Kinosaki Onsen (15 to 17 June 2024)

Kinosaki Onsen is a sleepy little village – at least in summer.  A canal lined with willow trees runs through the town.  Small shops and tiny restaurants line the streets either side and along the road up to the train station a few hundred metres away.  And that’s about all there is to it.

There’s a few activities in the local area including a ropeway up to a shrine and a few caves that are open to the public. But really, people come here to enjoy the onsens.

The Japanese Hot Springs Act defines onsen as “hot water, mineral water or water vapour or other gas (excluding natural gas of which the principal component is hydrocarbon) gushing from underground”.  The water must originate from at least 1.5km underground, must emerge from the ground at no cooler than 24 degrees Celsius and must contain specified amounts of certain minerals.

In everyday language, onsen refers to waters that meet those criteria and the bathing establishments which make use of them.  They range from indoor pools fed by piped spring water to outdoor baths where infrastructure is built around the springs.

Onsens have been an important part of Japanese life for centuries.  They provided for personal hygiene in the days before homes had proper bathrooms, and were a place to meet friends at the end of a day’s work, socialise and gossip.  Their use declined as houses gained indoor plumbing, but their popularity for relaxation remains high.

Kinosaki is an onsen destination town because of the number and variety of onsens on offer.  There are seven lovely public onsens and most of the inns in town have their own private onsen fed from the springs as well.  And it’s also popular because the town retains its traditional feel.  There are no big hotels, no resorts and even the largest public onsen is relatively small and intimate.

There’s a couple of origin stories about the hot springs here.  On one version, in the year 717CE, Buddhist monk Dochi Shonin arrived in the area and found many people with incurable diseases.  When he prayed for help, a white haired man appeared to him in a dream and said to find a hot spring.  The monk then chanted a sutra – a saying from the Buddhist holy scriptures – continuously for 1,000 days after which hot spring water welled up from the ground.  It might have been quicker to dig a hole.

An even older tale is that about 1,400 years ago, a white heron was seen soaking its injured legs in the hot springs and after just two days was able to fly away.  The bird’s speedy recovery alerted people to the healing qualities of the waters.

Either way, a town sprang up – pardon the pun – with public onsens and inns for visitors wanting to bathe in the hot, healing spring water.  Not much has changed.  Accommodation is still typically ryokans, small family-run inns.

Like this one where we stayed, with traditional tatami rooms and its own onsen.

The ryokans provide guests with a yukata, basically a Japanese dressing gown which you must wear to the onsens.

They also provide geta, traditional wooden platform thongs.

One of the delights of visiting Kinosaki is the sight of people of all ages click-clacking around town in their yukatas and geta on their way to and from the onsens.

 

But we know from having been forced to wear them when we did a temple stay on a previous trip to Japan that geta are beyond uncomfortable.  Literally, neither of us could keep them on or walk in a straight line.  Definitely an art you must learn young.  Thankfully, geta are not mandatory.  Lots of people wear modern shoes.

Onsens are gender segregated and nude bathing is mandatory.  There’s a strict etiquette too.  Disrobe, shower and scrub yourself thoroughly in the communal shower area, then head to the onsen and soak.  No swimsuits allowed.  No towels in the onsen area.  It’s acceptable to carry a small wash cloth to wipe sweat from your face and/or flick off excess water from the body before going back to the change rooms, but putting the cloth into the water is forbidden so people usually drape them over their hair while they soak.

Here’s some of Kinosaki’s public onsens.  The outside shots are our own but the pictures of the pools are ones we got from the local tourist association’s website.  For obvious privacy reasons, photography inside the onsens is strictly prohibited.

Ko-no-yu Onsen is the oldest in town, built around the pool where legend says that heron was spotted bathing his legs.  It had indoor pools and outdoor stone lined pools for men and women in private gardens behind.

The exterior of Gosho-no-yu was designed to resemble the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.  It is said to have been built in 1267 especially for the visit of the Emperor’s sister.  It’s a lovely onsen built from cypress wood with each gender having both a large indoor pool and an outdoor pool surrounded by greenery and fed by a waterfall.

Ichi-no-yu is styled on a kabuki theatre outside and features a cave onsen inside.

There are also little foot spas dotted along the streets.

It’s perfectly acceptable to wander around town in your yukata.  We have to say there’s something strangely liberating about sitting in a bar in your dressing gown to have a beer on your way home from the onsen.

Hot spring drinking water flows from this fountain, in case you suddenly feel the need to make a cup of tea while strolling around.

If hunger strikes, place some eggs in a string bag, lower the bag through the lattice until the eggs are submerged in the water below, tie the bag to the lattice and wait.  After a few minutes – boiled eggs.

Kinosaki is close to the coast and snow crab is a local specialty.

It’s in season from November to March, which of course is winter.  Domestic tourists flock to the town to warm up in the onsens and splurge on crab.  From pictures we’ve seen, it’s very picturesque with a light dusting of snow but it does get very busy.

It was refreshingly quiet when we visited.  No crowds at the onsens and a calm ambience on the streets.

We arrived in Kinosaki still feeling a bit stiff and sore in the legs from the Kumano Kodo hike.  Over a couple of days we visited a few of the public onsens, and also made use of the one at our ryokan.  The water temperature averages about 40 degrees Celsius and it felt amazing on our weary muscles.  Several long soaks later, we were much improved.  Maybe that heron was onto something.

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7 Comments

  1. Alison Haly
    June 21, 2024 / 9:13 pm

    Loved this post. My brother and sister-in-law travel to different parts of Japan often. I understand it so much more now that I have read your posts so far on Japan. Take care. Cheers, Alison.

    • twotravelcats
      Author
      June 22, 2024 / 6:42 am

      Thanks, Al.

  2. Therese Bowes
    June 22, 2024 / 3:24 am

    I was very excited by the idea of relaxing in an onsen & completely in love with the idea of sitting in a bar in your dressing gown to have a beer 🍺 x

    • twotravelcats
      Author
      June 22, 2024 / 6:42 am

      It felt truly decadent to have beers in a bar in a dressing gown.

  3. Angela Morrisby
    June 22, 2024 / 11:14 pm

    What a beautiful city – so enjoyed reading about your time there. I wonder if we could get an onsen at Bowen Place !

    • twotravelcats
      Author
      June 23, 2024 / 1:49 pm

      That would be wonderful.

  4. Chris Cameron
    June 23, 2024 / 8:26 pm

    Let oks so serenely peaceful 😀I don’t even like walking in things so geta would definitely be beyond me. Quite partial to the idea of sipping away in a bar wearing my yukata though 😊

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