Lonely Planet named this charming resort town in northern Hyogo as Japan’s best hot spring destination. With seven tattoo-friendly bathhouses, dozens of traditional ryokan (Japanese inns), and various cultural activities, Kinosaki Onsen boasts everything travelers need for a weekend getaway of relaxation and proper Japanese hospitality.
According to ancient records, the hot springs of Kinosaki Onsen were discovered over 1,300 years ago, thanks to the efforts of Dochi Shonin, a traveling priest who, upon arriving in modern-day Kinosaki Onsen, found the townspeople suffering from various ailments. An oracle is said to have appeared before him, foretelling prosperity and happiness for the villagers if Dochi Shonin stayed and prayed for 1,000 days.
Dochi Shonin followed the oracle’s advice, and on the 1000th day, hot spring water sprung from the ground.
Today, seven public bathhouses are dotted along Kinosaki Onsen’s willow-lined streets, each with their own unique atmosphere and charm.
- Satono-yu: Two unique two-floor baths, one Turkish and one Japanese-style and panoramic views of the nearby Maruyama River.
- Jizo-yu: A sento-style bath house built in the likeness of a Japanese lantern is widely used by local families.
- Yanagi-yu: Said to ensure the safe birth of children and fertility. Due to its small size, it is also thought to be the hottest bath.
- Ichino-yu: Modeled after the architecture of Kabuki theaters, Ichino-yu is known for its outdoor cave baths.
- Goshono-yu: The only hot spring with a completely outdoor setting where guests enjoy views of a natural mountainside waterfall.
- Mandara-yu: The water that gushed from the ground after Dochi Shonin’s prayer is said to be the site where Mandara-yu stands today. Ceramic outdoor tubs make for a cozy bathing experience.
- Kono-yu: Legend says that the springs of Kono-yu were discovered when an injured Oriental White Stork was healing its wounds in the waters. Kono-yu is located in the back of town, perfect for a quieter onsen experience with fewer crowds.
All of Kinosaki Onsen’s seven public baths happily welcome tattooed guests.
Those looking for a ryokan that allows guests with tattoos in their private baths are encouraged to call ahead and ask before booking. Even if your chosen ryokan is not accommodating to tattoos, Kinosaki Onsen is an entirely walkable town, and visitors can easily make their way from ryokan to bath house.
During any visit to Kinosaki Onsen, a must-do is to go “onsen hopping” to all seven bathhouses. Don a yukata (a light cotton kimono) while strolling from bath to bath – it makes changing multiple times convenient and is a great way to engage in the traditional bathing culture.
Yukata are included in ryokan stays, but those who would like a more elaborate yukata complete with accessories and hairstyling can reserve a dressing experience at a local shop. Many guests wear geta (wooden sandals) as they click-clack down the cobblestone streets.
‘Mugiwara Zaiku’ Kinosaki Onsen’s Traditional Artform
In Japanese, mugiwara zaiku (straw craft) is a traditional handicraft with vibrant colors and intricate patterns that, in all of Japan, is only produced in Kinosaki Onsen. Approximately 300 years ago, a craftsman named Hanhichi came to stay in Kinosaki Onsen, selling flutes and spinning tops decorated with colored straw. The straw was also used to decorate boxes and wooden prayer plaques. Guests can experience making their own straw craft boxes in a workshop activity.
Sample Tajima beef (the origins of Kobe beef) and Matsuba crab (from November to March) at a local restaurant or in the comfort of a ryokan room, where guests can experience a kaiseki (Japanese banquet-style meal) dinner.
Celebrations include the Onsen Festival, held on April 23 and 24 to commemorate the death of Dochi Shonin, and the Toro Nagashi Lantern Festival held in August.