Visiting beach town Takeno in a late December afternoon would ought to be a quiet experience. Most shops and restaurants would be closed but we would pretty much have the beach and lookouts all by ourselves. That was exactly what we got. Away from the lively scenes of Kinosaki Onsen, spending the afternoon at Takeno was our only moment of rural tranquility before heading back to Kyoto. As soon as we stepped out the train station, we were immediately overwhelmed by the town’s tranquility. Streets were empty. Hotels were closed. Most shops near the beach were boarded up for the season. Wandering in a winter Takeno offered us moments of absolute peace, something that is almost impossible to come by in Hong Kong. That day, we had no intent to take a dip in the freezing water, nor do any serious hiking at Nekozaki Peninsula. We made a walking loop that encompassed the lookout on Mt. Jajayama, the lovely Takeno Beach, and the small fishing community at the mouth of Takeno River. On our way to Mt. Jajayama, we stopped by a convenient store for a quick bite, and a seafood souvenir store (海の幸本舗 ますだ) for some dried seaweed to take home, and admired the traditional houses best known for their charred timber sidings.
In the old days, holidaymakers had to first pay a visit to Onsenji (温泉寺) or Hot Spring Temple before dipping into the hot springs of Kinosaki. While the old rule is long gone, we opted to pay respect to the temple before leaving Kinosaki. After a short walk to the west end of the town, we hopped on a cable car of the Kinosaki Ropeway up Mount Daishi (大師山). We could choose to get off the cable car either at the temple stop or the observation deck on the summit. Hoping to get an overview of Kinosaki Onsen and the surroundings, we decided to get off at the summit. At the summit, weather wasn’t too promising gusty winds, wet snow and hail. Fortunately we could take shelter and enjoy some snacking time at the cafe on the summit. Apart from the cafe and lookout that offers a nice overview of the town and river valley beyond, there weren’t a whole lot to see on the summit: Kanizuka (かに塚) – a shrine dedicated to the snow crabs, Jibokannon (慈母観音) – a shrine for the Bodhisattva of Compassion and Mercy, and a platform for Kawarake Throw, a religious ritual of throwing small unglazed pottery dishes towards a target downhill for luck and happiness.
Midway between the summit and the town, Onsenji Temple has been the sacred sanctuary for Kinosaki Onsen since 738 AD, ensuring the town’s prosperity and abundance of the springs. Not only does it serve as the guardian temple of Kinosaki, it also houses the famous 1300 year old statue of the Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion and Mercy. The statue is opened to the public for 3 years every 33 years. We just missed our chance as the statue just ended its last opening in 2021. Next time will be 2054! We walked around the temple ground to check out the Tahoto Pagoda (多宝塔), Bell Hall and memorial for Dochi Shonin, the Buddhist saint who, after 1000 days of prayers, founded the hot spring and its healing power in 717 AD. Today, he is recognized as the founder of Kinosaki Onsen.
It was such a surreal experience to dress in yukata and hop from one bathhouse to another. The night belonged to the wabi-sabi of aged old timber houses, the rhythmical shadows of latticed screens, the delightful chatters outside liquor stores, the delicate willow reflections under the stone bridges, the vivid and captivating window displays, the youngsters at the dessert shops, the bliss of relaxation and haptic memory of onsen waters upon our skin. It was such a dreamy night for us that would last long in our memories.
After putting on our yukata (浴衣), white tabi socks (足袋) and wooden getas (下駄), we were all set to go to experience the famous baths of Kinosaki Onsen. With no cameras or backpacks but only towels in the eco bag provided by the ryokan, we already felt light and refreshing even before we touched the hot spring. Since we were staying only for one night, which meant we only had an evening and a morning to try out the bathhouses, we didn’t expect to visit all seven of them. Each bathhouse has its unique scheduled days of closure, and we already knew beforehand that we would miss out Mandara-yu (まんだらの湯). Thanks to the central location of our ryokan, it was only a short walk to any of the seven baths in town. Though walking with the traditional wooden sandals, getas, was not as easy as we thought. It took us a while to get used to walking without slipping our feet out of the getas.
Goshonoyu Onsen (御所の湯)
We carefully walked over to Yunosato Dori (湯の里通り) or Lane of Hot Spring towards Goshonoyu Onsen (御所の湯), a splendid bath complex inspired by the Imperial Palace of Kyoto. Known as the “Water of Beauty”, Goshonoyu Onsen is probably the most popular bathhouse in Kinosaki. Two aspects of Goshonoyu impressed us. First, it was the atmospheric outdoor bathing area made of natural boulders that sits against a backdrop of lush greenery and small waterfalls. Soaking in the hot spring while listening to the falling water and admiring the views of a lush green hillside was a gorgeous experience. Second, we were amazed by the beautiful paintings on the ceiling and wall screens in the foyer, prompting us to sit down in the foyer for a short while after bathing.
Kono-yu Onsen (鴻の湯)
After Goshonoyu, we still had time to go further to the town’s far end for another hot spring visit before dinner. Tucked away at the town’s western end near the Kinosaki Onsen Ropeway, Kono-yu has the oldest bathhouse building in town. Legend has it that about 1,300 years ago, Kono-yu Onsen was discovered when an Oriental White Stork was seen soaking its injured leg in the hot spring. Thus, Kono-yu is known as “the hot spring of the Oriental White Stork.” While we didn’t see any white stork (except statues in the forecourt), we still appreciated the lush green setting of the outdoor bath. Being furthest away from the train station, Kono-yu seemed to be the most tranquil among the seven bathhouses.
Yanagi-yu Onsen (柳湯)
After a satisfying crab meal, we headed out again for one final onsen dip. We chose Yanagi-yu (柳湯) that was right in front of our ryokan. Being the smallest bathhouse in town, Yanagi-yu seemed to be the coziest onsen we visited. Legend has it that water appeared from the base of a willow tree after it was transplanted to Kinosaki from Lake Seiko (West Lake) in China. Or perhaps it was named after the willow trees lined in front of the complex. Anyhow, Yanagi-yu literally means “Bath of the weeping willows.” Soaking in hot spring at a cozy Japanese bathhouse was such a great way to end a long day!
Ichino-Yu Onsen (一の湯)
Resembling a kabuki theatre, Ichino-Yu Onsen is a popular icon of Kinosaki Onsen. In the Edo Period, doctor Shutoku Kagawa identified the onsen as the best in Japan. Henceforth, the onsen was named Ichino-yu, or the Number One Onsen. Ichino-Yu was closed on the day of our arrival, but we managed to visit it in the next morning. Apart from its beautiful building facade, the most remarkable thing about Ichino-yu is the cave-like setting of its bathing area.
Jizo-yu Onsen (地蔵湯)
Inspired by a Japanese lantern, Jizo has a rather interesting outlook. Jizo is a protective bodhisattva that lingers between the real and spiritual worlds. A small shrine dedicated to Jizo stands adjacent to the entrance. We didn’t spend long at the bathhouse, as we wanted to spend more time to visit other areas in Kinosaki. Jizo-yu was the fifth and last hot spring we visited in Kinosaki.
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.