unallersimple: (onsen)
I visited the city of Matsuyama on Shikoku island in Spring 2009. It's about six and a half hours by train, with one change in Okayama. One of the sights I saw there was Dōgo Onsen, a famous hot spring & home to a public bath house that the bath house in Spirited Away is said to have been based on. (Different websites claim different places.)

It's a beautiful, traditional, wooden building that dates back to 1894, making it one of the oldest bath houses in Japan.

What's nice about Dōgo Onsen is that depending on how much you want to spend you can opt for the basic bath or something a little more luxurious. For a few hundred yen more you can rent a yukata, get some green tea to drink in a relaxation room and access a less crowded bath.

Having had enough green tea to last a life time I opted for the cheapest option and was happy to use my own soap and towel. Unfortunately I forgot that the busiest time is around 4-7pm as everyone wants a pre-evening meal soak. It wasn't the end of the world, but it meant doing that awkward naked shuffling around other people in the locker room and sitting with a lot of other people in the water.

Unlike most of Japan, this is a site that gets so many foreigners the staff speak perfect English before you even open your mouth and the signs come in four different languages. After a long time in Shimane I was shocked to see so many white people and hear so much French and German eing spoken.

After paying a staff member led me through some stunningly decorated hallways to the locker room. I got undressed and went through to the baths. It was time to have a major chill out. The woman's bath was quite small but the atmosphere still made you feel like royalty. It was a few years ago now, but I think the walls were covered in a dark marble on the lower half and with some light colored mosaic tiles above. Also on the walls were some scenes of Japanese landscapes and wildlife made of blue and white ceramic tiles. In the bath you could sit on a step and lean your back against the side. At various points hot water is piped in along bamboo tubes and left to fall in from a small height so you can always hear the sound of water trickling. Heaven.

If you sit and take a look at the scene you can see people washing around the outside of the room (you have to wash before you get in the water), people coming in and out and dozens of old ladies having a natter in the pool. There's a great atmosphere and sounds of people talking and water being splashed on the tiled floor.

I was enjoying a moment in a happier, more relaxed place without marking or lesson plans when I heard some splashing close to me and felt the water get disturbed a little bit. I opened my eyes and saw a very enthusiastic little Japanese woman staring excitedly at me.
"Oh herro! Excuse me."
"Excuse me, do you speak Engrish?"

Now please don't get me wrong, I'm a kind, patient ALT who is always up for helping the over 50s practice their language skills or tell them about me and my country but there are limits people. Appraching me then felt very inappropriate. She could have waited until I had my eyes open or was making eye contact with people or something. Sitting and relaxing with your eyes closed is surely a sign not to disturb someone right?
I know going to the onsen is a social experience. If you go on your own (doing things alone is quite shocking to Japanese people) then people assume you need and want some company. Plus they will be really curious about you as a foreigner. But still...of all the times! At that point I really wanted a break from the constant questioning and attention for a while, but at least she was nice and polite and didn't stay too long.

After leaving the onsen I felt so clean and refreshed. Darkness had fallen and while the onsen didn't have the air of Spirited Away so much in daylight, it definitely did after sunset. It stood out majestically against the dark blue sky and light shone out invitingly from all the little windows. Lanterns were placed around the building and some instrumental music was played quietely from speakers hidden in the entrance. I half expected to turn around and see No Face or Chihiro.

The onsen is very famous in Japan, so the street was lined with tourists and human rickshaws. Coaches kept winding their way up roads nearby, but it never felt tacky or annoying. Somehow the busy touristy stuff felt warming. Exciting. I made my way down one of the main streets at a snail's pace, stopping in shops to buy omiyage and ending up in a noodle shop to eat my first "niku udon" (thick noodles with meat which Matsuyama is famous for). After I bought a can of beer and some ice cream and walked back up the hill to the hostel. It had a tree house in the grounds so I snuck on to one of the platforms, sat on a swing and took a hearty swig. It felt great. I felt great. The view was great. Everything was great! That night is one of my happiest memories of traveling in Japan.

You can read more about Dōgo Onsen here or learn how to use a public bath or hot spring in Japan by clicking here.

unallersimple: (hectopus)
Note: This was written in June 2011 and back posted to right time! Yep, that's right, this is the journal of a lying date fiddler.

Today I decided to continue writing about my travels to Matsuyama in Spring 2009. To this day it remains one of my favourite trips in Japan, and I know one day I'll go back.

You can also read about my time in Takamatsu and Kotohira, two other places I visited on the same trip.

Let's introduction!
Matsuyama lies on the top left hand side of the island Shikoku, which is the island almost but a little to the left underneath Kyoto and Osaka. The island has four prefectures (shi means 4), and Matsuyama is in Ehime (say it "eh-he-may") which I find a delightful name to say out loud as it sounds like a cute little sneeze. It's an area famous for udon (thick noodles), mikan (satsumas) and dango, which are three tasty little dumplings on a stick. About 500,000 people live there. It's one of the few Japanese cities that didn't get rid of its street cars.

It was the third and last place I visited while I was on the island. As the train was pulling into the station, the only other foreigner around asked me if we were in Matsuyama. I blurted out that annoying British answer of "I hope so, it's where I'm going!" before I could help myself, but never mind, at least it got the conversation started. I remember he was only in Japan for a few weeks to make a sculpture, which explained why he was in such a random area on his own. He was also from the Netherlands and over 6 foot tall with dreadlocks, and walking out of the station with him was a great way to stand out in a Japanese crowd! I asked him to join me for a coffee as it'd been a few days since I'd spoken English and I'm nosy. I'd never met a sculptor before. We ended up chatting for a few lovely hours before parting ways.

I left my backpack in coin locker at the station (England please, please get some of these!) and walked over to the castle. The charm of the city was already stealing my heart, as it was a beautiful sunny day, and the streets were lines of quaint buildings with rickety street cars rumbling slowly up and down the main roads. It's a real shame more cities in Japan didn't keep them.

The hill with the castle on was surrounded by water full of carps and tortoises (as all Japanese castles are), which were standing on rocks basking in the sun next to water fountains (the tortoises that it, not the carps). So picturesque! I took the back way up to enjoy the hike to the top and when I stepped out into the castle grounds I was in awe. It's huge and full of towering stone walls and gates, so large you can't fit a fraction on it into a photo. The cherry blossom were in bloom and so many people were sat eating and drinking under the trees.

^ A feeble attempt to photograph something huge!

Matsuyama castle is a bit of an odd one as it sits on a hill slap bang in the middle of the city opposite another random hill.

^ Looks like someone accidently hit the "raise terrain" tool in the middle of a commercial zone Sim City style doesn't it?

It was built in the 16th century, though like nearly all Japanese castles it has been rebuilt over time. Each level houses old Japanese artifacts such as warriors' swords or old wooden bowls. The view from the top was so great that you could see all the way out to sea!

^ View on to the castle grounds.

^View of the city.

After looking round I got the chair lift back down and wowzers those babies are fun! The next day I rode them up and down the hill again just for the craic! You trundle slowly up and down the hill one person per chair at a time. It's fun to wave at people walking up to the castle underneath you and feel superior to them.

The next day I walked to Matsuyama Central Park. You could see the oddly shaped castle/wall with turrets from all over the city and I wanted to get up close and park my ass on top of them. The route there looked so simple on the map, but when you get up close, you discover that it's one of those places where you can't find the way to get past the last 100m. At the bottom of the hill I spent a good 45 minutes walking up people's long drive ways, walking into electricity sub-stations or climbing up into another bunch of trees that didn't seem to get me any closer. Eventually, I went for a whatever it takes approach and several minutes of steep hill climbing and pushing through bushes later I found my way in. Victory! Again it was a lovely place, full of elderly people taking a stroll and parents playing with their children. More cheery blossom trees in full bloom lining all the paths. I went to the little castle with turrets thing and climbed to the top, enjoying a good book and writing session with an awesome view in front of me.

You know what's weird? I have absolutely no idea why it's there. I mean it looks cool, it has a European style to it that is unique in Japan, but why is it there?! I don't remember seeing any signs at the park and I can't find any information online either. How bizare.

Still, it was really beautiful and really suited the place.

^ After spending an hour or two there and watching a newly married couple pose for wedding photos, I started the trek back (the right way this time!) to the hostel so I could have another evening in Dōgo Onsen.



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