In the pink at Kinosaki Onsen

Pink, hot and naked: All those who go to Kinosaki Onsen end up in scalding water, both crustaceans and tourists alike.

Each year, 1 million visitors visit the small onsen (hot spring) village on the Sea of Japan coast, drawn by the therapeutic waters, fresh seafood, cozy inns and easy access from Kansai’s major transport hubs. From November to the end of March, freshly caught crabs complete the irresistible lure of a luxurious weekend escape.

Kinosaki’s history as a place for relaxation and healing predates even the construction of Kyoto. According to local legend, the area’s waters first gained a reputation for their restorative powers back in Emperor Jomei’s day (A.D. 593-641) when a stork was seen bathing a wound in the marshy land that is now Kinosaki.

The onsen town itself was founded in 717, when a priest named Douchi-Shonin, having prayed for 1,000 consecutive days, discovered water bursting from the ground.

These days, Mandara-yu, one of the seven onsen in Kinosaki, sits upon that first hot spring. A more recent miracle is that Kinosaki has retained a subdued small-town charm despite the influx of visitors and cash.

The canal running through the middle of the town is lined with willows and cherry trees and the ryokan (traditional inns) are small and elegant. Souvenir kitsch is also kept low — one of the most popular purchases are live crabs in Styrofoam boxes.

That said, it’s evident that pressure to keep up with newly drilled onsen megaplexes elsewhere in Japan has changed the face of the village. All seven bathhouses have been rebuilt in the last 20 years; this is certainly not bad, but rustic onsen aficionados may prefer the uchi-yu (private baths in ryokan) to the public soto-yu (bathhouses).

Even though most of the village’s 80 ryokan have their own baths, some with private baths for families or couples, most guests will grab a handful of the village’s free tickets to all its onsen, put on their yukata (summer kimono) and visit as many big bathhouses as possible.

Before that though, it’s dinner time. There is much ado about the particular breed of male crab that comes from the Sea of Japan near Kinosaki: matsuba-gani. While these “pine needle crabs” are just queen crabs (zuwai-gani) under a different name, local competition and crab mania create labels for crabs caught in different areas. Matsuba-gani are caught along the San-in coastline, which stretches from Yamaguchi to Hyogo prefectures, while Echizen crabs, named after the shores of northern Fukui and Ishikawa prefectures, are a popular competitor. Despite the different varieties, it is unclear whether there is any difference on the dinner table.

The female counterpart to the matsuba-gani is the seko-gani. Smaller and cheaper, these crabs supplement kani-suki (crab hot pot) cuisine with their abundant eggs and rich entrails, called kani-miso. Most of the ryokan in Kinosaki have a small handful of crab courses to choose from according to your budget, but even the cheapest are satisfactory.

Dinner is typically served in a private room. One of the staff prepares the soup stock in a large earthenware pot and starts it boiling on a gas burner. Vegetables, noodles, tofu and pre-sliced crab legs or torso pieces are added gradually and then eaten once cooked. Aside from kani-suki, other dishes may include crab sashimi, crab steamed with vegetables, crab-flavored tofu, kani-miso and grilled crab. If you survive your crab overdose it is time to hit the baths.

In addition to the uchi-yu, there are seven soto-yu in town and most are open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sato-no-yu is among the finest. Located next to the station, this three-story “superonsen” (by far the largest in town) has Western and Japanese themed baths.

The Western bath is decorated in bright blue tiles and sandy-brown stone, with mustachioed faces gushing water into the pools. The rotenburo (outdoor bath) on the roof is styled after a Greek ruin with broken boulders and pillars, and it has a great view of the river and the mountains. The Japanese side is more elemental: the baths are made from river stones and the rotenburo has a waterfall made of igneous rock. Both have a variety of dry and wet saunas, the most interesting of which is a 1 degree C “Penguin Sauna,” which is essentially a walk-in refrigerator on the Japanese side.

Further into town, Gosho-no-yu makes up in opulence for what it lacks in size. The bathhouse, founded in 1222, was rebuilt at a cost of ¥600 million in 2005. The exterior looks like the entrance to Kyoto’s Gosho Palace, with a gracefully curved roof and huge logs for pillars. The baths are done in simple materials: unpainted beams support the glass ceiling, large black stone tiles line the floor and the walls are granite. Outside, a waterfall surrounded by a lush garden rushes down the hillside toward a rocky two-level rotenburo. Kou-no-yu is Kinosaki’s oldest bathhouse, built on the marsh where the stork was seen bathing 1,400 years ago.

Kou-no-yu’s single indoor bath isn’t very large but is surrounded by broad windows overlooking its finest attraction: the garden rotenburo. Rough boulders are carefully placed to give the illusion of a natural pool while smooth stones line the bottom to prevent stubbed toes. Snow piles up on the gnarled pines around the garden in winter, while bamboo poles and ropes keep the branches from breaking under the weight.

Lastly, Ichi-no-yu goes a step beyond the traditional outdoor bath with the construction of a full cave. Large stones and rough concrete form the cavern, which, while not totally convincing, is a novel decoration for the bath in its bottom. The water here, too, seems a few degrees hotter than those in the rest of town if your muscles need an intense soak.

Finally, before you don your wooden sandals and clop off to the baths, a word of caution. Too much hot water and you’ll end up like your dinner, suffering from yu-atari. Last time I checked, “heat-stroke from the bath” doesn’t get you out of work on Monday morning.

Kinosaki is on the JR San-in Line, 2 1/2 hours from Osaka and 3 hours from Kyoto. For reservations, call the Kinosaki accommodation office (0796) 32-4141. Prices for one night and two meals at an inexpensive ryokan start at ¥14,000 and rise according to your course menu. If you opt not to stay the night, a visit to an onsen costs ¥600-¥800 and a course of crab dishes in one of Kinosaki’s restaurants is about ¥4,000.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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