One of the most famous hot spring destinations in Japan’s Kansai Region is Kinosaki Onsen. Located near the coast of the Sea of Japan in Hyogo Prefecture, people have been soaking in the hot springs here since the 8th century. The town is very small and consists mostly of traditional ryokan (Japanese inns), cafes, tiny temples/shrines, and shops – all close to or beside a willow-lined river.
There are also seven public hot spring facilities. Guests who stay overnight at one of the town’s ryokan are given a ‘free pass’ to visit them and day-trippers can purchase a pass for 1,300 yen. Many visitors make a day of total relaxation by strolling around in yukata (cotton kimono) and geta (wooden clogs), visiting the various baths.
Long ago the hot spring water of Kinosaki was considered sacred, a gift from the gods. According to the town’s website, before you could soak in the water, you had to hike up to Onsenji Temple, pray to the deity, and then receive a special ladle which would allow you access to the baths. Of course this is no longer necessary, but a visit to Onsenji is recommended. Located at the far end of town (only 15 minutes on foot as Kinosaki Onsen is quite small), this is the main gate that welcomes visitors. Part of the compound is just inside, the rest is a 20 minute climb up the mountain behind it. There is also a ropeway that travels up Mt. Daishi to an observation deck. Those who ride it can get off at the ropeway’s middle station to visit Onsenji (rather than hiking up).
Hungry for lunch or dinner? Although it is a splurge, consider making a reservation at the restaurant, Ricca, part of the Nishimuraya Hotel. They offer European courses featuring ingredients sourced directly from local producers, including dry-aged Tajima beef. Sanpou Nishimuraya is another of the hotel’s restaurants where diners enjoy local organic food and sake served around an open kitchen containing an irori (traditional Japanese cooking hearth) at its center.
Sanpou Nishimuraya sits along the riverside and, even if you don’t eat there, stop in to buy souvenirs from their on-site shop. Nishimuraya believes strongly in, and named their restaurant after, the philosophy of ‘sanpou yoshi’, which their website states, “holds that all stakeholders – buyer, business & society – should prosper together.” All of the items in the shop are made by local artisans and food producers. There is also an excellent bilingual explanation of every item and where it came from.
Many of the other restaurants in Kinosaki Onsen serve less extravagant, but very tasty, local seafood and beef dishes. This is the melt-in-your-mouth steak served at the stylish cafe, Off.
Crab, brought in from nearby ports, is a Kinosaki specialty. There are also many cute cafes that serve tasty sweets, like Kinosaki Sweets – which has three locations. Ice cream and gelato are especially popular options there. Or, if the weather is warm, grab an outdoor table at Tokiwa Garden.
Kinosaki Onsen contains a number of small, but lovely shrines and temples. Gokurakuji was established in the 14th century and enshrines a statue of the Amida Nyorai. There is a unique rock garden in front of the main hall.
If you didn’t visit the ropeway observatory, I recommend a climb up to Benzaiten Jinja to get a bird’s eye view of the town.
There are also a few mini museums in town, including a traditional Straw Craft Hall, which sometimes offers hands-on workshops, and a literature museum called Kinobun. There isn’t much English, but it is still worth a look due to its exhibits of old photographs, art depicting Kinosaki, and local crafts.
Where to stay? It depends on your budget, but it is definitely best to choose a ryokan located along, or within a couple minutes’ walk, of the town center. And, although the kaiseki dinners are quite impressive, I’d also recommend booking a room that does not include one.
Wandering around town at night in your yukata is a highlight of visiting Kinosaki Onsen. Take a dip in an onsen, then stop somewhere and have a drink. Visit another hot spring bath and then enjoy a tasty dinner – possibly followed by another soak! Note: If you are visiting on a crowded weekend or national holiday, or want to eat somewhere specific, a dinner reservation is recommended.
Before any trip to Kinosaki Onsen, take a close look at their official website, ‘Visit Kinosaki’, especially its ‘Things to Do’ page. There are many interesting activities to participate in, but almost all of them must be booked in advance.
Getting there: I recommend reserving a seat on one of the Limited Express trains that travel directly to Kinosaki Onsen from Kyoto or Osaka Station. They run infrequently, so be sure to buy your tickets beforehand. A less expensive highway bus runs from either Osaka or Kobe.