Dōgo Onsen – where it all began…

A few Japanese friends had recommended that I visit Dōgo onsen so I was excited to finally have the opportunity to go for an overnight stay. Little did I know just how much there was to learn about  the history and culture surrounding the birthplace of onsens in Japan.

The Journey

As with all magical experiences, the journey to the destination so often sets the scene. In my case, I travelled to Dōgo Onsen from Kyoto to Okayama by Shinkansen and then changed trains to the Shiokaze limited express which took me on a stunning trip across the Seto Inland Sea. The views were truly breathtaking, with numerous small islands scattered throughout the sea.

Upon crossing the Inland sea, the train glided through the beautiful countryside of Ehime prefecture and just before reaching the destination of Matsuyama I was treated to more stunning coastal views.

From Matsuyama station, I rode on an old tram and arrived at the quaint little station of Dōgo onsen after a 20 minute journey.

It didn’t take long to get into the onsen mood as soon after I came across the Dōgo Onsen Honkan after a 5 minute walk through the main shopping directly opposite the station.

Honkan

The Honkan or “main building” was built in 1894 on a site that is renowned as the original birthplace of hot spring culture in Japan. Legend has it that in the age of the gods, a white heron dipped its injured foot into the water and was healed. There is also the legend of Tamanoishi, a stone on which a divinity danced after also being healed in the waters of Dōgo Onsen. That very stone is still enshrined within the northern side of the Honkan today.

In 1994 the Honkan became the first public bath house to be officially designated as a National Important Cultural Property. It also houses the only bathing room in Japan reserved solely for the Imperial family. Furthermore, the Honkan gained international recognition after being awarded a 3 star rating by the Michelin Green Guide.

There are a number of bathing options within the Honkan.  At the time of my visit however, it was only possible to bathe in the Kami-no-yu (water of the Gods) on the first floor. All other areas were closed due to renovations. Predictably there was a constant flow of tourists so I returned again around dinner time hoping it would be less busy. Although it was still somewhat crowded, I had a very special experience bathing in the sacred waters in a very historical building.

After my evening bath I enjoyed a Dōgo Onsen beer at a local bar just opposite the bath house. It was great timing as I got to watch an illumination show which lit up the sides of the Honkan with scenes from the animation movie “Spirited Away”!

Morning adventures

Never one to sleep in on my onsen adventures, I awoke at 5:30 the next morning and hopped straight out of my futon, into my yukata and wandered up the narrow streets to explore. Out of interest I headed back to the Honkan and arrived by 6am to hear the morning drums which was yet another first in onsen experiences! Drums are struck 3 times a day; 6 at 6am, 12 at midday, and 6 again at 6pm. I smiled when I saw there were already locals queuing for their morning bath, so I headed straight for the less crowded Asuka-no-yu.

Asuka-no-yu  has only recently opened in 2017, but was built in the traditional architectural style of the Asuka period. At first glance, I thought it may not be as appealing as the historical Honkan, but I was really glad I went as I discovered a surprise opportunity! The bathing menu included regular public bath options as well as a special private bath room which is a replica of the original bath room reserved for the Imperial family at the Honkan. Naturally, in the spirit of research, I purchased tickets for the general bathing as well as the Imperial bathing!

As soon as I entered the building I felt a sense of awe. There was a magnificent calligraphy artwork, stunning woodwork features and decorative washi paper gently draped from the ceiling to signify the entrance to a sacred place. Immediately I felt relaxed and at ease.

I was welcomed  by a wonderful friendly staff member who took me upstairs for my private bathing experience. I felt a real sense of excitement as we arrived at the traditional entrance. Upon passing through the main entrance, I was guided to a six mat tatami room which led to another set of silver lined shoji doors leading to the private bath.

My host invited me to sit down. I had another beautiful surprise when she presented me with a small wooden plaque which is apparently given to the first person to bathe in the room each day! I was then invited to choose a yuchō which is a traditional bathing robe believed to have been worn by the nobility when bathing. The yuchō (also known as yukatabira) is said to be the origin of the yukata.

The lady opened the shoji doors and left the room so that I could bathe in private and soak in the “wow”! Being a private bathing area, I was very pleased to be allowed to take photos and capture the moment. Every aspect of the interior from the sliding doors, the stone steps leading into the bath and the ornate stone carvings on the walls was carefully crafted to capture the essence of the environment that the imperial family would have bathed in.

After a leisurely soak in the imperial bath, I took off my wet bathing robe as I had been instructed and changed back into a clean yukata to wear within Asuka-no-yu. Savouring my cup of green tea I took my time enjoying all of the beautiful surroundings. There were so many ornate shapes and textures within the room, including the special crests framing the sides of the tatami mat, the legendary white herons carved on the sliding door handles and the camellia shaped wagashi served with my tea.

Other unique experiences at Asuka-no-yu

Within Asuka-no-yu there are other unique experiences not to be missed. On the ground floor there are public bathing areas which include both indoor and outdoor baths. I visited both and enjoyed the beautiful Tobe porcelain panel wall murals and  a mini light projection show on the walls featuring little boats floating across the Inland sea. Another bathing experience with a twist!

On the second floor of Asuka-no-yu there are options for areas to relax in whilst enjoying refreshments. The communal room is stunning, and includes traditional woodwork and ornate washi paper adornments highlighted with gold leaf. All guests choosing the communal area option are supplied with a yukata with an original design reflecting animals which feature in legends about the healing power of onsens.

In addition to the main relaxation area, there are 5 small rooms that can be rented for private use. Each room depicts thematic art work illustrating traditional handicrafts from Ehime prefecture including Iyo mizuhiki papercord, Tsutsugaki techniques of paste resist dyeing, Imabari toweling, Sakurai lacquerware maki-e techniques and Saijō Danjiri carving techniques. The amount of history, culture and artisanship woven into each of these rooms was so awe-inspiring. My appreciation of the art seemed to be heightened following the deep relaxation in the bath. What a truly amazing experience.

I was so glad to have visited Asuka-no-yu. It perfectly complemented the historical Honkan experience and provided a more relaxing environment to fully soak in the many rich and diversified cultural facets of Dōgo Onsen.

Getting there

From Okayama take the limited express Shiokaze to Matsuyama (158 minutes). Change to the Iyotetsu tram bound for Dōgo Onsen (20 minutes).

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