In the late afternoon we arrived in Kinosaki (also called Kinosaki Onsen). Onsen means "hot spring," and Kinosaki is full of them. There are seven public bathhouses in this amazing resort town that boasts a 1400-year history. They are so popular because the water is believed to be good for muscle aches, nerve pain and upset stomachs. Kinosaki, situated in northern Hyogo Prefecture, is one of the most beautiful towns I've ever seen. A river (Otani Stream) runs through the center. Along its banks, sweeping willow tress line up one after another. Walking down the narrow streets with so many cute souvenir shops and old wooden Japanese-style inns is something I will never forget. The pictures plus video (below) don't do it justice; you have to experience this yourself.
Our first stop was to the Kinosaki Mugiwarazaiku denshokan -- a small straw museum (entrance fee: 300 yen = $3). We learned how Japanese straw-work (called mugiwarazaiku) is done. Mugiwarazaiku is unique to this area, and has gone strong for over 300 years. We took a stab at creating something out of straw at the Kinosaki literary museum, just down the road. I made this dragon fly straw card. Okay, it's not much -- but it was still a fun 30 minutes, and it brought me back to elementary school. We must have done a good job, because our picture was in the Kobe News!
We stayed at a ryokan (a Japanese-style inn). There are over 63,000 ryokans in Japan, they're the way to go. They offer visitors almost the same living experience as a Japanese family. However, make sure to learn the basic rules for staying in a ryokan beforehand. First, take your shoes off at the entrance, and slip on one of the neatly lined up pairs of slippers. This was a problem for me, because I have size 13 feet, and I don't think anyone in Japan has feet this large. The slippers were way too small, and I walked around the lobby looking like King Kong. Don't worry about the shoes you left behind. The ryokan worker assigned to shoe duty remembers which pair belongs to who, and has them ready when you leave. (I have no idea how they do this!) If you're only taking a short stroll outside, getas (wooden clogs) are available. They make the street sound like hundreds of horses are trotting through.
We checked into an above average ryokan called Sento. Located in the center of Kinosaki, it did not look like much from the street. Inside, however, was a whole other world. I was escorted to my straw-smelling minimalist room (one of 40) by a friendly, non-English speaking, kimono-wearing woman. She politely reminded me (by pointing) to take my 6-sizes-too-small slippers off before I walked on the tatami (straw mat). The place was basically one big empty room, with a connected indoor balcony divided by a shoji (sliding paper wall). For the first time in my life I felt like I was in a James Bond movie (minus the hot babes). I was so tired I just wanted to lie down on the bed -- but there wasn't anywhere to do that. That's right: My bed (a futon) only miraculously appeared at night, in the center of the room. I never thought sleeping on the floor could be comfortable, but it was. Before my bed showed up the room contained only a very low table, a cushion, a dresser and a television that got three Japanese channels.
Fortunately, the bathroom didn't have a hole in the ground like many I read about. This one had a modern Western toilet with a heated seat, and some crazy bidet buttons I was afraid to press. Inside the tiny bathroom was a separate pair of miniature bathroom slippers to be worn only in there. My big toe couldn't even fit in these, so I just stepped on the tops.
Like the others, my room had no shower. Instead there was a towel, washcloth, and a yukata (robe) which was to be worn down to the hotel or public hot spring. Luckily, I didn't slip the yukata on right away, because five minutes after the first woman left, in came another with a cup of green tea and manjuu (a sweet bean paste bun). After drinking my tea and trying that nasty tasting bun (must be an acquired taste), it was time to wash up before dinner. I donned my yukata, making sure it was tied correctly. It's important that the left side overlaps the right. Only dead people wear them the other way, and I don't want negative karma swirling around. I didn't learn until later that you're also supposed to wear underwear beneath them. That was a HUGE mistake, which I won't get into - except to say those robes don't stay tied too well.
SPA AT THE RYOKAN
I first walked across the street to check out one of the popular public baths in town. My imagination pictured something totally different. Stupid me expected to see a room filled with beautiful women wearing angel wings as they frolicked around the pool. When I took one peek inside, I quickly put on my shoes and ran back to the hotel. I have no desire to bathe in a crowded, steamy room filled to the rim with naked Japanese men. Instead I went to our hotel spa. It was not only free (well, included in the price of the hotel room --130,000 yen = $130 for two people), but empty as well.
There are more rules, which are good because you don't want people running in doing cannonballs without showering. Before entering the communal natural hot bath, it's important to shower. To do this you sit on a 6-inch high, not very wide stool. Who were these things built for? I was so relieved there was no one else in the room, because I kept falling off that darn thing.
At dinner (the most popular dish was crab), the women in our group were complaining that the women's bath was really small. I thought that was odd, because the men's bath was huge. There was even an outdoor tub, with a very peaceful mini-waterfall trickling down the rock wall. I must have been in the bathroom when they told the women, "Don't worry. You'll get to see the other spa tomorrow, because every day they swap the facilities at the Sento ryokan. Everyone gets to experience both spas." You should have seen the look on the Japanese woman who came strolling into the bath stark naked the next morning, only to find King Kong trying to scrub his arse on the miniature stool. Talk about a deer in headlights! I had no idea I was using the women's bath. Hey, like I can read the Japanese character in the front that says "Female," "Women," "Ladies" or "Jackasses".
When I told that story at breakfast, everyone (but me) was in tears from laughing. It's funny now, but the scene was ugly. The poor woman didn't speak any English, and me speak no Japanese. All I know is we both broke Rule #1 in Japanese public baths: Don't make eye contact or stare.
Next week we make our way to Kyoto.