The onsen -- or traditional hot springs -- experience is a must-do in Japan. Whether you’re heading to a big-city bath house that resembles an amusement park, or to a natural pool in a small town, there’s nothing more Japanese than stripping down, lathering up, and soaking for an hour or two in the hot, steamy springs.
One of those small towns, Kinosaki, is situated directly on a natural hot spring, and is home to seven bath houses and countless ryokan (small traditional hotels). Visitors who come here may spend their entire stay wearing a yukata, a light cotton kimono, so they’re always ready to duck into a bath house at a moment’s notice, and the sound of wooden sandals clacking along the stone streets is everywhere. A two-and-a-half-hour train ride from Kyoto or Osaka, Kinosaki is an accessible -- and dramatic -- side trip in Japan, and there’s more to do than just soak. If you’re turning into a prune and need a break from the baths, here’s what else to do in Kinosaki.
After you’ve wandered Kinosaki’s foot bridges and willow-tree-lined streets, see it from above with a trip on the Kinosaki Ropeway. Tramway cars carry you to the top of Mt. Taishi for a view that stretches to the Sea of Japan. The view itself, believe it or not, is award-winning; Michelin Green Guide Japan awarded it one star. Round-trip tickets cost 900 yen (about $8), and there are two stations. The summit station affords the view, while the middle station lets you visit the temple.
An important part of Kinosaki’s history can be found here, at the midpoint station on the Kinosaki Ropeway. A temple has stood on this spot since 700 AD, and it was once customary to pay your respects here before entering the hot springs. The temple’s central artifact, an eleven-headed, six-foot-tall buddha statue, goes on display to the public for three years once every 33 years. The next showing is in 2018.
Near the hot spring’s source, you’ll find a stand selling eggs that are cooked directly in the hot onsen water. Simply pay, select your egg, and bundle it into one of the provided mesh bags, and place the bag straight into the spring, knotting it around a wooden grate so it doesn’t slip away. Set a timer, take a quick walk, and return to find your egg perfectly cooked — and don’t forget to use the special egg-cracking scissors.
Beyond the bath houses, you’ll also find small public foot baths all of over town. This is a special treat in winter, when chilly weather makes a foot soak especially welcoming. Simply sit down, take off your shoes, and enjoy. There’s even one near the onsen egg stand, which you can enjoy while you’re waiting for your egg to cook.
Snow crabs are abundant November 'till about March, and are a specialty in this part of Japan. (Note the unmissable giant snow crab signs on buildings in town.) Many ryokan in town will offer it, and it’s worth the splurge. The ryokan Shinonome-so, where we stayed, specializes in meals made with seasonal ingredients and served the crab on its own, and as part of a hot pot cooked over an open flame. All of this, of course, was served on low tables in a tatami room — the ultimate Japanese dining experience.
If you can manage an early wake-up call, the sunrise from Mt. Kuruhi near Kinosaki is a must-see. Watch as a “sea of clouds” dissipates as the sun climbs higher in the sky over the Sea of Japan. If you don’t have a car, you can book tours to see the sunrise through Kinosaki’s tourist information center, which is located near the main train station.
Kinosaki might be a small town, but it’s home to an international arts center that befits a much bigger city. The center houses a small group of artists-in-residence and also hosts a long list of drama and dance performances that play in its sprawling 1,000-seat theater. Stop by to pick up a schedule and learn about what’s on offer.