The Shimizu Onsen Center was the last stop on a road trip to Shikoku my buddy Gianluigi and I did in the spring of 2011. Usually I write a short road trip summary in advance, but these days I’m a bit busy, so maybe I’ll make up leeway some day in the future – after all it was quite a busy road trip with six locations in two days.
Onsen is the Japanese term for hot spring, but usually it is more about the hotel / restaurant that is making use of the water. The Shimizu Onsen Center is one of those hidden gems of the beaten tracks deep in the mountains of Tokushima prefecture – and the name is just perfect, because shimizu actually means “pure water”. Pure water that won’t be soiled by many visitors, because the Shimizu Onsen Center closed a couple of years ago. If you try to find some information about it yourself, make sure to not confuse it with several other towns named Shimizu all over Japan (like in Fukui, Hokkaido, Kochi, Shizuoka, and Wakayama). You can imagine that the name is quite popular…
When Gian and I drove onto the already slightly overgrown parking lot we had no idea at all what expect – I had never seen photos of the Shimizu Onsen Center and I’ve never seen any since I’ve been there, so please consider it an original find that hasn’t appeared on any blog about Japanese ruins, neither in English nor in Japanese. As we got out of the car it just started to rain and we were pretty tired after a series of exciting but energy-sapping explorations. Nevertheless we closed in quickly, but carefully, just in case the low buildings nearby were home to some curious spectators. But we were lucky and able to enter the Shimizu Onsen Center without trouble of any kind. Not only that, but there was a note taped to the entry glass door of the spa, explaining a little bit about the place’s history. According to this it was opened in 1981 and operated for 14 years before it was sold to a new owner. Financial trouble began in 2003 and in late November of 2007 the place closed with 160 million Yen of debt – just three and a half years before Gian and I visited.
The Shimizu Onsen Center was fed by a sodium hydrogen carbonate spring with a temperature of 17 degrees Celsius, helpful to treat rheumatism, neuralgia, diabetes, and skin diseases. It targeted mainly day-trippers and tourists who booked accommodations nearby. Opening hours were from 9 a.m. till 9 p.m. (closed every 1st and 3rd Thursday of each month) and the entrance fee was 600 Yen. In the northern part I found a couple of Japanese style guest rooms with tatami mats and small TVs, but I’m not sure if they were used for overnight stays or just to relax between two baths.
Gian and I entered through the normal entrance on the second floor and went straight downstairs to the first floor, where the baths were. Both the one for males as well as the ones for females were equipped with a sauna and featured several frog statues. The Japanese word for frog is “kaeru”, which can also mean “to return”, and that made them good luck charms / symbols for money and coming back safely. This floor also featured the already mentioned guest rooms, which could be reached through a very, very dark hallway. The whole floor and all the items there looked a bit old and run down (like the massage chairs in the hallway and vending machine for razors), but there were no signs of vandalism or theft.
That also applied for the second floor with the front desk and a huge tatami room with a stage – a typical Japanese party room for long karaoke sessions with dozens of attendees. The tiny coop next to the stage even still had all the music equipment including countless tapes. No vandalism, no theft. In the entrance area we found a bin stuffed with umbrellas, slippers were still lined up and the front desk was neat and tidy.
The rather small third floor was exiting and disappointing at the same time. On the one hand the former bar was removed and so were the arcade machines that one day must have been there. On the other hand I finally found some dead animals, in amazingly good condition actually. Two skeletonized birds and a rat with some of the skin left, surrounded and partly covered by dead maggots. One of the bird skeletons was on the stairs on the way up, but the other one was just a couple of centimeters away from the rat – it looked like hunter and prey died at the same time at the same place. And that rat was huge! Maybe 30 centimeters long, and by that I mean the body alone. Since it was grey outside and I had to bring my tripod for the interior shots anyway I set up my little equipment to a comfortable height and zoomed to get a decent picture, being the lazy photographer I am sometimes. I was aware that the exposure time was rather long (a quarter of a second), but I didn’t realize that I zoomed to a point where gravity took over and the lens continued to zoom on its own – and so I accidentally created one of my favorite photos ever, one that still makes me a bit dizzy to this very day. Excited by this new discovery (commonly known as radial blur) I took some additional similar shots with both the rat skeleton and the bird skeleton next to it before we finally ran out of time – we were in the middle of nowhere in Shikoku on a rainy day and had less than 3.5 hours to get the car back to the rental company. Which really reminded me of my *first trip to Shikoku*, but this time the car rental was in Osaka, not in Kobe – and due to Golden Week the roads were a lot busier…