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The city of Kinosaki
Kinosaki is the very image of the Japanese onsen town. Located on the Sea of Japan, it has been a place of relaxation for centuries on the way from Kyoto. There is even the onsen temple, the onsen-ji, where one should go to pray before taking the waters. Legend has it that this temple was dedicated to the monk who prayed to Buddha to raise the hot springs.
Kinosaki Onsen, a small town on the Tango Peninsula, about 150 kilometres north of Kyoto in Hyogo Prefecture, on the sea coast of Japan, is one of Japan's favourite spas. Unlike some onsen towns that have been slightly spoiled by the introduction of large white hotels, Kinosaki is tiny, with a stream running through it lined with willow and cherry trees.
Onsen culture in Kinosaki dates back 1400 years, making it one of the oldest spas in Japan. The town's economy is almost entirely devoted to hot spring tourism and crab from the Sea of Japan, which is a local speciality.
The resort of Kinosaki has many ryokan (Japanese-style inns) and public baths. The latter attract crowds mainly from Osaka and Kyoto, from where express trains frequently arrive. Kinosaki has seven main onsen with different healing properties. Locals and visitors, often staying in local ryokan, don yukata and geta (traditional sandals) and do onsen meguri, i.e. walk from one onsen to another during the evening.
The streets of Kinosaki are lined with small local vendors selling beer and food, such as onsen tamago (eggs boiled in a hot spring) and crab, cooked in natural hot water, for those who get hungry on the way.
The Kinosaki Onsen Experience
Every visitor to Kinosaki must make the journey to the seven onsen of Kinosaki, the soto-yu. These baths are among the most prestigious onsen in Japan and have often existed for centuries. This is not to say that Kinosaki is living on its past; in 2000 the Sato-no-yu opened as a new jewel in the city's crown. The path to the seven onsen in Kinosaki can be started from the station via Sato-no-yu to Kono-yu by walking up the elegant streets along the Otani River.
The Japanese come to Kinosaki to enjoy the baths but also the many local ryokans and their cuisine. They have plenty of time to wander around the town and try the various onsen. You will recognize them by the yukata they wear, provided by the hotel.
On the way, you can choose to enjoy yourself in the many cafes and restaurants, or simply admire the scenery and the atmosphere. Staying overnight in Kinosaki also allows you to enjoy its fine cuisine, including the local speciality, matsuba crab. Kinosaki has proudly proclaimed itself the "Kingdom of Crab".
Although people come to Kinosaki for the baths, there are also other attractions worth visiting. Slightly outside the town, the Onsen-ji temple can be visited for the curious, the path through the forest alone is worth a visit. The temple can also be reached by the Kinosaki cable car, which is conveniently located near the Kono-yu onsen and can be reached on foot.
It leads up to 1,000 metres above sea level and offers a breathtaking view of the city, the surrounding countryside and even the Sea of Japan. Around Kinosaki, you will have the opportunity to meet the Kinosaki storks, the emblem of the city, which are protected in a local sanctuary.
What to do and see in Kinosaki?
Heading up the valley, down a small side street near the Mandarayu Onsen, you will find Gokurakuji Temple.
The land in front of the temple buildings is divided into two karesansui, or 'dry gardens', and the paths allow you to see them from many different angles. The temple offers the opportunity to try zazen, the sitting Zen meditation technique.
A little further up the valley you come to the hot spring. Here you will find a free footbath to sit and relax. According to legend, it was created when a temple was established on the hillside opposite the spring in the early 8th century. The main temple buildings are located halfway up the hill, but at the foot of the mountain is the Yakushi-do, the hall dedicated to the Medicine Buddha.
From here, steps lead up the mountain to a complex of buildings that includes a pagoda and a temple treasure museum. In the main hall are various statues, some of which date from the Heian period.
Opposite the temple gate is a lovely hillside garden with many statues and a water feature.
Kinosaki cable car
For over 1,200 years, visitors to Kinosaki had to climb to Onsenji Temple before visiting the baths, but nowadays most people choose to take the cable car. It will take you 7 minutes to reach the top of the 230-metre-high Mount Daishi and stops at Onsenji Temple.
From the observation platform at the top, there is a magnificent view of the city and the surrounding countryside as far as the mouth of the Maruyama River and the Japan Sea coast.
Hachigoro Toshima Swamp
Just across from Kinosaki is the Hachigoro Toshima Swamp, an area inhabited by the rare Oriental White Stork. From the surveillance building you can use binoculars to watch them and they also have screens on which you can see live camera close-ups.
Genbudo Caves and its surroundings
Further upstream are the Genbudo Caves, a fantastically shaped geological wonder formed by volcanic activity in the area. It is one of the sites of the San-in Coast UNESCO Global Geopark, in which Kinosaki is located.
The adjoining museum has many dinosaur exhibits for children. The caves are accessible by a small ferry from Genbudo Station on the opposite shore.
Before becoming a global geopark, the area around Kinosaki was made into a national park. If you head down to the sea, you will find yourself on the Hiroyama coast, with its white sandy beaches and towering cliffs.
Just offshore is an unusual shrine to the Dragon King who lives at the bottom of the sea, but on land is Kinosaki Marine World, a large aquarium and marine centre with many attractions including swimming with dolphins.
A little further along the coast and accessible by a short train ride from Kinosaki Onsen is Takeno, a quiet fishing village that was once a historic port and has a large white sandy beach. In summer it is a great place for swimming and there is a snorkelling centre.
There are hiking trails along the Nekozaki peninsula with panoramic views of the coast and other trails that climb to viewpoints of the area. Or you can simply stroll through the narrow streets lined with wooden houses and soak up the atmosphere and stop at a café for a drink or a bite to eat.
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