Matsuyama boasts having the oldest onsen (a Japanese hot spring) written about in the chronicles of Japan's history (c. 759). The onsen is also said to have inspired the imagery in Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. People drive from all over Japan and visit from all of the world to soak there, and it was just 35 minutes from where I stayed, so I had to visit.
To get to the onsen we checked another "first" off of our list: travelling on a trolley car in a Japanese city.
Coming upon the Dōgo Onsen, the energy of the area reverberates. You feel the building before you even see it. There's Japanese tourists buzzing on the exterior and cherry blossoms on hill tops serve as a backdrop. Once inside, all of the chatter falls away to a completely serene and pleasant experience.
There are many resources online for how to visit a Japanese onsen, and specifically the Dōgo Onsen. I'll leave those well written articles to anyone who wants more information about onsen protocol. The following is my advice for onsen novices, compiled after visiting one, to augment the general and specific accounts that others have posted online:
- Do your research about how to visit an onsen. It puts your mind at ease.
- Then, put all the research in the back of your mind and forget about following an exact procedure. Enjoy the experience by getting out of your head. Many guests I saw had their own approach for how to use an onsen, and there are staff there to help if you have questions y leading up to the bath.
- Once you get to the baths you're naked, NAKED, nAked, but so is everyone else. I went to the Dōgo Onsen with a long-time friend who I have never seen naked, and it was the furthest thing from awkward. Everyone in the bath is so naturally naked, it's not uncomfortable at all.
- Let yourself experience the bath including the process of preparing for the one. It's a very unique Japanese custom that leaves you with a calm and peaceful feeling of existence for the hours to follow.
And the view of the onsen at night is more spectacular and inspiring than during the day. Once the sun sets, the crowds have typically thinned out from the shopping around the onsen, leaving just you and the centuries old exterior that has welcomed innumerable guests before you arrived.