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Published: March 27th 2008
There are few other places that I would rather call home in Japan than Matsuyama. It is one of those cities that one takes an almost immediate liking to. The old wooden floored trolleys that slowly make their circuit around the city, the hundreds of people going their different ways on old school or super chick bicycles and Matsuyama’s crown jewel, it’s castle, sitting on top of a mountain of green in the city center, gives the city a feeling of an older Japan, seemingly thousands of miles away from its pumped-up counterparts on the main island of Honshu.
Although Matsuyama is the biggest city on the rural island of Shikoku there isn’t much that feels big about it. For the most part it retains the feeling of what it really is, an old castle town sitting on the banks of the calm Japanese Inland Sea. And like the city, the people who call Matsuyama their home tend to be exceptionally relaxed and friendly.
The cities main claim to fame is the ancient Dogo Onsen, the oldest in Japan. People travel from all over Japan to have the chance to soak their weary bones in the scolding hot water
Many Japanese girls get decked out in $500-1,000 rental kimonos for their graduation ceremonies in March. Then they strut their stuff through the streets. It sure as hell catches my eye.
of the Dogo baths. The building that the baths are located in is beyond beautiful. No matter how many times I come to Matsuyama I always have to go back for another look. The gentle curves of the moss green roofs and the dark brown hue of the aged wooden walls make this building a work of art. The most amazing aspect, however, is that it still operates as it did hundreds of years ago and welcomes guests into it’s hot spring waters located inside. In this way, it is almost like a living museum and a trip to Matsuyama would not be complete without a dip in its scolding hot baths.
Saying that, I have to admit that I am not the biggest fan of the Dogo Onsen. The spa’s fame throughout Japan almost guarantees that it sees a steady flow of tourists throughout the year. This makes the baths unusually crowded and takes away from the otherwise euphoric experience of taking an onsen in Japan.
It took me a long time to come to like the experience of going to an onsen. Like many other foreigners in Japan the idea of prancing about in the buff
and the end to another perfect day in Matsu
with a bunch of old Japanese men and just a small white hand towel to keep me company didn’t exactly sound like my idea of fun. Add to that that I stick out like a sour thumb with blue eyes and blond hair in a country with exactly the opposite makes sure that I see my fair share of attention. I can’t exactly meander about unnoticed you could say. However, over time I have gotten over these petty insecurities and have come to love the experience of taking an onsen. There is nothing else quite as relaxing and I really feel apart of the culture and local community when I go to one of the smaller neighborhood baths.
For a lot of people the smaller baths, known as sento, are still much apart of the local community. The tradition seems to be dying out with a lot of younger Japanese but there are always a handful of old men, woman and children at the baths during all hours of the day. Luckily, the children and old woman are usually on the other side of the partition so that the men’s side is quiet and relaxing. There aren’t many sounds
marking the days to bentos and booze
other than the splashing of water, the occasional groan from the scolding hot water and the light Japanese Enka music or the sound of a baseball or sumo match on TV. It’s a good place to get away from it all and when you come out you will feel as fresh as a newborn baby.
If you want to experience one of the smaller sento baths and stay clear from the crowds at Dogo there isn’t a better place to go than the Kotobuki Onsen. It is one of the local community baths for people that live in the neighborhood that abuts the Matsuyama Castle. There are no frills here and don’t expect anything fancy. It is what it is, a small and somewhat dingy, community bath but this is what I like about it. If you want a true onsen experience I would recommend going here, and to divulge its secret, the waters are pumped in from the same hot springs that fuel the Dogo baths. It also has a dry sauna, wet sauna and for the more adventurous, an electric onsen, a separate tub that they run a fairly strong electric current through. I tried it once,
Everything Turns to Dust
thick incense clouds swallowing me whole at Ishite Temple
much to my demise, and after realizing that I had lost complete felling in my legs I was fished out, coincidentally enough, by a local fisherman that went by the name Mr. Small Forest, given his business card then invited to coffee (only in Japan). Maybe I’m just a weakling but take note it is quite a shock to the system and not for the faint of heart. Supposedly it’s good for your back.
However, don’t just take my word. I took a liking to the Kotobuki Onsen and since it was almost literally at my guesthouses doorstep I adopted it as my local bath and went there on a daily basis. There are also many other onsens scattered throughout the city and it’s outskirts, after all, Matsuyama is an onsen town. I am no expert and I have only been to four of the many onsens here so go out, explore and check out the various baths. The Japanese will rate you for going as well.
In terms of places to stay, if you don’t have the local legend, Suk, to put you up, by all means make sure to stay at the Guest House Matsuyama. I
have been to my fair share of guesthouses the world over and I can easily say that this is one of my favorites. It is located at the bottom of the Matsuyama Castle ropeway, on one of the most beautiful streets in the city and is run by another local legend, Tamanoi-san. You would be hard pressed to find anyone as kind and friendly as her. She always has a smile on her face and goes out of her way to help you and make you feel at home in her city. I can’t speak highly enough of her and her guesthouse. I recommend it to everyone and I know I will ONLY stay with her when I am in Matsuyama (www.sophia-club.net). It is also right around the corner from one of my favorite local restaurants/bars called Mirai Kunai. It is always good to stop by there for a cold pint and a chat with the beautiful and friendly owner, Kimiko. She also makes a mean Thai green curry, taco rice and rum chai.
It is going to be sad to leave this city in a couple of days. I have a routine here now that will be hard
in their Sundays best
to break. I will miss my daily dip in the Kotobuki Onsen, my runs to the top of Matsuyama Castle at dusk and along the banks of the Ishite River to Ishite Temple in the morning, and my Japanese lessons with the fantastic teachers at the EPIC International Center. It is a great city but work calls and I have to head back to my small island home.
Now that the weather is beginning to warm up and the cherry blossoms are getting ready to bloom I am starting to question my decision to leave Japan at the end of this summer. It is very tempting to stay another year, especially in a place as nice as Matsuyama.
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