We only had three weeks of our month in Japan planned with accommodation booked. This gave us the freedom to use our JR Passes flexibly in where we went. The idea was to chat with Japanese people about where we might like to explore and see what emerged that we may not have found back in Australia with travel guides and websites.
While travelling south we heard great things about an onsen town that Japanese tourists liked, Kinosaki. Naoya Shiga (1883-1971) wrote At Kinosaki which is an example of the autobiographical novel (shi-shosetsu) and made the town more well-known around Japan. The Japanese seem to revere their writers and many towns have a proud literary heritage and a trail one can follow. Hide-san recommended we visit and helped us book a ryokan after I failed dismally to find a room on short notice. It was clearly a popular destination for Japanese people.
This was brilliant.
Mrs Yamada, the owner of the ryokan, kitted us out in the traditional yukata and we started exploring this compact town nestled in the foothills of Mount Taishi on the Otani-gawa River in Northern Hyōgo in Kansai.
The sound our geta (wooden sandals) made on the streets, as we clattered to each onsen, was echoed by other, I’ll call them pilgrims, making their way to the baths. Indeed, originally, when entering Kinosaki, travellers had to go via a shrine on Mount Taishi to learn the proper rituals for bathing in a hot spring.
My favourite hot springs – and I visited all of them – were all very different. The biggest onsen, Satonoyu, is near the train station and is always bustling and not really as relaxing as one would like but it has great facilities. I liked the saunas, some of them outrageously hot but particularly enjoyed the ‘penguin room’ after plunging into the sub-zero (at least it felt like that) pool. There are outdoor springs on the roof which have jets to pummel your tired shoulders into submission.
The oldest onsen in town, Kounoyu, is reputedly where the storks once bathed there wounds. It was suitably atmospheric and a very good early morning destination.
My absolute favourite onsen, Goshonoyu, was aesthetically pleasing and well-appointed. The outdoor hot spring was at the foot of a waterfall and had the appearance of being being fed by the cascading waters rather than an underground hot spring. It was very hot in the upper pool and one often had to stand. The view of distant temple and mountain added to the overall experience.
The routine of waking early and walking to a nearby onsen followed by coffee and a leisurely breakfast back at the ryokan makes my usual start to the day, during a working week, as much as I like them, look pretty ordinary. That’s why travelling is so high on my list of things to do – it takes one away from the ordinary, at least for a while. Japanese breakfasts make cereal, juice and coffee particularly dull. Mrs Yamada fed us well.
We ascended Mount Taishi to visit the shrine which gave a completely different perspective of the onsen town. It was drizzling rain so we took the cable car, unlike pilgrims of earlier periods who would have walked. I managed a few photographs in difficult conditions.
The Japanese are clearly one of the most helpful nations on earth. We were assisted many times at train stations, mega department stores, in the streets and by the people we met everywhere. Stop for a minute to look at the map and a someone who speaks English will ask if you need assistance. Often these people had relatives living in Australia or had travelled to Cairns or Sydney. Yumi helped me with communicating at a smaller station re: changing tickets (which was quite complex). She had been an exchange student in Perth some years back and we discovered that we shared a favourite travel experience; swimming with whale sharks off Ningaloo reef.
Earlier in the post I mentioned my morning routine of coffee after a soak at an onsen. The owner used her phone to ask me questions, speaking in Japanese and having me read the English text generated. The picture below is of my coffee and the origami cranes I was given “for my daughters” along with paper after quite a lengthy conversation on my final morning. We discovered that she had been at the same ryokan we spent Christmas in Noboborietsu. When I returned to the ryokan with paper and about ten paper figures, the girls were also touched by the gesture.
Random acts of kindness abound in Japan.
Last stop: Tokyo!
Featured image: flickr photo by Darcy Moore http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/24314316085 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license