Matsuno is a pretty little settlement in Ehime near the border with Kochi. Once a very quiet backwater of the celebrated Shimanto River, the town recently implemented an imaginative development program that put it on the map as a place worth visiting.
The development centered around the Osakanakan, an aquarium showcasing the fish and fauna of Shikoku. The unusual and engaging exhibits, including a tank of extremely large fish from the Amazon, attract many repeat visitors. The Osakanakan is part of a Road Station complex beside the Hiromi River that includes a glass shop and hands-on glass-making atelier where you can try your hand at blowing glass, and a farmer’s market.
Across the river sits the small, but very atmospheric Poppo Onsen, a popular spa built into Matsumaru Station. There are a wide variety of baths, including some made of old wooden vats and barrels, where the wood is gradually becoming calcified with the minerals from the water. This is a very nice place to go after a hike.
Matsuno is surrounded by mountains populated by deer, boar, monkeys, pheasants and buzzards, which are frequently seen once you get off the main roads. There are forestry paths all around the town where an adventurous walker can happily get lost for a few hours. But the best walks are around Nametoko Gorge, a short drive from Matsuno, where trails go up on either side of a river dotted with enormous boulders, with deep channels carved into the rock. There are many fine waterfalls to be found here, and Nametoko is now offering one of the few canyoning tours available in Japan.
Every August, Matsuno has a summer festival which draws crowds of yukata-clad revelers. There are the usual stalls with beer and snacks, bon odori dance, taiko drumming and other entertainments. But the real draw is the totally awesome fireworks display – the best pyrotechnic eruption I’ve seen anywhere.
A trip to Matsuno wouldn’t be complete without dropping into the sake brewery Nobushi (mountain warrior) to purchase one of their distinctive products – a heavy genshu, undiluted sake, or an effervescent namazake, unpasturized sake (open slowly to avoid a shower!). The brewery building itself is a very attractive structure with white plaster walls and a brick chimney. In summer, swallows flit around inside with a dark, cavernous interior.
For eats, Matsuno has a famed restaurant serving fresh eel from the local river, seasoned with a sauce that has been kept in continuous production for many decades, if legend is to be believed.