Girls’ Weekend in Dogo Onsen, Matsuyama
A Perfect Girls’ Trip In Ehime Prefecture
It takes less than three hours to get from Tokyo to this picture-perfect hot spring town in Shikoku. Welcome to Dogo Onsen!
Autumn is an ideal time to travel in Japan, and my friend Yuuka and I had been thinking of taking a weekend getaway trip. We wanted somewhere that combined traditional culture, unique sights, and chances for relaxation, all within easy reach of Tokyo.
Although we hadn’t made up our minds yet, the hot spring resort town of Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture was a place we were considering. After all, it was one of the inspirations for Hayao Miyazaki’s award-winning anime Spirited Away. Then we attended a wonderful event in Tokyo called “Flowers by Naked 2020 Matsuyama/Dogo Night”, featuring a cool new project with digital art in Dogo Onsen. We were both impressed and so it was settled—Dogo Onsen was the destination for our joshi tabi.
What’s joshi tabi? Glad you asked! It’s the Japanese equivalent of a “girls’ trip” and an extremely popular way for women to travel. A typical joshi tabi trip with girlfriends includes sightseeing, great food, and plenty of time for wandering around at leisure. Dogo Onsen ticked all these boxes and so much more!
The history of Dogo Onsen
Dating back some 3,000 years, Dogo Onsen is thought to be Japan’s oldest hot spring town and today, it’s a popular destination with both Japanese and international tourists alike. The centerpiece is the stately Dogo Onsen Honkan, a lovely wooden bathhouse built in 1894.
Adorning the roof of the bathhouse is a white egret, which plays a role in the region’s folklore. After some local people observed a bird bathing its injured leg for relief in some hot springs, they discovered the healing powers of the water. Today, Dōgo Onsen is one of Japan’s few onsen towns with hot spring water coming directly from the source, with no reheating or extra added water.
The town has come up with a dynamic event to connect local history with the modern age: “Dogo Reborn”
While the onsen culture is the main drawcard, there is plenty more to enjoy in the area, including photogenic temples, a shopping arcade with a retro vibe and delicious local cuisine. The town has come up with a dynamic event to connect local history with the modern age: “Dogo Reborn Project.” Yuuka and I got to see the best of both worlds during our trip.
Dogo Onsen is closer than you think!
It takes almost 1.5 hours to fly from Haneda to Matsuyama Airport, then getting to Dogo Onsen from there is a breeze. We boarded one of the limousine buses that depart several times each hour from the airport, and about 40 minutes later we arrived at Dogo Onsen Station. Our total travel time was well under three hours.
A five-minute walk through the Dogo Shopping Arcade brought us to our accommodation, the Yamatoya-Honten ryokan (Japanese inn). We were thrilled to discover that the hotel offers complimentary kimono for staying guests to borrow. Yuuka and I agreed that strolling around the streets of this onsen town in kimono would be the perfect extra touch! Even better, the kimono were easy for us to put on by ourselves. After choosing our favorites from the selection we were soon dressed up and ready to go.
We were feeling hungry by now so we stopped for lunch at Nikitatsuan, a Japanese-style restaurant serving a wide range of dishes, along with specialty sake and beer from their adjacent brewery shop. After a delicious meal, we dropped by the shop, which features exquisitely-packaged Nikitatsu brand sake and other drinks. We thought these would make great gifts for people back home (or for enjoying back in our rooms after a relaxing hot bath).
Charming local photo spots
Dolled up in our kimono, it was time to hit the town. One of Dogo Onsen’s charms is that you can walk practically everywhere! Our first stop was Yu-jinja Shrine. Two Japanese Shinto gods and the guardians of the hot springs are enshrined here, offering protection for the waters of Dogo Onsen. It’s said that whenever the hot springs stopped flowing in the past, they were restored after prayers were offered at the shrine. You can get a good view of the historic Dogo Onsen Honkan bathhouse from here, too.
Next, we visited another well-known spot in the area, Enman-ji Temple. This colorful temple is said to be particularly lucky for those seeking a happy marriage and good health.
Then it was on the “Sky Promenade” and Footbath. This scenic walkway affords panoramic views out over the town and, even better, there is an ashiyu or footbath at the top! It felt wonderful to sit there in the soft spring air while soaking our feet in the warm water. Yuuka and I agreed it would be well worth coming back in the evening to take in the night view.
Arrival of the Phoenix
After returning to the hotel to check-in and take a short rest, we headed back out to look around the Dogo Onsen Honkan. Conserving and repairing this historic building takes time and care, with major restoration work underway and expected to be completed by the end of 2024.
Surprisingly, the bathhouse is still open during renovations for visitors to enjoy! This has served as the catalyst for the “Dogo Reborn Project” project and the introduction of some exciting new initiatives. The most notable of these is a tie-up with the late Osamu Tezuka’s manga “Hi no Tori, the Phoenix“. As a symbol of eternal life, the shining gold phoenix is the perfect metaphor for the renewal and rebirth of the Dogo Onsen Honkan.
While each section of the building is undergoing renovations, it is “wrapped” in huge canvases decorated with colorful murals. The scenes are from the specially-produced “Hi no Tori, the Phoenix: Dogo Onsen Chapter” anime series.
As a symbol of eternal life, the golden phoenix is the perfect metaphor for the renewal and rebirth of the Dogo Onsen Honkan
Evening was approaching, so we found a good spot to take in the Dogo Onsen Honkan Projection Mapping. This is what inspired us to take the trip here in the first place!
Projection mapping is a technique that turns everyday surfaces into video screens, and the bathhouse serves as a backdrop for this sound and light-based digital art. Currently screening is the “Hi no Tori, the Phoenix: Dōgo Onsen Chapter” series, featuring Tezuka’s iconic phoenix anime character interacting with well-known figures from the region’s history.
Relaxing in style
After admiring the unique digital projections, we headed back to our ryokan for dinner. Japanese ryokan are well-known for their lavish dinners, which are as much an experience for the eyes as for the taste buds. As a vegetarian, it can sometimes be problematic to eat at an authentic ryokan, but I was delighted with my beautiful vegetarian dinner course, while Yuuka enjoyed the standard course. Everything was prepared with plenty of fresh local produce reflecting the season.
Of course, the main reason to come to Dogo Onsen is the hot springs themselves. Post-dinner is a great time to unwind in the area’s healing waters. Along with Dogo Onsen Honkan, there are various other baths on offer and I wanted to try out the Dogo Onsen Annex Asuka-no-Yu, which was built in 2017. This beautifully appointed bathhouse reflects Ehime’s culture and craftsmanship in its design and fittings. Soaking in the waters while taking in the ambiance at Asuka-no-Yu, I felt completely relaxed and ended the day refreshed in both mind and body.
In addition to the public baths and rest area, the facility features five private rooms where you can relax with friends or family members. Each one is designed to celebrate a different theme inspired by a local legend. For an extra-special experience, you can also reserve the exclusive bath which is a replica of the Yushinden (the private bathing room for the imperial family located in the Honkan).
Strolling near the station
After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, we took a stroll around the Dogo Onsen Station area. Don’t miss the Dogo Shopping Arcade, which is full of quirky shops and cafes. It’s a great place to pick up a souvenir of your visit or gifts for family and friends. Since the arcade is fully covered, there’s no need to worry about the weather.
Two more attractions right by the station are connected to Botchan, Natsume Soseki’s well-loved novel written in 1906. The story is based on the author’s own experiences of working as a teacher in Matsuyama. The Botchan Train is a cute little steam engine that runs between downtown Matsuyama and Dogo Onsen, while the Botchan Karakuri Clock comes to life every hour between 8 am and 10 pm, showing scenes from the novel. The design is based on the Dogo Onsen Honkan bathhouse, and both the clock and the train make for great photo ops.
We headed back to Tokyo with plenty of pictures and souvenirs from our relaxing trip. Dogo Onsen couldn’t have been a more perfect choice for our joshi tabi. Why not add it to your travel list? You and your girlfriends won’t regret it!