The second stop on our five day journey across the Kansai region was the small town of Kinosaki Onsen. An onsen is a traditional Japanese spa, so you can probably imagine what the main attraction in a town with spa in its name might be. Our extraordinary hosts from the Miyama Heimat Youth Hostel dropped us off at the Wachi train station where we caught a small train to Fukuchiyama. After an hour and a half layover, during which we grabbed lunch at 7-Eleven, we hopped on our second train of the day up to Kinosaki-Onsen. The train rocked Alana to sleep as soon as it started moving. I took a little longer and was just starting to nod off as we arrived at our destination.
We had booked a stay at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese b&b type establishment). If you are staying in Kinosaki-Onsen and stay in one of the local ryokan (conveniently listed on the town’s website) you get a free pass into all seven spas located in town. Now if you checked out that website you may have noticed that some of these ryokan are not exactly budget friendly, ranging between one and six hundred dollars per night. Many of the pricier options include very elaborate meals as part of the stay. We opted for the most affordable option, sans meals, and booked a night at Suigou. It was still considerably more expensive than our AirBnbs in Tokyo and Osaka, but it was worth it for the night of spa-ing we were able to enjoy.
The hotel was a ten minute walk from the train station. It was a bit outside of the center of town, but we were willing to take the slight hit in convenience in exchange for the reduced cost. We arrived an hour before we were scheduled to check in, and the place was empty, the windows at the reception shuttered. Contrary to appearances, it wasn’t actually empty. Turns out the receptionist was just taking a nap behind the counter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. Our time in China endeared us to the 下午休息 (afternoon nap), and I genuinely appreciate/am jealous of cultures that include some kind of siesta.
We managed to check in despite our language barrier. Our room was large and featured a table surrounded by cushions, as well as two futon beds. We also had a nice indoor patio area with seats and a table. We drank some tea and then changed into our yukata (traditional Japanese clothing). These consisted of a full length robe, around which wrapped a long belt, followed by a short jacket over top. All of the ryokan provide these outfits for guests to wear as they travel around from spa to spa. Each one has a unique design based on where you are staying. Looking at how other people were dressed as we wandered around, you could definitely tell that we were from the cheap ryokan in town. Another part of the clothing that was provided were these clunky wooden sandals, geta in Japanese. I’d call them high heels, but it wasn’t just the heel that was raised. The entire sandal (made of wood) was set on top of two rectangular blocks. I’m not if they were intentionally designed to be as difficult to walk in as possible, or if I was just missing out on a key aspect of the technique.
There are seven onsen in town, and one of them is closed each day of the week. That meant we could visit six of them our first night and then one the next day. We set off immediately for the first onsen, Satono-yu, which was conveniently located right next to the train station. The female sandals were flat along the entire underside, so Alana breezed ahead as I hobbled along trying to keep up. We agreed upon a time to meet back in the lobby and then went our separate ways. This onsen had three different indoor pools, as well as an outdoor pool and a sauna on the roof. We arrived a little after three in the afternoon and there were only a few other people in the pools. By the time we were leaving things were starting to pick up though.
Our next stop, Yanagi-yu, was much smaller. There was a row of stool showers (all of the spas had these for washing off before entering the pool) and one relatively small pool. The pool was absolutely packed with people. I was determined to get the full Kinosaki experience though, so after hosing off on one of the stools I worked my way in to the cramped pool. It was shoulder to shoulder around the entire perimeter. The pool was much hotter than any of the pools at the previous onsen, which was nice (I prefer my spas super hot, otherwise what’s the point? Just take a warm bath at home.). Due to both the temperature and crowded conditions we didn’t spend nearly as long in this spa though.
The third onsen, Ichino-yu, was a bit larger and less crowded than Yanagi-yu. There was an indoor and outdoor pool. The outdoor pool was carved from rock and made to look like a cave. There wasn’t anyone outside when I got there, so I was able to enjoy a nice private soak in the cave pool. The contrast in temperature between the brisk night air and the hot water was nice compared to the uniformly hot and humid indoor pool room. After we finished soaking and met in the lobby we got some bottled milk from a vending machine. This is apparently an integral part of the experience. All of the spas are equipped with vending machines stocked solely with different varieties of milk, the ideal post-soak beverage. When we exited this spa the streets were practically empty. Most people were probably back at their ryokans, as meals are only served at specific times. Since we had gone with the meal-less budget option we were free to keep bathing in relative solitude.
Onsen number four, Mandara-yu, was my personal favorite. The dinner time lull meant it was nearly empty when we arrived, which was nice as it was on the smaller side. There was also an outdoor bath that was essentially a just a barrel with a bench around the perimeter. I can’t imagine it could have fit more than three people. I was enjoying a nice private soak in said barrel when another spa-goer came outside and joined me. It was just the two of us facing each other in this little wooden barrel. We assiduously avoided eye contact. The water was pretty hot, but due to my slightly competitive nature I was determined to outlast him. I won out in the end, and, after what seemed like an eternity but was likely only a few minutes, he got up and left, leaving me to enjoy this little bath on my own for a while longer.
By the time we reached the fifth spa, Kouno-yu, we were starting to feel a little onsen fatigue. I honestly can’t remember the distinguishing features of this spa. You’ll have to go check it out for yourself. I had my routine pretty well established at that point: sit in the indoor pool for about ten minutes, then head outside and soak my feet in the outdoor pool while my body cooled off. After repeating this process a few times I met Alana back in the lobby, and we set out for the last spa of the evening.
When we arrived at Goshono-yu dinner time was over and the crowds were back in full swing. This onsen was fairly large though, so it didn’t feel quite as crowded as some had earlier. The indoor pool featured some deeper stalls with water jets. I imagine they were intended to hit the lower back of the average size Japanese person, but due to the height difference they were right at my butt level. I inadvertently used the bidet, not that it mattered since I had thoroughly washed myself before hopping in to every spa so far. I repeated my indoor/outdoor routine for another half hour or so here. After soaking, Alana and I met in the lobby for a celebratory bottle of milk, having successfully visited all six of the spas open that day.
Next we did a bit of souvenir shopping. When we arrived we received a gift voucher for 2000 yen (about $20) as part of some early spring promotion. Alana enjoyed checking out a few stores in the area while I powered down and waited for dinner. We stopped at Family Mart on the way back to our ryokan. Unfortunately our crowd-free, dinner time bathing had backfired. The store was practically cleaned out (evidently we weren’t the only ones planning on forgoing the ryokan meals to save a buck) and we were left picking through the remains. They were completely out of all of our usual favorites like rice balls and sushi. It was the only time during our whole trip through Japan that we were let down by a convenience store. We ended up getting some cold soba, instant udon noodles, instant miso soup, and pickled radishes.
The walk home was also a bit of a trial. It was dark out and the temperature had dropped considerably. Our yukata had been fine while the sun was out and we were moving from one hot pool to another, but now they were not nearly enough to keep out the chill. My feet were starting to go numb by the time we returned to our ryokan. We ate our dinner in silence, reflecting on the valuable lessons we had learned.
We were planning on waking up early to get to onsen number seven, which had been closed the day before, but when my alarm went off I checked the weather and saw that it was only 35 degrees (Fahrenheit). I made an executive decision and went back to sleep for a few more hours without bothering to wake Alana. We woke up just in time to pack up and check out by ten and catch the 10:40 train to our next destination.