As the train rolls in and the two and a half hour journey from Kyoto Station comes to a close, I feel well and truly ready to take in the crisp autumn weather of one of Setouchi’s most charming hot spring towns, Kinosaki Onsen. Today, I will walk through this historic area where so many writers and artists have found inspiration and healed their bodies and minds and discover more about facilities in the Toyooka area that are prized for their sustainable efforts. I am determined to know how they have maintained their traditional atmosphere and to learn how they have become leaders in sustainable tourism in Japan.

Kinosaki Onsen: A Town with Over 1,000 Years of History

Famous for its seven public hot springs, the picturesque Kinosaki Onsen is nestled in the mountains of Hyogo Prefecture’s northern Toyooka City. Despite its isolation, the town can be easily accessed from Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe by limited express train without having to transfer.

According to legend, the first hot spring source in the area was discovered in the 8th century, which would make Kinosaki Onsen over 1,300 years old. The very first bath in Kinosaki was named “Mandara-Yu”, where they say the source was discovered, and that bath, with its outdoor tubs overlooking the mountains, can still be visited today as one of the seven public hot springs dotting the town.

The Healing Power of Kinosaki’s Waters!

There is also a well-known story about how a now-rare bird, the Oriental white stork (“Kounotori” in Japanese), discovered the healing powers of Kinosaki Onsen’s hot springs. The bird had an injured leg and wasn’t able to fly, but after soaking in a pool of natural hot water for a few days, it was soon healed and able to fly again. People in the town became curious after witnessing this miraculous event, and tried bathing in the waters themselves. Feeling rejuvenated just like the stork, the healing powers of Kinosaki Onsen grew famous, and its reputation as a health retreat continues strong to this day.

I myself visited Kinosaki Onsen once with a friend. Over the course of two days, I experienced all seven public baths. Each bathhouse has its own unique design, some with outdoor baths as well, and waters to aid with certain ailments like poor circulation and fatigue. When I left, my skin felt softer and smoother than it had ever been, and I felt completely refreshed. I noticed the effects for weeks after, which left me longing to return to Kinosaki.

Walk Around a Charming Historic Town and Explore Each Hot Spring!

Through the exquisite architecture and romantic river lined with willow trees, I could easily imagine what it would have been like to walk the streets of Kinosaki hundreds of years ago. Through rigid and consistent town planning, much of the central Yanagi-dori Street still looks similar to how it did in previous centuries, with even modern additions like convenience stores carefully designed to blend in. Along the street you can find “Yanagi-yu” a bath with fragrant cypress wood enclosures, and my personal favorite bath, “Goshono-yu” which was modeled after the Kyoto Imperial Palace and features an open-air bath with waterfall views. Yanagi-dori Street is also home to many ryokan inns, eateries, cafes, and more.

While in Kinosaki Onsen, guests are encouraged to stroll around town in “yukata” kimono as they hop between baths, grab something to eat, or just admire the scenery. Typically, such bathing yukata are worn to and from the bath and aren’t necessarily meant for walking around on the street. However, at Kinosaki Onsen, wearing a yukata like this is part of the pride and character of the town. Kinosaki’s many traditional ryokan inns provide yukata and “geta” sandals for overnight guests, while rental shops serve those on day trips.

I have fond memories of strolling around Kinosaki Onsen in the evening in yukata, and giving a friendly nod or smile to other passers-by wearing the same yukata and geta, because it meant we were staying at the same inn. Setting out on a self-guided onsen tour called “soto-yu meguri” is the perfect way to experience the town and soak in all seven public hot springs. Each bath is just a few minutes walking distance within each other, so it is possible to complete the tour in a day or two. Most ryokan inns will provide passes that allow guests to enter all of the baths for free, otherwise a one-day pass is available for 1,300 yen.

Kinosaki also holds a particularly special place in my heart because of its long history, scenic townscape, and inclusivity of guests from all over the world. It is one of the few hot spring towns I’ve encountered where guests with tattoos are accepted freely, a rarity in Japan. Though each ryokan has its own set of rules, all seven of Kinosaki’s public hot springs allow people with tattoos of any size, shape, or color to enter the baths.

Kinobun Literary Museum: A Sanctuary for Famous Writers

I was pleased to learn at Kinobun, Kinosaki’s literary museum, that Kinosaki Onsen was also a popular retreat for some of Japan’s most beloved writers, including Shiga Naoya, a well-known author from the Taisho (1912 – 1926) and Showa (1926 – 1989) periods. In fact, Shiga Naoya even ended up writing a novel called “At Kinosaki” after suffering a serious injury and spending time at Kinosaki Onsen while he recovered. He famously wrote “Being alive and dying were not positive and negative poles. I had the feeling that there was not that much difference between them” as he contemplated the existence and meaning of life, a powerful prose boldly displayed in English on the walls of the facility.

Kinosaki Onsen was, and still is, the perfect place for creatives to heal, reset, and gain new inspiration.

Though writers come from near and far to rejuvenate themselves at Kinosaki Onsen, the town’s local writers are also celebrated here. At the museum’s book shop, many of the books for sale are written by local authors. I was also impressed to find a waterproof book that can be brought into the bath!

Kinosaki International Arts Center: A Unique Residency Program

Kinosaki International Arts Center Exterior ©Madoka Nishiyama

Kinosaki is a hub not only for literary artists, but for performing artists as well. The town hosts a unique “Artists-in-Residence” program for performing artists, which opened in 2014 and is run by the Kinosaki International Arts Center. If chosen for this program, artists are able to stay for three days to three months with free accommodation. Resident artists are also free to use any of the Arts Center’s facilities, which include the main hall and six studios.

Kinosaki International Arts Center Entrance Hall Workation in Toyooka ©Mitsuyuki Nakajima

This unique program, rare even in Japan, encourages artists from all over the world to exchange knowledge and expertise with both local residents and tourists. Through the program, they are able to host workshops and hold various performances open to the public, including theater, live music, and dance. Both Japanese and international artists can stay at the Arts Center, and if you have an interest in modern art and performing art, you cannot miss this lesser-known spot in Kinosaki Onsen.

Kinosaki Ashiyu Cafe: A Modern Spa Retreat

Kinosaki also has a growing number of stylish cafes, one of which is Kinosaki Ashiyu Cafe. “Ashiyu” are hot spring footbaths, which you’ll often find scattered around hot spring towns. Kinosaki Ashiyu Cafe has two of these footbaths inside, allowing guests to enjoy a juice or latte while soaking their feet in warm water. With numerous other little cafes dotting the town, those seeking a quick break between onsen are spoilt for choice!

Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork: Saving a Once-Extinct Bird

Image courtesy of Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork

Along with its fame as a hot spring paradise, the surrounding Toyooka area has been recognized in recent years for its developments in sustainable tourism. This includes the successful reintroduction of the once-extinct Oriental white stork back to the wild. At their peak population around 1877, these majestic black and white storks could be seen all over Japan. However, as the birds would roam in rice fields and were thought to damage crops, farmers considered them pests and would overhunt them. This, combined with the increased use of pesticides, led to the population collapsing. By 1957, the Oriental white stork could only be found in two cities in Japan, one being Toyooka, and in 1971, the last wild member of the species died.

Conservation efforts had actually begun several years before wild extinction, but due to the mercury found in pesticides, no new chicks were born. Finally, in 1985, six juvenile storks were brought in from the Soviet Union (now Russia) and successfully gave birth a few years later. This brought a long-awaited wave of new hope to conservationists.

Image courtesy of Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork

It took decades of trial, error, and relentless effort until the storks could finally be returned to and bred in the wild. As of October 2022, there are 310 of these birds in Japan living throughout several different cities.

As a result of this admirable initiative to regrow the Oriental white stork population and reintroduce them to the wild, along with several other tourism management strategies and landscape conservation efforts, Toyooka was selected by the international organization “Green Destinations” as one of the “Top 100 Sustainable Tourist Destinations in the World 2021”. It was one of only 12 selected locations in Japan.

Image courtesy of Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork

Storks are bred and raised at Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork, located about 20 minutes from Kinosaki Onsen by car. Once they have been released into the wild, they are free to fly in and out of the park. Visitors to the park are able to see these ethereal storks up close and there is also a restaurant next to the park that serves rice cultivated through stork-friendly farming methods that don’t require harmful pesticides. The park is a must-visit for anyone interested in sustainability and rare animals.

You Cannot Miss this Historic Retreat at Kinosaki

Kinosaki Onsen has been regarded since ancient times as a popular getaway for creatives, though the powerful healing qualities of the hot spring water can be felt by anyone, whether you consider yourself creative or not. With the commitment to ensuring the everlasting beauty of this charming little town, alongside the admirable efforts to save the Oriental white stork and more, Kinosaki Onsen and the Toyooka area have proved themselves to be innovative leaders defining the future of tourism in Japan, and I am looking forward to visiting again.