A Clean Start at Dogo Onsen

Another 12 months have passed with the New Year just around the corner. This time of year resolutions are made and, in my case at least, promptly broken. Once again I will resolve to clean up my act, and what better way to get a fresh start than by taking a bath. Better yet, why not soap up in the granddaddy of all Japanese hot springs–Dogo Onsen.

The grand old bathhouse found in Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime Prefecture, is Japan’s oldest. So old, in fact, it is mentioned in The Kojiki, Japan’s oldest book. The large granite tubs have been a welcome sight to weary travelers for more than 1,300 years. The wooden building as it stands now dates back to 1894 and looks more akin to a traditional hotel than a sento.

Tickets are purchased from a window facing the street, and a splash in the nation’s most ancient of tubs will set you back a mere ¥300. If rubbing shoulders with the gazillions of tourists visiting the place each day is beneath you, you can shell out a further ¥320, (¥620 total) and retire to the second floor. You’ll still share the same bath water, but they throw in free bottomless ocha (tea) and a couple of biscuits as well as the use of a yukata.
The chance to kip out on the second floor and enjoy the breeze after a soak is actually not a bad deal. It is worth paying extra just to see the looks on people’s faces when they realize males and females are expected to strip down to their birthday suits in the same room. If you’re shy or confused, don’t panic; so is everyone else. Just undress down to your t-shirt and jeans, don your yukata, and take off your jeans.    

Underwear can be worn and then stored in lockers downstairs in the change rooms outside the bath proper. Valuables can be kept in lockers at ¥100 a pop. With your undies safely squared away, slide open the thin glass doors and behold the kami no yu or bath of the gods.

Spend a few minutes showering and washing the filth off your body, before meandering over to bathe, squeezing yourself between a couple of septuagenarians to enjoy a good hot soak. It gets pretty full.

In the center of the tub there is a small fountain. You will notice old men in particular spend an inordinate amount of time holding their throats under the water that spews forth. Dogo Onsen’s spring water is reputedly good for throat ailments.

For those flush with winter bonuses, you may wish to fork out ¥1,280 and make your way up to the third floor and enjoy the comfort of a private room (one-hour-and-20-minute limit). Not only will you get the same goodies as those on the second, but also you will be provided with the use of a towel and get to scoff down a few mandarins (mikan), another local specialty.

Here you can join an elite few and enjoy the waters of the tama no yu or the bath of the spirits. I found it entirely similar to the bath of the gods, albeit a little smaller, and minus the punters.   

The real draw card of the third floor is the chance to spend some time in the “Botchan” room, named after the protagonist and title of Natsume Soseki’s famous novel. While the central character found little to like in Matsuyama, he was fond of the bathhouse and praised its merits. The novel, as are many of Soseki’s stories, is semi-autobiographical and provides some insight into the author’s life there as a high school English teacher.

Just as the hero of the book, Soseki enjoyed wiling away a few hours at the onsen. Step outside the confines of the building, and you could be forgiven for thinking “Botchan” was the greatest thing that ever happened in the area. The entire district seems to pay homage with local delicacies, trains, a baseball stadium and even a clock named after him. Many people walk around dressed as characters from the book.

About a third of the building is kept exclusively for members of Japan’s royal family. You cannot bathe there, but for ¥210 you can take a peek at how the other half live.

PRACTICAL INFO

The bath is open from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Some rooms close earlier, and surcharges may apply during national holidays. Tel: (089) 921-5141. Trains run regularly from major cities to Matsuyama. For fares and train schedules visit www.hyperdia.com. For more info on Matsuyama, visit www.city.matsuyama.ehime.jp/lang/en/index.html.