Not many resort towns in Japan have a recorded founding date, but it is well documented that Kinosaki Onsen was found in 720 AD by a traveling monk who discovered a hot spring with healing power. 1300 years later, Kinosaki Onsen is still going strong with seven unique bathhouses, attracting visitors from far and wide. Mainly open-air hot springs in traditional setting, the bathhouses in Kinosaki offer visitors a natural and nostalgic ambience, and a moment of sublime relaxation that makes one to forget about the outside world. 74 ryokan (family run traditional inns) of different sizes and prices welcome visitors in all seasons. But it is between November and March, that Kinosaki Onsen truly enters its peak season. It is the only time when Matsuba-gani (松葉蟹), or snow crab from the Sea of Japan is available as a local delicacy. In fact, sitting at less than 5km from where Maruyama River enters the Sea of Japan, Kinosaki is blessed with an abundant catches of the day. Washing down Matsuba-gani (松葉蟹) and Tajima wagyu (但馬牛) with a bottle of cold local sake is as good as it gets for a fancy meal in this part of Japan. Outside the ryokans and bathhouses, it is the lovely aesthetics of traditional houses, peaceful river setting and over a thousand years of history that separate Kinosaki Onsen from other resort towns,. Our Kinosaki experience can be defined by four fundamental aspects of the town: onsen (温泉), ryokan (旅館), crab (カニ) and beauty (美しさ).
After visiting the castle ruins, we returned to the old town of Izushi (出石城下町) and wandered around the Shinkoro Clock Tower (辰鼓楼). Built in 1871, Shinkoro Clock Tower is considered to be the oldest Japanese style clock tower. Next to the clock tower, we picked Kogetsudo Uchibori Store (湖月堂 内堀店) for a meal of the famous Izushi sara soba (buckwheat noodles in small plates). Washing down the soba with the delicious dashi sauce and local sake turned out to be one of the highlight dining experiences of our trip. Unlike the soba in the rest of Japan, Izushi soba is served in five sara (small plates) and a dashi dipping sauce (soup made from fish and kelp), mixed with raw egg and spices. It is said that Izushi sara soba was originated in the 18th century by fusing soba making techniques of two different clans. The unique Izushi soba soon became popular in the region. To enhance the unique dining experience, the community started producing Izushi yaki, a white and blue porcelain set specifically for their soba. Each of the 40+ soba restaurants in Izushi has its own unique Izushi yaki and sara soba. Too bad we didn’t have time to try them all out.
After the amazing soba, we lingered in the town centre and slowly found our way towards Eirakukan Kabuki Theatre (出石永楽館). Built in 1901, Eirakukan Kabuki Theatre is probably the oldest surviving theatre in Northern Kansai specialized in Kabuki. Listed as an UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, Kabuki (歌舞伎) is a unique performing art form originated in Kyoto during the early Edo period (1603 – 1867). We never got a chance to watch a Kabuki performance or visit a Kabuki theatre, despite passing by Kengo Kuma’s Kabuki-za (歌舞伎座) in Ginza a few times during our Tokyo visits. This time in Izushi, we were pleased to have the opportunity to visit Eirakukan Kabuki Theatre, especially knowing that the theatre was restored and reopened to the public in 2008 after a 44-year closure. After taking off our shoes at the entry, we were free to roam around the seating decks, wooden stage and backstage area. Walking on the age-old wooden floor in just our socks felt homey and pleasant. Kabuki performances are well known for having actors appearing on stage in surprises. Standing at the audience deck, we could imagine actors suddenly come close to the audience via the raised walkway hanamichi (花道), or doing theatrical tricks with the mawari-butai (revolving stage). After visiting the theatre, it was time for us to return to Toyooka and continued our journey to Kinosaki Onsen.
For each of our trip to Japan, we often included at least one onsen visit. There were plenty of hot spring options in and around Kyoto, but we opted for one a little further west in Hyōgo Prefecture (兵庫県). While Hyōgo is famous for its night view in Kobe, medieval castle in Himeji and hilltop ruins in Takeda, hot springs at Arima Onsen and Kinosaki Onsen are equally popular for tourists. This time, we picked Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉) for its traditional hot spring facilities, picturesque village setting, and proximity to Japan Sea, where the seasonal snow crab harvest (winter only) came as a bonus. Before sunrise, we left our hotel for Kyoto Station. After a quick breakfast at the station, we hopped on the 7:32am Kinosaki Onsen bound limited express train. The ride would take about 2.5 hours, passing through the rural and lush green interiors of Hyogo. On the train, we discussed about how to spend the day before our ryokan check-in time in the afternoon. We thought of getting off a few stops earlier to visit the Museum for Wood Culture (木の殿堂) in the forest of Mikata-gun. But we gave up the idea due to the lack of public transportation options that area. We ended up getting off at Toyooka (豊岡市), one stop before Kinosaki Onsen. At the first glance, the capital of the former Tajima Province (但馬国) didn’t seem to have much to offer except bags. Known as the “City of Bags”, it was said that about 70% of bags produced in Japan came from Toyooka. But we didn’t come for bags. We came to make a brief visit of Izushi (出石), a castle town outside the city that features frequently in tourist brochures.
We stored our backpacks in lockers at the upper level of Toyooka Station, and hopped on a local bus. The bus quickly left the city and sped along Izushi River towards Izushi. We got off at the bus terminus beneath Mount Ariko (有子山), a lush green hill where the castle ruins still stand. After passing by several soba noodle shops, we arrived at the visitor parking lot and a wooden bridge over Taniyama River that seemed to be the entrance of Izushi Castle Ruins (出石城跡). Built in 1604 at the foot of Mount Ariko, the castle was actually the second castle of Izushi. It was indeed a replacement to an earlier complex at the hilltop. We didn’t have time to hike all the way up to check out the ruined foundations of the first castle, but spent time wandering around the grounds of the second castle, where two restored guardhouses offered us a glimpse of its former glory. Standing out vividly against the white castle structures, a series of red torii gates revealed that an Inari Shrine must be nearby. We followed the torii gates uphill until reaching a tree-shaded terrace where stone foxes and lanterns flanked both sides of a short procession route. At the end, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari Ōkami (稲荷大神) stood silently under several old pine trees. We carefully walked over the muddy ground covered with fallen leaves to the cliff edge overlooking the town. After spending some time in the shadows of torii gates and old pine trees, it was fascinating to see the open vista of the old town, Izushi River Valley and distant hills further beyond. After the visit of the ruined castle and Shinto shrine, we couldn’t wait to head back down for the most famous product of Izushi – soba noodles.
In a 2008 Guardian article, Sean Dodson chooses his ten favorite independent bookshops around the world. Among his choices, only one is in Asia and it is Keibunsha (恵文社) in Ichijoji, Kyoto. Ichijo-ji (一乗寺), a lovely neighborhood in northern Kyoto, may not be a fixture on every tourist’s list. Most foreigners come for the decent variety of ramen shops. We went because of Keibunsha, but Ichijo-ji turned out to be much more than just ramen diners and a cozy bookshop. With its wooden houses and hilly backdrop, a good wealth of old shops and restaurants, and a handful of temples and shrines, Ichijo-ji exemplifies what most people love about Kyoto, but without the tourist crowds of Higashiyama or Arashiyama. We spent a good few hours in Ichijo-ji, did a short walk near the small temple Shisendō (詩仙堂丈山寺), tasted some delicious dessert at Nakatani wagashi (中谷和菓子), shopped for traditional pickles (おゝみや児島詩仙堂店), lingered in Keibunsha Bookstore, and finished the day with a satisfying bowl of ramen at Takayasu (高安).
After a vibrant evening of nightlife, most of Pontocho (先斗町) were still in bed by the time we reached the riverside alley during our morning walk. Behind Pontocho, Kamo River (鴨川) glittered under the morning sun. It was probably too cold and too early as not too many people were around at Kamogawa Park (鴨川公園), the park running along both sides of the riverbank. It wasn’t as crowded as we expected, with only occasional joggers and dogwalkers passed by our side. Not a single young couple sitting along the riverbank, nor any fishing enthusiasts trying their luck from the bridges. The summer Nouryou-Yuka dining terraces (納涼床) seemed like distant memories. Cherry trees remained bare, awaiting their moment of spectacle in three months’ time. Yet, pristine water continued to filter through nearby forests and cascade down the shallow river channel, reaching vegetable fields and temizuya pavilions of Shinto shrines near the river. Ducks gathered in groups behind river reeds, while lonely herons stood on river rocks in search of easy preys. Being the most popular hangout area in Kyoto, we always enjoyed visiting Kamo-gawa. Even walking just a stretch of it was for us the most relaxing thing to do in the city. In 2016, we often found ourselves returning to Kamo River every so often. Same thing happened for us in 2022.
Before reaching Downtown Kyoto, Kamo River converges with Takano River at a fork south of Shimogamo Jinja (下鴨神社). Beyond the fork, Kamogawa Park extends further northwest along upstream Kamo River. We came to this part of Kamo River near the Botanical Gardens all because of Wife&Husband, a highly popular coffee shop hidden in an old timber house. Through good coffee, charming antiques, and picnic supplies, the couple Ikumi and Kyoichi Yoshida established a lovely venue that embodies the natural, rejuvenating and timeless spirit of Kyoto. The day was too cold for having picnic at the Kamo, but we still enjoyed our coffee and cake inside the cozy Wife&Husband.
Just like many, the itinerary of our first Kyoto visit was packed with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. This time around, we opted to explore Kyoto’s cultural heritage by spending more time to wander in the downtown area and check out the its charming old shops. Specialized in traditional products like tea and incense, many shops in Kyoto have been selling the same merchandises for many generations. Stopping by these shops during our morning walks was a great way to appreciate the age-old Japanese living traditions.
BROOM: NAITO SHOTEN
Less than a block west of Kamo River and the famous Sanjo Bridge (三条大橋), Naito Shoten has been around selling handmade housekeeping products like shuro brooms (brooms with natural grass bristles and bamboo handles) and tawashi scrubber (scouring brushes made with hump palm fibre) since 1818. Thanks to guidebooks, blogs, travel shows, magazines, and newspaper (including a New York Times article dated back to 1987), Naito Shoten has become a well known establishment. We have been fascinated by Japanese handmade brooms since we first bought one from an artisan fair in Matsumoto. Handmade grass bristles work best for cleaning the timber walls, tatami floors, paper screens, and wooden furniture in a machiya (町家) home. In Kyoto, there is still decent demand for these natural housekeeping products. But as skilled artisan ages and retires one by one, some say there are only two to three shops like Naito Shoten left in Kyoto. We hope that the cultural heritage and handicraft skills behind Naito Shoten would continue further down the generations.
TEA: IPPODO & MARUKYU KOYAMAEN
Every time we go to Japan we would shop for ryokucha (緑茶) or Japanese green tea. Kyoto is ideal for green tea shopping due to its proximity to Uji (宇治), one of the oldest and probably the finest tea cultivation area in Japan. From the tea seeds of Zen Buddhist master Eisai (栄西禅師), tea cultivation in Uji began in late 12th century. From the 15th century and on, Uji tea has been widely considered as the finest green tea in the country. While we may not have time to practice chadō (茶道), the ceremony and meditation of preparing matcha (抹茶), at home, drinking fresh green tea in a peaceful Sunday afternoon still represents a moment of bliss. This time, we bought home a variety of gyokuro (玉露) and sencha (煎茶) from two well known tea shops: Ippodo (一保堂茶舗) and Marukyu Koyamaen (丸久小山園). On a street lined with antique shops and bright yellow ginkgo trees, we found ourselves arriving at Ippodo Tea Kyoto Main Store (一保堂茶舗 京都本店). The 300+ year tea shop appears like a pedestrian magnet, constantly drawing people into their shop. Among all the tea leaf options, it took us quite some time to decide on which ones to purchase. Housed in a beautiful machiya house, Marukyu Koyamaen was the second tea shop we visited. The friendly staff offered us an chance to sample their tea, from gyokuro to the New Year’s blend.
SOBA: HONKE OWARIYA
It’s a local custom in Japan to enjoy a meal of soba (蕎麥) or buckwheat noodles in the New Year’s Eve. To avoid the long queue of New Year’s rush, we deliberately visited Honke Owariya (尾張屋) four days before New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of its irregular days of closure in December. Founded in 1465, Honke Owariya is considered to be the oldest restaurant in Kyoto, and has been attracting long queues of local visitors and foreign tourists all year round. Despite dining service was unavailable, we managed to go inside and bought a few packs of dried soba. A few days later, in a department store foodhall packed with crowds rushing for last minute grocery shopping for New Year’s Eve, we bumped into a vendor selling fresh soba by Honke Owariya. We couldn’t resist and bought two packs back to Hong Kong.
Often considered as one of the three traditional Japanese arts including chadō (茶道) “The Way of Tea”and Ikebana/ kadō (華道) “The Way of Flowers”, kōdō (香道) “The Way of Incense” has become popular in Japan during the 16th century. Apart from religious ceremonies and insect repellent, incenses in Japan is often associated with meditation. Among the old incense shops in Kyoto, we picked Shoyeido (松栄堂) to visit. Founded in 1705, Shoyeido has been making high quality incenses in Kyoto for 300 years. We first learnt about Shoyeido from a limited edition vinyl box set by renowned music composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (坂本龍一). Apart from vinyl records, karakami paper artwork, and a portrait photo of the musician, eaglewood and agarwood incenses from Shoyeido were also included in the box. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s box set was long sold out, but we managed to purchase some Shoyeido incenses online during the pandemic. In Kyoto, we chose to visit their main store near the Imperial Palace. We were surprised to see a multi-storey modern building serving as the main shop of Shoyeido. Named “Kunjyukan”, the facility offers exhibitions and workshop spaces for visitors who would like to experience the fragrant of Japanese incenses.
No matter in Rome, Buenos Aires or Hong Kong, taking morning walks is always one of our most enjoyable ways to appreciate a city. With an ever-present tranquility, elegance and otherworldliness, Kyoto is perfect for a morning stroll, especially to appreciate the beautiful tones of aged timber, indigo shingles and seasonal vegetation all under the crisp air of surrounding mountains. And what’s best to start a morning walk? For us, it’s a cup of good coffee. Tucked in a corner of an almost unnoticeable parking lot a block away from Nishiki Market (錦市場), a tiny coffee shop successfully captured our attention with its rich aroma and lovely ambience. Housed in an old machiya house, Weekenders Coffee provokes memories of a traditional kissaten (喫茶店) where writers and intellectuals in the old days gathered for a cup of tea or coffee. Opened since 2005, Weekenders was one of the first espresso shops in Kyoto. At Weekenders, a few customers may gather at the forecourt sipping coffee while resting the eyes upon a tiny Japanese garden. This was exactly what we did: sitting in front of the coffee shop at 7:30 in the morning, sniffing in fresh morning air and coffee aroma, and being enchanted with the pleasure of life.
At Nishiki Market, pickle vendors and fishmongers were busy setting up their stores. Laughter and giggles could be heard behind the counter of a tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette) shop, where a team of staff were busy making omelettes for the day. It was still way too early to taste the food and shop for grocery at the iconic 400-year-old market. Unlike the crowded scenes during our 2016 visit, this time we almost had Nishiki all by ourselves. At the eastern end of where the market met Teramachi Shopping Street, we were once again attracted by the lanterns of Nishiki-Tenmangu Shrine (錦天満宮) just like in 2016. Headed north from the shrine, we entered the arcade of Teramachi Shopping Street (寺町通商店街), a famous destination for both locals and tourists.
Literally means “Temple Town Street”, Teramachi (寺町通) has much more to offer than a covered arcade both sides flanked by shops. In 1590, 80 or so Buddhist temples from the area were relocated to Teramachi. It was Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉), the powerful daimyo (feudal lord) or de facto ruler of Japan, who ordered the move during Sengoku period (戦国時代) in the late 16th century. In the subsequent centuries, stores selling books, Buddhist rosaries, medicine, stationery, handicrafts and clothing flourished and gradually developed into the present arcades. Today, in the midst of shops, restaurants, and entertainment facilities, places of worship and even small graveyards maintain a strong presence at Teramachi, with temple entrances open right next to boutiques and stores. While most shops on Teramachi and the adjacent Shinkyogoku Shopping Street (新京極商店街) had yet opened for business, we took the opportunity to do some temple hopping while window shopping at the same time.