Would you travel four hours in order to get naked around a bunch of strangers? If you ask me, the answer would be “absolutely!” In a country that holds 10% of the entire world’s volcanoes, this also means that selfsame volcanoes are heating up and mineralizing wonderful spring water for your bathing pleasure. There are thousands of onsen, or hot springs/public baths, throughout Japan, both indoor and outdoor, and this weekend I made a trip up to Kinosaki Onsen, on the north coast of the Hyogo Prefecture, to enjoy a few.
After a grueling, though still physically comfortable 4-hour train ride, we were first greeted by a quaint (read: frustratingly primitive) train station where you have to pay in cash for transportation instead of the usual tappable, reloadable IC card. That’s okay, though, there’s a very nice anime lady welcoming us to Kinosaki!
Kinosaki is an onsen resort town, home to dozens of onsens along their main street, all within walking distance and set amongst scenic stone bridges overlooking a river teeming with koi, and traditional Japanese restaurants where best-of-your-life meals await. Since this is an onsen town, it is de rigeur to walk around in kimono and wooden block sandals (geta), and your hotel will even provide these for you, free of charge!
At each onsen, you walk in, take off your shoes at the entrance, and head on over to the locker room. They, and the baths themselves, are separated by sex, and there are a few simple rules to follow: one, you must be naked. Two, you must shower before actually entering the water. Thirdly, you can only take with you a small towel, which you can use to cover yourself if you so wish, but more than that it’s for drying off. And don’t dip it into the water either.
If you felt a little nervous about being naked around other men, well, it’s pretty easy to cast that aside straightaway, because the moment you walk into the tatami-matted locker room, you’ll immediately see guys casually walking around completely in the nude, as well as guys dressing down to get to that state. Walk through another door, and there are rows of sit-down showers, with stools and shampoo/soap provided. Wash well, put your lone towel on your head (the cool way) or over your modesty, and head on over to the many facilities offered, from steam saunas to mineral pools and private one-man tubs.
Take some time to ponder the age-old question, “could I possibly be any more relaxed?” as you soak in the hot, silky, and mineral-rich waters of Japan, blessed by the heat and material bounties of Earth itself. It is said that the dozens of onsen around Kinosaki all have different specialties– one has waters good for fertility, another has waters good for successful marriage, another for general fortune, and so on. We did not check which ones were which, so I couldn’t tell you whether you’re reading the words of a luckier man today, or a more fertile man. At this stage in my life, I’d rather the former.
After some time, you’ve realized you shouldn’t get too comfortable and basically die here, it’s time to head to the next one. Put on your hotel yukata (male kimono) and wooden sandals, and clop on over to the next one. Yukata are fashionable as hell, as well as being practical for onsens, since it’s a robe that takes seconds to put on, and it helps dry you as you walk since you don’t wear anything but underwear underneath. Just make sure to tie your obi (belt-sash) behind or to the right, as wearing it in front was originally associated with prostitutes, and wrap the yukata left-side over right. The other way around is for funerals.
In case you were wondering, geta wooden sandals are slightly more comfortable than they look, and are in fact superior to pathetic Western shoes– just kidding, they’re blocks of freaking wood, so they are not really comfortable either. They were a little awkward to walk in, and I had a feeling that you’re supposed to walk differently than with normal shoes. I also nearly fell over any time I had to bend down to pick something up. I’m sure I just have to learn the technique and/or practice, and in no time I’ll be running full-speed and striking down peasants with my katana.
All in all, we visited three onsens, one we nicknamed “Splash Zone” for the drunk guy trying to pick a fight by deliberately splashing us (another behavior considered very rude), in actuality Goshono-Yu, Mandara-yu, and Ichino-yu. Since I couldn’t take pictures of the interior baths owing to the no-cameras rule, take a look at the tourist website!
That concludes the onsen portion of my post, and let me make a brief, very honorable mention to the other Kinosaki specialty, snow crab.
Yes, it was delicious. Quite possibly the best crab I’ve ever had in my life. It was fresh, of excellent flakiness, succulent, and tasted like it had been *just*! perfectly salted.
Wash it all down with sake, and that’s sayonara to a supremely blissful experience at Kinosaki.