2014
06.16

DOGO ONSEN

SYNOPSIS:  Where you can go shopping and even dine out in your bathrobe.  Where the rich have a lot of fun and the poor can enjoy themselves, too.  About a spa, a town, and Japanese bathing culture.  About my new hotel, a Ryokan and a most unusual roommate.

It took me a while to figure out why I would see clusters of people who strolled around in matching bathrobes and stylish colour-coordinated vests. This was a different kind of town than any other I had seen before.  First I thought this is a cute “couple’s look” — but Japanese do like to be cute.  Then I would see four women, for example, or three men in their matching outfits and I figured these must be organized spa tours where part of the package is the uniform outfit.  But then I got it: each of the many hotels in town has its own style colour robe and vest and guests rent them, including the wooden or plastic clogs that go with it.  I would have bought my hotel’s set if the vest had been included. But they only wanted to sell me the Yukata, as the robe is known, by itself.

Dogo Onsen is the oldest and most famous of all the baths in Japan. As it stands today, it was built in 1894 but it claims a 3000 year history based on the legend of a heron who dipped an injured leg into a pool of hot water gushing out of a rock, and was healed.   A sick dwarf god also instantly got well in this water and is said to have danced with joy on a particular rock which you can still admire (nearly perfectly round) outside the onsen.  Those two legends make for endless kitsch items sold in the various souvenir shops featuring herons and dwarfs.  It also accounts for a horrible imitation of an old European idea: clocks which at the hour open certain doors and display figurines which are rotating in and out of the clock performing certain standardized movements.  A very fine example of this can be found in Prague.    Here a square red box-clock rises on the hour and displays a whole array of stories.  Since all explanations are in Japanese only, the deeper meaning of the display was lost on me; not however the kitsch effect.

More of this copy cuteness can be seen in the European-looking tram station of Dogo and in the fact that one of the original old steam locomotives still shuttles tourists from Dogo to Matsuyama.  Everything here is a bit picture-book unreal and contrived.  But it makes for a great weekend getaway and that’s what it seems to be for most Japanese.

Dogo is also considered to be the imperial bath even though the emperor showed up no more than ten times in total and used particular facilities only three times — yes, the bathhouse attendants kept track of that and generations later proudly tell anyone who will listen.  In 1899 the imperial quarters, the Yushinden, were added when the emperor visited Dogo Onsen.  Quite an expense that was!

But who would have thought that little old Oita, where I experienced my first public bath would spoil me so rotten, that I could not see anything special in this bath house except for its history and its pompous looks which is imitating a wooden castle.  In fact, give me Oita any day!  I appreciated the history of Dogo Onsen and its charming setting.  And I loved my tour of the imperial quarters and the little display area showing off old bath paraphernalia including old wooden ticket stubs.  But all in all Dogo Onsen is overrated.  No saunas, no varying temperatures, just two full-immersion bathing areas with hot water.  In fact, what you have are two stone hot tubs.  To cool down, I had to take cold showers in between the soaks.

There are three classes of tickets:  Just a bath in the main, large tub — affordable.  Or a bath in both tub areas, a tour of the museum and imperial quarters, an hour in a lounge with tea and crackers — definitely just a one-time purchase since you can lounge at home.  Nobody who comes here lives far.  Or — if you really want to splurge — you get all of the above and a private lounging room with not only tea and crackers, but some dumplings as well.  Since I had come all this way to see this, I got the tour package but stuck with the public lounge.  Lounging all by yourself is really not that much fun and I could get better food at the corner market.

Dogo is a resort-type tourist spot with fancy little boutiques, massage parlours, knickknack stores, restaurants, and even a sort-of pink-light district.  I hear there are establishments in which women dress up and dance for men and perhaps more.  But since I am usually not out after dark and most likely would not have frequented such an establishment, I can’t say for sure.  There are “host” bars as well which I hear are particularly geared towards women who will be served, spoiled, and entertained by the most pretty, dressed-up young men…  Well, in the right company of some fun women I would definitely have checked this out, but not by myself.

Until WWII I was told, the Japanese baths were mixed.  It must have been the influx of Western prudish ideas that changed that.  Today, they are strictly gender separated.  It makes for a carefree and relaxed atmosphere.  I am relieved to report that not all Japanese are stick-figure slim and pretty either.  I had begun to worry.  I don’t know about the origins of this tradition, but in this area, each person off to the bathhouse carries around a little wicker basket in which you carry your particular cosmetics, or any small-scale articles you might need at the bath.  Of course, you find these cheaply made baskets at high prices in every store around.  I found it particularly funny to see men walking around with these — it’s just too much cuteness.

In hindsight, I wonder why I made the trip all the way out here — this was far and will cost me three days — to see the queen of all baths who after all was just a bath…  But that is hindsight.  It was fun to see this town’s atmosphere.

With all the dozens of hotels, hostels, and dorms I booked weeks ago, I have long forgotten which is which.  But when I walked up to the Ryokan Dougay which is a traditional Japanese-looking house nestled between two of those highrise resort hotels in this touristy spa town I was scared to find out what I had to pay.  $32.  This, like the upper-end hostel in Kumamoto was a beautifully appointed wood and light filled villa with common kitchen, common living room, shared showers and a public onsen (yes, many hotels and facilities around here have their own onsen).  Expensive private rooms have their own baths, but then there is the dormitory where prices are kept at a minimum.  I had a mattress in a spacious room with three other women: two Belgian ladies whom I did not meet the first night as they only showed up around  3 AM, and a 62 year old former nurse from California who has been traveling for 6 straight years!

Now there is something different.  She was a bit of a strange one and the first night she snored so loudly that even my ear plugs or the walls around us did not help — we all heard it and most of us did not sleep very well.

She told me that she was so burned out from being a nurse that she had gone into early retirement at age 55.  She has no overhead costs and has been living on the road ever since.  But she did not seem to enjoy herself one bit.  She was self-absorbed, did not mingle with us much and had this very sad face.   She has a son and three grand children but did not express any desire to see them any time soon.  Bon voyage, Renee.  With all my love for traveling this seemed a bit extreme.  And I realized one other thing: if I would just travel and travel and travel only for myself, I would not see much of a point in it, not in the long run.  What makes traveling fun and meaningful for me is that I can take home my experiences and work them into my teaching, that I can share them.  And on that note: thanks for reading!

Good night.