Dogo Onsen, also known as Dogo Onsengai, is a village in the Ehime Prefecture to the east of central Matsuyama famed for its Japanese onsen or hot springs. More than a thousand years of history make it one among Japan’s most storied hot spring resort communities. Culture and history abound in this town, which has attracted various Imperial families, emperors, aristocrats, and literary figures over the years.
Up to this day, Dogo Onsen is still frequently visited by the Imperial Family and other of Japan’s renowned people. Dogo Onsen Honkan, the setting for Hayao Miyazaki’s renowned animated film Spirited Away, is just one of the many ryokans (Japanese-style inns) and lovely bath houses in the area that have grown popular with Western visitors.
The casual Japanese yukatas that are commonly offered at ryokans make strolling the streets of Dogo Onsen a pleasant experience. Because of this, visitors to the area may have a peculiar sense of nostalgia when they are in a completely new environment.
Not only is the area home to more than just the town’s hot springs, but the springs themselves are a major draw. Tourists can spend time appreciating Meiji Period architecture, reading poetry, exploring Japan’s two main faiths, going shopping, or just sightseeing before or after they unwind in the town’s bathhouses.
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Dogo Onsen Honkan
The Dogo Onsen Honkan is the most famous landmark in this spa town.
During the Meiji era, in 1894 to be exact, the city’s mayor, Isaniwa Yukiya, opened this public bath house.
The bathhouse is one of Japan’s three traditional onsen (hot springs), together with Arima Onsen and Nanki-Shirahama Onsen. Many writers, including Natsume Soseki and Masaoka Shiki, took refuge at Dogo Onsen Honkan over the years. As such, these writers included the place in their works, either directly or as an influence for their own story’s setting.
Soseki’s autobiographical novel Botchan describes the onsen as the protagonist’s favorite and most frequented location. When Soseki was living and working as a schoolteacher in the Matsuyama area, he frequently took time off to visit Dogo Onsen Honkan.
Matsuyama-born Japanese poet Masaoka Shiki used the baths as his primary residence rather than merely a place to unwind. Many of his now renowned poetry were composed during his stay at the onsen.
Given its age, Dogo Onsen Honkan was undoubtedly mentioned in older works, such as the Manyoshu (759 AD), Japan’s oldest collection of poetry. In addition to this, two legends—the Legend of the Egret and the Legend of Tama no Ishi—have grown up around the hot springs.
The Legend of the Egret
The Legend of the Egret talks of an egret that lived in Dogo Onsen. After injuring his shin, the egret decided to treat himself by soaking it in the local hot spring every day. Several residents of the neighborhood watched the egret train and saw him go for good once he was cured. People began to imitate this, and they too noticed an improvement in their health. Since then, many people have discovered the health benefits of onsen soaking.
The Legend of Tama no Ishi
The Legend of Tama no Ishi, which also relates a story about the healing powers of an onsen, focuses on two gods rather than a bird. It is said that Sukunahikona no Mikoto, on his trip from Izumo to Dogo Onsen, contracted a terrible disease and was on his deathbed. His comrade, Okuninushi no Mikoto made him soak in the town’s onsen which helped him regain his health and strength. Sukunahikona no Mikoto, in order to demonstrate his vitality, danced on one of the stones in the hot spring, leaving his footprint behind. The stone, known as Tama no Ishi, can still be viewed by the public in Dogo Onsen Honkan.
Description and Layout
The Dogo Onsen Honkan is a three-story wooden structure designed in the style of traditional Japanese architecture. On any given day of the year, you’re likely to find a good number of guests and employees navigating its confusing network of hallways, rooms, and stairwells.
Two public stone baths are available to guests. Like most Japanese bathhouses, there are separate facilities for men and women. On the ground floor of Dogo Onsen Honkan is the main bath, known as Kami no Yu (, Bath of the Gods). Tama no Yu, or the Bath of the Spirits, is a smaller but more well-known bath that can be found on the upper floor.
Visitors can choose from a variety of hotels. There are some shared rooms available on the second level for those who choose not to have their own private space. On the third floor, there are a number of cozy rooms that are perfect for those who like some privacy while they dine and unwind.
For reasons already stated, the Imperials are familiar with the area. Yushinden was specifically constructed for the patrons of Dogo Onsen Honkan in the year 1899.
For a little price, visitors can take a guided tour of the various facilities. On the second floor, there is a modest display showcasing Dogo Onsen-related historical papers and relics.
History and Culture in Dogo Onsen
Naturally, no visit to Japan, whether to Tokyo, Osaka, or any other city, is complete without gaining some understanding of the country’s culture and traditions. Dogo Onsen is no different, as it features several fascinating museums and religious buildings like:
Shiki Memorial Museum
Masaoka Shiki, the aforementioned Japanese poet, has a museum named after him. Shiki is a major character in Japanese literature who advanced the development of contemporary poetry, most notably haiku and tanka. The Shiki Memorial Museum is a great place for locals and visitors from other countries to learn about the poet and appreciate his work.
The museum is open from 9 am to 6 pm (except on Tuesdays) (only until 5 PM during November – April). There is a 400 entry cost for all guests.
The most visited temple in Dogo Onsen is Ishiteji. As one of 88 temples associated with the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi, it is a stop along the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Visitors can therefore anticipate seeing many white-clad pilgrims during their stay.
Stone hand is the direct translation of the temple’s name. This alludes to the myth about the nobleman who spent his whole life looking for Kobo Daishi. He clutched a stone to his chest as he lay dying. A child born years later is thought to be the same nobleman and is found to be grasping a stone.
The temple’s large property, which includes numerous additional temples, pagodas, halls, statues, and antiques, has contributed greatly to its fame, in addition to its role in the Shikoku Pilgrimage and the intriguing legend. In fact, many of its parts have been recognized as cultural and national landmarks. From downtown Dogo Onsen, visitors can go to the Ishiteji Temple in under 20 minutes.
About 200 meters from Dogo Onsen Station is where you’ll find Isaniwa Shrine.
Tourists must ascend a long set of stairs to access the temple. Several buildings and artifacts in the area are protected as Important Cultural Properties of Japan. Additionally, the structure features a hall that stores various suits of armor and weapons including tachi and katana.
Tourists are welcome to visit the shrine any day of the year, from 5 AM to 7 PM, with the exception of winter, when the hours are reduced to 6 AM to 6 PM.