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A Setouchi Sojourn: Reimagining Ozu

A Setouchi Sojourn: Reimagining Ozu

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Lesser known and secret Japan

Setouchi Image by Kylie Keogh

Reimagining Ozu

Walking down one of the narrow streets in the tiny Japanese castle town of Ozu is like stepping back in time. Traditional wooden minkas (folk houses) line either side, some abandoned but others hosting artisan stores, tea houses, and even a burger joint.

Such is the contradiction, and charm, of Ozu, located 55km from Shikoku’s capital Matsuyama where our tour started. Nestled by the Hijikawa River and backed by mountainous forest, Ozu flourished as a trade and manufacturing centre in the Ehime prefecture during the successful Edo and Meiji periods (1603-1912).

Wax, silk and washi in Ozu

Setouchi Pottery
Setouchi Pottery Image by Kylie Keogh

With wax, silk and washi (Japanese paper) being sought after Ozu produce, the river was the main source of transportation to the Seto Inland Sea and the rest of Japan. Industry was thriving but the river became obsolete as a trade corridor with the advent of electricity and railroads in the early 20th century and sadly, the town suffered. The population aged and families moved to more prosperous centres, leaving their minkas empty and abandoned.

Fortunately, Ozu was not destined to be a town that time forgot, thanks to the dedication of the local community and Spanish architecture PhD student Diego Cosa Fernandez, who moved here in 2019 to continue his research. Diego’s passion is palpable as he guides us on a walking tour of Ozu. While enjoying conga eel burgers and sweet potato fries at Aoi Café (renovated from a Minka), he provides an overview of the extensive history and explains the significance of preserving it.

Setouchi Pottery
Setouchi Pottery Image by Kylie Keogh

“Ozu is an area that is not even well-known to the Japanese,” he says. “With the introduction of electricity, wax was no longer needed, and silk was being made more cheaply in China. Over time, things weren’t being renewed and the town started to decline. There were more than 200 abandoned houses, but the owners didn’t want to get rid of them as they are a connection to the ancestors.”

Several decades ago, a dedicated urban regeneration plan was initiated to salvage and rejuvenate the ancient architecture, with funding from a private/public partnership.  By 2023 it was earning global recognition for preserving local heritage in a sustainable way.

Ozu castle

One of the landmarks that attracted recognition was Ozu Castle. Perched upon a hilltop with stunning views of the Hijikawa River, the castle needed extensive repairs and rebuilding which was done using the traditional, centuries-old methods.

one of the worker modesl inside the castle that depicts the rebuild of Ozu Castle
One of the worker modesl inside the castle that depicts the rebuild of Ozu Castle Image by Kylie Keogh

While the main tower and wings were intact, the rest was built from scratch. Not only did it take enormous skill and time, but the cost was significant and required funding in a private/public partnership. To ensure patrons were recognised, those who contributed were immortalised in models of the build with their faces used for the construction workers.

And for visitors to Ozu Castle with cash to spare, in the warmer months you can stay for approximately $12,000 a night, which includes traditional performance of kagura (ancient form of dance worshipping Shinto deities), a salute by Samurai troops, dinner in the turret and sipping sake in the moonlight. In fact, you can don traditional garb and play the role of lord of the castle if you wish.

Nipponia Hotel in Ozu

Ozu is a global benchmark for rejuvenation and restoration done well. One of the biggest supporters and contributors is NIPPONIA HOTEL, which has spread its 32 rooms, restaurants, bars, and lounges over several locations in the town, taking advantage of the traditional minkas and repurposing them for modern comfort.

The hotel rooms built in traditional Ozu buildings
The hotel rooms built in traditional Ozu buildings Image by Kylie Keogh

This hotel is my favourite during our trip. The rooms have been exquisitely renovated and decorated, and the definition of bliss is a deep, cedar bath filled with bubbles overlooking a private Zen Garden before an aperitif (my choice was champagne) in the hotel guest lounge and degustation dinner at nearby Le Un.

Le-Un, French-Japanese fusion fine dining

Le Un is the hotel’s French-Japanese fusion fine dining restaurant which uses fresh produce from local farms and the Seto Inland Sea, and serves each dish on distinctive blue and white locally made Tobe pottery that I had to almost be restrained from buying a full set and attempting to cart home! To accompany our meal, we started with a local sake flight before moving onto a French red.

Restaurant Le Un
Restaurant Le Un

Ozu is a walking town and known as the “little Kyoto of Iyo”. Amongst the renovated buildings, the streetscape belies modern times. The project has preserved tin advertising from the 1950s and shop signs, which gives Ozu the feeling that you’re walking through a film set.

But inside the artisan stores is where the joy begins. A visit to Ozu must include the heritage red brick building Ozu Akarengakan. Formerly a bank, this distinctly western style structure is now a shop that showcases the beautiful produce of local artisans.

You’ll find candles, washi, prints, paintings, leather craft, woollen garments, beauty products (using the famed local silk) and ceramics, including the Tobe and what became my favourite –  pieces by Ehime artist Fujiwo Ishimoto. Now 83, earlier in his career Ishimoto worked for the Finnish brand Marimekko for 33 years and created more than 400 patterns and designs for them. Other local stores also carried selections of his ceramics, but a broader range can be found in his flagship design store Mustakivi in Dogo.

It wouldn’t be Japan without unconventional food. While not restricted to Ehime, fruit sandwiches are … a thing, and pack a fair calorific punch with chunks of fruit wedged between white bread with thick cream. Umitokamome Ozu Bettei is a gorgeous shop that specialises in cakes and fruit sandwiches and is in one of the refurbished minka – and is hosted by staff as sweet as the sandwiches.

gardens of garyu sanso
Gardens of Garyu Sanso Image by Kylie Keogh

Respite from the freezing temperature is at one of the traditional tea houses before we make our way to what Diego says is one of the most special places in Ozu. Garyu Sanso is a picturesque cottage set in a cultivated garden overlooking the river. Built in 1907 and based on famous Kyoto villas, it took four years and 9000 artisans to finish. It is the epitome of Zen – and if it weren’t for the low temperature, I would have happily stayed longer in the thatched-roof house Furo-an, which uses a tree as one of its pillars, taking in the view. 

The morning we leave Ozu, the sun is shining and after sleeping like the dead (maybe it was the influence of the ancestors, or the French in the lounge fridge) we have a final look around before making our way back to Matsuyama on the Iyonada Monogatari, a well-known sightseeing train that takes in some of the most scenic parts of Shikoku, and is frequented by some of the loveliest people.

view from furo an of the Hijikawa River
View from furo an of the Hijikawa River

We leave Ozu station to much fanfare – a Samurai is there to greet people disembarking – and board the vintage red train which includes a Bento box lunch. While the scenery is lovely, the most special aspect of the trip are the Japanese locals. At every stop the platforms are packed with people – of all ages, but mostly children –  waving streamers, banners, flags and soft toys. And we’re told they do this for every train, every weekend.

Shikoku is an island of spectacular vistas

Shikoku is an island of spectacular vistas. If you’re a keen cyclist there is a 70km route called Shimanami Kaido (he road for vehicles and the road for pedestrians and bicycles are completely separated.) that connects Shikoku to Honshu, crossing bridges that pass over six smaller islands in the Seto Inland Sea. The area is well-equipped for cyclists and cycle groups, with bike friendly accommodation, cafes, and even mobile repair vans. On the route is the new zero energy Itomachi Hotel (zero), a breathtakingly beautiful place designed by world-renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma.

Seto inland sea
Seto Inland Sea Image by Kylie Keogh

Being more of a culture lover (and less of a bike rider), visiting the port town of Onomichi was more my speed for our last day.

It is characterised by slopes and peaks and with 25 temples, there is a dedicated Temple Walk. To get to the top, we catch the ropeway to Senkoji Buddhist temple. It is one of the busier temples we have visited and during our time here, we were treated to the sound of monks chanting.  

Not only are there more stunning views of the Seto Inland Sea and smaller islands, but our guide Hiro explains the proliferation of a red-faced amulet, which I have noticed all over Japan. While it looks rather frightening, it is a Daruma doll, based on the Indian monk who brought Buddhism to Japan, and he says is a good luck talisman. An entire wall is filled with Daruma outside the temple and on the back of each are scrawled wishes in Japanese, mostly asking to pass exams, Hiro tells me. The ritual is you make a wish and colour in one of the eyes and when your wish comes true, you colour in the second eye.

Daruma amulets, with Rilakkuma (relaxing bear) bringing a bit of chill!
Daruma amulets, with Rilakkuma (relaxing bear) bringing a bit of chill! Image by Kylie Keogh

I think I need to buy one and wish to come back to Shikoku and Seto Inland Sea, a lesser-known part of Japan that has all the traditional charm of Kyoto, without the crowds.

For more information on travelling to Shikoku, Seto Inland Sea and the Ehime prefecture go to …

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