Ozu (大洲, Ōzu) is sometimes referred to as Ehime’s ‘Little Kyoto’. I have no idea why, because they’re as unalike as any two cities in Japan can be. Unlike Kyoto, you can walk around Ozu in a day. Nor does Kyoto have a spectacular castle in a river setting with mountains towering nearby. The Kamo River in Kyoto is rather narrow, while the Hiji River (Hijikawa) in Ozu lies in a huge sweeping, stony bed with a certain wild grandeur.
Ozu is a bonchi, which is to say, it sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains. This means the city is hot in summer and cold in winter. But it also means that citizens can enjoy the sight of majestic mountains in the near distance, and the fantastic play of clouds and sunlight that differ with each season. The castle, whose keep was restored in 2004 using authentic medieval building techniques, is an excellent vantage point from which to enjoy this scenery.
The river also attracts a variety of birds. Herons, ducks and buzzards are very much in evidence. Ozu is also known as one of only three places in Japan where traditional cormorant fishing still continues today, a skill passed down from medieval times. Other amusements on the river include taking a dinner cruise in one of the low canopied boats that ply the waterway.
Unfortunately the part of Ozu that lies to the east of the river where the JR station is located has become quite run down. Refurbishments made to shops in the 60’s and 70’s are now looking pitiful. However, cross the bridge to the west side, and you find yourself in a grid of streets with many old buildings and shop fronts in a much better state of repair. Some of the arcades and streets are quite beautiful. Ohanahan Street with its rows of traditional buildings is decorated with flowers in bamboo planters, placed across a little open stream swimming with sleek, dark gray koi. On this street can be found the old restaurant Shun, renowned for serving local Ozu specialties. Indeed, Ozu has many fine eateries, and the city produces a handy pamphlet that lists them all with their prices.
Other must-see attractions are the Akarengakan and Pokepen Yokocho. The former is an old bank, of sturdy red brick construction, which seems totally out of place when you first come upon it around a corner. Not that it’s a bad thing, because it’s an attractive building, and something of a rarity in Japan. It houses a reasonably-priced shop selling locally made candles, ceramics, pictures and other mementos at reasonable prices, as well as a little museum featuring old movie cameras and model trains. Walk around the back and you find yourself in a cross between a movie set, a restaurant, an antique shop and a museum. This is Pokepen Yokocho, a tiny area which recreates the atmosphere of the Showa period, known to the outside world as the reign of the emperor Hirohito.
Overlooking a bend in the Hijikawa is a hermitage called Garyu Sanso, built by a wealthy by merchant in the Meiji Period when Ozu was a thriving center for paper and candles. This was created to bring some of the sophistication of Kyoto to Ozu, which is perhaps why the city likes to invoke the old capital of Japan.