Photo:Christian Kaden on Flickr

Spirited Away at Dogo Onsen

All onsen-lovers and Ghilbi fans should make a pilgrimage to Dogo Onsen located in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture. With a history of over 3,000 years, Dogo Onsen (道後温泉) is said to be the oldest hot spring in Japan. The magnificent Dogo Onsen Honkan (道後温泉本館) provided the inspiration for Japan’s highest grossing film, Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” (千と千尋の神隠し).

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Awarded 3 Michelin stars and designated as a national Important Cultural Property, Dogo Onsen is a prime hot spring destination not just in the present but in the past too. Dating from the Meiji period, the wooden bathhouse was visited by the Imperial family on various occasions.

It was well loved by the locals and one of them was the great Japanese novelist, Natsume Soseki, who wrote the masterpiece, Botchan (坊っちゃん). The protagonist in Botchan frequented the bathhouse when he worked as a teacher in Matsuyama. There is a “Botchan” room in the bathhouse that provides information about Natsume Soseki and the novel.

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The atmospheric three-storied bathhouse evokes a sense of mystique and nostalgia. Time seems to be slow down in the historical bathhouse as the sights and smells of the bathhouse transport guests back to the past. The mesmerizing sound produced by the clock drum in the watchtower with red glass windows was selected as the top 100 Soundscapes of Japan. The clock rings three times a day: 6:00 a.m., noon and 6.00 p.m.

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In the bathhouse, there are two gender-separated, old-fashioned public baths furnished with high quality granite stone and marble walls. The main bath on the first floor is called Kami no Yu (Bath of the Gods), while the smaller but more exclusive Tama no Yu (Bath of the Spirits) is on the second floor.

Guests can rest after their bath and enjoy refreshments in the spacious tatami lounging rooms on the second floor and private rooms on the third floor.

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The bathhouse looks impenetrable with its sturdy wooden structures and rather complex onsen menu. To earn the privilege of experiencing the world-renowned hot spring water, the first challenge is to decipher the imposing wooden board at the ticket window. The huge fee table shows four admission plans.

The cheapest plan (410 yen) provides limited access to Kami no Yu on the first floor.

The second plan (840 yen) provides a yukata with large yudama prints and 60 minutes access to Kami no Yu. Usage of the lounging room on second floor with tea and senbei (rice crackers) is included in this plan.

Next, the third plan (1250 yen) provides a yukata with small yudama prints, a towel and 60 minutes access to Tama no Yu on the second floor. Like the second plan, usage of the lounging room on second floor with tea and senbei (rice crackers) is included.

Finally, the most luxurious plan (1550 yen) provides a yukata with white heron prints, a towel and exclusive 80 minutes access to Tama no Yu private room on the third floor. Usage of individual private lounging room on the third floor with tea and “Botchan” special dango (dumplings) are included in this plan.

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All the plans include entrance to the “Botchan” room and exhibition room. Situated at the corner of the second floor, the exhibition room displays historical records and artifacts like the wooden yufuda (bath tickets).

The superior Tama no Yu plans include access to Yushiden. Constructed in the decorative style of the Momoyama Era, Yushinden was reserved for the Imperial family in 1899. This paid area consists of three rooms. The intricately ornamented entrance room leads to the Otsugi room, which is used by high-ranking officials. The lavish Emperor’s room is adorned by gold painted scrolls. Next to the Emperor’s room, there is a secret room called “Musha gakushi” for the hiding guards. It is believed that no emperor had used the Yushinden since 1952. While guests cannot step into this elegant bath, they can purchase a 300 yen ticket and enjoy a short 15-minute guided tour of the royal facilities.

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After overcoming the first obstacle of purchasing the ticket, guests are guided to the shoe locker area. At the ticket gate, the staff collect the ticket and usher guests into the dressing area. Wandering through the labyrinth of narrow stairways and passages, there is the feeling of déjà vu of being in the shoes of Chihiro, the protagonist in Spirited Away. In order not to get lost in the maze, follow the colored carpet: the blue carpet for the second floor lounging room and Kami no Yu, the red carpet for the second floor lounging room and Tama no Yu, and the yellow carpet for third floor lounging room and Tama no Yu.

The alkaline, colorless and odorless hot spring water of Dogo onsen is beneficial for health and provides relief for rheumatism, muscle pain and many other ailments. Before leaving the memorable bathhouse, remember to send a postcard from Dogo onsen’s special postbox and receive the distinctive postmark as a memento!

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There are a few legends surrounding the mystical Dogo onsen. One of the most popular legends is about the white heron. In ancient times, an injured white heron soaked its leg in the hot water streaming out from the crevices of the rocks. The hot water healed the heron’s wound and it flew away. The villagers witnessed this miracle and the news of its healing powers spread.

Based on another legend, that of “Tama-no-ishi”, two mystical gods visited Dogo. The small but agile Sukuna-Hikona fell very ill and Okuninushi told him to sit in the hot spring. After soaking in the hot water, Sukuna-Hikona recovered and he danced ecstatically on a stone.

The white heron and “Tama no ishi” are important symbols of Dogo onsen. The heron motif can be seen everywhere from the roof to the interiors of the building. “Tama no ishi”, the sacred stone covered with a tiny footprint, is exhibited at the north end of Dogo Onsen. It is believed to possess healing powers and ability to bless people searching for love.

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Dogo onsen is crowded during peak periods. Visitors from all over the world indulge in the grandeur of Dogo onsen and wander through the streets in their yukata robes. It is recommended to visit the onsen early in the morning to enjoy the fresh hot spring water and during off peak hours to avoid the crowds. Near Dogo onsen, there is a secondary bath house Tsubaki no Yu. Built in 1953, this public bathroom uses the same hot spring water as Dogo onsen. While Dogo onsen is usually filled with tourists, Tsubaki no Yu offers a more communal experience of soaking in the hot spring with locals.

“Once you meet someone, you never really forget them. It just takes a while for your memory to come back to you,” Zeniba told young Chihiro in “Spirited Away.” Once you visit Dogo onsen, you can never really forget the wondrous experience of soaking in this magical and historical hot spring. It just takes a while before your memory tempts you to return to Dogo Onsen again!

Address : 5-6 Dogoyunomachi Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture 790-0842‎
Tel. : 089-921-5141

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