Matsuyama usually doesn’t roll off the tongue when Japan’s most popular tourist destinations are mentioned. But Shikoku’s largest city features a landmark that has appeared in several literary works and is considered very soothing.
Dōgo Onsen (道後温泉) is considered Matsuyama’s most famous landmark, and any recommendation of places to visit in the city begins with it. In fact, Lonely Planet devotes a whole page to the onsen (a Japanese hot springs facility) in a recent edition. Although it’s located northwest of the city center, the area surrounding Dōgo Onsen attracts a lot of tourists as there are numerous temples, shrines, and museums.
History oozes out of Dōgo Onsen. According to legend, it was discovered 3,000 years ago when its water healed an injured white heron. Dōgo Onsen Honkan (the main building) gained further fame through Sōseki Natsume’s 1906 novel Botchan, and Yushinden (the building’s east side) is the only bath reserved for the imperial family.
Dōgo Onsen’s history is all well and good. But is it really worth an overnight bus ride (from Yamagata Prefecture to Tokyo) and plane flight (from Haneda to Matsuyama) to see? After all, onsens seems as easy to find as vending machines in Japan. And even if the building’s history was impressive, there are plenty of places closer to me where I could be equally awed and impressed. Could Dōgo Onsen wow me?
I had purposedly come to Matsuyama not knowing anything about Dōgo Onsen – including its appearance. Not surprisingly, it’s easy to find. Dōgo Onsen is located near the terminus of a tram line. Signs pointing to the onsen are in the vicinity and tourists snapping photos of a three-story building featuring traditional architecture can only mean one thing.
After buying a ticket and handing it to the lady at the ticket gate, I make the first left into the Kami-no-Yu (Water of the Gods) bath. Dōgo Onsen has two baths – each separated by gender and labeled in both English and Japanese.
After exiting the dressing room, my first images of Dōgo Onsen were about to pop into my head. The classic image of onsens that appears in travel guides and magazines is that of friends relaxing while enjoying nature in a rotemburo (open-air bath). My first Yamagata Prefecture onsen featured a stroll down a wooden stairway into a rotemburo. While Dōgo Onsen probably wouldn’t replicate such an experience, maybe I would be able to enjoy first an indoor bath and then a rotemburo bath under the evening sky (like at the onsen near my house). Or maybe I would feel the way I feel when visiting temples and shrines – that I’m feeling history.
Or quite possibly, I would meet nice artwork. The Kami-no-Yu turns out to be a two-tub, enclosed rectangular room smaller than half a basketball court. The tubs are flanked by showers. The Kami-no-Yu features heron mosaics on marble walls. Supposedly, Dōgo Onsen is packed on weekends and national holidays. Although I’m not there on an official national holiday, it is during the Golden Week period. However, only about ten people are relaxing in the Kami-no-Yu when I first hopped into the water. Maybe it’s not crowded because it’s normal dinner time.
The water is clean and soothing. Definitely what I need after having just wasted an hour shouldering a heavy backpack while searching for my accommodation. However, Dōgo Onsen surprises me. Looking around the Kami-no-Yu, the air of a late 19th century building isn’t present (the main building opened in 1894). The walls aren’t made of wood, and the water isn’t shot into the tub via a trough. The marble walls and well-lit heron drawings I first noticed give the bath a sense of modernity that belies its age.
After bathing calmly for about 20 minutes, I become a bit antsy. Being at Dōgo Onsen by myself and on my own schedule, I’m free to explore the place. I notice a stairway in the Kami-no-Yu. Anxious to see what it leads to, I slowly go up the wooden steps. I pass a square sign that features a message only in Japanese. Being awful at reading Japanese, I’ve come to ignore most of those messages.
But after passing the message, I spot a tatami mat room and several folks relaxing. It doesn’t give the impression of being the best place to crash unexpectedly. Especially when still in your birthday suit.
After the near-embarrassment, I get changed and go up the stairs one floor. The second floor features several tatami mat rooms, some of which are filled by guests enjoying tea (I pass waitresses holding trays with tea cups). It seems that many an enclosed onsen has a tatami mat dining room. Certainly, it would be nice to dine with friends at Dōgo Onsen - not that that option is available for me at the moment.
The second floor features more shoe boxes – the Tama-no-Yu (Water of the Spirits) bath is located on that floor. For those interested in a history lesson, the exhibition room contains items such as wooden admission tickets to Dōgo Onsen and bowls used by those who have graced the building’s presence. The third floor sports a display (entirely in Japanese) on the life of Sōseki Natsume.
But as I’m not in the mood for anything related to a history lesson, I quickly depart. As storied as Dōgo Onsen’s history is, it’s still an onsen.
photo by nyuudo on flickr