Just over two hour train ride away from Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, Kinosaki Onsen is a quaint little onsen town lined with traditional houses. The weeping willows swaying gently by the basalt river banks and stone bridges are reminiscent of feudal Japan, the waters so crystal clear that you can find carps swimming in the stream.
It is perhaps one of the few places left in Japan whereby you can constantly see people pattering about in yukata (traditional summer casual wear) as they hop from one hot spring to another. The presence of these yukata-clad individuals add to the traditional atmosphere of the charming townscape. The legend of an oriental white stork healing its wounds in the hot spring water found in Kinosaki make the public baths the main draw of the town. Relaxing foot baths and spring water drinking fountains can also be found scattered around the town.
While you can purchase the Yumepa ticket for 1200 yen for unlimited access to all the seven public baths in the town, it is highly recommended to stay overnight in this tranquil town for the full immersive experience. By choosing to stay in any ryokan (traditional inn) in Kinosaki, you will be entitled to a special pass for a complimentary unlimited admission to all the baths during your stay!
Ryokan Stay and Yukata Wearing
We stayed in Kawaguchi Honkan, which is located right in the middle of town, facing a lovely stone bridge stretched across the willow-lined river. This intimate ryokan provided us with exemplary service throughout our stay. Upon reaching the inn, we were guided to our room and presented with refreshing tea and wagashi (traditional confectionary) and laid out the yukata for us. For the ladies, it is time to get excited here, for you will be able to choose your own yukata!
You will be spoilt for choice with their wide selection of beautifully printed yukata! They will wait patiently as you pick out your favourite, and once you have made your choice, they will guide you on the correct way of wearing a yukata. It is imperative to remember how to wear a yukata as you will be taking your yukata on and off rather frequently when you visit the hot springs. Probably the most important rule to follow would be wearing the left side of your yukata over the right side, as the opposite way is only used for funerals!
Sotoyu Meguri (Bath Stroll)
Once donned in a lovely yukata, you can then explore the town hand in hand and go for onsen hopping from one hot spring to another. This activity even has its own term, known as “sotoyu meguri” (bath stroll). The various hot springs are unique in design and hold specific healing properties. Ichino-yu provides you the opportunity to bathe in a cavernous-setting and its waters are believed to bring safety to travelers. The waters of Kouno-yu, the first bathhouse in Kinosaki, are said to bless your marriage with happiness and longevity.
The newest of the seven baths, Goshono-Yu, with its luxurious imperial-style infrastructure, is also one of the largest. It was built in the likeness of Kyoto’s Gosho Palace, and the pools inside are as grand the entrance, with rock boulders encircling the steaming baths and a mini-waterfall gurgling from within the lush gardens at the out-door bathing area. The waters are said to bring fortune in finding a marriage partner and prevent fires.
Soaking in the hot springs outdoors is an absolute must try. The outdoor bath facing a waterfall is as exquisite as a Japanese painting, and the surrounding mist added a heavenly effect. Jet streams hit our back as we lazed in the rock pools and admired the nature before us.
If you are looking for a place to share the onsen with your loved one, do not despair, for you can book private baths at some of the public baths such as Ichino-yu and Jizo-yu. The ryokans usually also have private bath reservations available, and the private onsen in our ryokan provided us an intimate open-air bathing experience.
Gastronomic delight in Ryokan
After a dip in the healing waters, be prepared to indulge in a gastronomic feast of Matsuba crabs (snow crabs) and Tajima beef. Matsuba crabs are the local specialty of Kinosaki, their flesh sweet and succulent, and are best eaten from November to March. Yet another esteemed specialty of the Northern Hyogo prefecture is the Tajima beef, which has the finest marbling quality amongst all Wagyu beef. So even if you don’t visit Kinosaki in the crab season, fret not, for Tajima beef will easily whet your appetite. Tajima beef is rich, soft and buttery, and melts almost instantly in your mouth.
Your epicurean journey is continued in the serving of breakfast the next day, a healthy and delicious meal of grilled fish, rice, misosoup, tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette), fresh steamed local vegetables and tofu, with an assortment of various pickles at the side.
Exploring more of Kinosaki
While the hot springs and ryokan stay may be the highlight of Kinosaki, you should take the opportunity to experience more of what this picturesque town has to offer.
There are many ice cream shops in Kinosaki, which are perfect after a long soak in the hot springs, and at the vintage game arcades, you can try nostalgic retro games like target shooting games and even vintage pachinko (pinball gambling).
And lastly, don’t forget to head north to the Kinosaki Ropeway which brings you halfway up to Onsenji Temple and then up to the top of Mount Taishi.
As it takes 20 minutes by foot to reach the ropeway, before taking the ropeway, how about taking a short breather at a cafe near Onsenji temple gate located at the foot of the mountain and making your very own onsen egg?
There are instructions to guide you in making the perfect onsen egg, and you will get the very satisfying and delicious results of a soft and silky egg white and a firm but custardy egg yolk which retains the creamy texture and deep rich colour of a raw egg yolk.
The Kinosaki Ropeway departs from near the Onsenji Temple gate and makes an intermediate stop at the temple’s main hall. In the past, it was customary to pray at the temple before visiting the hot springs in the town. Though it is no longer mandatory to make the journey before visiting the hot springs, the temple remains a lovely place worth visiting while in Kinosaki.
Finally, when you reach the summit of Mount Taishi, there is an observation deck from which you and your partner can have a breathtaking panoramic view of the Kinosaki town as well as Maruyama River and Sea of Japan, ending your ryokan retreat in this captivating town with a postcard perfect scenery.
Kinosaki is still largely undiscovered by tourists, making it the perfect romantic hot spring getaway from the bustling cities of the Kansai prefecture, and is an absolutely beautiful hidden gem to visit in all seasons. In the summer you will find the town lined with the iconic willow trees, in spring, lovely pink cher-ry blossoms take the place of the weeping willow, autumn paints the town red, and winter turns the place into a magical white wonderland.