Spirited Away to Dogo Onsen

Hayao Miyazaki is a cornerstone of Japanese anime. His work is often compared to Walt Disney’s, but as much as I love The Little Mermaid, this comparison hardly does him  justice. Many of his stories are original, and every scene looks as though it could be framed for an exhibit. What I love about Miyazaki is that he incorporates the ideas, myths, histories, and landscapes  of Japan into his work.

One of my favorite movies by Miyazaki is called Spirited Away. The movie’s original Japanese name is Sento Chihiro. A sento is a Japanese public bath house that does not necessarily use hot spring water, but heats the water. Until the second half of the 20th century many Japanese people did not have baths in their homes, so they went to a sento to wash and refresh themselves. Though some sentos are utilitarian others are quite opulent. The more luxurious onsens and sentos often add minerals and infusions to the bath water for additional health benefits. Spirited Away is a magical story of an enchanted sento that hosts the spirits of everything from frogs to radishes; and the young, shy girl who gets trapped in service there. The narrative and the visuals are spectacular and the sento itself is the stuff of dreams.

Fortunately, the sento in Spirited Away is actually based on a real place on the island of Shikoku in Japan. It is called Dogo Onsen. I was lucky enough to visit Dogo Onsen in August of 2006 and I was surprised at how much inspiration the movie actually got from this historical landmark.

Photo: Daniel Irvine 2006

Dogo Onsen is the oldest in Japan. It has a history of about 3,000 years, and is the onsen that healed the gods and emperors of Japan. According to legend, the onsen was discovered by a white heron who put its injured leg in the water and was healed, so the heron prevails as the symbol of Dogo Onsen.

Photo: Daniel Irvine 2006

During my stay at Dogo I was able to imbibe the waters, tour of the Royal Baths reserved only for the royal family, and do this all wearing the traditional Japanese leisure wear: a yukata. Though the baths themselves are not in my top ten because they are small and crowded, the experience ranks quite high on my list. It was definitely one of my most memorable experiences in Japan, and a must for anyone who loves to watch or be Spirited Away.

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For Dreamers and Jet-Setters

Presently, I live in a city with no hot springs, and this means that pursuing my passion always requires large financial and time commitments. So, when I have an itch to soak I pour myself a bath and read about where I could be instead. Cathedrals of the Flesh by Alexia Brue is a good memoir for the tub. It’s the story of young woman’s fore into cleansing and sweating rituals worldwide.

Brue writes about her international cleansing expedition, that takes her to Turkey, Russia, Finland, and Japan. There are beautiful descriptions of her travels, and the history and culture around bathing in these countries. Most importantly, to dreamers and would-be jet-setting bathers, she is very informative about the rules, practices, and social courtesies of bathing in the present. Brue shares her ecstasies and blunders in the baths and saunas of the world, and now, I feel that I could enjoy a Russian banya or a Turkish hamam with more grace than I might have otherwise.

If you liked Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love then you will find this book is entertaining. It has all the same adventure, passion, and personal quest elements of a globe-trotting woman on a mission, but better because it is about bathing. On the other hand, if you like to stick to facts, then consider the cultural tips and travel ideas supplementary material to Internet browsing.

Getting Into Hot Water

I have always loved water. Perhaps it is genetic. I come from a long line of  mariners and a mother who takes her baths very seriously. As I child I was always in, on and around water. So, I grew up believing that I was, in fact, a mermaid.  Then in February of 2006 I discovered a whole new way to enjoy myself when I got into some hot water. Since that first hot spring experience I have been seeking out hot springs where ever I go.
Check out a description of the Japanese Onsen and my formative experiences with hot springs as they were originally published here.