In Matsuyama, Japan, onsens become contemporary art galleries
The Dogo Onsen hot spring resort, the pride of the city of Matsuyama, is believed to be the oldest spa in Japan. The onsen appeared in Soseki Natsume’s novel “Botchan,” and it is well known that major Meiji-era (1868-1912) authors, such as Natsume and the haiku poet Shiki Masaoka, frequented the place.
Lately, however, it is thriving as a hot spot of contemporary art.
Last year, an event called Dogo Onsenart was held in an area of the city where many inns and hotels are located. The event commemorated the 120th anniversary of the 1894 rebuilding of the Dogo Onsen Honkan (Dogo hot spring main building), an historic three-story wooden structure that houses two communal bathhouses.
One of the aims of the event was to reverse the decline in the number of visitors staying overnight in the city. The effort proved successful, and Dogo Onsenart is set to continue until Feb. 29, 2016.
The entrance of the building is adorned with a colorful jinmaku, a type of curtain that was set around military camps in premodern Japan. It was created by photographer and film director Mika Ninagawa. This year, photographs of flowers and other Ninagawa works are displayed inside the building, as well as various places in the event area. A tram painted with flower patterns, also designed by Ninagawa, runs in the city.
The theme of the event is “the oldest and the newest.”
“I hope young women will take an interest [in the onsen district] through the event,” said Megumi Kamata, 30, of the city’s onsen administration office.
In the area crowded with onsen facilities, six have been offering “art-to-stay-in” packages since last year. One of the hotels, Takaraso Hotel, has a suite with an interior designed by world-renowned avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama. The ceiling is decorated with mirror balls, and the wall by the bedside is fitted with a black and white photo print of Kusama lying on her stomach in the 1960s. A high-relief pumpkin adorns the wall in the tokonoma alcove in the adjacent tatami-mat room.
It is indeed a space of wonder. But what if a visitor damages the artwork?
“I was concerned about that as well, but most of the visitors staying in the room have been young ladies, all of them well-behaved,” the hotel owner, Masako Miyazaki, said with a smile.
The Kusama suite can be reserved for a limited period until Aug. 31 for 78,000 yen (about $632), plus tax, per night. For a group of four, the rate drops to 19,500 yen per person (about $158).
Takaraso Hotel and five other hotels offering similar plans also accept paying visitors who just want to see the guest rooms featuring artists’ works and designs.
When I visited, I went to Kaminoyu, one of the bathhouses in the Dogo Onsen Honkan. I went to the large room on the second floor and felt a nice breeze. A server brought me a cup of tea on a red temmokudai — a tray for carrying a tea cup. The thick cup was made of tobeyaki ceramic, a specialty of a neighboring town.
When I finished the tea, I saw the cute symbol of yudama — hot water bubbles — at the bottom of the cup. The symbol is seen frequently in the building, such as on roof tiles. There are many theories about where the design comes from, with some saying it was inspired by the sacred jewel made of carved stone atop yugama, a cylindrical structure that used to be placed over the vent of a hot springs bath in Matsuyama. Others say the symbol mimics the shape of a drop of water or steam.
It seems that Japanese forefathers here also had the spirit of “the oldest and the newest.”
See more onsen art at www.tinyurl.com/qxjraa5.