It’s said that the steaming waters of Kinosaki Onsen spewed forth from the ground in the 8th century, after a Buddhist priest had sat here and prayed for 1000 days.
Word spread around Japan. “The waters have special spiritual powers,” it was whispered. And so the first people to visit Kinosaki, more than a millennium ago, were the true believers who thought that bathing in the onsens would cure them of their ailments.
These days, people come for similar reasons. One of the best things to do in Kinosaki is use the onsens, the traditional Japanese hot springs. And, although most visitors nowadays don’t believe the waters are sacred, there’s still a sense that they have some healing or recharging properties.
But there’s much more to Kinosaki Onsen than just the baths. The town is an attraction in itself, a perfect little time capsule of traditional Japan before influences from other countries and the modern world.
Lanterns hang from the trees above the river that flows through town, lighting up like fireflies in the evenings.
The three-storey ryokans along the main streets still feel like you’re stepping into traditional inns, complete with tatami mats and wooden ceilings.
And the roads between them all, with charming shops and seafood markets, are filled with people wearing traditional yukata outfits, towel in hand, on their way to bathe.
Although there are lots of hot springs across Japan, with some incredible luxury baths, I think Kinosaki Onsen is probably the best onsen town in Japan. It’s here you can truly soak up some of the richest parts of the country’s heritage and culture.
What is Kinosaki Onsen?
The first thing to point out is that Kinosaki and Kinosaki Onsen are the same thing. It’s just slightly different names for the same town (adding the ‘Onsen’ at the end is really just about tourism marketing, to be honest).
Kinosaki Onsen likes to describe itself as one big ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), and it’s a lovely way to think about it when you’re here.
The small local accommodations throughout the town are the bedrooms, the streets are the corridors, and the public onsens are the bathrooms. And you can easily walk between them all as though you were just popping to another part of a hotel.
This is partly because the centre of Kinosaki, where most people will stay, is no more than one kilometre from end to end (and many of the things to see in Kinosaki are actually much closer together than that). You don’t feel silly clacking around in wooden sandals (geta) for such a short distance.
But it’s also because the whole existence of the town is because of the onsens. Everyone who is here has come to soak in the hot springs, and almost all the local businesses are related to tourism.
It is why you’ll see so many people walking the streets in the traditional Japanese robes that are usually provided at the accommodations. It’s comfortable, it’s practical (in the sense it’s easier to undress and dress at the baths), and it certainly helps you get into the mood.
This is one of the things I love so much about visiting Kinosaki Onsen. It’s about more than just the baths themselves, it’s about the whole experience for the days that you’re here.
Further down this article, I’ve got some tips for visiting Kinosaki Onsen, to help you plan your time here. But, first, I want to run through some of the best things to do in Kinosaki.
Of course, when we’re talking about the best things to do in Kinosaki, we need to start with the onsens. As I’ve mentioned, this is the main reason most people come here.
Many of the ryokans will have their own private baths within the accommodation – but these are generally much smaller and don’t give you the real Kinosaki Onsen experience.
What you really want to do is explore some of the public onsens in Kinosaki. There are seven to choose from and I would recommend trying to visit two or three each day that you’re here.
If you’re staying in town, your accommodation should give you a free pass to visit all the onsens as part of your package.
My favourite of all Kinosaki’s onsens is Goshono-yu, and it’s certainly the most popular. If you only have time for one, or want to spend longer at one, this is the onsen I would recommend for that.
From the outside, it’s already impressive. Built to look a bit like the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, it has a long verandah, wooden decorations, and an intricate tile pattern on the roof.
Inside, there’s a glass ceiling being held up by cypress beams, but the highlight are the outdoor baths, set amongst larger rocks, with views up into a waterfall flowing through the forest.
Probably the next most popular onsen in Kinosaki is Satono-yu, partly because it is the largest of the seven, but also because it is conveniently located right next to the town’s train station.
There are two sides to the onsen – one is a traditional Japanese-style bath, and the other is a Turkish-style bath with beautiful tile patterns. They are swapped each day between the male and female bath, so if you come two days in a row, you’ll be able to experience them both.
Satono-yu also has an outdoor bath on the top floor with panoramic views across the town.
The oldest onsen in Kinosaki is Kono-yu, and I would recommend visiting it for its historical value. Legend says it was discovered when an Oriental White Stork stopped to heal its wounds here.
Kono-yu has an outdoor area that is smaller than Goshono-yu but has a similar design, with rocks and trees around the edge.
As the furthest onsen from the centre of Kinosaki, it generally feels a bit quieter here, and can be a nice place to start if you’re a bit hesitant about nudity or how onsens work.
Although Kono-yu is Kinosaki’s oldest onsen, the hot spring at Mandara-yu is said to have been the first that was used for bathing (before any onsens were built). This is the spot where the legend says the priest prayed for a thousand days to bring forth the steaming waters.
The onsen itself is quite small, though, and I would advise against going during the busy periods. The unique characteristic at Mandara-yu is the two small ceramic bathtubs located on a platform outside. Each only has room for one person, so you can slip in an soak while taking in the surroundings.
Right in the centre of town where several streets meet, it’s hard to miss the yellow facade of Ichino-yu. With architecture that looks a bit like a kabuki theatre, it’s a popular onsen for local visitors.
One of the key features inside is the bath within a cave made from natural boulders. Surrounded by rocks, with soft lighting, it can be quite a relaxing experience free from sensory distractions.
From the outside, Jizo-yu is a really interesting building. Its shape looks a bit like a Japanese lantern, with the grid of squares reflecting the holes you would find in one. The windows, which are shaped as hexagons, are a reference to the stones found at Genbudo Cave (more on that shortly).
Inside, Jizo-yu is a relatively small bath and, if you’re not going to be able to make it to all the onsens, this is probably a good one to skip.
It does have a special section for children, though, so is a great option if you’re travelling as a family.
The smallest of all the onsens in Kinosaki is Yanagi-yu and, although there’s nothing particularly special about it, the interior is a cosy bath with a traditional rustic Japanese atmosphere.
If you’re short of time, this is probably an onsen you could skip, but otherwise you’ll find a very authentic experience that feels more like a neighbourhood hot spring than a tourist attraction.
Other than the onsens, there are quite a few things to do in Kinosaki. Wandering the streets, you’ll find some of them, but it’s also worth making note of the main Kinosaki attractions that I would recommend seeing as part of your visit.
I don’t think you can visit Kinosaki without also making a pilgrimage to the Onsen-ji temple, the guardian temple on a slope overlooking the town.
Historically, pilgrims to Kinosaki Onsen first had to visit Onsen-ji, where they were blessed before going to the sacred hot springs. To prove they had been to the temple, they were give a small wooden ladle, which acted as a ticket to the onsens.
You can still buy one of these ladles at the temple, but most people come just to look around. As well as the beautiful buildings, full of heritage, there are a few particular treasures here.
One of the most impressive treasures you can see if a Buddha statue with 834 arms coming out like wings (there were once 1000). And the most important is the 1300-year-old Buddha statue with 11 heads – although it’s hidden out of sight in a shrine for 33 years of every 36, and shown for only 3 years (the next reveal is in April 2051).
Kinosaki Onsen Ropeway
It’s just a 20-minute walk up a hill to Onsen-ji temple, but an alternative is to take the Kinosaki Onsen Ropeway, the cable car that leaves from street level.
Most people who use the ropeway will also continue to the summit of Mount Saishi, about 231 metres above sea level. It’s up here that you’ll find a viewing platform with an epic panorama across Kinosaki Onsen and out to the surrounding countryside.
There’s also a restaurant, and a few monuments at the top of the mountain. If you’re feeling energetic, you can walk from the street to the summit, which takes about 45 minutes. And if you really want to extend the journey, you can walk the 4.5 kilometre hiking trail to nearby Mount Kuruhi, which is about twice the height.
Although just a very small attraction, Moto-yu is one of the most important things to see in Kinosaki Onsen, because it is the source of the town’s hot spring water.
You’ll find it near the base of the ropeway, and it looks like a wet boulder with steam rising from around it. The water is really hot here, so a wooden fence around the rock protects visitors from getting too close and touching it.
Nearby is one of the ‘foot onsens’ that are sprinkled through Kinosaki Onsen. These shallow trenches on the side of the street allow you to take your shoes off and soak your feet in the hot waters. They’re free to use and open all the time.
Also in Kinosaki
The town of Kinosaki Onsen is a charming little neighbourhood, where some authenticity has been protected for centuries and more modern developments have still adopted traditional styles.
Part of the pleasure of staying here is just walking around and seeing the shops and other buildings in the centre of Kinosaki. You’ll easily find plenty of things of interest, so I’ll just mention a few particular ones now.
There are no major museums in Kinosaki Onsen, and none that I would suggest are ‘must-see’. But the collection of small museums in town show you different sides of the heritage and culture here, and can be a delightful way to get to know more about the history.
- Kinosaki Museum of Art: Right next to Onsen-ji temple, this is not really a gallery but more of a museum of ancient treasures of Kinosaki Onsen. (The region’s best art gallery is the Toyooka City Museum of Art.)
- Otagaki Shiro Museum: Just a small building, the free Otagaki Shiro Museum is dedicated to the man who funded the Kinosaki Ropeway. Otagaki Shiro was the first president of the Kansai Electric Company and led a number of very significant projects in Japan.
- Straw Craft Museum: One of the most significant traditions in Kinosaki Onsen is the traditional straw craft called ‘mugiwara zaiku’, where thin pieces of coloured straw are used as decoration. The Straw Craft Museum has a large number of these artworks on display, and you can also try doing it yourself.
- Kinosaki Literature Museum: One of the main parts of the Kinosaki Literature Museum is dedicated to Japanese writer, Shiga Naoya, who published a lot about the town. But there are also exhibits about Kinosaki as a town for the arts, and an English audioguide explains it all.
As a centre for tourism for centuries, it’s probably no surprise that Kinosaki Onsen has a thriving food scene, with local specialities and great options for dining.
I’ll get into more of that soon, but right now I want to mention one of the most famous delicacies – the snow crab. It is caught in the Japan Sea, right near Kinosaki Onsen, but is only available between November and March.
All throughout the year, crab is a general specialty in town and you’ll notice quite a few seafood markets on the streets in the centre. Pop in and see the crabs, as well as some of the other interesting things for sale.
Along with the seafood markets, there are dozens of quaint little shops along the few main streets of Kinosaki Onsen. You’ll be able to find some great souvenirs, as well as some lovely local products.
A shopping square called Kiyamachi Kouji has a specialty vinegar store, wood sculptures for sale, a book nook, and some of the mugiwara zaiku straw craft.
For cool gifts and souvenirs, you might like to try shops like Furuya or Kinosaki Kojinmari. A famous local rice cracker store called Genbudo is also good for presents.
If you’ve become enamoured with your yukata, head to the store called Iroha Yukata where you can buy one to take home (or you can rent one, if you’re just coming for a day trip or don’t get one with your accommodation for some reason).
And, although not exactly a shop, also look out for the retro video game arcade where you can play some classic games!
For a special Kinosaki Onsen souvenir, don’t just stop at buying something from the store… how about also making it yourself? There are a few opportunities in town where experts will be able to show you some traditional crafts.
The famous Kinosaki straw craft, which I’ve already mentioned, can be tried at the museum – but also at a local craftman’s workshop called Kamiya Mingei. The lesson and the creation is included with the Kinosaki Must-Visits Pass.
And at the Iroha Japanese Culture Experience, you can arrange for a lesson on a number of important Japanese traditions, including calligraphy, flower arrangement (ikebana), and a tea ceremony.
If you’re only visit Kinosaki for a day, you’ll probably find enough to do in town, considering you’ll want to focus on the onsens and then probably see some of the other main Kinosaki attractions.
But just beyond the town, within easy reach by car or public transport, there is a wonderful variety of other things to do that can make it worthwhile to spend a few days in Kinosaki, exploring the region.
One of the most important things to see around Kinosaki is Genbudo Caves, a natural sight so special that the region’s main mascot (named Gen-san) is inspired by it.
Gen-san has a hexagonal face. Why? Because Genbudo Caves is made up of millions of interconnecting basalt columns that are hexagon shaped. They were created about 1.6 million years ago from a volcanic eruption.
Walking along the path of Genbudo Park, you’ll be able to see all the main rock formations. At the entrance, there’s a small exhibition with some interesting information about the geology of the region.
And, across the road, the Genbudo Museum has a much larger display of natural history from the area, including fossils of an ancient Asian elephant and even a T-rex!
San’in Kaigan Geopark
Genbudo Caves is part of the San’in Kaigan Geopark, a huge naturally-significant area that stretches for about 120 kilometres along the coast, including past Kinosaki Onsen.
Exploring the whole geopark could take months, and there are lots of interesting attractions within its borders, many telling the story of the formation of the Sea of Japan.
But to see some of the most impressive parts of the geopark near Kinosaki, head to the coast to explore the beaches, the capes, the sand dunes, and the boat rides.
Kinosaki Marine World
On the coast near Kinosaki, you’ll also find Kinosaki Marine World, an aquarium set amongst the dramatic coastal cliffs.
The aquarium tanks of local sealife is quite interesting and gives you a good insight into some of the marine flora and fauna of the geopark. There’s also a bit more information about the famous snow crabs that I mentioned earlier.
The aquarium runs regular seal and dolphin shows that may make some visitors uncomfortable, but there’s also important scientific research taking place here.
A new free museum on the site about conservation projects is very well done and also worth a visit.
The story of the Oriental White Stork in Kinosaki is heartwarming, and is a beautiful example of the harmony you’ll find here between humans and nature.
The iconic bird almost became extinct in the early 1970s because the pesticides used to grow rice in Japan were killing it. So the region around Kinosaki Onsen, led by Toyooka City, started a breeding program where they were raised in captivity after the last one disappeared from the wild.
In 2005, the first of these Oriental White Storks were released into the wild around Toyooka and they have thrived ever since, because the region has also invested in organic farming and habitat conservation.
When you’re visiting Kinosaki Onsen, you can go to the nearby Hachigoro Toshima Wetlands, where rice paddies have been converted into protected space for the birds. You’ll likely see some of the storks here – as well as other local birdlife.
Tips for visiting Kinosaki Onsen
So, how should you plan a visit to Kinosaki Onsen. Once you’re here and you understand things, you’ll realise that it’s actually all very easy and relaxed. But this isn’t your typical town, so it does help to be prepared for what to expect.
The easiest way to get to Kinosaki Onsen is by train, with a station right in the heart of the town. It’s about 2.5 hours from Kyoto and you can use a JR Rail Pass.
The other convenient way to get to Kinosaki Onsen is with an express bus from either Osaka or Kobe, both of which take about 3 hours.
Once you’re in Kinosaki, you won’t need to use transport to see the sights in the main part of town because everything is in walking distance.
To see other attractions in the region, there are trains and buses that connect most of the sites. I would recommend popping into the visitor information centre opposite Kinosaki’s train station to get the latest information on the routes.
The accommodation in Kinosaki Onsen is a little different to other towns, because you don’t just use a hotel as somewhere to sleep at night. Here, your accommodation is an important part of the experience.
Almost all of the accommodation options here are ryokans (traditional inns) that will give you an authentic Japanese stay. The rooms are likely to have tatami mats, and some will have only futon options (some also have Western-style beds).
You’ll be given a yukata by your accommodation, along with the other items you’ll need for visiting the onsens. Most of the ryokans also have their own onsens, which may even be private, so you don’t have to bathe with anyone else.
And most of the ryokans have a meal package, so you may also get breakfast and dinner included. The evening meal is normally quite a special event, and it’s common for guests to come wearing their yukata, perhaps visiting an onsen before or after the meal.
You can see a list of accommodation in Kinosaki Onsen here.
To make the most of a visit to Kinosaki Onsen, I would recommend staying for two nights as a minimum.
On the first day you arrive and check in, perhaps spend the afternoon visiting Onsen-ji Temple and going to the top of the Kinosaki Onsen Ropeway, before trying one (or two) of the onsens.
The next morning, head to another onsen (Goshono-yu is great in the morning) and then plan to spend the day seeing some of the sights around the region – perhaps Genbudo Caves, the geopark, or the town of Izushi.
That afternoon and evening, there’ll be time for more onsens – and also to enjoy the town at night, with the beautiful lanterns over the water.
And then the next day, before you leave, spend the morning looking at the shops and visiting any onsens that you haven’t had a chance to see yet.
A perfect little stay in this little Japanese treasure!
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Toyooka City but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.