KINOSAKI ONSEN, HYOGO PREF. – Legend holds that the source of Kinosaki Onsen’s hot springs was discovered in 720 by a monk named Dochi, who later went on to found Onsenji temple midway up Mount Daishi on the west side of town.
For 30-year periods, the principle object of worship at Onsenji, a Heian Period (794-1185) wooden statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, resides in a veiled alcove at the back of the temple’s main hall. Then, for just three years, the statue is removed from this hiding place and displayed in all its rough-hewn glory, completing a 33-year cycle of exhibition.
The statue went on full display on April 23 of this year, and will remain that way until April 24, 2021. This three-year window makes Kinosaki an especially enticing place to visit at the moment, though the town certainly has a more enduring appeal.
With a lively local culture and seven public baths spread out between Kinosaki Onsen Station and the base of Mount Daishi, Kinosaki warrants a full weekend to unwind.
Locals are quick to point out that people have been coming to Kinosaki to soak in its well-regarded onsen (hot springs) since the Heian Period. The water is rich in sodium, calcium and chloride, a combination supposedly ideal for relieving muscle and joint pain, digestive diseases and skin conditions. The town’s many ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) are concentrated along the slow-moving, lantern-lit Otani River and a Taisho Era (1912-26) shopping street that runs west from the river to the base of Mount Daishi.
It is customary for each ryokan to supply its guests with yukata and wooden geta sandals, and the distinct clack-clack of geta-clad feet fills the air each evening as visitors make their way from bath to bath, stopping along the way for soft-serve ice cream, crab-filled steamed buns, or local beer served in wax paper cups. A majority of the storefronts have walk-up windows peddling these small indulgences and more.
Behind the sliding glass panes are boutiques specializing in local products like sake or wickerwork, while others offer sit-down dining for a variety of tastes and budgets. Lodged between these hybridized shops and eateries are a truly surprising number of colorful shooting galleries, replete with analog pachinko machines and oversized stuffed animal prizes, for a decidedly old-school diversion.
Sato no Yu, which is adjacent to Kinosaki Onsen Station, is the newest onsen in town and has only been open since 2000. For onsen purists, this is an easy bath to justify skipping, both for its newness and relative distance from the other six in town. North of Sato no Yu near the mouth of the Otani River, sits Jizo-yu, Kinosaki’s most family-friendly bath. It’s spacious, with child-only sections and family baths that can be reserved for an extra fee.
Moving west along the river, the next bath is Yanagi-yu. This is a bath for true onsen aficionados. The design is subdued and stylish, and it has the hottest water in town. Immediately west of Yanagi-yu, where the shopping street meets the river, is Ichi no Yu, Kinosaki’s most recognizable bathhouse. The postcard-perfect, Momoyama-style building calls to mind the grandness of a kabuki theater, though the baths inside are rather ordinary when compared to other options in town.
Centrally positioned along the street is Gosho no Yu, which hands-down beats every other bath in town for best in show. Winning points include a 1.1-meter-deep standing pool, a sauna and a high timber ceiling that provides the indoor baths with meditative views of the crashing waterfall just outside. Naturally, the outdoor baths are situated immediately alongside the waterfall.
The two remaining public baths, Mandara-yu and Ko no Yu, are situated at the base of Mount Daishi. Mandara-yu, aside from boasting the only cypress barrel tub in town, contains little of note. A short walk north, on the very edge of town and closest to its hot-spring source, is Ko no Yu. This is Kinosaki’s oldest and quietest bath, affording a tranquil view of the forested mountainside and relatively few people. A soak here should not be hurried, though it’s worth saving some time to slow cook your own onsen tamago (hot-spring egg) at the hot-spring source across the street. Like Kinosaki itself, it’s a small and simple pleasure that should absolutely not be missed.
Kinosaki Onsen is 2½ hours from Kyoto by train and costs approximately ¥5,000 one way. Buses from Osaka and Kobe take around three hours and cost just over ¥3,000 one way.