When planning our trip to Japan, David and I left most of our schedule flexible so we could “chase” the unpredictable sakura bloom from city to city. But the one event we had in place was a special overnight trip to the quaint hot spring town of Kinosaki.
Many of our friends had raved about their experiences at both ryokan (Japanese inns) and onsens (Japanese bath houses), and Kinosaki provided the perfect opportunity to sample the classic onsen experience and renowned Japanese hospitality. For over 1,400 years Kinosaki has been enjoyed as a resort town and, as we’d later learn, the whole village is laid out to resemble the same structure and path one would use when experiencing an individual onsen bath house. The Japanese elevated bathing to an art form through ritual and custom, and the hot springs proved the perfect place to recover from Tokyo’s harried pace.
We hopped aboard a shinkansen (“bullet”) train from Tokyo early in the morning and arrived in Kinosaki before noon. Stepping off the train, we were greeted by Aoki, a representative from our ryokan, Nishimuraya Honkan. We drove through town, winding over the local river, and passing shops and people dressed in colorful yukata (light cotton kimonos) on their way to relax in one of Kinosaki’s seven public onsen while Aoki narrated the scenes unfolding before our eyes.
Though Nishimuraya Honkan is in the center of town, it couldn’t feel more secluded. We traded our shoes for a pair of house slippers as we entered and took in the tranquil view of the inner courtyard and lush Japanese gardens at the center of the honkan where Nishimuraya has welcomed guests for more than seven generations.
Our room was designed in the iconic sukiya-style (after traditional tea houses): simple, comfortable and in true Japanese fashion – thoughtful in every detail. From the shoji (sliding paper doors) to the tatami mat floors, our accommodations were authentically Japanese and unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before. A lesson in maximizing a small-space, our living area was set up with a low table for eating during the daytime, and converted into a bedroom later, after a lavish kaiseki dinner.
The idea of communal bathing was a little daunting at first (that’s right, onsen are intended to be enjoyed in the buff!) but after learning about proper bathing etiquette at our ryokan we both loved it! As with most things in Japan, there’s a proper way to dress for and experience the onsen culture. We would don our yukata, toe socks and wooden sandals and clip-clop from onsen to onsen, stopping for snacks at the stores in between bath houses. (The crab-shaped waffles filled with sweet bean paste were my favorite!) Onsen are separated by gender and you’re expected to wash yourself before entering the bath. All onsen have a row of showers, buckets, stools and bath products along the walls so you can wash before entering the water. One Japanese family that was also on vacation was very tickled by our attire and asked us to take their photo. The next day we ended up on the same shinkansen home, and had a sweet conversation with their little boy with the help of Google translate.
Even though we came for the onsens, dinner at Nishimuraya Honkan was a treat of a lifetime and certainly one of the most memorable experiences of our time in Japan. Twelve elaborate courses, designed by their Relais & Châteaux chefs, showcased the best local Matsuba crab and seafood taken from nearby waters. We oohed and ahhed non-stop during the three hour meal, as many dishes were prepared and cooked on specialty stoves right in our room. Every single dish was beautifully crafted and tasted even better than it looked!
We had originally planned to return to the onsens after dinner but as we enjoyed our last bites of dessert we were so relaxed we asked to have our futons made up so we could go to sleep early. Still full from the prior evening’s meal, we awoke to a traditional Japanese breakfast served in our room. As you can see from the photos, at Nishimuraya Honkan the most important meal of the day is meticulously prepared and presented. Our ryokan experience raised the bar for in-room dining with more courses (and dishes) than I could count!
Thank you Nishimuraya Honkan for your incredible hospitality!
All photos by David and Stacie Flinner for stacieflinner.com