Located on the Japanese island of Shikoku, Matsuyama is a peaceful yet bustling city that’s often overlooked by first-time travellers to the country.
Matsuyama is not quite as famous as the larger metropolises of Tokyo or Osaka, but that’s all the more reason to visit the city. Despite only being founded in the late 19th century, Matsuyama retains an authenticity often lost in more touristy destinations.
This is a city that’s famed for its hot springs, and in true Japanese fashion, Matsuyama is the perfect place to learn about the local Onsen bathing culture. You can also find historic castles, a nationally renowned literary legacy and writing scene, and many more quirky sights and attractions too.
To inspire your trip to the island of Shikoku, here’s our ultimate travel guide to Matsuyama. This ultimate travel guide to Matsuyama will show you all the most beautiful places in Matsuyama, what to expect when visiting, where to stay in Matsuyama and things to do in Matsuyama which will help you in planning a trip to Matsuyama.
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How to get to Matsuyama
Matsuyama is the largest city on Shikoku, and it’s found in the north-west of the island, being the capital of Ehime Prefecture. Matsuyama is well connected domestically, given its status on the island, but internationally, connections are not quite so good.
The city’s airport mainly caters to domestic flights, with several per day arriving and departing to and from Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka. Internationally, there are only a few sporadic flights to other north Asian cities such as Seoul and Shanghai.
Matsuyama is easy to reach by train from other Japanese cities, and a great way to travel here is to make use of the excellent Japan Rail Pass, which allows you unlimited travel on the network.
Tokyo is an overnight train ride away, but Osaka lies halfway between the two cities, making for a good place to break up the journey. There are also frequent buses to major Japanese cities on the mainland, and to other cities and towns on the island of Shikoku too.
If you are planning on travelling to Hiroshima, then a great way to travel is by ferry, which makes for a great local experience in itself.
What to expect in Matsuyama
By Japanese standards, Matsuyama is a small, provincial-like town, being located away from the main island of Honshu, but with a population of well over 500,000 inhabitants, this is still a large urban area.
Matsuyama has yet to really make it onto the Japan travel plans of many tourists – especially first timer visitors – and for that reason, it can be both a more authentic destination and a more challenging place to visit.
The city centre is still fairly touristy though, around the Dogo Onsen area. The local language is, of course, Japanese, and unfortunately for foreigners, few people in the city speak English regularly, and most signage and menus are likely to be in Japanese, with only a few exceptions.
The Japanese Yen is the local currency, and you can find ATMs in the city centre that accept foreign cards.
How to get around Matsuyama
The city centre of Matsuyama is compact enough to be explored on foot, making this a pleasant destination for those who love walking. The main sights are in fact concentrated around the famous Dogo Onsen, making it relatively easy to navigate if you’ve got a map and a list of places to visit.
There’s also a good public transport system in Matsuyama, linking most of the major tourist attractions with the city centre. You can take the local trams and buses to most destinations, while further afield, you can make use of the commuter train.
Tourists will also want to ride on the old ‘steam-powered trains’ which are actually not run by steam anymore, but which are faithful to the original early 20th century trains that used to ply the streets of Matsuyama.
The best time to visit Matsuyama
Matsuyama enjoys a lovely, mild climate for much of the year, but winters can still be cold and the height of summer can be hot.
You can really visit any time of the year though, although the hot springs are perhaps best enjoyed in winter, after a cold day of walking around the city!
Matsuyama is at its hottest between June and August, and this is when you find most tourists in the city, as it’s high season for most of Japan.
Many visitors will also arrive in Matsuyama to coincide with the Cherry Blossoms, which begin to bloom around late March, although this can vary year on year.
Things to do in Matsuyama
The Dogo Onsen is the most important sights to see in Matsuyama, and for many tourists, it’s the only reason they actually visit this provincial city.
An Onsen is essentially a Japanese hot spring, but this is a term that also covers the bathing facilities that are usually built around the thermal waters and the bathing cultures and traditions that have grown over the centuries.
The Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama is one of the most famous hot springs in Japan because this is a hot spring that has over one thousand years of history.
That makes it the oldest hot spring in the country that’s still in use today, and there are few other places in Japan where you can have such an authentic Onsen experience.
The second most important sight to see in the city, is Matsuyama Castle. This early 17th-century castle dominates the city because it’s built atop Mount Katsuyama, one of the tallest points in Matsuyama.
It’s a fine example of Japanese architecture, and the best way to travel up to the hilltop is to take the panoramic Matsuyamajo Ropeway, which brings visitors up from the city centre, to the summit of the 132-metre high mound.
Another historic sight to explore in the city, is Yuzuki Castle. This is found within Dogo Park, close to the Onsen in the centre of Matsuyama, but unlike the imposing Matsuyama Castle which can be seen from anywhere in the city, Yuzuki Castle is today only ruins.
Yuzuki Castle was built several hundred years ago but it was utterly destroyed during the late 16th century conflicts that rocked through Shikoku.
The castle ruins have been excavated to a great extent, and many of the buildings have been reconstructed to give visitors a glimpse of 16th-century life in Matsuyama.
While you are visiting Yuzuki Castle, you will want to spend some time exploring or simply relaxing in the grounds of Dogo Park.
The park is full of cherry trees, and that makes this the best place to visit in Matsuyama when it’s springtime because it’s here that you will see the most vibrant cherry blossoms blooming.
A great activity to enjoy in Matsuyama is to take a ride on the old steam train. Known as the Botchan Train or the Botchan Ressha, the steam engine is not actually steam powered these days, and is in fact a replica of the original trains that were once used in the city.
The engine and carriages make use of the tram tracks in the city and provide tourists with a wonderful way to see the city.
The train is named for the famous novel Botchan, a literary work created by local writer Natsume Sosuke in 1906, who described the locomotives in action in Matsuyama.
Shiki Memorial Museum
You can learn about another famous Japanese writer at the Shiki Memorial Museum, an institution dedicated to the life and work of Masaoka Shiki, who was born and raised in Matsuyama during the 19th century.
Shiki is credited with modernising and popularising the famous form of poetry known as the Haiku, and at the museum, you can learn all about this particular form of Japanese writing.
What to eat in Matsuyama
Japan has a wonderful culinary scene, and Matsuyama is no exception when it comes to producing excellent food and local specialities.
While you can find restaurants serving up the entire spectrum of Japanese cuisine, from Ramen to Wagyu Beef, the real regional delights of Matsuyama to indulge in are sweet in taste.
The most famous local treat is Botchan Dango, which consist of three skewered rice dumplings covered in a sweet bean coating.
Being close to the coast, seafood is also great in Matsuyama, and another regional speciality to try is Jakoten, a sort of fried fish patty.
Where to stay in Matsuyama
Budget – Matsuyama only has a few limited options for budget travellers, and what is available is inevitably very basic, although cheap in comparison to more upmarket accommodation.
Matsuyama Youth Hostel offers cheap dormitories, and limited kitchen space, while a favourite option for anyone only spending a night or two in the city is the Eco Dogo, where you can find cramped but cheap dormitories right next to Dogo Onsen.
Mid-Range – If you have more of a budget, then you have more options in Matsuyama. The Matsuyama New Grand Hotel is a solid mid-range option, with excellent reviews, but in true Japanese style, small rooms. The ANA Crowne Plaza is a great chain option for those looking for more familiarity in Matsuyama.
Luxury – There are a few great luxury offerings in Matsuyama too, including the legendary Funaya, which dates back several centuries and offers Japanese style baths and saunas and traditional Japanese style rooms and bedding.
Tours to do in Matsuyama
More so than any other city in Japan, it’s Matsuyama that is most proud of its literary history. The two most famous writers to live here were Shiki – who developed the Haiku – and Soseki, who wrote unashamedly of Japanese life at the turn of the 20th century,
On a literary tour of the city, you’ll learn more about how Matsuyama has inspired and nurtured literary talent over the years, and you’ll see where the writers lived and worked and even bathed in their favourite Onsens!
Uncover Matsuyama’s delicious culinary scene on a food tour of the city. Join a local food enthusiast as you explore the best local eateries and restaurants in the city, and uncover hidden local specialities and delights.
If you don’t speak or read Japanese, then a food tour can be the best way to get acquainted with and learn about the city’s food culture, and to try dishes that you may not have even realised were cooked or existed here.
Day trips from Matsuyama
You can escape the admittedly never overwhelming streets of Matsuyama, by taking a day trip to the town of Uchiko. Also found in the Ehime region, Uchiko is known for its pleasant atmosphere and historic outlook.
Uchiko is home to many wonderfully preserved 19th century houses, and in many ways, taking a trip here is like taking a step back in time to the Meiji-era of Japan.
You can stroll through the streets, and call into the Kamihaga Residence to learn more about the town’s unique heritage as a wax producing stronghold on Shikoku.
Another beautiful place to visit from Matsuyama is the small town of Ozu, which is found just an hours drive away from the city. Ozu is a charming place, known for its spectacular landscapes and wide river setting.
In the surrounding hills, you can make an early ascent to experience the legendary Sea of Clouds that appear in the morning, and coat the land like a blanket.
In the town itself, you can walk through the restored Old Town, explore the local castles and take in the traditions and cultures of the people that have called Ozu home for centuries.
Not far from Matsuyama, you can find the tallest mountain peak on the island of Shikoku, and one of Japan’s fabled Holy Mountains. This extinct volcanic peak rises to just under 2000 metres in height, and for many pilgrims, it’s one of the holiest places to summit in the country.
It’s a tough climb, and it can only be attempted during the summer hiking season, but any time of the year you can visit the base of the mountain to stare in awe at the swirling clouds that surround the tall peak high above you.
If you do want to climb the mountain, then you’ll need to be well trained, with plenty of hiking experience, because this isn’t for the unprepared.