When staying at a spa town in Japan, part of the experience is relaxing in your hotel’s public bath — known as ‘onsen’ in Japanese. However, in Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉), a spa town in the north of Hyogo prefecture, the custom is taken a step further. The town boasts seven different bathhouses (‘onsen’), and it’s customary to do the “bath tour”, known as “Soto Yu Meguri”. The streets are filled with visitors wearing yukata (a traditional Japanese robe), strolling from one bathhouse to the next, which gives the place a charming, romantic feel. This holiday atmosphere has not only seduced visitors but has inspired many artists over the centuries.
The creation of this spa town is due to the geothermal activity that takes place in the region. Kinosaki Onsen lies at the heart of San’in Kaigan Geopark, recognised by UNESCO, and stretches along the coastal areas of Kyoto, Hyogo and Tottori prefectures. The area encompasses many exceptional sites, such as the Genbudo caverns and the Hiyoriyama coastline, easily accessible from Kinosaki.
Kinosaki: One of the Most Popular Onsen Towns in Japan
I arrived on a wet day, and I must say that I could not grasp the town’s charm immediately, but I was determined not to allow the rain to spoil my trip to Kinosaki Onsen. I had mainly come to immerse myself in the steaming water of the onsen baths, taste local specialities such as snow crab and Tajima beef in some of the restaurants, and experience the cafe culture that has given this town so much charm. In Kinosaki, there are also museums dedicated to straw crafts, local history and literature. What more could I ask for on a rainy day?
To complete your experience, be sure to book a night in one of the several ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) in Kinosaki Onsen to sample the gastronomic delights of a kaiseki meal, especially snow crab when it’s in season. Then, head out into the town dressed in a yukata and geta sandals to tour the seven public baths. Cafes, souvenir shops and even small shooting ranges, which don’t seem to have changed since the Showa era (1926-1989), are dotted throughout the town to pass the time.
For those who struggle to find an onsen that permits tattoos, Kinosaki is ideal, as all seven public baths allow people with tattoos to use their facilities.
A Unique Atmosphere that Appeals to Tourists and Artists
Kinosaki Onsen evokes an undeniable nostalgia in its visitors, as it bears witness to old fashioned Japanese holiday resorts. The onsen town history dates back more than 1300 years, and there are two legends that might explain the origins of the area. One suggests that the hot springs are thanks to a sect of Buddhist monks, while the other states that a Japanese white stork stopped to heal its injuries in the hot spring and the water became known for its healing properties. The hot waters of Kinosaki are known for their health benefits, particularly fatigue, pains, digestive problems and skin conditions.
The view of the Otani River is, without a doubt, the most iconic image of Kinosaki Onsen with its embankments, bridges, grey stone lanterns, weeping willows and three-storey wooden buildings running alongside it. It’s a romantic sight that has been this way since the Tajima Earthquake in 1925, which destroyed a large part of the area.
Each of the seven bathhouses has its own specific architecture and offers a unique experience. Satono-yu has a panoramic view of the mountains; Jizo-yu has a large, open-plan bath in a modern building; the walls of Yanagi-yu are covered with cypress visible from the baths; Ichino-yu makes you think of a Kabuki theatre performance with its bath nestled in a cave; Goshono-yu has been recently renovated with the front of the building inspired by the imperial palace in Kyoto and has an outdoor bath facing a small waterfall; Kono-yu has installed outdoor baths in small nooks of greenery while, at Mandara-yu, you can bathe in individual outdoor baths.
For centuries, Kinosaki Onsen has been a holiday resort loved by travellers, but the town’s serenity and charm have also inspired artists and intellectuals. This tradition has recently found a home with the opening of Kinosaki International Arts Centre in 2014. The centre is mainly dedicated to theatre and, under the direction of the renowned international Creator Oriza Hirata, it welcomes both Japanese and international artists to display their work in this privileged space.
The Hiyoriyama Coast and Genbudo Park: Geological Sites to Discover Close to Kinosaki Onsen
Kinosaki Onsen is nestled at the foot of the mountains, a few kilometres from the point where the River Maruyama reaches the Sea of Japan. Those who enjoy outdoor activities and are interested in nature will find plenty to do in the surrounding areas. For example, it is possible to go hiking (or take the cable car) to Mount Daishi’s summit and visit Onsenji Temple or spot Japanese white storks in the marches of Hachigoro.
However, suppose you would like to learn more about the geological history of the region that is home to the spa town of Kinosaki Onsen. In that case, you need to head to Genbudo Park and the Hiyoriyama coast. It is hard to imagine, but 70 million years ago, Japan was attached to Asia’s main continent until a series of seismic movements detached the country to form Japan’s island nation we know today.
Genbudo Park (玄武洞公園) is one of the most spectacular sites in the San’in Kaigan Geopark. It houses stone caves dug into tall cliffs, adorned with columns that were formed from the cooling of lava 1.6 million years ago. The locals extracted the stone from Genbudo for many years and used it in constructions such as the famous banks of the River Otani in Kinosaki Onsen until the site was designated a national natural monument in 1931.
Those who are interested in geology and paleontology (the study of fossils) can also visit the Genbudo Museum, which has recently been renovated. You will find a collection of minerals and fossils, including a skeleton of a t-rex as well as a prehistoric elephant on display.
The nearest stations are JR Genbudo Station, one stop from JR Kinosaki Onsen Station, or the Genbudo bus stop on the Zentan Bus Line (right in front of Genbudo Station). However, since the park is on the other side of the river, you will need to take a boat. Reservations are required for the boat. You can also make the journey by bicycle in around 20 minutes from Kinosaki Onsen.
Situated only 10 minutes by bus from Kinosaki Onsen train station, is the Hiyoriyama coast (日和山海岸). The coastline is dramatic and features jagged rocks that jut out into the sea, where the tips of tiny islands scattered offshore make you imagine massive mountain ranges lying beneath the surface.
It’s not surprising that such a landscape is steeped in legend and, if you look out to sea, there is a strange building propped onto a rocky island. Legend has it that Urashima Taro, a local fisherman, spent three days in an underwater palace and, when he returned to the surface, he discovered that 300 years had passed. It is said that Urashima Taro passed the rock on his return, and so a building called Ryugu-jo, the famous underwater palace, was erected in 1950 in his honour.
How To Get To Kinosaki Onsen
By train – Kinosaki Onsen station (城崎温泉駅) is situated on the JR San-in Line. Allow about 2 hours 30 minutes from Kyoto, 3 hours from Osaka and 5 hours from Tokyo.
By bus – Bus services are a scenic way to reach Kinosaki Onsen and it takes around 3 hours from Kobe and Osaka.
The intense geological activity of the San’in region has afforded Kinosaki Onsen with several gifts — natural attractions, the perfect environment for snow crabs, and other delicious seafood and, of course, hot springs. It’s not difficult to see why Kinosaki Onsen is considered one of Japan’s best spa towns and has attracted many visitors over the years. That being said, Kinosaki is moving with the times, and younger generations are now attracted by its lively cafe culture and contemporary art scene.
Text and photography: Clémentine Cintré
Translation from French: Mark Webster