Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Dip at Dogo Onsen

Matsuyama City in Ehime Prefecture is Shikoku's largest city.  It is home to a renowned castle (Matsuyama-jo), a renowned temple (Ishite-ji, temple 51 of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage) and one of
the oldest and  most renowned hot springs in Japan -- Dogo Onsen.  

The city has an excellent tram station that will get you from JR Matsuyama Station to Dogo 
Onsen's period piece looking terminal.  

The first thing I saw when I got off the tram was a shotengai, a covered shopping arcade.   
This is Dogo Haikara-dori, a short 400 meter stretch of shops, cafes and restaurants that
leads to the Honkan, the centuries old bath house of Dogo Onsen
I started  hyperventilating -- a shotengai is my favourite kind of place to (window) shop in
Japan.   The stores are mostly local, filled with goods that are made in the area and sold by the 
artisans themselves.  A shotengai is full of those  irresistible souvenirs that will make people ask "Where did you get this?"

Beside the entrance to the Haikara-dori is the Botchan Karakuri Clock.  
When the clock strikes  the  hour,  miniature figures from the Japanese classic novel "Botchan" emerge and enact scenes from  the novel.  The couple and photographers in the foreground are
not part of the scene but are taking wedding photos, timing the shots with the start of the show.

Check out my gleeful grin as I am about to hit the shops!

Jay did not want to have anything to do with my nefarious schemes so he quickly walked on ahead. 

One of the shops I really liked and where I had to literally put my hands in my pockets so I 
wouldn't buy anything was the Imabari Towel store.  Imabari City in Ehime prefecture is well 
known for the towels that they produce.  
Fluffy, absorbent and with beautiful contemporary  Japanese designs and colour combinations,  Imabari City has over a century of experience in towel manufacturing.  Their gorgeous products are sold in high end department stores in Japan and even abroad. 

This shop had signs that said no picture taking but I stayed well outside the door and could not resist taking a photo of the gorgeous indigo and white Tobe pottery, made here in Ehime prefecture. 

Shikoku is known for udon noodles so it was no surprise to see an udon shop in the arcade.  


This is  Dogo Onsen Honkan, it probably rivals Matsuyama Castle as the most recognised building in Matsuyama City.  The Honkan, built in the 1890s stands over what is said to be a 3,000 year old hot spring that has been visited even by the Japanese royal family.

The facade of the wooden Honkan may be familiar to fans of Miyazaki san who modelled the building in his movie "Spirited Away" after this structure. 
Can you see the white crane on the top left side of the photo?  The legend of these age old waters is
that a wounded crane dipped his injured leg in the hot springs and it was promptly cured.  From then on, people have come from all over Japan to enjoy its restorative, mineral rich waters.

Inside the Honkan are two baths --  the Kami-no-yu which is bigger and can accommodate 
more people and the other is the Tama-no-yu,  smaller and a bit more exclusive. 
For the price of 410 yen, you can get into the Kami-no-yu and enjoy the bath for as long as you like (or for as long as you can stand the hot water).   
Mid priced tickets of 840 yen allow  access to Kami-no-yu  and a public lounge where you can relax after the bath.   The most expensive package is 1,550 yen and gives you access to both baths plus a private room of your own. 
Silly me -- I thought that we could just walk up to the ticket booth to buy the high end tickets
but I was told that there was a long line and we would have to wait to get in.  
However, the ticket seller did tell me that there was no queue for the 410 yen ticket and we could go
right in and enjoy the bath. 
And so of course we did.

Photos are strictly prohibited inside the Honkan.  This beautiful photo is from Dogo Onsen's website  Some renovations have been made, the ticket booth is no longer at the side but stands in the middle of the room.  Before you give your ticket, place your shoes inside any of the available lockers and then proceed inside.   
Old photos line the walls and with the rich hues and patina of old, lovingly cared for wood,  you truly feel as if you have been "spirited away" to another time.  

The red noren over the doorway signifies that this is the entrance to the women's side of Kami-no-Yu.

This is the women's changing room, I had to take it on the sly since photos are strictly prohibited.
There was no one else in the room at the time so I did not really feel like a voyeur invading any 
one's privacy.  There are wall to wall lockers where you can put your clothes and bag.  Take the key with you  when you enter the bath.

The inside of Kami-No-Yu is definitely off limits for any photo taking.  I would  have been kicked out by all the women bathers if I had even dared to try. 
This photo of the bath itself is from the Dogo Onsen website
The hot spring water  flows freely from a spout in the large pillar at one end of the bath.    
The Tobe indigo and white ceramic tiles show the two cranes which are part of the origin story of Dogo Onsen.   The perspective of the photo makes the bath look much smaller than it is,
in truth it is the size of  a small swimming pool. 
The temperature is very hot -- about 42C.  I got in and out of the bath several times, to take a cold shower in between each soak. 
However, the heat is also tempered by how mild and soft the water felt on the skin.  The waters of
the onsen come from many different underground springs and the water quality is excellent. 

Here is Jay looking refreshed after his bath.  There is no season for onsen.  If you think that taking 
a hot soak in warm weather is crazy, the Japanese will assure you that it is very appropriate.  
The heat opens your pores, makes you sweat and releases toxins.  You feel light and refreshed afterwards. 

Tea is usually served after the bath but in my case, nothing would beat an ice cold mug of 
nama beer. We enjoyed a mid afternoon late lunch in one of the small cafes lining Haikara-dori.  
The curry omurice was gigantic but there's something about a good hot soak that makes you 
really hungry. 

I wanted one last dip at the free foot onsen right beside the Karikuri clock but there were too many people.  The water in this foot onsen comes from the same springs that feed the bath at the Honkan.

On our way back to Matsuyama Station, we decided to take the city's unique form of transport  known as the Botchan Train.  This is a replica of the old steam locomotives that ran in the city in
the 19th century.  Named after the novel written by famous author Soseki Natsume, it travels 
around the city and stops at key areas, including  Matsuyama Station.

The train conductor, dressed in a uniform that would not have looked out of place when the original steam locomotives were still running,  called out the stops as his predecessors probably did,  many many years ago.

The train is faithfully reproduced from the exterior to the wooden interiors which have been 
cleverly "distressed"  to recreate the feeling of an antique locomotive.

After chugging through the streets of Matsuyama, we found ourselves back at the station, ready to board a train back to Takamatsu.  The biggest city in Shikoku somewhat incongruously has a modest and quite old-fashioned looking station.  It definitely has a vintage vibe.

Even the benches in the waiting area by the tracks are made of wood and are a throwback to 
another age.

The Limited Express Ishizuchi however definitely belongs to Japan's ultra modern train system.  
It is not a bullet train but it is the fastest way to get from Matsuyama to Takamatsu, making just a
few stops along the way.

Time for an eki-snack!  This is oyaki, which I bought at Ishite-ji, temple 51.   There are quite a 
number of old time stores selling this delicacy around the temple.  You can see the drawing of a
henro (Emon Saburo I presume) on the paper wrapper of the oyaki.   

Oyaki is a glutinous rice dumpling, filled with a mildly sweet bean paste, flattened and then fried.
It's chewy, soft and delicious.  They have been making these sweets for generations.  
Rice farmers  would offer it at the temple, in thanksgiving for a good harvest.

 As the train sped towards Takamatsu,  the sunset over the Inland Sea was a gentle, picturesque 
good-bye gift from MatsuyamaDomo arigato gozaimashita, we had a memorable visit.


The Honkan will close for renovation and repair in January 2019 for a period of two to three years.
I am so happy we were able to visit when we did.  However, there are two more modern baths 
behind the Honkan, the Asuka-no-Yu and the Tsubaki-no-Yu.  You can continue to enjoy the waters of Dogo Onsen even after the temporary closure of the Honkan, 

Monday, October 29, 2018

My Shikoku Henro Tales Part 11 - Ishite-ji, temple 51, Ehime Prefecture

Japan's oldest and most popular pilgrimage, the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage in honour of 
Kobo Daishi, winds its way through 1,400 kilometres and the four prefectures of Shikoku Island.  
Even if we would not be able to go to all 88 temples, I promised Kobo Daishi that we would 
visit at least one in each prefecture.

With seven temples in Tokushima accounted for and one down in Kochi, we were ready to visit
the third prefecture, Ehime.  It has the most number of temples, 25 out of the 88.  This is the map
of Shikoku island showing the four prefectures and the location of the 88 temples.
I got this map from
I used this website  often when I was planning our trip.
For our single foray into Ehime, we would visit Ishite-ji, temple 51 in Matsuyama City.  This is a very important temple in the pilgrimage and perhaps you could say, this is also where it all began.

After staying in Tokushima City for four days, our next base was the city of Takamatsu in Kagawa prefecture. To get to Matsuyama City  in Ehime,  we took the Limited Express Ishizuchi, unfortunately not the fancy one in the picture above.  
What you see in this photo  is a reservations only, sightseeing train called the Shikoku Mannaka Sennen Monogatari.  
The seats are all facing panoramic windows and it travels through scenic areas in Shikoku.  
A man who was also taking photos of the train told me that reservations are sold out months in advance.

While we were not on the sightseeing train, I did catch glimpses of  beautiful vistas of Japan's  
Inland Sea, not from my window though as we were seated on the wrong side.  

After a two and a half hour train journey, we arrived at Matsuyama and from there took a tram 
to  the famous Dogo Onsen Ishite-ji is just a 2 kilometre walk from the tram terminal.

It was almost noon when we started our walk.  I now fully understand why September is off 
season for pilgrims -- the weather is almost summer-hot!  If you've experienced a Japanese 
summer, you know what I am talking about.
The sun above was punishingly brutal and where was a breeze when you needed it?  
The clean flowing stream looked so inviting -- I wanted to stop and lie down in the water.

The road was lined with houses, more houses and commercial buildings.   I missed the 
green rice fields and forested mountains seen along  Tokushima's back roads. 

This pretty manhole cover made for a pleasant distraction.  Japan has raised manhole covers 
to an art form so  don't forget to look down when you're walking in the streets as you might 
miss seeing a work of art.

Along the way we passed by a statue of Kobo Daishi. Can you see the small red turtle near 
his staff?  I took it as a sign -- while I can walk on and on for long distances, I normally
walk at a slower pace, almost like a turtle.  That's me right there -- at the foot of the Daishi

Ishite-ji is one of the temples that are inside the city so it's not a surprise that it suddenly popped up by the side of the road.  There is a giant statue of Kobo Daishi on the hillside,  his gaze on the distant horizon ahead.  I think he's trying to avoid seeing the car park right down below.

The temple's entrance is right in front of a crosswalk.  Matsuyama is the largest city in the entire island of Shikoku and for the first time on this trip, I saw a constant stream of vehicles on the road.

Even before you enter the temple grounds, you can see all these statues and markers by the 
sidewalk.  I find it all a bit cluttered  -- there are figures of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas along with 
fish and animal heads.

This is the main entrance to the temple.  The temizuya is right in front and there is a painting hung 
on the small pavilion beside it.  There is also a wooden outpost on the left side. 
On the middle, there is a small statue of a man, kneeling on the rock.  
This is  Emon Saburo, the person who you can say started the 88 Temple Pilgrimage and who is central to the story of Ishite-ji.

Emon Saburo was a rich man who the story says, repeatedly turned away a beggar from his door.  After this unkind act, his fortunes fell and his eight sons died one by one.
Too late, Emon Saburo realized that the beggar was Kobo Daishi.  He then went after the Daishi, looking for him in temples around the island.  As he arrived at each one, people would say
"Oh, you just missed him, he left for the next temple".
Emon Saburo did this for years and years but he never caught up with the Daishi.
Finally, when he was old and near death, the Daishi appeared to him.  Because of Emon Saburo's persistence and repentance, he was forgiven and Kobo Daishi asked him to make one request that 
he would grant.
Emon Saburo asked that he be reborn as a rich man so that he could use his fortunes to help everyone in need.  Kobo Daishi then gave him a stone, which Emon Saburo was holding when he died.
Many many years later, a son was born to a noble family.  The boy's hand was closed and would not
open until one day, a priest came and prayed over the boy.  
When they opened his hand, they found a stone and on it was written the words

"I am Emon Saburo"

Ishite-ji was supposedly built by the young boy who grew up to be a wealthy nobleman and presumably did all the good things he promised that he would do.   
The temple's name literally means "stone hand" -- ishi is the Japanese word for stone and the 
word for hand is pronounced like "te".  
Without Emon Saburo and his reincarnation, we would not have the pilgrimage as we know it today.
This is why Ishite-ji  is such an important temple for the henro

Ishite-ji's Niomon gate (you can see the faint outline of the fierce Nio on each side) is a designated
National Treasure.  It follows the Kamakura style of architecture which would date it  between 
the twelfth and fourteenth centuries.  
This priceless structure is made totally of wood and while I appreciate that it has stood there at the entrance for hundreds of years, I also cannot help but think of the many possible catastrophes that could damage it. 

Giant sandals made of hemp stand on each side of the Niomon.  Are they the Daishi's sandals or 
are they Emon Saburo's?

The three story wooden pagoda is an Important Cultural Property. You can see that there 
are strings of origami cranes or senbazuru hung in front of it.  It is said that when you hang 
senbazuru and make a wish, your wish will be granted.  

The shoro holds a bell tower and is also an Important Cultural PropertyIshite-ji is cluttered 
indeed, cluttered with all these valuable and historic treasures. 

Another Important Cultural Property is the Hondo or the Main Hall.  Like the Niomon gate and the pagoda, it is done in the Kamakura style and is hundreds of years old.  

Along with the rest of  Ishite-ji, the Hondo seems to be crowded and  full of images and statues. 
My eye is drawn to a  shining gold statue of what seems to be Fudo Myoo although the principal deity of Ishite-ji is the Yakushi Nyorai or the Healing Buddha.

We walk around and see more small buildings and even more figures and statues.   
The temple's collection is quite eclectic and extensive . I spotted figures that look like Korean 
stone statues.  And even one that looks like a European friar.  Can you spot them in the photo?

Since a stone plays a key role in the history of the temple, there is an area where you can pick up 
a stone and write your wish on it.  I did pick one up but instead of writing on it, I took it home,
to remind me of Ishite-ji, Emon Saburo and my visit to this curious but enthralling place.

No matter how strange or different I thought Ishite-ji was, I reminded myself that it is not an 
object  of curiosity -- it is an active and working temple.  It serves not just the passing henro 
or the inquisitive  tourist but it is there for the people who live in the community who come 
here to pray and pay homage to the Buddha. 


This is Ishite-ji's temple seal as inscribed on my nokyocho. And here is my photo of the pagoda, 
an Important Cultural Property.