Bathing beauty

Washed up in Ki­nosaki

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION JAPAN - KA­T­RINA LOBLEY

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

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