Everything you want to see seems to be covered in scaffolding at the moment. Long gone are the days when a couple of workmen would tape off a small area of a building while they made their repairs. Now it becomes a multi year, multi billion project with an end date coinciding with the retirement aspirations of the project manager. I should know, having been one.
For quite some time I’ve been looking forward to being pampered in Dogo Onsen, hopping from pool to pool and relaxing with green tea and wagashi (Japanese sweets). I imagined the satisfaction of lying back in the hot spring waters reflecting on the past 800km and contemplating the final 370km stroll along the northern shores and mountains of Shikoku.
The present day bath house was built in 1894 on three levels and was the inspiration for the Studio Ghibli film “Spirited Away”. And as you’ve probably guessed, a 7 year restoration project has just started and phase 1 is already complete which is covering much of it with plastic and closing all but a single pool for each sex on the ground floor.
Nonetheless, in I went. An Onsen is dangerous territory for a foreigner. There is no other situation in Japan where you can cause more offence or make more of a fool of yourself. And nowhere will you find anything in English explaining the protocol. I decided to follow a man inside and take my lead from him.
So we entered the building and paid 420 yen for the bath. I brought towels and soap from the hotel just like the locals do otherwise the cost soars. First you must put you shoes in a locker and put on slippers An attendant identifies your sex for you and points you to the appropriate changing room. Here you remove all your clothes and then open the door to the pool. It’s a relief to find it is the pool and not the restaurant or emergency exit.
There are little stools around the edge with shower hoses and first you sit here and make a show of giving yourself a thorough cleaning. Plenty of soap and scrubbing with the small towel. Next you have to rinse away all the soap because to bring any soap into the pool would cause an outrage.
Finally you have the problem of the small towel. You cannot leave it by the shower and, heavens forbid, it must never come into contact with the pool water. The solution is to fold it into a square of the correct size and balance it on your head. You may now enter the pool but take care to find enough room from your neighbours. Japanese people tend to avoid close contact with foreigners; it’s the same on a crowded bus, you’ll always have an empty seat beside you.
Everyone in the pool appears to be a regular. They all know each other and so if you’re uncomfortable walking into a local pub in the north of England by yourself this is probably not the best experience for you.
After all that, the waters are wonderful. So much better than the hotel shower.