardly keep my eyes open at this point, first, I needed to check out The Lounge, an exclusive space for NIPPONIA guests to grab a drink from the unmanned open bar. Here, there are spirits, coffee, beers, and other drinks you can help yourself to end the evening.

    However, after a long day exploring Ehime’s castles, only a soak in the NIPPONIA bath and a soft, fluffy bed called my name.

  • Take A Journey Through History from Matsuyama Castle to the Ozu Castle Town

    A ride on the Iyonada Monogatari sightseeing train seamlessly connected me to the region's two iconic castles. From Matsuyama Castle, standing in the center of the city, to the beautifully rebuilt Ozu Castle, this experience is just one of many in Ozu.

    Next, I will explore Ozu's old town on foot, and discover its best cafes, shops, and eateries. But for now, it's time to run a bath in the NIPPONIA cypress bathtub, soak in the waters, and savor this historical journey I’ve started in Ehime.

    You can read about my next trip:
    Route 3: A Walking Tour Through the Charming Old Town of Ozu & Interact with the Locals

    Route 1: Extend Your Golden Journey With this Easy Trip from Hiroshima to Ehime’s Ancient Hot Spring Town
    Route 4: Embark on an Epic Cycling Journey on the Shimanami Kaido, Japan's Famous Biking Route
    Route 5: Experience a Walk Through Serene Landscapes & Warmth of this Ancient Pilgrimage Route

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