Dogo is officially the oldest hot spring in Japan – its history stretches back an astonishing 3,000 years. According to the onsen legend, its soothing waters once healed the illnesses of one of the area’s main deities in ancient times. The current incarnation of the bathhouse was built in 1894, and 100 years after it was erected, it was designated an important cultural asset of Japan.
With its labyrinth-like stairways and halls each shooting off into different bathing and relaxation rooms, over the years it’s been a favourite of Japan’s most honourable guests, the Imperial Family.
The history and stunning architecture of the bathhouse has inspired many iconic local works of art, the most popular is arguably Studio Ghibli’s iconic 2001 film masterpiece Spirited Away. The three storey almost castle-like structure was the inspiration behind the main backdrop of the film – if you’re an anime fan, seeing the building in the flesh is sure to send shivers down your spine.
Prior to Hayao Miyazaki’s film, it also featured in one of the country’s most famous novels, Botchan by literary legend Natsume Soseki (1867–1916). In the semi-autographical book, the main protagonist Botchan was a frequent visitor to the onsen. If you head to the square of Matsuyama near the onsen you can witness the story of Botchan come to life in the form of a mechanical clock that transforms on the hour.
Thanks to its rich history and influence on contemporary culture, Dogo is one of the most visited onsens in Japan. Mainly popular with tourists from Japan, it still seems to be a relatively well kept secret from foreign guests, but of course anyone is welcome to visit. As the sun starts to set and the air is filled with steam and the trotting of yukata-clad bath-goers, it’s a pretty magical place to explore. The area also opened up a new onsen complex just around the corner from the original site, called Asuka no Yu.
The Dogo Onsen Honkan building is an easy five-minute walk from Dogo Onsen Station, which is serviced by three tram lines. From JR Matsuyama Station, the city’s main station, hop on tram number five. The best way to get to Matsuyama from the wider Japan area, is to fly into Matsuyama airport. Local airlines ANA and JAL operate several flights per day from Tokyo’s Haneda airport.