The moment you arrive, you’re struck by the charms of this small riverside onsen, which feels far removed from the modern Japan. Kinosaki is one of the country’s more popular spa towns where, if you choose to stay the night, you gain free access to all seven soto-yu (hot springs).
What does this mean? Well, after you’ve checked into your ryokan you’ll be given a Yumepa pass, a yukata (cotton kimono), a pair of camel-toe socks and geta clogs. If it’s winter you’ll also get a toasty padded kimono jacket to cocoon yourself in.
The town almost feels like an open-air ryokan itself, where the accommodation acts as its rooms and the seven onsens are its bath houses. Everyone casually shuffles about in their wooden clogs and kimonos, stops to take selfies on the numerous stone bridges that cross the river, and carries on from onsen to onsen.
Gaining access to an onsen is pretty straightforward. You head to the small lockers to deposit your footwear, grab a small towel, get yourself scanned in and head to either the male or female side of the onsen entry.
Once inside, you get naked and lock up your things in a communal changeroom, wash yourself on a tiny plastic stool in the next room, then retreat to the hot pool enshrouded in steam. Leave any shame or dignity in the changeroom and just enjoy the experience; nobody cares what you look like.
Day-trippers can pick up a Yumepa pass at any onsen for ¥1200, which is valid at all seven onsens, and if you’ve got any tats, cover them up before stripping off.
Where did we stay?
Right in the centre of town in a traditional room at Koyado Enn. It’s comfortable, has good wifi, a restaurant, cafe and two small onsens just for its guests. Great thing is that once you’ve scored the onsen, it’s exclusively yours to enjoy – not share with strangers. Let it all hang out!
Breakfast and coffee was included, too.
Koyado Enn – 219 Yushima
Kinosaki is famed for its local Matsuba crabs, and you can’t walk far without seeing them live, boiled, grilled or enlarged and stuck onto buildings. These prized little fellas aren’t cheap, so expect one to set you back ¥15,000 – 18,000 (around AUD$230).
It isn’t only snow crabs you can sink your teeth into, if you have a penchant for seafood. Loads of familiar and unrecognisable fish, fresh and dried squid, sardines, enormous sea snails, urchin and so much more dotted along the main street.
Plenty of other delights also await. Vendors tempt passers-by with steamers of skewered fish cakes, you can snack on warm parcels of rice and prawns or fill your luggage with bags of flavoured rice crackers, known locally as senbei.
At the top of town is Chaya cafe that’s known for its gelato and onsen tomago (hot spring eggs). You basically buy your eggs from them, they’re put into a net and suspended in a small hot spring. Then, 10 minutes later, you have a steaming hot goog.
Chaya – 857 Kinosakicho Yushima
Snacking your way through town is a very easy task – not that it even feels like a task. Sink your teeth into soft mochi in any flavour you want, or peel back and nibble on layers of buttery and sweet baukuchen – a German cake that’s really popular in Japan.
Get munching at Maruyama Confectionery on the main drag with one of their fluffy little cheese tarts (¥300) dusted with a cocoa crab. Only a small batch of these slightly sweet tarts are made each day, so get in early.
These guys also make yura yura yuagari pudding (¥350), which happens to be the best custard I’ve ever devoured. It’s unique to Kinosaki and is made with eggs that are gently-simmered in hot spring water. Lurking at the bottom of the glass pot is a divine runny caramel flecked with vanilla seeds.
If you can squeeze any more in, waddle up the street and plough into some black sesame soft serve.
Maruyama Confectionery – 665 Kinosakicho Yushima
The weather may not have been on our side, but a little rain didn’t stop us taking the Kinosaki Ropeway up Mount Daishi for views over the Maruyama River and Sea of Japan.
Halfway up is Onsenji Temple, which was built in 738 to dedicate a Buddhist saint who, according to legend, prayed for 1000 days to bring spring water to Kinosaki. At one point in time visitors to Kinosaki had to first walk up the mountain to the temple, before bathing in an onsen.
Further up the ropeway is a viewing deck and Miharashi Terrace Cafe, which is the top of the mountain and end of the line. Sit here and enjoy the views whilst also enjoying Kinosaki coffee, snacks and sweets like hon-warabi-mochi (¥600) – made from jelly-like bracken starch, kinako (sweet toasted soybean flour) and brown sugar syrup.
The return trip to the top costs ¥900.
Miharashi Terrace Cafe
Kinosaki during the day is abuzz with people enjoying the stunning willow and cherry tree-lined waterways, but come nighttime, the streets are virtually empty and finding a place to eat is a challenging exercise. There are quite literally only a few places open for dinner.
Gubigabu is a restaurant that does some very nice local craft brews on tap and an East-meets-West menu of pasta, bruschetta, pizza, Tajima beef dishes and pancakes for dessert.
We went for the Yakima beef curry deal, which involves crumbed pork, beef curry, rice and a beer – all for ¥1400. Seriously delicious, although it could have been twice the size to satisfy my appetite.
Gubigabu – 646 Yushima Kinosaki-cho
One of our lunches was enjoyed at Suke-Roku, a cute little joint that faces the willow tree-lined Otani River. There’s a tiny sushi counter to sit at, or a few tatami-style tables in the main dining room. Menu-wise, it’s a compact assortment of made-to-order sushi, sashimi and tempura.
As much as I loved the anagi sushi (conger eel, ¥900), the Tajima beef (¥1100) on sushi rice was the winning choice.
Suke-Roku – 660-4 Yushima Kinosaki-cho
Also on the river is Masuya – the cutest and most atmospheric of them all. A glass box at the entrance displays mock-ups and prices of dishes, but it’s not until you step in the door that you’re fully absorbed with its charm.
A cosy, dimly-lit room is decorated floor to ceiling with bric-a-brac, vintage clocks and hand-written menus.
Udon and handmade soba is the specialty here, made from local ingredients and presented in bowls with a variety of goodies. Duck soup, crab, Pacific herring and more.
The karē udon (¥900) was absolutely divine. Thick, creamy and mild dashi soup with beef. My amaebi udon (Y1300) was just as delicious; glistening sweet shrimp, udon and warming dashi broth.
Masuya – 654 Yushima Kinosaki-cho