Dogo Onsen: Three Millennia of Japanese Hot Spring History
Going to try out the onsen (“hot springs”) experience is a common item on the to-do list of many visitors to Japan. There is a truly daunting number of hot springs across the country, but if we were to choose one to represent them all, it would be Dōgo Onsen. After you’ve read our article today, we hope you’ll put your newly-gained knowledge to practice and make plans to visit this amazing locale!
About Dōgo Onsen
Located in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, these waters boast an exceptional level of fame as the purportedly oldest hot springs in all of Japan with a history that goes back 3000 years. Together with Arima Onsen in Hyōgo and Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama, it is one of Japan’s Three Great Ancient Hot Springs and enjoys a not-inconsiderable number of visitors.
History of Dōgo Onsen
1. Appearance in the Nihon Shoki
2. Appearance in Natsume Sōseki’s “Botchan”
The author Natsume Sōseki, whose face for a time adorned the Japanese 1000 yen note, in 1906 wrote his most famous work, “Botchan.” In the pages of that classic novel is a mention of what a “wonderful onsen” Dōgo Onsen is.
3. A Bath for the Emperor’s Exclusive Use
4. Referenced for Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away”
The production team involved in the creation of this famous animation actually went to Dōgo Onsen themselves, and you can find mention on their official site that the hot springs were invaluable as a resource reference.
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Highlights of Dōgo Onsen Honkan
The most notable hot spring facilities are Dōgo Onsen Honkan and its sister, Tsubaki no Yu. The former receives the most attention from tourists, whereas the later is primarily use by locals, thanks to its lower price. However, this hardly makes Tsubaki no Yu the inferior bath: both facilities draw their hot spring waters from the same source. We’re going to limit our focus to Dōgo Onsen Honkan, which is the main facility in the area.
1. The Three Baths
Tama no Yu, http://www.mcvb.jp/
There are three baths located at Honkan: Kami no Yu (“Gods’ Bath”), Tama no Yu (“Spirits’ Bath”) and Yūshinden. The third one, Yūshinden, is the bath we mentioned earlier, made for exclusive use by the emperor. Of course, common people cannot use it, but we are allowed to view it on special tour.
Shinro-kaku occupies the highest point of Honkan, and perched atop it overlooking the town is a statue of an egret, the symbol of Dōgo Onsen. The walls of the turret are done in red sliding doors, and when lit at night it transforms into a crimson drop light. Come evening, it casts a strange, otherworldly glow that stands out sharply against the sky. Inside hangs a taiko drum that signals the hours by sounding out three times a day for the morning, noon, and evening hours. The sound of this drum is registered as one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan.
3. Evening Illumination
<When to Bathe at the Hot Springs>
The taiko drum atop Shinro-kaku sounds out at 6 AM every morning, signaling the opening of the baths. This “morning bath” has become a Dōgo Onsen specialty, so if you have the chance, try to be the first one into the bath!
Dōgo Station Area Highlights
The area around Dōgo Onsen Honkan is a bustling tourist destination all hours of the day.
1. Botchan Ressha
A classic train mentioned in Sōseki’s “Botchan,” this spot is quite popular for taking commemorative photos.
2. Botchan Karakuri Clock
3. Dōgo Shopping Arcade
Lantern Gate, http://www.489pro.com/
Connecting Dōgo Onsen Station with Dōgo Onsen Honkan, this shopping arcade is perfect for a yukata-clad post-bath stroll.
Best Time to Head to Dōgo Onsen
Really, the best time to head there is as soon as you can! In October of 2017, they’ll begin a massive renovation project on a scale that happens only once a century, with completion forecast for 2024. Yes, that means you won’t be able to enjoy the waters here for seven to eight years. However, the sister onsen mentioned before, Tsubaki no Yu, will continue its operations throughout.
Having enjoyed the patronage of countless historical figures, these hot springs have an incredible atmosphere and ambiance. Be sure to go and enjoy this well-preserved taste of old Japan… and hurry to get there before the renovations begin! Information: Map