Who on earth travels a great distance to see an onsen town and doesn’t even bother trying the onsen? (This is where I sheepishly raise my hand and attempt an explanation.)
When I was planning my summer 2015 trip across central and western Japan, I set aside almost an entire day for an excursion to the famous hot spring town of Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉). A pleasantly tourist-friendly district of Toyooka, Hyōgo Prefecture, Kinosaki Onsen has been drawing travellers to its baths since the Heian Era (A.D. 794–1185), and those same baths were the original reason for my detour here en route to Ōsaka.
Now then, time for a confession. Despite being a regular visitor to Japan (about twice every year on average), I’ve never set foot inside a public bath. Not once. Onsen bathing is often described as the quintessential Japanese experience, but the traditional procedure requires … um, shall we say, a dress code that I’m absolutely not prepared to cooperate with. Not in full view of other people, anyway.
This of course means that the great majority of public baths are irremediably off-limits to those of a prudish nature, myself included. Having said that, a few establishments do have small private baths that can be booked for exclusive family or personal use. Having learned that such facilities were available at two of Kinosaki Onsen’s bath houses, I pencilled the town into my itinerary and eventually arrived on a wet summer’s morning in July 2015.
Well, prudishness is one thing … the disposition of the moment is another. Even with the solution of a private bath dangling before my eyes, I spent a few moments contemplating whether I was in the mood to try onsen bathing in the first place – and for various reasons no longer evident to me as of this writing, I decided that I wasn’t so inclined. Simple as that. So I reverted to standard exploration mode and went on a long walk to take in the sights.
Legend has it that an injured white stork was the first to take advantage of the natural hot springs in this area, dipping into the waters in an attempt to heal its wounds. People have long since displaced birds as the greater portion of the clientele, and in order to cater to their needs, seven public bath houses were erected in different parts of the town. The baths are all located within walking distance of the Ōtani River…
…which over time has been tamed and transformed into a charming, stone-walled, tree-lined watercourse.
The baths themselves are pretty unremarkable on the outside. Nonetheless, each has its own distinctive appearance, which makes the task of tracking them down a fairly entertaining exercise. I won’t burden the readership with a boring discourse on the history and features of every establishment; instead, here’s a gallery of images taken on my walk through town. I’ve arranged them in the same order as the list of bath houses on the resort’s official site, where a map and brief descriptions are available for those who’d like to learn more.
Anchoring the western end of Kinosaki Onsen is the temple of Onsen-ji (温泉寺). The temple’s key structures are located partway up a thickly wooded mountain, but there are a few buildings right at the foot of the slope and I was more than happy to limit myself to this area.
Stepping into the hot pools is the conventional way of taking the waters at Kinosaki Onsen, but there are other options for those who’d prefer to remain (mostly) dry. One alternative is to take an invigorating sip of spring water from a public fountain…
…which isn’t something I personally attempted, mainly because I had no idea what service those bowls had already seen. (If I had a flask of my own, I’d have gladly refilled it here.)
Another way to sample the onsen – and one that I actually did try – is to soak one’s feet in the ashiyu right next to the railway station. This stone-lined foot bath, filled with flowing hot spring water, was the perfect place to set my exhausted legs back into a state of ease before my next train ride. (It’s free of charge by the way, but you’ll need to bring your own towel for drying off afterwards.)
From here, I sped off to Ōsaka and left my luggage at the hotel where I was to spend the night, before doubling back north to Kyōto for a bit of sightseeing to close the day.
I’d been to Japan’s former capital many times before, but even ten lifetimes might not suffice to exhaust the ancient city’s incredibly vast treasury of cultural attractions, and on this day I was determined to tick two hitherto unvisited landmarks off my to-do list.
At the city’s main railway station…
…I boarded a local bus and rode it to a stop about ten minutes away, just across the street from a well-known landmark.
Although the temple’s official name is Rengeō-in (蓮華王院), and that of the famous building itself Rengeō-in Hondō (蓮華王院本堂, Rengeō-in Main Hall), this 13th-century structure is far more popularly known as Sanjūsangen-dō (三十三間堂). The name literally means “33-ken Hall”, with ken referring to a traditional unit of length representing the space between two supporting columns.
Photography is strictly forbidden within the structure, but this 19th-century photograph should give you some idea of what’s inside. (Not taken by me, of course – I follow the rules, and I’m certainly not that old.)
No such restrictions exist outside the building, of course. Here’s what the hall looks like out in the open.
Having seen everything I wanted to see at Sanjūsangen-dō, I trained my thoughts and my weary feet upon the epic journey to my next stop…
…which consisted of crossing the street. (Yep, that’s it. They’re practically next-door neighbours, these two.)
One of Japan’s oldest and most important museums, the Kyōto National Museum (京都国立博物館, Kyōto Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan) is a veritable treasure house of Japanese history and culture. The compound’s original main building, a Neo-Renaissance edifice completed in 1895 and an officially designated Important Cultural Property in its own right, is now reserved for special exhibitions.
The museum’s permanent collection is presently housed within the Heisei Chishinkan, a striking piece of modern architecture that opened in 2014.
And with that, I finally called it a day. Back to Ōsaka for dinner and a good night’s rest, all in preparation for a long journey on the following day…
…but let’s save that story for another post.
Oh well. We are sure you will overcome the prudishness and eventually enjoy onsen like we do!
I suppose the segregated, male-only public baths might still be a (remote) future possibility, but if I ever do dip into an onsen pool for the first time it will likely be in a private room. One step at a time. 🙂
Incidentally, one of my mates at work did give it a shot very recently and he had a favourable report about the experience – absolutely relaxing, I’ve been told. He was with friends though, which probably helped. As a solo traveller I’d have no one to share the embarrassment with which could make things even more challenging, haha.
Mel: in a way I too am a solo traveler. Because on road trips, Suan heads over to the women only bath and I the men’s.
Typically if you get to the baths in the onsen in the smaller towns, there are less people at say 10am or 3pm. Besides, nobody’s looking at each other! LOL
funny I’ve seen more men than women who were uneasy with nakedness in the baths! I guess the atmosphere is friendlier on the woman’s side. I hope some day you can try because the baths in Kinosaki and great and very soothing.
True. haha. From my perspective, apart from natural prudishness, I’m just a fairly conservative chap overall so that adds another dimension to the mix.
I do hope to return at some point, and knowing that there are private baths available means that I’m more likely to have that experience in due course.