On the west coast of Japan, a few hours from Kyoto, is a small town--Kinosaki Onsen. We were only in town for about 24 hours and you can't take photos in the baths, so this post will be a little lighter than the others.
We took a train from Kyoto to Kinosaki that dropped us off at the edge of town. The air was thick with mountain clouds and impending rains and the streets were quiet. Through the center of town cuts a quiet river filled with koi. They seemed excited as more people arrived and would gather under bridges and near the banks in hopes that people would throw food down to them.
We stayed at the Mikiya Hotel which we were allowed to check into at 3pm--not a minute sooner. Normally check-in wouldn't be a featured part of any blog but when we arrived in town around noon and tried to go to the hotel early because it was pouring rain there was no one around. The lights in the lobby were off. The front desk seat was empty. So we walked back to the center of town to have lunch and sit at a coffee shop and wait.
After 3pm, we checked in. The hotel gave us a much more traditional experience with shoji screen walls, tatami mats, and a futon on the floor. Our room looked onto a shared garden bringing nature a bit closer to us during our stay.
Prior to our dinner, we used the hotel onsens. Like many things in the Japanese culture, there's a process to be followed when using the onsens. First, the baths are gender segregated as everyone is required to be nude in the baths. Then everyone must wash themselves so that the waters remain clean. If you have long hair, it must be tied up as it is not supposed to go in the water. Finally, each person is given a small towel to bring with them--this must also remain out of the baths. So you either put this on your head or on a ledge of the hot springs.
After our first onsen experience, we enjoyed a kaiseki, or seasonal, dinner. Winter time means crab. This was a night of me eating many new things. We gathered in the dining room in traditional yukatas, or robes, and prepared for a meal of wonderfully strange (for me) foods. Over the course of the night I tried new types of sushi (amberjack and seabream), fresh raw crab, eggplant and eel jelly, and yam tofu. There were some things, particularly at the beginning of the night that I just couldn't bring myself to try. Namely the whole fried fish and sea snail. Couldn't do it.
But as a whole, the dinner was delicious and I'm proud of all the new foods I did try. Maybe next time, sea snail (but probably not).
Kinosaki is a town with a purpose. When you look it up on Google Maps, be sure to type Kinosaki Onsen to get the right town. In town there are seven public onsens, or hot spring baths. In addition to the onsen at our hotel, we visited the Goshonoyu Onsen. From the outside, it looks a bit like a temple and greeted us with a soft waterfall feature as we walked inside. At this onsen, there were baths both inside and outside. I opted for the outside bath. The cool mountain air surrounded us and met the steam rising from the hot waters. The onsen was easily 105-107 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving a red line on my skin dividing my body into hot and cold. Women of all ages gathered and talked. The younger girls seemed to be learning the traditions of the onsen. Some had been going for most of their lives and were teaching their younger sisters the rules.
While my mom and I waited in the lobby, we watched the families come back together. Little kids changed into their pajamas and fell asleep in their parent's arms. A family ritual to end the week. Not too dissimilar from our own evening as we concluded our time in Japan.