I tried not to think of Matsuyama Castle as I peered out the window of a JAL 777 just after dawn this morning. And not just because I was fixated on Mt. Fuji, which I’d spotted moments before the crew announced it would be coming up on the left, as they often tend to do.
We’d be landing nearly an hour late—yes, such a thing is possible in Japan—and I felt certain I was going to miss my connecting flight. Outwardly I was calm, though inside I was as badly behaved as the drunkard in front of me, who’d just suggested to the stewardess that he buy her something from the duty-free catalog in exchange for sex.
Which is more miraculous: That he walked off the plane a free man; or that I made my connection with 15 minutes to spare?
I caught a glimpse of Matsuyama Castle as the flight I was supposed to miss made its final approach. The trees around its base were surprisingly lacking in pink pigment, given what time of year it currently is, though I tried not to let that stress me out.
Instead I focused on the syncopation of the crosswalk beep, which as far as I can tell is the same everywhere you go in Japan—a digital meditation for those of us who can’t be bothered with the real thing. Sure enough, as the tram made its way around the castle’s moat, I saw more than enough somei yoshino trees at close-enough-to-full bloom to breathe easily.
(As you might know, if you read this site with any regularity, more than a few of my half-dozen sakura trips thus far have been more than a little off in terms of timing.)
I dropped my bag at my Matsuyama hotel, which seemed to be brand-new, and walked up Okaido 3-chome toward the castle’s ropeway station, whose line was spilling into the street. Undeterred, I marched right up the steep path, optimistic about what I’d find at the top.
It’s not entirely shocking that I quickly found my way around the grounds of Shikoku’s most famous fortress—I’d visited just two years earlier, after all. Unfortunately, the information I received regarding the castle’s authenticity back then had been wrong.
“It is not original,” the volunteer guide shot back at me, when I tried to use my apparent knowledge of Matsuyama-jo to politely decline the assistance he offered me. The current keep, it seemed, dates back only to the mid-19th century, after the one built in 1603 by feudal lord Kato Yoshiako was struck by lightning and burned down.
This was a bummer to learn, but I was so distracted by the splendor of the cherry blossoms that so perfectly framed Matsuyama Castle—by the beauty of the sakura in general; they never get old or less enamoring—that I didn’t think much of it. At least not until I sat down outside JR Matsuyama Station for a plate of pork belly curry rice, which was topped almost erotically with a sunny-side up egg.
If you want to get technical, I spoke (silently, thank god) to myself, the castle you thought you knew doesn’t really exist. Kind of like the person you were then—wasn’t he strange?
The Color of Cherry Blossoms
When I last visited Shikoku, I was living full-time in the United States, though I didn’t know for how long. Still, the idea that I would actually move back to Asia (let alone start a second website, one devoted entirely to Japan) was completely foreign to me. I didn’t honestly think I’d ever return to Matsuyama, though I’d manifestly enjoyed it.
After a brief trip to Matsuyama City Park, whose viewpoint was incredible in spite of its faux-European facade, I found myself on a train bound for Dogo Onsen. And I found myself distracted: Though a bit rough around the edges, the 60-something man who quietly snuck onto the vehicle was more than a little handsome. My cheeks turned the color of cherry blossoms.
I never did bother saying anything to him, of course, or even making eye contact. I had no time to go out with him and no real intention to sleep with him; he probably didn’t even play for my team. I probably wouldn’t have even written about him, were it not for one strange fact.
You see, rather than riding all the way to Japan’s oldest public bath house, I got off just in front of my hotel, and took a short rest before heading out again. Wouldn’t you know that when I got on the same tram—the 5—at the same station where I’d gotten off, going the same direction exactly one hour later, than man was standing exactly where he’d been.
Unfortunately, this particular character’s arc ends here. Rather than interpreting his presence as a sign from the Universe that we were meant to be, I concluded rather quickly that he was either homeless or mentally ill.
And like no judgment, but also no sexy time. I ascended the ragged viewpoint of Dogo Park to try and see Matsuyama Castle from another vantage point, but the light wasn’t cooperating (and neither were the hoodlums who seemingly laid claim to it—the first hoodlums, incidentally, that I’d ever seen in Japan).
I initially planned to end today’s exploration at Ishite-ji, one of the spots along Shikoku’s 88-temple pilgrimage trail, which was delightfully deserted and even had a couple trees near mankai on its grounds. However, when I got an inkling that perhaps that sunrise wouldn’t be grey and colorless (as the ones I see usually are), I made a beeline for the honkan, hoping to photograph it in the context of a technicolor sky.
No such luck—on the context, anyway. The sunset was beautiful, and oddly similar to the one I’d seen from Matsuyama Castle two years earlier, as the orange ball of light sank into the Seto Inland Sea. The problem was identical too: I couldn’t find a fitting frame for the spectacular sight I saw.