The celebrated novel Botchan by Natsume Soseki tells the story of a grumpy young man and his teaching experiences in the town of Matsuyama in Shikoku. Convinced he is better than just about everyone, he finds his only calm in the warm waters of Dogo Onsen. Having read the book years ago, I decided to include a trip to Matsuyama on our itinerary. The hot spring did not disappoint, but it did result in an unexpected encounter.
While Matsuyama may have been regarded as a backwater in Soseki’s time, it is now the largest city in Shikoku. After a very brief stay in Marugame—famous for its udon—we took a series of single-car trains along the coast of Shikoku towards our destination. If you’re planning to take the same route, you can board a series of local trains on the Yosan line, though the Shiokaze express will get you there much faster.
Matsuyama is one of the few major cities on an island known for its nature escapes and heavily forested mountains. Compared to the cities on Honshu, however, it can seem pleasantly quaint. Rather than a subway or urban train line, a series of streetcars run through the city centre, and twice a day you can ride on the Botchan Ressha–a tram that resembles an old steam engine similar to one featured in the novel.
We opted for one of the smaller and more affordable streetcars, arriving at our boutique hotel after a 20-minute ride. After checking in and dropping off our bags, we cut a line straight to the onsen.
Dogo Onsen is one of the oldest hot springs in Japan and has quite the history. In addition to its appearance in Botchan. There is an account of the bath in the ancient chronicle the Manyoshu. More recently, it provided part of the inspiration for the fantastical bathhouse in the Ghibli animated film Spirited Away. On top of that, the onsen contains a special bathing facility for the imperial family, including one bath for the exclusive use of the Emperor himself.
Though the current site of Dogo Onsen is a short distance from the original site, the baths themselves date back more than 1000 years. Today, the baths occupy two separate buildings: the original honkan, and the more recent Annex. While the annex facilities opened in 2017 and offer a more luxurious bathing experience, we opted to experience the original bath, even though it was undergoing renovations. Given the storied history of the bath, you’d expect the entrance fee to be pricey, but at the time of our visit it was surprisingly cheap, costing less than 500 yen.
After agreeing on a meeting time, my fiancée and I separated and made our way to the change rooms. I stripped down and entered the surprisingly small bath. The stone water spout was larger than most and ornately carved. Behind it, a large blue and white painting adorned porcelain panels. The rest of the room was taken up by the customary low to the ground showers. I found an empty spot and scrubbed myself down before finally entering the bath.
Feeling the Heat
I should have been prepared. If you’re a foreigner and visit enough onsen in Japan, chances are you’ve encountered a few bathers eager and ready to practice their English with you. On that day, however, the possibility didn’t even enter my mind. I closed my eyes and relaxed into one of the corners.
A few moments later, I was brought back to reality by a question I’ve probably answered over 1000 times: “Where are you from?” I opened my eyes to discover a man in his late sixties squatting in front of me. I answered the question politely along with the typical follow-up: “Do you like Japan?” That’s usually the end of these sort of exchanges, but my companion, the retired window-maker, was undeterred. He was prepared for a full conversation.
One question followed another, and glancing at the clock I began to get concerned as the recommended 15-minute limit elapsed. I could feel myself overheating but didn’t want to be rude to my new friend by abruptly making for the exit. Once 20-minutes had passed, I was beginning to feel dizzy, but still couldn’t find a way to end the conversation. He began to say something about a one-time visit to Vancouver, but I was too out of it to catch the details. After almost 30 minutes, the man finally ended the conversation. I made for the exit, but not before I heard him approach the only other foreigner in the bath. “Where are you from?” he started once again. I decided it was time to escape.
As we left Dogo Onsen and returned to our hotel, I looked back one last time at the old wooden structure. Unlike the protagonist of Botchan I may not have found calm at the hot spring, but, in retrospect, I had enjoyed the opportunity to meet one of the chatty locals that would have seemed right at home in the pages of Soseki’s novel.
Name: Dogo Onsen
Address: 5-6 Dogoyunomachi, Matsuyama, Ehime 790-0842, Japan
Post by Japan Journeys.