Traditional wooden sandals called geta are appropriate shoes when visiting a Japanese hot spring. // © 2014 Thinkstock
Feature image (above): In addition to traditional architecture, the town of Kinosaki in Japan's Hyogo Prefectural offers scenic riverside walkways. // © 2014 Hyogo Prefectural Government
On an evening stroll after dinner in Kinosaki, Japan, it was obvious that I had made a wardrobe mistake.
A small, historic resort town, celebrated for its public “onsen” (geothermal hot springs), Kinosaki is located in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan’s Kansai region and only a short drive from the coast and the Sea of Japan. By train, Kinosaki is two hours and 40 minutes northwest from Kyoto. It’s a place where traditional “yukata” (cotton kimonos) and “geta” (wooden sandals), should not be left in the closet at your hotel.
Meandering down a narrow street, lined with “ryokan” (traditional Japanese inns) and all sorts of historic wooden buildings with glowing shop fronts, I passed a number of evening strollers. Everyone was dressed in the typically vivid yukata and sporting geta, which produced rhythmic drag-and-clomp noises as people walked past, reminding me a little of the sound of a front porch rocking chair.
Dressed in shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers, I felt slightly out of place on the after-dark streets of Kinosaki. Yet, nobody seemed too upset about my fashion choices, and everyone I encountered shared friendly smiles.
A little more awkwardness ensued, however, during my first group experience at an onsen back at my hotel, the upscale and traditional Nishimuraya Shogetsutei. This time I remembered to wear my yukata and geta down to the property’s in-house geothermal bathing facility, but I wasn’t in either for long as I stripped down in the men’s locker room. I planned to participate in the traditional bathing experience, which begins with soaping up before rinsing off, using a handheld shower fixture while seated on a shin-high wooden stool.
Divided into a men’s section and a women’s section, the Nishimuraya baths have a selection of tranquil indoor and outdoor pools, heated to a temperature similar to what you would expect in a western Jacuzzi. I hurried through my washing routine to head for the welcome concealment of the indoor heated pool. After some soaking, I grew a bit more courageous and headed out to the hotel’s outdoor bath setting, which was especially relaxing with its melodic waterfall feature and natural stone landscaping, accented with Japanese trees, plants and flowers.
According to the region’s tourism officials, Kinosaki can trace its appeal as a highly respected hot springs destination back to the 7th century. One of many colorful legends tied to the region describes a revered white stork that healed its wounds in the location’s therapeutic geothermal pools. Many samurai are also said to have recovered in Kinosaki’s ryokan and baths from injuries suffered in various battles.
Today, visitors can sample the town’s seven public hot springs. They stay open late into the evenings, most until 11 p.m. They offer a range of distinctive styles and atmospheres along with a variety of indoor and outdoor facilities. Most of Kinosaki’s ryokan also feature private geothermal bathing facilities for overnight guests.
Travelers staying at the Nishimuraya Shogetsutei hotel should also be sure to book a traditional kaiseki meal at the property, consisting of small but flavorful courses ranging from the locale’s popular crab to yellow fin sashimi. There’s even a chance to grill your own high-end regional Tajima beef on a super-heated ceramic stone. Diners should be sure to show up for their kaiseki meal in the traditional yukata and geta provided by the hotel.