Sunday, August 2, 2015

[EHIME] The Oldest Bathhouse in Japan

Shikoku appears to be one of Japan’s less popular regions overlooked by most tourists. I was not really planning on going here until I found out that a friend from Imabari was back in his hometown for summer vacation. All I knew was that I had a Manila – Osaka – Manila flight and that I had three days to spare, or rather, two, because one was already reserved for Harry Potter World. Thanks to Peach, travel within Japan is not as expensive as it was before, so I thought why not give it a shot?

Peach flies from Osaka to Matsuyama, which I think serves as the capital of the prefecture of Ehime. The island itself is what they refer to as Shikoku. Anyway, Wikitravel information has been quite scarce and aside from several temples and castles, the only other notable tourist attraction is Dogo Onsen. Sorry, what? The word Onsen often refers to hot springs but also used to refer to bathhouses in modern times. Regardless, this one qualifies even if both criteria are used. This is the oldest onsen in Japan by the way.

How old is it, you say? I have no idea. My brain usually shuts down when it comes to historical facts. If you are that interested in its history, then be glad to know that there is a tour of the premises but I think it’s only in Japanese. My Nihongo is dead so what do you expect I learned? And so what are we supposed to do in this bathhouse? Take a bath? Doh?

Yes, as is customary in East Asia, bathhouse means taking a bath naked. What we are saying here is that whoever it is you are going with will see you nude, vice versa. What is so wrong about this? Nothing, really, except that we are Filipinos and a lot of us are pseudo-conservatives. Seeing someone nude in public is tantamount to going to hell. Prepare for awkwardness. Your East Asian friends would not really give a damn, though. And no, pervert, you cannot bathe with the opposite sex.

There are different types of baths in here and you can choose which one you like most. Children up to 11 years of age pay just half of the amount. There are photos of each kind of bath available inside, which is a relief if you cannot understand any of the Kana written there. I believe all of the baths open at 6 AM but the closing time is different for most of them, starting from 9:30 PM until 11 PM. My friend is from there so I let him choose anyway.

What is so special about Dogo Onsen, then? Aside from being the oldest one in Japan, it is also a maze of steep wooden stairs. Getting lost here is fun and the interior gives you that vibe as if you were starring in an old Japanese film. I would prefer my own version of Kill Bill where Lucy Liu would be chasing me with a katana around the premises. Okay, we digress. What happens inside anyway? Should I give you clues? Fine then, let’s throw in some spoilers.

First stop are the lockers for footwear. No, you're not allowed to sashay in there in your Havaianas. There are vending machines for drinks if you get thirsty, because I do not suggest drinking the water you'll be wading in. Like, eew, dude. We were then led to yet another set of wooden stairs and ended up in a fairly large open room with rectangular trays meant to be a temporary resting place for our personal effects. You'll also see some trays with a yukata in it.

A yukata is not a kimono but rather a simplified version that only requires tying the cloth belt around your waist, similar to your karate uniform but with a more interesting pattern design. Do not strip in that room. Spare the Japanese aunties and the other guests the burden of seeing you in the buff, unless you are 100% sure that they would enjoy it. Bring your yukata with you and head over to the changing room where there’s another locker for your clothes.

The yukata is worn after you finish bathing, NOT during. I am not sure if Speedos are allowed, but rest assured that you would stick out like a sore thumb if you attempt to do so. You will see men of all shapes and sizes in there as well as father and son tandems who consider it as part of their bonding routine. There is nothing malicious about it. There is just a pool with hot water in it across some stools facing a shower head and a sink. Go on and take a bath. Enjoy.

Bathhouses were a refuge for me when I was in Seoul last winter, when all inhibitions were thrown out of the window in exchange for avoiding death by either pneumonia or frostbite. I have just realized that such a place is also appropriate for summer. Given the hellish weather in Japan during this time of the year, a good bath could very well be your haven away from the sun. You can don your yukata afterwards and take a stroll around the town in it. The onsen wouldn’t mind as long as you return it later.

Because we were no longer coming back, we decided to already get dressed. Let me tell you, though, that taking a stroll wearing your yukata would be your best bet to beat the really hot weather. There are many souvenir shops and a variety of stores surrounding the onsen. There is a temple nearby on the hill. You can visit the old train station. Or if you are not in the mood to walk, you can ride one of the rickshaws to take you around town. All of these are within walking distance.

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