In something of a pilgrimage, from early November to mid-March, hordes of hungry tourists descend upon Japan’s coast for crab season. Kinosaki Onsen in northern Hyogo prefecture has been voted Japan’s best hot-spring town both for its glowing autumn colors, as well as its famed crab kaiseki banquet.
I’m on my way to Nishimuraya ryokan, a 15 minute walk from Kinosaki Onsen Station. The road runs alongside a willow-tree lined river. Even in the rain, couples stop to take selfies on the stone bridges before ducking into small matcha tea shops, or the grand facades of ryokan.
Nishimuraya has a large, wooden gate, reminiscent of Buddhist temples, beyond which crimson maple leaves lie decoratively on the flagstones. There is a larger crowd of guests than I had expected.
“How far in advance do you need to book to get a weekend room here during crab season?” I ask the kimono-clad staff-member who is leading me down a dim, labyrinthine hallway.
“For a weekend? At least a year.” She says, “Many of our guests will make their following year’s booking on the day they check out.”
“Do you get a lot of repeat guests?”
“Yes, quite a lot. They like to try the different rooms. Some were designed by the famous architect Masaya Hirata, and give the sense of a Japanese tea house. But actually, many people who come to Kinosaki Onsen take time to visit all the different ryokan in the area. We have a saying that this town is like one huge hotel. The train station is the genkan — the entrance — the roads are the corridors, and each hotel is like a separate, special room. The onsens are of course the baths. In fact, in earlier times there were no indoor baths at the hotels. But it rains a lot, and snows too, so inside baths are more convenient.”
She settles me into my room, leaving me to take it all in. It’s still and quiet, with an incense burner wafting the calming aroma of essential oils — perfect for a moment of reflection.
Nishimuraya ryokan is the epitome of luxury. I’m not esteemed enough, nor wealthy enough, to stay in the most gorgeous suites — some with rotenburo, or traditional outdoor baths — where Japanese Prime Ministers and New York journalists have reclined. Though these indoor baths do not use the natural hot spring water, it still must be grand to sit out on a wooden verandah, neck deep in hot water, enjoying the natural beauty surrounding the ryokan. From my room, I can still look out over the garden, where the wet green moss and leaves shine luminously. With an elegant and perfectly proportioned landscape, Kinosaki would be equally beautiful regardless of the weather.
Thanks to the rain, I’m unable to enjoy the traditional Kinosaki style of onsen hopping — visiting each of the seven hot springs wearing a yukata and balancing on wooden geta, traditional Japanese sandals. The staff member at the desk seems more upset for my sake, than I am.
“But it’s what makes Kinosaki so unique,” he laments. “Walking around in the evening, in your yukata, with your special person at your elbow. Trying an onsen, then going for a coffee before dipping into the next bath.”
“You can wear a yukata into a shop?”
“Oh yes, it’s considered normal here. No one would look twice.” I start imagining myself in the comfortable robes and a smile creeps onto my face.
He gives me an onsen map and a Yumepa — a barcode to scan at each of the onsens — and the suggestion to try Goshono-yu hotspring first.
With an imposing entrance, Goshono-yu seems more like a temple than an onsen. On the inside, the ceiling is high, the walls are made of pale wood, and wide windows let in the light, giving it the feel of an English greenhouse. A waterfall roars down the hill by the outdoor bath. The desire to skip around the other six onsen leaves me, and I settle into the steaming water. As the afternoon progresses the bath fills up until a line of people stand in the rain by the entrance, waiting patiently beneath their pink or green hotel umbrellas, awaiting their turn.
“I’m glad I was able to sneak in a little earlier,” I think to myself, as I return to my ryokan. Feeling warm, relaxed, I’m ready for the most important part of the day to start — Dinner time.
One by one, my crab kaiseki banquet dishes appear. Steaming broth, with a little chunk of fish; a ceramic house containing vegetables with a gentle vinegar flavor; an elegantly set plate of sashimi; half a raw crab accompanied by a bowl of dipping vinegar; and a dry cup of pear wine, perfectly selected to bring out the light flavors of the meal. A plate of melt-in-your-mouth Tajima beef, followed by a crab hotpot steaming with the chef’s delectable secret sauce, next made their appearances — and equally rapid disappearances. Rice, cooked with a slice of charcoal — and a thick, red miso soup — topped off the main meal, until at last my emptied dishes were replaced by a dessert of fresh seasonal fruit and walnut pudding.
“While the crab in northern Japan is very famous, what makes our crab special is how fresh it is,” the server explains, “Small fishing boats leave from our harbor each day, and return that night, instead of maybe waiting two or three days to reach the table.”
After the dark-toned wooden luxury of Nishimuraya ryokan, and the extravagance of crab kaiseki, I wonder if it will be hard to return to my usual weekend routine.
The server comments, “At check out, many of our guests will say, ‘It’s for this night that I work all year;’ or, ‘That meal will keep me going until next winter.’”
As I tuck myself into the traditional Japanese futon in my room that night, I drift to sleep wonder if I, too, will make a trip to Kinosaki Onsen next year as my own annual pilgrimage.
Photographs by Felicity Tillack & Nishimuraya Honkan Text by Felicity Tillack