Are These the 10 Best Onsen in Japan? (Spoiler: no)

I originally planned to write about how railroad company executives in the United States are holding the economy hostage so they can avoid wages increases which match inflation and giving their workers paid sick leave… but plenty of other people write about that better than I. I find it astonishing that Congress and the POTUS are avoiding the obvious solution: force a contract which gives the railroad workers what they want. Well, it’s not astonishing. The Railway Labor Act, which allows Congress to block otherwise legal strikes, gives the executives too much power and workers too little. It’s ‘rational’ for executives to abuse this imbalance by denying shipping service to force the government to impose a contract which allows them to squeeze as much as they can out of workers for profit. Workers can’t retaliate with a strike. Except… many railroad workers have been quitting for a long time because the railroad companies penalize them for going to necessary medical appointments. If the railroad companies lose too many workers to stay functional, that’s also a kind of labor strike.

Anyway, instead of writing more about that, I feel like writing about something frivolous: Japanese onsen.

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Remembering Jiaming Lake and the Southern Cross-Island Highway (Part 4)

This is a photo taken on the Southern Cross-Island Highway – I’m guessing that’s the Xinwulu river

Continued from Part 3.

When I wrote the emails in 2013 about my trip on the Southern Cross-Island Highway, I promised at the end that I would an email about Wulu Gorge, which I never did. Thus, unlike the previous parts of this blog post series, this entire post was written in 2020. And instead of being able to copy and paste a bunch of text I wrote shortly after the trip, all I have to rely on are a few photos and memories which are more than six years old.
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Six Days in Shikoku: Matsuyama


I took a bus leaving the lower ropeway station of Ishizuchi-san, returned to Saijo, picked up my luggage, visited a little museum about local Saijo culture, and then hopped on a bus to Matsuyama.

Matsuyama is in northwestern Shikoku

I was hoping the bus would be faster than the train since the train goes all of the way north to Imabari before going south to Matsuyama, whereas the bus can take the roads which go straight from Saijo to Matsuyama. Well, there are two shortcut roads between Saijo and Matsuyama, and while one of them is a freeway, the bus stuck to the slow road to make stops en route.

However, I was rewarded for taking with one of the most memorable views of the moon I have ever seen. I’ll quote my diary “I saw the full moon roll like a marble between two mountains (maybe one was Ishizuchi?) and then roll up and launch into the air”. Alas, no photos.


Upon arriving in Matsuyama, I got on a streetcar heading straight for Dogo Onsen, and then checked into Sen Guesthouse. I was greeted by the co-owner from Texas. We talked about my travel plans, and I mentioned that I was planning to go to South Korea for two months, and I found out that he had lived in South Korea for a few years. He then said “If you get bored of South Korea, you can always go to Taiwan.” I can go to Taiwan? HA HA HA HA HA HA. I then explained that I had lived in Taiwan for three years. It turns out that he had never been to Taiwan, but he really wanted to go.


Much as I enjoy talking to guesthouse owners, I also really want to soak in an onsen (hot spring), and Sen Guesthouse is only a five-minute walk away from Dogo Onsen, one of the oldest developed onsen in Japan.


I went for the deluxe package at Dogo Onsen – hey, if I’m only going to be there once, why not go all the way? I went to both the large and the small female baths – the water is the same, but the large bath feels like a busy Roman bathhouse, whereas the small bath (which is only for people who pay the higher price) feels calmer and more intimate. I know that the water is supposed to have amazing properties but … I wasn’t impressed. As I’ve said, I went to a lot of onsen in Japan, so I got pretty high standards. To me, the water at Dogo Onsen isn’t in the same league as Yunomine Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture (which has the oldest bathhouse in all of Japan – it’s even older than Dogo Onsen), Noboribetsu Onsen in Hokkaido, or Tsuru-no-yu in Akita Prefecture.


But hey, a hot spring soak is a hot spring soak, and after a hike even soaking in a bad onsen like Kusugawa Onsen in Yakushima is nice (note: never go to Kusugawa Onsen unless you are desperate for a bath or you are desperately curious about bad Japanese onsen), and Dogo Onsen is way, way, way better that Kusugawa onsen.


What makes Dogo Onsen special is everything aside from the water. The architecture of the building itself is noteworthy (it helped inspire Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, though I didn’t really appreciate it since it was at night and its exterior is not well-lit. If you go for the more expensive option, it is the most deluxe treatment you’ll get at an onsen short of staying overnight in an onsen ryokan. There is a special rest area where, among other things, I wrote in my travel diary about hiking up Ishizuchi-san. It was nice to observe the other people lounging around. There was also an LED scream showing colorful patterns.


The most special part, however, was seeing the baths built for the exclusive use of the imperial family. Apparently, they haven’t been used since the 1950s since nowadays the imperial family just uses the baths in whatever hotel they stay at in Matsuyama rather that go to the public bath. The guide explains the significance of many difference features of the imperial bath, and it is impressive just how much gets lavished on the Japanese imperial family simply because of their royal status. It wasn’t so much the luxury – I imagine you could get something just as luxurious at a good onsen ryokan for about 200 USD per night (i.e. it’s within reach of the upper middle class), but all of the particular details and specific rules of the proper way to treat the imperial family because they are the imperial family. Among other things, photography is forbidden, so I didn’t take any photos in the imperial baths.


Sen Guesthouse is a good guesthouse. The lounge area is chill. They also have a very interesting selection of books, including Dogs and Demons (which I first encountered in Oboke), which I read some more of. A lot of the books were about religion, which makes sense, since Sen Guesthouse caters to henro passing through Matsuyama (if you don’t know what a henro is, read this post).


Furthermore, I cooked some of the best food I ever cooked in Japan in that kitchen at Sen Guesthouse. Other guests even commented on how good it smelled. Thank you, Muji to Go, for supplying such tasty ingredients.


The next day, I saw the nostalgia chibi choo-choo train in the photo above making its way on streetcar rails.


I basically only had time to see one thing in Matsuyama that day before I had to leave Shikoku, and naturally I chose to see Matsuyama Castle (note: nearly all of the photos in this post show Matsuyama Castle since, unlike Dogo Onsen, there aren’t rules against photography there).


I could have just walked up, but there is a chairlift and a cable car (why?), and since the chairlift was inexpensive, I decided it would be the fun way to go up.


I had already seen Kumamoto Castle, Himeiji Castle (supposedly the greatest castle in Japan), Shikone Castle, Inuyama Castle, Kanezawa Castle, and my favorite, Matsumoto Castle. Just as I felt I had seen enough temples, I also felt I had seen enough castles, and that Matsuyama caslte wouldn’t make any impression on me.


First of all, Matsuyama Castle has excellent views over the city – some of the best views I ever saw looking out from any castle (note: I visited Shikone Castle during hazy weather, so I did not get great views over Lake Biwa).


The castle itself, however, is also lovely in its own right. It is the last castle which was (re)built during the Edo period, and that is the structure which still stands there, so it has an authentic quality that castles rebuilt in the 20th century lack.


Perhaps I loved Matsuyama castle for the same reason I loved Konpira-san – just as Konpira-san and Zentsuji were the last major religious places I would visit in Japan, Matsuyama was my last Japanese castle.


The next and final post in this series will describe my journey out of Shikoku, and present some concluding thoughts.