Bathing at the Dogo Onsen is traditional to the point of severity. A drum bangs three times a day from a turret; pensioners squat in the scalding water, grunting as though preparing for a water birth. Ritual is all at the Dogo Onsen, a grand late 19th-century spa house in central Matsuyama: scrubbing, rinsing and dipping, but definitely no splashing.
Strange then that the bathhouse, which sits on Japan’s oldest continuously used hot springs, finds itself at the centre of an avant-garde arts festival held to celebrate the 120th anniversary of this venerable wooden building. Two dozen artists, designers and sculptors from Japan and beyond have helped transform Matsuyama, on the southern island of Shikoku, with a series of artworks, which include silhouette projections on to the city’s buildings (“People’s Projections” by Stephen Mushin); an installation deploying otherworldly sound and light (by Kohske Kawasi) and a “fog sculpture” (by Fujiko Nakaya), where mist streams out of nozzles on the Dogo building and billows around it into something almost solid.
The festival’s centrepiece is the “Hotel Horizontal”, a witty installation composed of nine rooms in hotels and ryokans (traditional inns) that have been redesigned by the likes of avant-garde artist Yayoi Kusama, photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, Marimekko-designer Fujiwo Ishimoto and poet Shuntaro Tanikawa. They are already providing some unusual challenges for local hotel owners.
Visiting Kusama’s room after the bathhouse is like shock therapy. The doyenne of the New York pop art scene has overhauled the smart Takaraso ryokan into an extraordinary riot of polka dots in red and gold, chrome orbs hanging from a fake-grass ceiling and an op-art display of ultraviolet stickers that appear to hover in mid-air. I’m informed, with a certain gravity, that the man-sized fibreglass pumpkin in bas-relief is the “only one of its kind anywhere in the world” – though it is also true of the entire space. Kusama herself is depicted naked on the wall on a sea of stuffed phalluses (a reproduction of her “Accumulation no. 2”, 1966), as if to observe the effect of her world on the recumbent visitor.
I follow the polka dots down the hall to the lobby, where they burst again into life, attacking sofas, walls and tables. I have a cup of green tea with Mitsuhiko Miyazaki, director of the ryokan, and note that the spots have already reached our cups and saucers and the cellophane-wrapped cake that I’m about to eat.
“It’s no small thing changing a room into an artwork. Think of the air-conditioning and fittings,” chuckled Miyazaki. “But it’s been extremely popular.” The Kusama-designed knickers are apparently selling like hot cakes in the lobby’s vending machines, and he regrets that he has to change the room back when the festival ends at the end of the year.
The idea of linking art and bathing is not completely new. Beppu, an onsen (“hot spring”) town in Kyushu, helped revitalise its own urban centre through its Contemporary Art Festival. Held every three years and last staged in 2012, it featured eight projects in eight of its bubbling hot spas. Now Matsuyama, which is little-visited by tourists (typically only 3 per cent of foreign visitors to Japan come to Shikoku) and known only for its onsens, its imposing local castle, and the old-fashioned trams that still trundle through its streets, is at last making a mark for itself.
While most are delighted by the rooms at the “Hotel Horizontal”, some guests aren’t so sure – especially about the darkly erotic “Paradise” by photographer Nobuyoshi Araki at the Kowakuen ryokan. It is a disquieting installation: traditional screens and tatami mats are left intact, while photographic screens display Japanese girls in classic kimonos, semi-nude and rope-bound, shot under a harsh, voyeuristic light. Less openly pornographic than suggestive, it makes for an interesting visit (rooms are open for public viewing by advance booking) but not exactly a cosy evening. Some guests apparently checked out early.
It is a subtle and thought-provoking festival – turning ryokans on their heads and confounding expectations of Matsuyama – but I note that nobody messes with the bathing experience itself. That much is sacrosanct.