Discovering the traditional spirit of Arima


Peel away the suppurating clutter, the shabby, postwar surface of construction that is often passed off as modernity, and there is at the center of most Japanese towns a historical kernel, a core essence waiting to be discovered. Finding these places is a quest of sorts, requiring patience and a cultivated insensitivity to the eyesores that assault those who undertake these hopeful, largely rewarding searches.

One such place with a traditional core that is not immediately apparent on arrival is Arima Onsen, an agreeable 30-minute trip from Kobe. Arima sits on the north slope of Mount Rokko, in a green valley at the confluence of three rivers. First impressions, however, are not encouraging.

Giant, ferro-concrete hotels resembling dam walls disfigure the surrounding hills, hotel touts assail passersby, and parking attendants bark at arriving tour buses.

But the history of Arima runs as deep as its water sources. Predating the founding of Nara as the capital in the seventh century, the spring has been delighting guests for well over a millennium.

The spa enjoyed renewed popularity in the 17th century after Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his wife Nene began visiting in the company of the tea master Sen no Rikyu. Hideyoshi’s entourage of servants would have reached the spring by a combination of ox-cart and covered palanquin.

In more recent times, the late novelist Junichiro Tanizaki enjoyed frequent visits to Arima’s more traditional inns.

Arima’s waters are divided into two types: the transparent ginsen, and a rust-colored brew rich in iron, known as kinsen. Promoted as a remedy for neuralgia, skin problems and women’s disorders, Arima’s bucolic waters are said to be especially effective for gastrointestinal diseases.

For one-day visitors, the tourist office recommends a soak at Arima Onsen Kaikan, the public bath near the station terminus. This is a haunt of pensioners seeking relief from constipation and other digestive-system disorders.

For a scenic, short-stay bathing experience, Kanpo no Yado, in a shrine area 10 minutes west of the station, provides a more appealing hillside setting.

The traditional side of Arima can also be experienced in its cuisine. Tansan senbei, a low-calorie rice-cracker baked using the water from Arima’s cold spas, is a popular buy. At Keigetsu, a restaurant run by the Kosenkaku Inn, a more refined fare is served. The three set courses are vegetarian temple cuisine. The simplest of the three, called hana (flower), consists of no fewer than 16 separate dishes.

Arima’s older, hidden core can be found in the Onsenji district, an area strongly associated with Hideyoshi. The district’s premier shrine, Tosenjingu, is tucked into a cedar-and-plum grove that forms one side of the quarter.

Two adjacent temples, Onsenji and Gokurakuji, are distinctive for sumptuous altars, and the salvaged Confucian roof pediments and Buddhist statuary that lie around their grounds, exuding an air of antiquity. Nene’s summer villa is also here, now serving as Nembutsu-ji, a rustic temple whose elegant Japanese garden has an ancient sal tree much visited in June when its white blossoms fall onto a bed of surrounding moss.

A medina of winding lanes, old wooden houses and serpentine slopes like Negai-zaka and Tansan-zaka, the area has a number of interesting art-and-craft shops, the latter specializing in the playful Arima doll-brushes. A humorous souvenir created more than a 1,000 years ago, the calligraphy brush contains a concealed doll at one end, which pops up when the brush is tilted for writing.

The more serious craft of making Arima baskets likely dates from the 16th century. The costlier smoked and lacquered variety are coveted for tea ceremonies and in flower arrangement.

Embodying the spirit of Arima’s older quarter is the graceful Hotel Hanako Yado. Well-to-do foreigners were regular visitors to the hotel before the war, coming up from the port settlement in nearby Kobe during the humid summer months. Like Simla and Ooty, fashionable British hill stations in India, or the French colonial retreats in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, Arima seems to have offered a respite from the humid lowlands.

Arima’s period associations are seen in the silk pantaloons and tunics worn by the inn’s female staff, and in its antique furnishings. Hotel Hanako Yado has just nine rooms, each named after a different flower. Every room has fresh arrangements, suggestive of the simple sprays and posies of the tea ceremony.