Gongen Onsen sits in a valley of citrus orchards, forest and bamboo groves, located between several residential districts. It’s a fairly standard example of a suburban onsen. What sets Gongen Onsen apart from many other such hot spring baths is the quality of its water, and its association with a gongen, a traditional Shinto deity who was reinterpreted as a Buddhist saint or bodhisattva after the arrival of Buddhism in Japan.
The large onsen building stands in a car park bordered by two pleasant streams and surrounded by cherry trees, which provide flowers in spring and shade in summer. The baths themselves are all housed in one room – there’s no outdoor bath. Overall, the baths present a dim atmosphere like a cave with their dark granite floors, walls and shower stalls. Generally elderly people relax here and there in Buddha-like repose. Big windows at the end of the room let in sunbeams that filter through the steam from the water. A large stone statue of the gongen graces one corner of the main bath. She gazes down on the bathers with a hand raised in blessing.
The main bath is all of a bubble, with double jets at regular intervals along the sides for massaging your shoulders, and a jacuzzi in the middle. There’s also a small kusuriburo – a very hot ‘medicine bath’ with special stress-relieving properties, a sauna, and a small cold bath. Although the water doesn’t seem noticeably different from any other hot water, when you’re out and dried, you’ll notice that your skin is slippery smooth. This is the effect for which Gongen Onsen is well known in Matsuyama.
Besides the baths, there’s a restaurant serving a standard selection of noodles, rice dishes, curry and sushi. There are also a number of private rooms for rental, with karaoke.
Gongen Onsen has clearly seen better days and the facilities, especially the changing rooms, leave something to be desired. But for aficionados of real onsen water, and there are many in Japan, Gongen Onsen will remain a place worth visiting. Entry is 550 yen for adults and 250 yen for children. No soap or towels are provided, so if you need these things, take your own. I usually make do with a just a small towel.