No doubt one of the most sought-after experiences for any visitor to Japan is a trip to an authentic hot spring. Matsumoto has not one but two onsen villages out on the eastern edges of town. But if you are pressed for time, or want to add a little convenience to your experience, check out Shioi-no-yu. This onsen is located just a few minutes’ walk from Matsumoto Castle. Enjoy an authentic hot spring experience in downtown Matsumoto!
With the dawn of the Meiji Era came the end of Japan’s feudal system. As Matsumoto Castle fell into disuse, so did the residences of the surrounding samurai district. A man named Tanaka bought a parcel of property in this former ni-no-maru castle area. He got involved in the lumber trade, cutting logs brought up from the Kiso Region and selling the wood to local carpenters.
Around the turn of the 19th Century a source of cool groundwater was discovered deep beneath the Tanakas’ land. This water was found to be unusually rich in calcium, magnesium and sodium – minerals found in the waters of Japan’s most highly-esteemed onsen hot springs.
Initially this water was used for simple household use. Then in 1903 Tanaka-san began using excess wood from his lumber operation to heat the water. He soon opened a neighborhood sento bath house that would become the social backbone of the Ote-machi neighborhood community.
The Eye-Catching Exterior of Shioi-no-yu
Shioi-no-yu sits along a narrow side road, where few people outside the neighborhood ever go. This is unfortunate, as the building’s “kamban-chiku” façade is both attractive and a Matsumoto rarity. Yoko Tanaka, fourth generation owner of Shioi-no-yu, says her great-grandfather incorporated European characteristics into the design of the building to appeal to the cultural interests of the people of the time.
As much as it stands out today, Shioi-no-yu must have really been unique when it first appeared among the wooden homes and dirt roads of 1903 Matsumoto. Still, for all the modernization of the downtown area, Shioi-no-yu maintains its unique character for anyone willing to go see it.
The (Mostly) Japanese Interior
“Stepping back in time” can seem an overused phrase, but at Shioi-no-yu the idea applies. The old ‘geta-bako’ shoe cabinet just inside the front entrance seems older than the building itself. The décor in the spacious changing room may very well all be original. The scale over near the door to the bath is from a time when people still measured weight in ‘kanme’ as well as kilograms. (This scale is in the men’s changing room, I am not sure exactly what you’ll find on the women’s side.)
Even the system of payment is a throwback to older, simpler times. Just give Yoko Tanaka four hundred yen (in cash, naturally) as you walk into the changing room. She’ll be sitting behind the old wooden counter.
Look up when you are in the changing room! You’ll see the one aspect of the interior that may seem out of place. The ceiling is covered with square iron plates imported from Holland – suggestive, perhaps, of the special trade status the Netherlands enjoyed in Japan during the Edo Era.
The bath itself – tiled and always clean – may be the newest-looking aspect of the Shioi-no-yu experience (unless you count the drink cooler next to Yoko Tanaka’s counter).
The Heart & Soul of the Neighborhood
Shioi-no-yu has for over a hundred years served as a kind of social and community support center for the Ote-machi neighborhood. Check out this NHK documentary to see exactly what we mean.
The future, however, is uncertain. Yoko Tanaka is at present operating the bath house with no apparent successor. While you are in Matsumoto, consider including a walk to Shioi-no-yu in your Welcome-Matsumoto tour for an authentic Japanese hot spring experience. Because community, local and now global, is what will keep Shioi-no-yu here for all of us.
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