Dogo Onsen and the art of Japanese bathing at Shikoku

Matsuyama, capital city of the island of Shikoku, is home to one of Japan’s oldest spa resorts, the Dogo Onsen bathing house. A magnificent occasion to test the wellness virtues of hot springs according to age-old rituals.

Almost all of Japan is volcanic. If you dug down far enough, you would find water in the centre of Tokyo. Shikoku however is the only island that cannot claim a volcano, but it can boast a small spa resort popular with emperors and which remains famous throughout the country: Dogo Onsen.

With references dating back as far as the 8th century, Dogo Onsen is one of Japan’s oldest and most prized spa resorts. In 1906, for example, Natsume Soseki provides a striking description in his novel Botchan. The small steam train and the impressive clock that strikes the hours: nothing has changed since the time of the great author. One could be forgiven for thinking that the immense wooden bathing house, surreally poised between a Japanese cathedral and a Normandy seaside villa, was the fruit of the fertile imagination of manga artist Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, it was Dogo Onsen that inspired the bathing house of the artist’s animated feature Spirited away! Inside, bathers can choose from two baths, Kami no yu or "Bath of the Gods” which is less expensive than the more intimate Tama no yu, “Bath of the Spirits”. Whether you identify more with the divine or the spiritual, soak up the uplifting virtues of these hot springs, into which all humans enter naked and equal.

One or two rules will help you blend in with your fellow bathers. First of all, everyone in a Japanese bath is naked. Step one: get completely undressed. You will then sit on a small wooden stool and wash yourself with soap (the notice reads “Please do not waste water”). You are then given a small square towel which you can use like a fig leaf, but you will soon notice that the regulars put the wet towel on their head so that they can move more freely in the water.

The steam creates a thick fog through which you will glimpse the occasional outline of another bather. The alkaline springs are piping hot (42° Celsius) and the heat slowly anaesthetizes the body. You will leave invigorated as if after a long siesta. Moral of this tale: a short dip is sometimes all it takes to gain a new perspective on the Land of the Rising Sun.

Practical information

The author

Gautier Battistella

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