When most people think travel in Japan it's mostly the big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto... and these are the places that have gotten overcrowded, especially during peak seasons.
My boyfriend and I have been to most of these famous places in Japan but we love exploring and there is so much land (and sea) left to cover in this beautiful country. So we took a ferry to Matsuyama, which is in Ehime Prefecture, from Kokura Port in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture. It was an overnight trip and we woke up fresh as the ship docked into this new city just around sunrise.
The most popular destination in Matsuyama is Dogo Onsen. And if you haven't already tried this in Japan, even if you are not one of those more inclined to stripping bare and bathing publicly with strangers--I recommend that you try it at least once. Even if you get uncomfortable, it is an experience worth having. I wasn't so keen on it myself and this was the first time for me to do so, might as well go big, right? My first time trying an onsen and I do it at a pretty famous one at that. We tried the main one and the extension of Dogo Onsen and I will never forget it. The men and women's bath houses are separate and if you weren't prepared beforehand, you can buy a small towel that comes with a little bath soap for relatively cheap. There are also free lockers to put your stuff in.
The famous Dogo Onsen
Dogo Onsen in its entirety, viewed from the back
Camellia Hot Spring: onsen no. 2, the extension
Dive right in!
Well, you don't really dive. It's not a deep pool, it kind of looks like a big fountain that's deep enough to wade in and it'll be steaming hot. You strip all your clothes off and put them in your locker and you can bring the key and your small towel and soap in the bathhouse. Before you go in the big tub there are showers built in along the walls surrounding the main bath. There are little chairs to sit in and from there you clean yourself before going in. It's a strict no-no to just jump right in without cleaning yourself first. They believe that these waters are sacred and have healing (if not rejuvenating) powers.
It's quite disengaging to be among so many naked people and participating in a public bathing sort of event. I honestly felt very awkward and tried not to look at anyone directly but I must admit after you give it a little bit of time it's also quite freeing to just to be so exposed and having it be so… normal. No one will bat an eyelash as you stand or sit there in all your glory. From the young to the old, nobody really cares (as long as you follow all of the onsen rules!). And if you find it in you to just breathe and let it all go, it was very relaxing and it took (most) of my troubles away. Hopefully, I came out there a cleaner person than when I first came in, in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the word.
Dogo is one of the oldest onsens in Japan, built over 3,000 years ago. And the residents of this city really take pride in being its host. I’ve seen businessmen come in really early before work starts to get their onsen on and the more expected after-work one. And if all that doesn’t fascinate you, Dogo is also the bathhouse which the movie Spirited Away’s bathhouse was based off of, if you’re a fan of Ghibli films.
Lots more things to see and do
Matsuyama has a different feel to it than other cities in Japan. They also have a tram that covers most of where you’d like to go wander off to and there’s also a day pass if you want to save a bit if you’ve got a busy itinerary of going around the city that day. There are many interesting restaurants, cafes and shops to visit and one of them is the brewery located next to the main Dogo Onsen.
The Matsuyama tram
The local brewery
Try the local beer for further relaxation after a nice long bathThe Matsuyama Castle is also one of the prettiest castles I’ve ever been to in Japan. It’s quite beautiful and you can just imagine the wealthy elite walking around the beautiful grounds overlooking the city. I’ve seen a lot of castles here in Japan but this one definitely impressed me the most. Matsuyama Castle will transport you to another time as you enjoy a sundae cone. Feel free to stroll along and take lovely photographs.
The beautiful Matsuyama CastleSo, if you find yourself in a bit of a rut--why not fancy a visit to Matsuyama? Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of tourists- there just aren't so many compared to the larger cities and it's not that obscure that no one can help you around. Change it up and see another side of Japan's culture that's different from the norm. It’s not just the big cities like Tokyo and Osaka that can give you that exciting adventure of travelling in Japan.