Matsuyama 松山, part 1: Dogo Onsen 道後温泉

During the recent holiday weekend, we visited Matsuyama 松山 in Ehime Prefecture 愛媛県 on Shikoku 四国. While this may not be a “must-see” for most people taking a visit to Japan, it was certainly a lovely place… I am now wishing I had more time and could have seen more of Shikoku. Another trip maybe…

Matsuyama is known for 2 things: it is the setting of the famous Japanese novel “Botchan,” by Natsume Souseki, a tale of a head-strong Tokyoite named Botchan sent to the rural Matsuyama town on Shikoku Island to teach middle school math, set in the Meiji era. It was also recently turned into a J-drama movie starring one of the Arashi members, and is really entertaining! The second thing is the Dogo Onsen, not only famous due to Botchan, but also said to have been 1 of the onsen that inspired the backdrop for Ghibli’s Spirited Away animated film.

Anyway, on to the trip!

First thing to know, there is no train from the Matsuyama airport, you will need to take a bus downtown (which is actually a very short ride, 310 yen to the JR station, or 410 yen to the city station, I think it must have been less than half an hour). Exit the airport, and there will be a ticket machine to buy tickets, then just get on the bus. Easy. Depending on the number in your party, it is not unreasonable to simply take a taxi (fare ~2000yen when we took it on the return trip from our hotel to the airport!).

We got off at the JR station, but realized too late that the tram that goes to our hotel a) runs only 2x per hour, and b) actually runs in a loop which is somewhat reverse and inconvenient. Anyway, at the JR station you can buy 1 day or 2 day passes for the Iyotetsu trams (**PASMO and SUICA do not work… sigh). For a some extra fee, these can include more trains, the Botchan train ride, and Matsuyama castle entrance. For what it is worth… I do not think these passes are worth it, at least it ended up not be for us. The “city” is actually really walkable (or even bike-able), and the trams not so convenient. It turned out to be cheaper for us not to use the day passes, since we sort of enjoy walking most places anyway. Just something to think about.

Anyway, we end up walking to our hotel (next to the castle park area) from the station since it is not a very long walk anyway. We checked into the hotel, admired our “castle view,” which was a bit like, oh yeah, I can see a cute little castle at the top of that hill over there… and headed out to enjoy the evening views. We headed towards Okaido station shopping area, admired some food stuffs in the department store and surrounding shopping arcade. At sunset we took the ferris wheel on top of the department store. FYI: If you show your PASSPORT this is free! We did not do our research… and had to pay the fare. sigh. BRING YOUR PASSPORT for the free ride!  Well, it was a nice view, not spectacular but a cute way to wind down a day.

Afterwards, it was time to head towards Dogo Onsen 道後温泉, one of the onsen that is said to have inspired Spirited Away (Japanese title: 千と千尋の神隠し)! I came at night in order to get the night shots of the onsen all lit up and romantic (bathing would happen the next day). A warning: if you really, really want to bathe at Dogo onsen at night, just be aware it might be crowded… nighttime is the most popular time to visit (for very good reason, it is stunning!). We opted just for pictures at night (I dislike crowds overall). So we enjoyed the public foot bath, the strolling the small shops in the area, trying out the famous botchan dango, and taking pictures for the first evening. Really, Dogo Onsen is just fantastic at night; the atmosphere really is amazing, people wandering around in yukata with bath baskets, leisurely heading towards the bath… I was quite jealous now that we had not opted to stay in the immediate area (but the prices were literally 3x that of where we were staying… alas!). We also tried the Dogo Beer Brewery… it was okay… but honestly 600yen per beer was a bit much. The beer was so-so (I thought the Madonna beer was best), and if you were not eating a meal there, you could only do “take-out” which meant drinking the beer in a plastic cup in front of the building. So lessons learned: stay as close to Dogo Onsen as possible in one of the minor onsen hotels (assuming price is not unreasonable) and do not feel pressured into trying Dogo Beer, as it is not that great (not terrible, just, Asahi is better and cheaper).

The next day, we decide to hit up Dogo Onsen for the actual bath around 8ish after taking breakfast at our hotel. This so happened to be a PERFECT time for visiting… not too crowded so enjoying the bath was amazing! We arrived, took a shoe locker, and bought our tickets. Now, there are many levels of tickets, most are for a total of merely 1 hour in the bath… there is the basic, no frills, no nothing just entrance fee for just a few hundred yen. Then you can start looking at the Tama-no-yu bath with senbei (rice cracker)/tea snack on the second floor lounge for a bit more, and then the high rollers of Tama-no-yu bath plus private changing room and botchan dango/tea snack at a whopping 1500yen, but you get 80 minutes in the bath. Well, in coming here, I am going for the whole experience, so I insist to my husband we get the highest tier. Now, I will not kid around, knowing Japanese is a huge advantage here. I am unsure how you could get around here comfortable not knowing it. I am sure it is possible, but I imagine rather difficult.

So we get our tickets, and they direct us to the 3rd floor. On the 3rd floor, we are received by a mama-san, who gives us bath towels, yukata with the special crane design, and shows us to our private 2-person tatami changing room. She explains we have the room for 80 minutes, and can use both the second floor Tama-no-yu bath, as well as the public 1st floor bath. When we are finished and ready for tea, to ring the buzzer on the table. So we change quickly, admire the view from our third floor room, and head down towards bath areas. We are entranced by the beautiful interior of the whole complex, with winding halls, narrow stairs, beautiful rooms with small details, cheerful bathhouse workers… seriously, something out of a Ghibli film.

I enter the 2nd floor baths, and as it turns out, I am the only one using it at this time. It was wonderful, even if a bit simple. Even so, images of Botchan (a Japanese novel set in Matsuyama) and Spirited Away surround me. Perhaps I have a good imagination. After a good soak, I finish up, eager to scope out the rest of the complex, as well.

I looked around at the second tier lounge, just to see what I upgraded from. This floor was also quite lovely; while it was a mixed, open floor plan (changing rooms for the bath segregated), you could enjoy senbei and tea while wearing yukata with the basic design with a nice view from the balcony. I think a majority of visitors choose this option.

From here, I wandered down to the first floor public bath. It was larger and obviously more lively (less private), but that is also a good thing. I like variety. There are no amenities down here, so you need to bring your own towels, robes, soap, shampoo/conditioner (the more upper level bath comes with these), just remember if you choose this option!

Afterwards I went back to our 3rd floor room where my husband was waiting. We buzzed for tea, and moments later it arrived~ green tea and botchan dango. Botchan dango has 3 flavors: red bean, matcha, and local citrus (although very light citrus flavor). Finally our 80 minutes have passed and it is time to leave. My husband liked that we had a room together and he was not just changing with ojiisans, even if our baths were separate.

Before we headed down the stairs, the mama-san showed us the Botchan room. It is all in Japanese, but I could get the basic idea. On the second floor, we were then given a small tour of the imperial baths (where the emperor bathes on his visits). They explained that the 2nd floor mens bath is where the bodyguards bathed; my husband was amused and now brags he bathed where the imperial bodyguards bathe. Anyway, it is an interesting little area.

Feeling refreshed, we look for the next item on the itinerary; the onsen shrine and the Dogo Park area. These are not particularly spectacular, but enjoyable nonetheless. We get tickets for the Botchan train; it is so cute. We also watch the “gizmo” clock, as on the hour, it plays music and little Botchan characters come out and move around.

Here is a “sample” of pictures:

Click to continue to Part II!

Additional images from Matsuyama (not organized or labeled yet…):