If you ask anyone about hot springs, or onsen, in Japan, a few key locations will inevitably pop up. One such place is Dogo Onsen, one of the oldest and most celebrated on the rural island of Shikoku.
When I say Dogo Onsen has a storied history, that’s no joke: There are legends, fables, and stories by the plenty about the historic onsen. The first involves the founding of the onsen: An egret had an injured leg and soaked it to heal in the natural waters. It had been doing this since ancient times and the area became famous as a natural healing space. There are also tales of how two local divinities, Okuninushi-no-Mikoto and Sukunahikona-no-Mikoto became healed from the waters, causing them to do a celebratory dance upon a special stone. That stone, Tamanoishi, is enshrined in the main building of present-day Dogo Onsen.
The tales go on and on, starting from the egret 3000 years ago, to the present iteration being opened in 1894 by the behest of Isaniwa Yukiya, the first mayor of Dogo. Through his determination and in the face of protests, he pushed for the renovation of the fading onsen building, stating “Only if we build something that will continue to be unrivaled even 100 years from now will it be of any value.” Well, he was certainly on to something, as today, it is still famous and well-respected across Japan and abroad. It is even the model for the bathhouse in Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away.
I went on a hot, muggy July afternoon from downtown Matsuyama on their delightful streetcar down to the historic Dogo station, complete with an old-fashioned steam engine train sitting outside the impressively preserved building. From here, you can walk down a series of covered shopping streets, replete with shops selling souvenirs, omiyage, sweets, local products, cafes, restaurants, and more.
Given that I visited during the second year of the pandemic, and given how strict Japan is with its containment efforts, not much was open. I was walking through a very deserted version of a once-bustling arcade: Shops were not open every day and with irregular hours. Few people beyond locals and a few daring domestic tourists were milling about. I had traveled there for work, and extended my stay an extra day specifically to check out the onsen. Towards the end of the shopping street, I began to see the hotels that flanked the main onsen building itself.
Dogo Onsen has three buildings: The main building, Dogo Onsen Honkan Bathhouse (right by my hotel), the Dogo Onsen Annex (Asuka no Yu bathhouse), and the Dogo Onsen Tsubaki no Yu bathhouse. I managed to soak in both the Tsubaki no Yu and Honkan bathhouses, despite the piercing heat. In the Honkan bathhouse, I got to bathe in a pool with the famous yugama, or column-shaped water spouts that help to cool the water to a temperature suitable for humans to bathe in (still incredibly hot for most not used to heat, let’s make no mistake!). So revered are the yugama that you can find one as a statue outside the Dogo station, fitted to put out cool water for use as an outdoor footbath. Neat!
Dogo REBORN Project
While I was there, the building was under many renovations, but this was an opportunity to see a unique art installation by the art group Naked. You may remember them from our time in Kyoto at Nijo Castle. They had teamed up with the city as well as the estate of famed animator and manga artist Osamu Tezuka to bring one of his lesser-known titles, Phoenix (Hinotori 火の鳥), to life on the walls of the main building. The work itself was unfinished, and he considered it to be his life’s work.
The show itself is projected on the outside of the onsen on its walls. It happened every hour on the hour from 7:00 PM until around 9:30 PM. Since my hotel was right across the street from the onsen, I just hung out in the lobby until the time for the show, stepped out, and watched the spectacle at my leisure. It was a lovely mix of movement, music, and creative use of the surface to achieve a variety of effects.
Even if there are no projection shows, Dogo Onsen is still worth the trip to see it. Once the refurbishment is done and you can enjoy the main bathing area, it might be worth your while to stop in during the colder months and soak in a bit of Japanese history and culture.