Washed up in Kinosaki
In 1913, Japan’s master of the short story, Naoya Shiga, ventured to Kinosaki Onsen to recuperate from an unfortunate encounter with a train.
He stayed three weeks, reflecting on his brush with death in the story At Kinosaki, considered such a masterpiece of the form that it’s taught in schools. He continued visiting the hot springs town until 1960.
Today, Kinosaki is a 2½ hour train ride northwest of Kyoto, near the Sea of Japan’s coastline and in the prefecture of Hyogo.
Shiga stayed at Mikiya, an elegant ryokan (traditional inn) with a history dating from the 17th century. And so do I. Mikiya’s library holds a copy of his story, translated into English. Not much happens in the deeply reflective piece; he observes the death of a wasp, a rat and a water lizard, and feels “the loneliness of all life”.
I’m in Kinosaki as a solo traveller but I can’t relate to Shiga’s solitary feelings, especially as I’m about to get to know a bunch of strangers very, very well. As soon as I arrive, I am gripped with an urge to experience all seven onsen (hot springs baths) in town. To achieve this over a two-day stay requires military-style planning as each onsen is closed one day a week and three don’t open in the mornings.
There is also a lot of etiquette to consider before stepping on to the streets. Part of Kinosaki’s charm is that everyone dresses for what’s known as sotoyu meguri, or cruising around the bath houses. Mikiya’ staff member Hiro-san guides me on how to wear the light cotton yukata robe, sash and overcoat (it’s winter so it’s cold out) that I pick out from a selection of patterns and colours in the foyer, what to put in my wash bag, and the finer points of using the washcloth and larger towel.
Hiro-san doesn’t warn me how slippery it is walking around in socks and geta (varnished high wooden sandals) but, soon enough, I get the hang of that, too.
The three main times to bathe in Kinosaki are mornings, and before and after dinner. The town takes such a collective approach to tourism that shops are shut from 6pm-8pm when ryokan are serving dinner. Before my kaiseki dinner, which showcases the area’s specialties of snow crabs (November to March) and marbled Tajima beef, I clip-clop up the street and around the corner to Mandara-Yu where it’s said the waters were brought forth by a priest chanting continuously for 1000 days.
It also has a popular outdoor cypress barrel bath, which I actually don’t see because the indoor bath is so hot it’s steamed up the windows.
I’m a little self-conscious at the first onsen so I slip into the water as quickly as I can after showering at nearby wooden stools, but find the water so hot I stay only a few minutes. Yet it doesn’t take long to get into the swing of public nude bathing. By onsen No 3, I’m practically twirling my tiny towel as I saunter over to the water.
Although I’m a rarity, as I see few non-Japanese women, no one gives me a sideways glance as I tick off indoor and outdoor baths all across town. Kinosaki is also the place to come if you want to experience public hot springs but have tattoos, usually banned in the country’s onsen because of their association with the yakuza.
As I relax into this routine, other delights come to my attention. There’s a particular art to clattering around in geta and the Japanese have even coined a term, the onomatopoeic karan-koron, to describe the noise of the wooden footwear chiming against the streets. The sound, a rarity in modern Japan, is said to spark nostalgia in older people. Gradually, I unclench my toes and let my geta drag a little for maximum effect.
I even turn competitive when I hear a commemorative No 1 trinket is handed out each day to the first female and male to enter each bath house. I arrive at Kouno-Yu, the farthest onsen from the station, half an hour before its 7am opening, but find there’s already a queue.
This onsen, with stork statues out front, is the town’s oldest and it’s said it was founded when a priest discovered an oriental white stork healing its wounds in the waters. These much-loved birds became extinct in Japan’s skies in 1971 as a result of deforestation (storks like to nest in tall pine trees) and agricultural chemicals, but the area is spearheading a program to reintroduce the birds into the wild (as of last July, there were 91 in the Toyooka Basin). At the Homeland for the Oriental White Stork, you can see them perched in high man-made nests poking above rice paddies and on the museum’s roof. They’re not so still at 3pm when it’s feeding time, so be ready for a phalanx of storks to zoom over your head.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Toyooka City Hall.
Kinosaki is a charming oldstyle onsen town with seven of the traditional hot-spring baths