“You’re going where?“ was a question commonly asked by my colleagues before our four day Easter break. No one had seemed to have heard of the city Matsuyama, or Dogo Onsen Honkan, the bathhouse that inspired the drawings of the bathhouse in the famous Ghibli movie “Spirited Away“.
Seeing this bathhouse had been my dream for years. Also, going away from where I was at that time was something I desperately needed. My mind and soul were clouded with depression and anxiety to a point where I had started to believe that I could never be not unhappy again. I was lost.
Which is, now that I think about it, quite the parallel to “Spirited Away“, because the main character in this story also gets lost in a fantasy world and struggles to get back to the human world.
As I get off the plane at the airport right outside of Matsuyama, I feel numb. I had been asleep and trying to forget about the past weeks and all the terrible thoughts and feelings. In contrast to that, I’m greeted with blue skies and the sun shining. The shuttle bus is already waiting to take people into the city center.
I look out the bus window as we make our way into town and can’t help but notice an odd feeling starting to bubble up. What is this? I can’t really put my finger on it. To my surprise I see an old-fashioned train come towards us on the tramline. I realize that I’m smiling because the train conductor is smiling back at me.
The bus goes straight to Dogo Onsen, the place of the famous bathhouse I came here to see. Before we stop, we drive past a park full of cherry trees in full bloom. I get off the bus at Dogo Onsen and walk back to the park, which is right around the corner. I follow a man pushing his bike up the stairs leading up to the park.
The park is breathtakingly beautiful. There are blooming cherry trees everywhere. People are enjoying their weekend by sitting on picknick blankets and park benches. There are a few food stalls, too. I buy fries and sit down under a tree by the pond.
The fries are salty, the sun is warm, the atmosphere is as peaceful as can be. People are telling each other stories and laughing. A turtle paddles by. A warm breeze results in cherry blossom petals falling down and it looks like it’s snowing. In this picture perfect moment, I can finally put my finger on the feeling that started to emerge on the bus ride – I feel at home. Where did that come from? And so fast? What is happening?
My mind is at peace and all the negativity has been swept away. There’s only one thing that fills my whole heart: Gratitude, and it feels like my heart is going to explode from it. I’m nothing but grateful to be in this very place, in this very second and to get to experience something I thought was gone for good: Pure and unfiltered happiness. I can’t remember when I felt this way the last time and it’s overwhelming. In this moment, everything feels right.
I take a walk around the park and when I reach the end, I see more things that add to my new found happiness: Lots of bikes. This is something I’d see in my hometown, I think. And lanterns.
As I walk through yet another park, a little boy on a bike rides towards me. He says, in English: “Hello! You have a beautiful face!“ I see more people sitting on picnic blankets. Kids playing football. A grandpa sitting on a park bench. Beautiful pink blossoms.
Since I’m trying to find a temple, I ask two young women for the way. They change their direction and walk with me. For twenty minutes. Not exactly unusual to happen in Japan, but still incredible. We talk a bit in Japanese and English. I tell them that I think they are lucky to live here.
The temple complex is stunning. The atmosphere is serene. I walk around the complex, explore a hidden tunnel, take pictures of cats, and sit in silence for a while.
As I’m about to leave, a group of pilgrims arrive. Shikoku is home to a huge amount of temples and shrines, which are being visited by a high number of pilgrims who walk or bike across the island. I watch them from a distance as they pray and chant and it’s right then and there that I make the plan to come back one day to walk part of the Shikoku pilgrimage trail myself.
On my second day in Matsuyama, I go up to the castle. Immediately, I’m reminded of another Ghibli movie called “Castle in the Sky“. Like the parks the day before, the castle is also covered in cherry blossoms. The entrance is almost hidden by them. It looks magical. The high stone walls are solid and soothing. I feel protected and calm.
The view from the tower window is breathtaking. The morning sun is glistening on the roofs and the city is surrounded by a soft line of mountains. I stay there for a while because I can’t take my eyes off this view.
Before I leave the castle grounds, I sit under a cherry tree, next to a grandpa and a child. A bride and groom walk by. The grandpa congratulates them.
Walking down the hill, I come across a landscape garden that is called “The lovers’ sanctuary“. A sign says that you can buy a cup of green tea inside a small building so I go in. To my surprise, I’m suddenly in the middle of my very first tea ceremony. A woman in a kimono makes the tea, while a man in a suit sits next to her. I feel awkward because I don’t know what I’m doing and we’re not really speaking.
After the ceremony I try to break the ice by saying the little I know in Japanese. It works. The three of us are talking in a mix of Japanese and English about Matsuyama and why I’m here. From the back of the room, two other women, who are also wearing kimonos, appear and join us. When they hear I’m from Germany, they ask me if I happen to know a city called “Freiburg“. When I learn that my hometown is actually the partner city of Matsuyama, I’m stunned. An suddenly it all makes sense.
The trams, the bikes, the nature, the peace and calm and the distinct feeling of home that I had ever since I stepped out of the airport. The man in the suit takes a picture of the three women and me. I don’t remember what was funny, but in the picture, we are all laughing.
I wander about the landscape garden and visit the koi fish, then make my way further down the hill, where there’s yet another park, and who would have thought, more people having picnics. I plunk down on the grass, and with my head on my backpack and my face under my jacket, I doze off. The emotional exhaustion of the past weeks is taking its toll. While I’m half asleep for an hour, I can still hear the kids playing and running around me. The cheerful noise they make is like a blanket of warmth and security.
This was only day two in Matsuyama and I hadn’t even been to the famous bathhouse yet. Still, I had come across something profound: My old self. It was like this city had taken me into its arms, held me close and said to me: “Life is beautiful. Trust me. Just open your eyes again and you will see.“
This experience taught me something important about myself that I once knew but had forgotten: How very receptive I am to my surroundings. They literally make me or break me. In this respect, my very short time in Matsuyama gave me faith in myself and the faith that things would change for the better back home in Yokohama if I took care of my surroundings. Which as you know, I did. And as you also know, it worked. Maybe sometimes we just need a little magic to get us back on the right track.