Field Report: Matsuyama, Japan (12 February 2014) – Part 3/3

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Old-fashioned onsen bathing is an experience one normally associates with resort towns or rustic mountain hideaways, but Matsuyama’s own hot spring district brings the experience a little closer to downtown.

After spending the morning at Matsuyama Castle, I made my way back to the Ōkaidō tram stop and prepared to explore another part of the city – one where sightseeing plays second fiddle to relaxation.

Ōkaidō was a typical downtown boarding point: basic low-level platforms flanking a rust-streaked, stone-flagged dual trackway, hemmed in by buildings on either side . . .

12Feb14 Iyotetsu Tram Okaido Matsuyama Ehime Shikoku Japan 002

12Feb14 Iyotetsu Tram Okaido Matsuyama Ehime Shikoku Japan 001

. . . and aesthetically a world away from the tram stop at the end of the line. The ride was only several minutes long, but from my surroundings it almost seemed as if I’d travelled decades. Backwards.

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Welcome to Dōgo Onsen – a place where time stands still, but the hot spring water flows freely.

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Well, I suppose that introduction was a tad over-romanticised. The clock tower may have exuded a vintage vibe, but there was nothing vintage about the concrete mid-rise blocks surrounding the stone-paved square, or the tile-paved market street leading to the heart of the district.

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Even so, one shouldn’t be fooled by the modern veneer into thinking that this area is just another bathhouse district set up in recent years to cater to the travelling public. Dōgo Onsen is one of Japan’s most ancient hot springs, with a history stretching back over a millennium and a centrepiece bathing complex that’s been playing host to royals and commoners alike for more than a hundred years. (The story about Prince Shōtoku taking the waters hereabouts in the 6th century A.D. might be a tall tale, but even that’s not entirely implausible.)

As you’re walking through the covered market, look to one side and you’re likely to see a veiled clue to that centrepiece I mentioned earlier.

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The Donguri no Mori (“Acorn Forest”) shop sells all manner of Studio Ghibli merchandise. Now it’s not entirely unusual to find anime-themed stores in shopping areas elsewhere in Japan, so why is this one a hidden marker of sorts?

It’s a bit of a stretch, but work with me. Donguri no Mori sells Studi Ghibli goods. Studio Ghibli produced the 2001 animated film Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, better known outside its home market under the title Spirited Away. And certain design elements of the lavish bathhouse in which much of the film Spirited Away takes place . . .

. . . are said to have been based on this.

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This splendid structure is the Dōgo Onsen Honkan, a palatial sentō built in the Meiji era. It’s quite a sight to behold and I’m not surprised that it may have been the/an inspiration for its animated counterpart in Spirited Away – it’s hard to think of any real-world examples that offer as much of the classic old-time onsen town feel as this building.

Now onsen bathing ranks high on quite a few tourist itineraries – some might even be inclined to view it as the quintessential Japanese experience – but I’ve never done it myself, and I’m unlikely to do it anytime soon (at least not until I’ve saved up enough to splash out on the private baths available at some expensive ryokan). Yes, I’ll admit it: I may be a frequent traveller to Japan but I’ve never set foot inside a public bath. After all, it’s the custom in these parts to take the waters without wearing a stitch of clothing, in full view of equally unclad strangers, and as a prudish lad I’m not quite daring enough to . . . er, well let’s just say that I’d rather keep myself covered up whilst in public, thank you very much.

So no hot spring bathing for me today, and you’ll need to rely on another site for a view of the interiors. Still, as an architecture enthusiast I found much to appreciate on the building’s exterior, with the added benefit of keeping my clothes on for the duration.

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Most people come to Dōgo Onsen for the hot springs, but they’re by no means the only attraction in this area. Just one stop away on the tram line is one of the entrances to the sprawling Dōgo-kōen, a leafy park laid out on the site of an old castle, Yuzuki-jō.

12Feb14 Yuzuki Castle Dogo Park Matsuyama Ehime Shikoku Japan 001

Unlike many of the other castles I’ve featured on this blog, Yuzuki doesn’t have some of the typical features like stone-clad walls and sky-scraping towers. This is an older fortress, first established in the 1300s and abandoned about two centuries later, by which time castles were only starting to be built according to the classic Azuchi-Momoyama model of soaring donjons and ishigaki that we now associate with these martial structures. Here, the few remnants of the castle consist mainly of old-fashioned earthworks, along with reconstructions of the residences that once stood within the compound.

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In one part of the earthen wall, visitors can enter a dug-out space where they can see a cross section of the barrier, accompanied by an interpretive display explaining the various layers.

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And that’s it for Matsuyama – at least for the moment. I’d love to come back here someday and see even more of the city, perhaps as part of a more comprehensive tour of Shikoku, and by then I might have overcome my fear of public exposure just enough to briefly sample Dōgo Onsen.

Now for a late lunch of udon and inarizushi at the train station . . .

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. . . followed by a long wait on the chilly open platform for my ride back to Okayama (thence to Ōsaka) . . .

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. . . finished off with dessert on the train, including three-colour bocchan dango (a Matsuyama speciality) and a slice of chestnut pastry.

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The ride back was uneventful, but the large picture windows on the train gave me excellent views of the mountains that tower over the heart of Shikoku. I couldn’t get a decent picture but I hope this shot gives you an idea.

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Beyond the tiled roofs and urban sprawl, the snow-capped peaks rise above the centre of the island, sometimes dark and forbidding as the Ephel Dúath (though I’m quite sure I won’t find Mordor on the other side).

A few hours later, I was back in Ōsaka – and ready for the next phase of my latest Japanese adventure.

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