Matsuyama and Dōgo Onsen

Matsuyama, the capital of Ehime prefecture, is located up on the North-West coast of Shikoku. It’s a well-connected and busy city, but I passed through en-route to the Shimanami Kaidō with just one key goal: to get to the famous Dōgo Onsen and have a soak. As it happened, things ended up a lot more interesting than that.

Arriving and Transport

I drove into Matsuyama from Cape Ashizuri and Oki Beach – a long haul through beautiful river valleys and down winding single-track roads. As you can see from the photo above, the weather was terrible – but it’s still a stunning place, even in the pouring rain. Somewhere on the road we had our second encounter of the trip with one of the large birds of prey that inhabit the area:
.. although that photo’s so blurry that it could be just about anything. If you’re not driving, Matsuyama is impressively easy to get to via the main Yosan train line from Takamatsu. Within the city there’s a fixed-fare tram service of the pay-as-you-get-off variety, as well as buses – but we were able to quite easily walk across town, too.

Dōgo Onsen

We’d come to Matsuyama to visit Dōgo Onsen, and so on arriving in the mid-afternoon we headed straight there. It’s in the east of the city, near to a small but rather beautiful circular park.
Dōgo Onsen Honkan, which dates back to at least 759AD, is a huge tourist trap, and can these days be found at the end of a rather gaudy covered shopping arcade. But there’s no denying that the building itself – which, as everyone in Shikoku will tell you, was an inspiration for the onsen in Spirited Away – is stunning.
If you’re used to visiting onsen (no idea what that is? Click here!) then you’ll know the usual drill: show up with a towel, pay a flat fee, go take a bath. At Dōgo Onsen Honkan, things are a little bit more complicated, with two separate baths and four separate fees depending on what you want. Very roughly, they are (with adult pricing):

  • 410 yen: bath in the kami-no-yu only
  • 840 yen: bath in the kami-no-yu, rice crackers and tea, yukata, access to a room to rest
  • 1250 yen: bath in the tama-no-yu, rice crackers and tea, yukata, towels and soap etc, access to a different room to rest in
  • 1550 yen: bath in the tama-no-yu, some sort of dumpling(!), a different yukata, towels, access to a different “private” room

Being entirely baffled by all this, I went for the 840 yen option, which I’d wholeheartedly recommend: you get a good soak in a (really hot!) bath, plus access to this rather lovely tatami room to relax in afterwards.
If you go for the same option, here’s how it works. After paying your 840 yen, lock your shoes at the front and you’ll be shown upstairs to the room shown above. You will be guided to one of those wicker baskets, where you’ll find a yukata.
There are coin lockers for bags, phones etc just through the door you can see on the right. Stick anything really valuable in there, but dump your jacket or something in the basket. Take your yukata and head to the baths – for men, that’s the blue door with 神の湯男 on it shown above. For women, I believe it’s through to the right.
Go downstairs, chuck your clothes and yukata in a locker and get in the bath. It’s pretty hot, probably quite busy, but nonetheless a good place to soak out the aches and pains of travel. Once you’re done, put your yukata on and come back upstairs.
When you show up in your post-bath-yukata, sit by your basket and you’ll be served tea and rice crackers. Chill out, enjoy the breeze coming through the windows, and relax before you go to put your clothes on and leave.
Or, at least, that’s the plan.

Mochi Madness

We’d made it as far as “chill out and enjoy the breeze” in the schedule above when the spell was somewhat broken by a guy with a megaphone out on the balcony, shouting something about a festival, and four-0-clock (yup, my Japanese is pretty bad). After a few minutes of this, and increasingly urgent shouting, other members of staff, all dressed up, began to assemble on the balcony with him. It was almost four, and something was clearly about to happen.
And then we, along with an entirely baffled young couple who also happened to be nearby at the time, got whisked into it.
Beckoned-slash-dragged out onto the balcony – and blending in as only two tall, bearded foreigners awkwardly wearing yukata can – we found out what was going on: as part of an ongoing festival, the 4pm event involved hurling mochi (traditional Japanese sweets) by the hundred down to a heaving crowd of children, parents and passers-by. Some of the mochi packets also had money tokens in them, hence the interest of the adults in the crowd.
The children had brought bags, with which to catch the mochi, and helmets, with which presumably to avoid being injured by it. People waved and shouted, attempting to grab the attention of the mochi-throwers. It was surreal. And then a klaxon went, and madness ensued.
Things started in a relatively civilised fashion, with us attempting to aim mochi one-by-one at the children. Within seconds, though, it became apparent that this would not suffice, and soon we – and all the professional mochi-hurlers – were bucketing armfuls of the stuff down indiscriminately. The air was thick with glutinous, multi-coloured rice-paste, and we were totally immersed in the task of thickening it further. I hit some poor guy right between the eyes, but he didn’t seem to care. The kids shouted and moshed. Pensioners leaped into action from the back of the crowd, jostling to catch the flying sweets. We just heaved more of them downwards.
And then the mochi ran out. Within a minute, the crowd disappeared, and we were left watching a few of the more enterprising kids scouring the area for any escaped sweets. After getting changed, we went to check out the balcony – all was back to normal.

Eating and Staying

Having arrived quite late after a long drive, and needing to leave early for the Shimanami Kaidō, we didn’t get to spend much time in the city. We stayed in the JAL City, which is conveniently located in the middle of the town, just to the West of the castle – it has a reputation of being rather fancy, but the reality is that, like other JAL hotels, it’s a perfectly nice business hotel with a determination to appear slightly more luxury than that. If you arrive by car, parking is in the slightly terrifying two-storey metal stack car park just next door. Pay the hotel and they’ll give you a huge stack of tokens for the machine at the exit.
If our hotel was entirely decent, though, the food in Matsuyama was amazing. After dropping by another, rather lifeless place first we found ourselves at Tengu no Kakurega (てんぐの隠れ家), probably the best izakaya I’ve ever encountered – as vouched-for, in fact, by the group of utterly shit-drunk salarymen we met coming out as we arrived. After striking up a conversation with the next table we ended up eating and drinking probably five times more than I’d planned, getting fairly sozzled, and wound up playing one of those taiko-drum-arcade-machine games somewhere nearby in an inebriated and inept fashion. So: recommended.
To find it (the izakaya, I have no idea where the arcade was..) look for the tengu mask, complete with long nose, as being groped in the image above (er, sorry, tengu.) The doorway is on the left. Google map location here.