One of Japan’s most spectacular and famous views (and there are many) is the sea of clouds punctuated by the hilltop Bicchu Matsuyama Castle in Okayama. Justifiably known as the ‘Castle in the Sky,’ if you time your trip right, you will be presented with a view that would not look out of place in a fantastical Studio Ghibli movie. But the Castle in the Sky is not the only view you should look for while traveling around the Setouchi area. Jump across the Seto Inland Sea to Kagawa Prefecture, and you will find Takaya Shrine, home to the ‘Torii Gate in the Sky.’ Takaya Shrine is at the peak of Mt. Inazumi, but in contrast with Bicchu Matsuyama, we are not here to see the shrine, but what the shrine sees. I don’t want to cause waves here, nor do I want to create friction with the peloton of cyclists crossing the Shimanami Kaido, but for me, the view from Takaya Shrine is the premier view of the Seto Inland Sea.
The Sea of Clouds at Bicchu Matsuyama
If you’re coming to Japan to hit the slopes in winter or to view the fall colors in October or November, you have happened upon the perfect time to catch the sea of clouds at Bicchu Matsuyama. The sea of clouds is a fantastic scenery that can be seen early in the morning, especially from autumn to spring. It can only occur when conditions are right, such as a significant temperature difference between day and night and no wind. To see the castle keep of Bicchu Matsuyama Castle floating in a sea of clouds, I recommend visiting the Sea of Clouds Observatory. The sea of clouds observatory is located at the top of a mountain northeast of Bicchu Matsuyama Castle and is accessible by car. If you miss the sea of clouds, either due to visiting at a different season, sleeping in, or just bad luck, don’t fret. A walk around and inside Bicchu Matsuyama — one of Japan’s three best mountain castles — is more than enough reason to make the short detour during your trip around the Seto Inland Sea.
Bicchu Matsuyama Castle
Bicchu Matsuyama is now known for its clouds and hilltop views, but when it was built, its architects had a very different purpose in mind — to construct an impenetrable defensive fortress that could ward off all those who would dare to attack it. This mountain castle, the highest of all the castles in Japan that still have keepers, was first fortified in 1240. The grounds were gradually expanded, and in the 1500s, the entire mountain became a major fortress. Over the centuries, it became the center of a castle town with the castle lord’s residence and government office established at the foot of the mountain. In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), an order was decreed to abolish all castles, and there it lay in decline until it was later restored. In 1950, the castle tower, two-story turrets, and earthen walls were designated as Important Cultural Properties.
As the castle was built to take advantage of the natural topography to make it difficult to attack, so the walk up from the car park is a little far, though pleasant nonetheless. You can take two main routes — a direct path up the hill or the road leading to the main entrance. We decided to walk up the trail and down the road, and that is the route I would recommend, though the staff on site were telling older visitors to take the road both ways.
When I say path, I mean steps. There are lots and lots of steps. The path is steep in places and rarely straight as it doubles back on itself, winding its way up the mountain. It must’ve been a challenging climb for attackers, but for visitors now, it’s incredibly serene as you don’t often come across anyone else on your way up. The worn stone steps lead up through banks of trees on either side, with seats set up where possible so you can enjoy the view while catching your breath. If you’re lucky enough to be there in fall, as we were, you will be met with vibrant red and orange hues along the way. After what feels like the thousandth step, you will come to a small clearing with stone steps leading to a lookout. This is where the castle’s defenders would hurl large boulders at those brave enough to attempt an attack. If you’re here, it means you’re close to the top — continue on a little further, and you will reach the outer castle walls.
As we approached the castle, we were met with the contrast of white walls with the fiery red and orange fall leaves. Once inside the entrance, there is a good chance you will meet Cat Lord Sanjuro asleep on his throne. Named after Sanjuro Tani, the commander of the 7th unit of the Shinsengumi police force and originally from the Bicchu Matsuyama domain, he is the PR ambassador for the castle and is always stationed here. One thing you will notice, especially when compared to structures like Osaka or Himeji castle, is that Bicchu Matsuyama is relatively small. This is because this castle mainly symbolized authority and wasn’t used as an administrative office or residence. The lord of the castle actually lived at the foot of the mountain, on the site of the current Takahashi High School, and even today you can see the stone walls that made up the base of the residence.
Bicchu Matsuyama Castle
The Former Samurai Residence of Haibara
Back down in the Takahashi township — just around the corner from Takahashi High School — is Ishibiyacho Furusato village. These streets were once home to a thriving samurai town, and some of the residences have been preserved and are now open to the public. One of the best examples is the former Haibara Residence, built during the middle of the Edo Period. It is an unusual structure that incorporates elements of temple architecture and sukiya (tea house) style. Just up the road is the former Orii Family House, with its displays of samurai armor, weapons, and other artifacts to help you understand what daily life was like for the samurai and their families during this period.
The view that will greet you after the hike up the mountain is worth the effort to reach it
In contrast to the impressive Bicchu Matsuyama Castle, Takeya Shrine is a more modest shrine at the top of Mt. Inazumi in western Kagawa Prefecture. Still, the view from the shrine, known for its ‘torii gate in the sky,’ is well worth the visit. Said to have been originally built in 927, it stands at the height of 404 meters looking out over the Seto Inland Sea. A trip here can be part of an instagenic double play when combined with a visit to the famous Chichibugahama Beach, situated only a twenty-minute drive away.
We’re going to the top!
As we drove towards Mt. Inazumi, the weather inland was horrendous and bucketing rain. We were almost about to decide not to go until we found a convenience store selling waterproof outers, but we still thought that there wouldn’t be anything to see from the peak aside from clouds. Once we arrived at the parking area, we realized the rain was falling only on one side of the mountain, so our hike turned out to be relatively dry. The walking route from the parking area is around 1.4 kilometers long and consists of a winding path heading straight up the mountain. It is rated at a 40 to 60-minute hike, and we completed it comfortably in around 45 minutes.