A conch sends a plaintive bleat into the air, and flag bearers wave nobori banners to welcome you as you ride in on horseback, dressed in customary Japanese warrior attire. Just as they did 400 years ago, a congratulatory firing of muskets follows — a triumphant declaration that you have arrived at Ozu Castle in Ehime prefecture. This is not your typical Japanese overnight stay — in Shikoku’s reconstructed wooden castle, this welcome ceremony is just the beginning of what awaits your exclusive overnight stay in Japan’s first-ever castle tower accommodations for visitors.
While my visit to Ehime didn’t afford me the pleasure of being a guest of honor at Ozu Castle, I did enjoy a luxurious overnight stay in Ozu Castle Town’s Nipponia Hotel. For the next 24-hours, I sampled sumptuous in-house meals, took a tour of Ozu Castle, visited the charming thatched-house villa of Garyu Sanso, and soaked in a handcrafted cedar tub to complete my day of history, architecture, and relaxation at its finest.
Ozu Castle: The History and Reconstruction Efforts to a Japanese Castle
Arriving in Ozu on a late February afternoon, I caught sight of my first destination of the day, at Ozu Castle (大洲城). Standing on a hill overlooking the city’s Hijikawa river, this castle’s elevated perspective likely served as an excellent outlook for its guards when it was founded in the 1300s. When the 1868 Meiji Restoration marked the end of feudalism, the castle’s destruction followed in 1888, though, fortunately, four turrets were spared. Through the local efforts and donations from Ozu’s citizens and construction phases since the 1950s, the reconstruction of Ozu Castle was finally completed in 2004, giving the city of Ozu back its great landmark.
Luckily, even if you’re not an overnight guest, you can still enter the castle to admire the fine timber craftsmanship. Unlike other castle reconstructions that use concrete, Ozu Castle is crafted with wood and traditional construction techniques used during the Keicho Era (1596 – 1614), with the aim of building a near-perfect reproduction of the original castle structure. With the aid of photos, old replicas, and research into the era’s building techniques, the building is an incredible reconstruction of what the original Ozu Castle was like when feudal lords governed Japan.
After paying my entrance fee, I wandered through the four-stories of Ozu Castle, where I admired the clean joint work, thick sliding doors with intricate wooden locks, a display of armor worn by past feudal lords, and on the top floor, a view of the river and city. With the interior’s warm, golden-hue, it won’t take much convincing to get you wanting to spend the night with a loved one in this unique Japanese castle stay in Ehime.
What to Expect During Your Stay in Japan’s First-Ever Castle Tower Accommodations
Ozu Castle is Japan’s first-ever accommodations within a wooden castle tower ever since opening as an overnight lodge in mid-2020. If you’re one of the lucky few to get an exclusive overnight stay, you’ll get to experience the life of a feudal lord, with a welcoming ceremony that re-enacts the entering of the 1617 castle lord, Kato Sadayasu, with you as the show’s main star. After riding in on a horse with flag-waving and gunpowder squadrons behind you, you’ll get a guided tour of the castle and outline of the Ozu domain.
For the rest of the evening, you will enjoy a private Kagura performance, a full-course meal highlighting Ozu’s best ingredients, and an illuminated castle-viewing as you soak in a private bath before falling asleep in futon beds fit for any honored feudal lord.
A Luxury Stay in a Restored Japanese House at Nipponia Hotel
While I didn’t spend the night in Ozu Castle, I did have an overnight stay at Nipponia Hotel Ozu Castle Town (大洲城下町), which I’d hardly consider a compromise. As one of a handful of Nipponia Hotels located in Japan, this boutique hotel chain converts traditional, historically significant buildings into tastefully-renovated lodgings with the services of a high-class hotel. In Ozu Castle Town, Nipponia Hotel combines three decentralized structures within the town as one hotel, using old private residences and rental houses that a wealthy merchant in the area once owned.
Less than a five-minute walk from Ozu Castle is the central Nipponia hotel branch, where my attentive concierge, another of Nipponia’s signatures, awaited my arrival. I had tea and dessert served to me as I checked-in at the hotel’s comfortable sitting room and even had my concierge arrange a pick-up the following day to take me to the train station. While this is not a standard Nipponia service, it’s an example of the hotel’s Japanese omotenashi hospitality and a sign of the lengths the hotel staff will go to ensure you’re given the royal treatment during your stay.
Before heading to my accommodations for the night, I thought I’d try my luck with getting a table for dinner at Nipponia’s in-house restaurant, which usually requires a reservation. Even on short notice, they gladly made room for me, where I wined and dined on selections of Ozu’s finest ingredients (and got some killer sake suggestions) while taking in a front-row view of Ozu Castle’s nighttime illuminations. As I cuddled into one of the restaurant’s lap blankets, I dove into exquisitely prepared meals served on Ozu’s local ceramics before finishing with a dessert made with the prefecture’s famous mikan orange and vanilla ice cream.
After dinner, my concierge drove me to my accommodations – a former mansion converted into separate lodgings for Nipponia guests. My room had its own entryway, bathroom with views of a private garden, and an upper floor with a separate bedroom and living room. You won’t have to look hard to find some of the original building’s architectural details from its former life, with darkened ceiling beams and original storehouse doors.
I’d spend the rest of the night soaking in another of Nipponia’s signatures — a hand-crafted cypress tub, before heading off to bed. If it weren’t for my long day of travel, I would have spent more time relishing in my luxurious digs before the long arm of sleep pulled me away.
Garyu Sanso Villa: A Rustic Japanese Folk Villa
The following morning, I walked back to Nipponia’s main hotel branch for breakfast, before heading to my final destination in Ehime, the traditional rustic Japanese home of Garyu Sanso Villa (臥龍山荘).
Located along the Hijikawa River with the nearby mountains as its backdrop, this former villa of the successful merchant Torajiro Kouchi invested his wealth to build the estate to live out the rest of his retirement days. This dream retirement home took ten years to complete, with nearly 9,000 skilled carpenters from Kyoto and local artisans brought in to complete the project. As a result of their fine craftsmanship, Garyu Sanso won one star by Michelin Green Guide Japon and was recognized as a Nationally Important Cultural Asset.
If you have the pleasure of visiting it, look for the small details hidden within the rooms, such as the alcove shelves, moon-shaped windows, and bat-shaped metal doorknobs. There are even tiny signatures embedded within some of the nails on the balcony’s wooden floors bearing the metalsmith’s name who made them.
Between the main villa and a separate teahouse building is a Japanese garden of moss, shrubs, and carefully selected stepping stones. See if you can find the motif of a ship flowing down a river under moonlight on the villa’s supporting outer walls, where artfully designed masonry work is fitted perfectly together.
The Furo-an teahouse overlooks the Hijikawa river’s edge and has a surprising ceiling detail made from one large sheet of woven bamboo. As a stream of fresh air circulated through the teahouse, I imagined that this must have been a welcome pleasure during the height of summer in Japan – the perfect place to spend the rest of your days.
It’s not hard to see the charms that Ozu exudes, not just with its landscape, people, and food, but also with its lovingly restored architectural heritage that remains strong to this day. Whether it’s a restored castle, renovated houses-turned-luxury accommodations, or picturesque retirement villas, Ozu’s rich architectural history awaits visitors like yourself so you can enjoy your own day of history, architecture, and relaxation in Ehime.
How to Get to Ozu Castle
From Matsuyama Station (松山駅), take the Yosan Line Uwakai Limited Express train to Iyo-Ozu Station (伊予大洲駅). You can walk 20–30 minutes to Ozu Castle, or catch the local bus from Ozueki-Mae bus stop to Ozu-honmachi bus stop, then walk 10 minutes to the castle.
It takes over four hours to travel from Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto to Matsuyama by train, so we recommend taking a domestic flight to Matsuyama Airport. It takes approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes from Haneda or Narita Airport to Matsuyama Airport and about 1 hour from Osaka’s Itami Airport to Matsuyama Airport.
Ozu Castle Town’s Nipponia Hotel
Photographs and text by Mika Senda