By Niall Magee
Last weekend I was invited to go on a tour of Uchiko to help promote it as a tourist destination. As a disclaimer, all expenses were paid for by the city, except for dinner at the German restaurant and the washi products I bought.
The tour included a stay at a Japanese inn in the mountains with a homemade breakfast overlooking the “Sea of Clouds”, a guided cycling tour around Uchiko given in English, including the city, some rural areas, and some hidden natural beauty spots. The tour was around 5 hours, with plenty of breaks to look around or eat. The guides planned the cycling route to be as flat as possible, so it wasn’t particularly tiring. You can book a free, volunteer-led tour on the English Uchiko city website as long as you apply at least a week in advance. The cycling tour I went on could take up to 4 people and one guide, but if cycling isn’t your thing they also offer walking tours as well as a washi-paper making experience.
From Matsuyama JR station it takes around half an hour via express train to Uchiko Station. Uchiko has a focus on tourism, so even though it is out of the way, it is common for places to have information available in English.
I arrived in Uchiko on Saturday night and had dinner at Zum schwarzen Keiler, a German restaurant in Machinami, (町並み) the historical district of Uchiko. The city is partnered with Rothenberg in Germany, and this restaurant boasts a selection of imported German beers not available anywhere else in Japan, as well as authentic food prepared by a German chef. Main dishes range from around ¥1,000 to ¥1,500, and the beer is between ¥800 and ¥1,000. It was a bit pricey but the schnitzel I had was delicious and the beer was some of the best I’ve had in Japan. My recommendation is the fruity hefe beer (furannshisukaana vaisubia\フランシスカーナ・ヴァイスビア)。
After dinner, I stayed at Tenchuu no Yado Hiroko (天忠の宿ひろこ), which is a comfy wooden lodge overlooking the hills. If you wake up at around 7:30, you might be able to see the unkai (雲海) or “Sea of Clouds” from the bedroom window. Because of the location and temperature, in the morning the hills around the inn are carpeted in clouds. Because of the rain the previous night the unkai didn’t form as well as it usually does, but it was still beautiful.
Breakfast was a platter of fresh food, most of which was grown on the premises. The highlights were inoshishi (wild boar) sausage skewers, shiitake mushrooms, and jakoten prepared on a charcoal grill, some Japanese-style omelet, and rice topped with an egg that I carried from the chicken coop. The whole meal was served on a table with a spectacular view looking out on the hills and the sea of clouds.
After that, I was introduced to two local guides who led me on an English-language cycling tour of Uchiko town and the surrounding rural areas. The scenery ranged from the historical buildings in Uchiko town center, to the suburbs, which shifted from narrow streets and preserved Showa-era housing to wide farmland with vegetables growing by the side of the road and old mansions, to peaceful mountain trails. The first place we visited was Tenjin Sanshi Kojo (天神産紙工場), a Japanese paper, or washi, factory that is still in operation, and a nearby store which sold washi products. They had a wide range of wall-hangings, souvenirs, and other decorations, all under half the price I had seen in stores in other cities. I bought a washi-decorated case for business cards and a set of bookmarks for just over ¥1,000.
While cycling I found out about the “Mini Shikoku Eighty-Eight” trails in Uchiko. Originally, the Shikoku Eighty-Eight pilgrimage would take around forty days by foot, and Uchiko was closed off from major roads, so people built several short trails of eighty-eight small shrines in different areas which you can walk or cycle in a few hours. Apparently, it gives the same good luck as doing the real thing, so it’s worth a shot if you have time.
For lunch, we went to Misogi no Sato, an old elementary school building that was renovated into a restaurant around 6 years ago. They serve pizzas that are made in pizza ovens just outside the building. They also had a collection of jazz records on vinyl, so the music coupled with the rain outside gave the place a great atmosphere.
We went into the mountains and after a short walk through some picturesque woods we came to Momijigataki (紅葉ヶ滝), which is a waterfall with a small shrine secluded in the mountains, surrounded by maple trees. If you’re feeling up to it, you can also try meditating underneath the waterfall, called 滝行 (takigyou). Pray at the shrine, wash yourself in the main stream of the waterfall, and then purify yourself in the smaller stream that comes out of the cliff face on the right. The guide assured me that after three or four minutes in the water you will stop feeling the cold, but I would still wait until it warms up a bit before taking the plunge.
For the final part of the tour we left the bikes and took a walk around Machinami, the picturesque heart of the city. This is the Dogo of Uchiko, with some houses dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867). The area became rich with money brought in by the wax industry in the late 19th century by the Honhaga family, at which time Uchiko made up to 30% of Japan’s wax. The history of wax in Uchiko is documented in the Kamihaga Wax Museum (an offshoot of the original Honhaga family). Unfortunately, we were almost out of time, so I could only spend a little time there.
Uchiko also holds some notable events throughout the year, including the Ikazaki Kite Festival and Uchiko Beer Festa. Before being consolidated into Uchiko, the Oda river separated two villages who would fight kites by trying to cut the opponents’ strings with scissors attached to their kite. The Kite Festival is now held every year on May 5th (Children’s Day) and over 500 kites fight it out. This year the Uchiko Beer Festa will be held on May 9th and there will be a selection of German food and drink to try. Last year, anyone who came in traditional German clothes got a free drink ticket, so it’s a perfect excuse to break out that pair of lederhosen.
Even though I spent the day in Uchiko, I took a look at some of the tourist guides and there are still a lot of things I would like to go back and see, most notably Uchikoza, the kabuki theatre. As tourism is a major part of Uchiko’s economy there is a surprising amount of things to do and see, and it’s very accessible even if you don’t speak much Japanese.
Niall is a 3rd year ALT in Iyo City. Before coming to Japan, he lived in England and Australia. His main interest is Japanese nerd culture, especially trading cards and tabletop role-playing games.