Travelers seeking a relaxed, remote retreat should visit Ehime Prefecture in the rustic Shikoku region, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. On its south-west coast, Uwajima lies gracefully placed between mountain and sea with awesome scenery, including a rare original castle.
Uwajima Castle is one of only 12 remaining Japanese castles with the main tower built before the end of the Edo period. The castle appears square, but it’s a pentagon, with a secret escape side. It was completed in 1601 by master architect Takatora Todo, who also designed Tokyo’sEdo Castle.
Surrounded by lush forest, this hilltop castle appears to float above the town. There’s a good chance you’ll have the top floor to yourself; from there, you can soak in coastline and mountain views in blissful solitude.
About the area
Space, silence and soothing nature are a large part of Uwajima’s charm. Japan’s annual cherry blossoms have bloomed there well ahead of the blossoms in the rest of Japan’s main island of Honshu.
It’s blessed with a mild, warm climate, ideal for growing citrus and its coastal inlets teem with pearl farms and fish like sea bream and yellowtail.
Its distinctive cuisine includes tai-meshi— raw sea bream dipped in egg and soy sauce broth, eaten over rice. Orjakoten — deep-fried fish cakes, commonly served on a stick like savory pescatarian popsicles.
The three-day Ushioni Festival runs yearly from July 22. Floats of giant, shaggy, long-necked monsters poke their demon heads into shops and homes to dispel evil spirits. When two of these “bull-ogres” meet, they spin and clash in furious battle.
The Gaiya dance carnival coincides with the festival. Brightly-costumed troupes of all ages compete, accompanied by prancing traditional horned-deer-masked folk performers.
Togyu bullfights are a unique experience dating from the 17th century. No bulls are killed in the matches, held five times a year. Two bulls tussle until one flees. Some crowd favorites even have their own theme song. The tournaments mimic sumo wrestling with similarities in umpiring, rituals and the ornamental aprons worn by the bulls.
More sights include Tensha-en, a 19th century garden with a pond shaped into the kanji character 心 (kokoro),meaning heart or spirit. Warei Shrine features Japan’s largest stone torii gate and the seaside Yusu Mizugaura terraced fields are a sweeping display of over 400-years old agricultural ingenuity.
Don’t underestimate Japan’s small towns. Uwajima is the last stop on Shikoku’s train line — a far-flung pocket within a pocket but brimming with vibrant culture.