Jan 062006

I took my seat on my first ever long-distance bus in Japan. The destination: Matsuyama, location of the oldest bathhouse in the country.

Ever since I heard of Dogo Onsen I’ve wanted to visit. Dogo is the most famous Onsen in the country, a three-story building with origins dating back some 3,000 years. There are dozens of legends surrounding it, including that told by Hayao Miyazaki’s movie Spirited Away. His “Bathhouse of the Gods” is actually Dogo.

I hopped on the bus and proceeded to my assigned seat. It was the worst seat I could’ve been given. Right next to a huge, sleeping fat guy. Not that I mind sleeping fat guys…it’s just that this particular sleeping fat guy couldn’t seem to prevent his stomach from spilling over and engulfing the left half of my body. My clothes were already pretty unpleasant after having pushed myself physically for two days straight on my bicycle, and this wasn’t exactly helping. I did the only thing I could think of to help pass the time. I slept.

I arrived in Matsuyama just about an hour before sundown, having fully crossed two islands in the last three days. Matsuyama had a distinctly different feel from Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka, or any of the other places I’d visited on this trip so far. I suppose it could be most readily compared to Hiroshima for its “small-but-big” sort of feel, with old fashioned street cars weaving in and out of the regular traffic.

The first thing I did was head to my hostel, which as it turned out was only a couple of blocks from the Onsen itself. There was no question about it when I passed Dogo. It was every bit as spectacular as I would’ve imagined. The surroundings, however, were one hundred percent opposite.

It wasn’t some isolated old building in the middle of nowhere like in Spirited Away; instead it was slapped right in the middle of a city just as modern as any other. After living in Kyoto for a year you’d think I’d be used to such contrasts of the old and the new, but somehow it just seemed strange to me. Maybe it’s because I had such a clear image of what I was expecting from the movie.

After checking into my hostel I spent the rest of the night relaxing and chatting with my roommates. One of them was a Brazilian exchange student from Tokyo who I would coincidentally run into an eerie number of times over the next day.

The following morning I got up bright and early and headed straight to the bath. It was pretty much what I expected. A “Bath of the Gods.” I can’t say I’d make a trip all the way across the country like many Japanese do just to have a dip, but I am glad that I got to experience it before going home.

I spent the rest of the day exploring Matsuyama on foot, including Matsuyama Castle, before getting on a six hour bus back to Kyoto. It was December 30th, and if I wanted to make sure I’d be back for New Years I had to at last end my unplanned cross-country adventure.

Thankfully, this time the bus was nearly empty and I had a whole row of seats to myself. The ride itself was pretty uneventful; I spent most of it catching up on writing these blog posts. At one point we took a break at a truck stop for refreshments and the young gentleman in the seat in front of me purchased a hard-core pornography magazine which he proceeded to read shamelessly for the remainder of the ride.

I arrived in Kyoto at 9:30pm on December 30th. Just in time to do my laundry before going out for New Year’s Eve the following night.


  10 Responses to “Tour De Japan, Part 5: Matsuyama”

  1. Sweet….what is a Japanese bath house? Anything like a chinese one?

  2. Awesome.

    Can you get into the onsen experience a bit more? I’ve been to one before and really enjoyed it. (My school group was also turned away from an onsen once. I have never been fluent in Japanese so I didn’t catch the reason, but I got the impression from our teachers’ reactions that it was because we weren’t Japanese.)

    I mean, I know that there really isn’t much to it other than “go in, wash off, sit in water, get out”, but I’d still like to hear about the experience in more detail. Maybe write it like a short story?

    (As if your life isn’t busy enough…)

  3. Andy and Heather: Well, I’ve never been to a Chinese bath house so I can’t say for sure, but from what you’ve described on your blog: no, it’s nothing like it.

    An “Onsen” is actually a hotspring that they use to make natural mineral baths, sometimes they’re indoors and sometimes they’re outdoors (outdoors are called rotenburo). Although I’ve never really gotten into the culture of them myself, there are millions of Japanese who absolutely love them and use them religiously. I do know that gaijin are often turned away from the more traditional places, although that’s changing more and more with globalization – and with cases like the famous one up in Hokkaido where a stupid gaijin actually went as far as suing a hotspring for not letting him in (douche).

  4. The one I went to had a rotenburo. It was kinda cool bathing outside. I could hear the cars on the street below, beyond the trees.

    Couldn’t see them, though, because I didn’t wear my glasses in. (I think that actually helped me not be self-conscious. It’s the whole “if I can’t see them they can’t see me” logic…)

  5. If I rode a bike as far as you did and got turned away from a bath house I would kick the living patootie out of every single person within my sight. I mean, SERIOUSLY, you reek of god knows what and you’ve probably destroyed the full working ability of several arteries; you’re in dire need of naked japanese men and mineral water.

  6. Poppycock!

  7. I believe the reason the person who is suing was turned away was because he had a tatoo. Onsen and bath houses will not allow people with tatoos.

  8. That may be another lawsuit, but the one I’m talking about is this one:


    A gaijin who had obtained Japanese citizenship was turned away because he was white, and sued the owner of the Onsen on the grounds that he had become legally Japanese. The Japanese man argued that it was his establishment and he should have the right to admit or reject anyone he wanted. The white guy won, and the Onsen’s business was badly hurt when his traditional customers stopped going.

  9. I can’t believe you called Debito a douche. Yeah, he’s kind fo annoying and I don’t think I’d want him at my party and he has the mostly poorly designed website ever, but I sure as hell glad there is SOMEONE out there fighting institutionalized racism in Japan.

  10. Just AMAZING, Justin! I love the way you write, your thoughts, and outlook on life, along w/your choice in fulfilling it.

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