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Half day in Kinosaki Onsen and Morizuya Ryokan, Japan Review

Half day in Kinosaki Onsen and Morizuya Ryokan, Japan Review

I was fortunate to spend a blissful half day in Kinosaki onsen at the wonderful Morizuya ryokan.

What is Kinosaki Onsen? Well, anyone who has a passing interest in onsens has heard of the place.

Correction – Anyone who is interested in Japanese baths and not just of the ones in Hakone has heard of Kinosaki onse-

Basically Kinosaki onsen is great, a lot of people know of it, and maybe you should too. 

Kinosaki Onsen on a bog-standard weekday is more beautiful than it has any right to be

Onsen

What is onsen and how is this different from a normal bath house or sento also popular in Japan?

Intellectually, it’s the geothermal activity involved. Natural hot springs or onsens are heated via geothermal heat from the Earth’s interior, which has resulted in hot spring resorts similar to Kinosaki Onsen popping up where there is a significant heat source nearby.

Sentos or bath houses are heated artificially and I’ve been to one in Nara (read my upcoming review of Nara Hakushikaso). It has become less common to find onsens or sentos in cities now, since baths are now a common feature of Japanese homes.

Socially it’s the bragging rights from relaxing in a comfortable hot spring; this has become intrinsically linked to a vacation at a luxury traditional Japanese hotel, known as ryokan, and is a quintessential Japanese pastime.

Sentos….do not have quite the same image to it.

Onsen surrounded by mountains – stock photo
Sento surrounded by mountains – stock photo

Physical differences between onsen and sentos? Bugger if I know.

Hot water is hot water, and baths are comfortable.

And onsen baths are a special kind of luxury in that I’ve never seen so many people so happy to be naked together in a confined space.

Water is water – stock photo

The last time I visited an onsen I wussed out in the standard British way and went to an onsen themed park in Hakone where they allowed swimsuits in selected areas.

Those areas actually weren’t using onsen water, but who needed that when you had coffee, wine and green tea flavoured pools? That’s a story for another day though.

But this time I was keen to do it correctly, after all I’m going to an onsen town; with yukatas, onsen hopping, elaborate meals and everything.

Secondly, it was much easier to be naked in a room full of strangers than with a mate who you’d known since you were 16.

This is the disadvantage of being the wrong type of European, if my friend Elena were here she would be the first to whip her clothes off.

What can I say? Sporty Europeans from non-English speaking countries are very open. It’s like they’re completely comfortable with themselves or something; the freaks.

Last and not least, if I was going to be paying £300 for a night in a Ryokan; I was damn well going to take advantage of the bath pass that all ryokans in the area offered, which gives you free access to the 7 public baths in the area. This was in the form of a barcode on a piece of paper, which they gave me in a plastic lanyard.

With my Asian sensibilities I had to try out the baths in the order of how expensive the entrance fee was.

Kinosaki Onsen – The Town

Kinosaki is famous for the whole onsen experience at an affordable, compact and easy package. Just far away enough from the major cities to not be over saturated with tourists, but not too far to be inaccessible; Kinosaki is a quaint canal town lined throughout with elegant weeping willows and cherry blossom or sakura trees.

Unfortunately we came a tad too early in late March to see the blossoms, but the town is charming regardless; especially under the soft yellow night lights.

Picturesque canal in Kinosaki
Old fashioned buildings

Was it still touristy? Very much so, every other shop was either a food shop or selling souvenirs such as onsen eggs, however I would be the last to pretend that I didn’t like touristy things.

I enjoy shopping and eating, and doubt that I can appreciate a pachinko parlour like a native.

Delicious onsen egg

There were quaint little touches like the old fashioned arcade in town, which was stuffed full of Asian tourists the last time I checked.

I also wanted to see the local shopping arcade in the morning, however everything appeared to open late in Kinosaki onsen except for the baths; some of which open from 7-11pm. So you could become a human prune if that was your deepest wish.

Souvenir shops galore

I only judge an area to be too touristy when there’s far too many people, but it never felt too crowded in the streets, and it was interesting to check out the different yukata, kimono, and sandal designs that everyone was wearing as they explored the town.

Some designs were specific to the ryokan that the guests are staying, so it was as if the town was taken over by different gangs; very well fed and freshly clean Asian gangs.

Gangsters

The main town area was an approximately 5-10 minute walk from the station, conveniently named Kinosakionsen station, and it was a very easy walk passing several shops advertising the local speciality: snow crab.

If you have a ton of luggage, have a group member who has difficulty walking, or are just plain lazy; it’s possible to arrange with your Ryokan to send a free pick-up service.

I didn’t do it personally, but probably would have if I had a Japanese phone number.

Local Kinosaki speciality – snow crab

And trust me you should stay in a ryokan, because going to an onsen resort and not staying in one is like going to Disneyland and not trying a single ride; not even the slow dark rides that grannies can deal with.

It’s possible to pop into town for the day to try all the public baths before getting the heck out of dodge, but considering the effort it takes to get there and the experience that you are missing out on; this makes little sense to me.

Just go somewhere more convenient like the hot spring park in Tokyo if you just want to experience hot springs. Staying in a ryokan is a quintessentially Japanese experience that will really show you how the locals relax.

Morizuya

The Ryokan in question that I stayed in was Morizuya, managed by a very friendly and helpful man named Mr Hachi. And when I say friendly and helpful, I MEAN friendly and helpful; to the point where it felt almost aggressively so to my foreigner sensitivities.
During my time there he:

  1. Took us to his mum’s place next door to observe a tea ceremony with her, a little old lady who then stole my camera and took pictures of absolutely everything in the room.
    Mr Hachi’s mum’s house
    Mr Hachi’s mum performing tea ceremony for us
    Mr Hachi’s mum taking photos of stuff in her house for us
  2. Politely forced me into a photoshoot around the town when I and my boyfriend were getting ready to go out in our Japanese outfits. He took photos:
  • on the right of bridge A
  • on the left of bridge A
  • outside the entrance of his buddy’s house
  • on a public bench that he dragged from 3 metres away to pose prettily next to bridge B

He then bid us farewell, only to collar us again when we made the mistake of walking past him, to take photos:

  • Standing at the ryokan entrance with/out umbrella
  • Sitting at the ryokan entrance with/out an umbrella
  • Sitting at a bench by a tree with/out an umbrella

It was intense! And very sweet, especially since it took pressure off me to take halfway decent photos for the rest of the trip. Amateur selfies for life!

3. Offered to personally drive us to the station upon checkout, but not before he took photos of us with himself, his wife and his mother. It was a shame his three children had already headed off to school at that point. Upon arriving at the station, he couldn’t resist and took a last set of photos of us standing at the entrance to the station; as good luck for the journey ahead I suppose.

Suffice to say, I was well impressed and half of me wondered if it was because I really looked so cute in my kimono that it just brought out his burning artistic soul…

That was until I read reviews online and realized that he did this for pretty much every guest. So 10/10 for customer service, I am not special and you will be subjected to similar hospitality should you choose to stay at Morizuya.

I chose Morizuya due to several factors; mostly due to its bang for buck pricing. In March 2019 I paid approximately £300 for one night for two people; including a traditional kaiseki dinner and breakfast. Kaiseki is essentially a fancy 8-10 course Japanese meal made with the freshest ingredients and beautiful presentation; many think this alone is worth the price of a stay in a ryokan. At Morizuya there was also free kimono rental for women; as well as the standard ryokan yukatas, free bath passes, and access to Morizuya’s private onsen baths. The ryokan baths rotated during the day between genders; with the outdoor bath available during the day and the indoor cave style bath available at night for women. For the onsen shy note that it was possible to reserve the baths privately, all you had to do was lock the door when you wanted a private soak during set periods of the day.

For comparison I looked at prices for something similar in the best ryokan in the area; the Nishiyama Honten which was seen as one of Japan’s best ryokans, and the price difference was approximately £500.

Morizuya was also located in the centre of town, awarded 4 stars, and boasted very favourable reviews on Tripadvisor and other websites.

I would definitely recommend it to everyone, but especially to Chinese speakers. The manager spoke conversational English, but the two women who prepared our meals, clothes and rooms only spoke Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. From my rudimentary understanding of Mandarin (I basically mangled my Cantonese, smiled a lot and guessed) I understood that this area was especially popular with Chinese and Singaporean guests, and I assume the rest of the clientele were Japanese on a relaxing vacation. This would explain the 95% Asian demographic of the tourists I saw around town.

The traditional tatami room we had was clean and large, even without taking into account the fact that Japan generally had very small hotel suites. It was divided into three distinct sections by folding paper doors; an entrance way area with a dressing table area and access to a toilet and sink, a sleeping and eating area, and a seated area by the window with a mini kitchenette/large sink and mirror.

Morizuya exterior
Spacious area with tatami mat flooring
Sitting area with a view to the streets

There was no bath or shower in our room as the expectation was that you would clean yourself at the onsens. I estimated that the ryokan had around 12 rooms, with us being in the 12th room. From a brief exploration of the whole ryokan, we found that it was divided into three levels; with a reception and sitting room on the ground floor, a small sitting area and access to the baths on the first, and the kimono rental room on the second level directly opposite us. The bedrooms were located on the first and second floors.

When we were in the ryokan, unlike in Nara Hakushikaso, we had an assistant who helped my boyfriend into his yukata and myself into a kimono which I chose in the kimono rental room. I generally become paralyzed when there is too much choice in front of me, and this time was no different. There were rows and rows of fabrics with all shades of colors and patterns, sashes galore, and more outerwear robes than you could shake a stick at. In the end I just went along with what the lady recommended. Her choices were nice for the most part and I liked the dusty pink kimono with flowers and blue/purple sash. However the white outer robe with the busy blue print I swapped out afterwards when she wasn’t looking for a white silk one with simpler details. It looked much better according to my boyfriend and usually he doesn’t notice these things; I mean that in the most offensive way possible.

The kimono fitting was a work of art, a truly meticulous exercise in folding, tucking and tightening. It was so complicated that my boyfriend’s yukata fitting felt like it was slapped on in comparison. I specifically asked for help for him because we both had trouble in Nara with the yukatas. It turned out that this was because the yukatas in we had there were made for giants and far too long for us. The ones in Morizuya were a much more sensible length and meant we didn’t have to bunch up fabric like crazy, or indeed need any help in putting it on.

Sensible lengths

Our room itself felt very spacious, clean and comfortable. Our meals were held in the living room and spread out over the low table. As was standard in traditional rooms; your seats were essentially thick cushions on the floor, although there was a backrest for more support. Your dining table would be taken away and futons would be taken out of a convenient cupboard in the room by an assistant; who would prepare your beds for you and turn the living room into the bedroom. It looked like quite a bit of effort with some huffing and puffing, and he was properly drenched in sweat by the end of it. There is also a humidifier in the corner which we had turned on constantly during the night.

Futons laid out

The futons were very thick and comfortable for me, as someone who likes their bedding to be very hard. Those used to softer beds may not like it, as you were essentially sleeping on a very padded floor. The whole area wasn’t a traffic heavy place, so there was no issue with noise at all. I had a very good sleep, although the yukatas had a tendency to spread wild and free in the night if you weren’t used to them. You might want to wear shorts underneath the yukata to make yourself more comfortable.

Morizuya also offered many small amenities aside from the standard toiletries, with straw bags and pretty umbrellas free to borrow from the reception area.

Free bag rental at reception

Onsen review

There were 7 public onsens open to the public: Satonoyu, Jizouyu, Yanagiyu, Ichinoyu, Goshonoyu, Mandarayu and Kounoyu. All of them operated on the weekends and took turns to close during the weekday; ensure that the one that you are interested in is open during your stay. During my stay on a Wednesday, both Ichinoyu and Mandarayu were closed; thankfully they weren’t the most famous ones. I managed to visit three public onsens: Satonoyu, Goshonoyu and Juzunoyu, as well as the private cave bath at Morizuya.

Map Morizuya gave me of the area

Satonoyu and Goshonoyu were the most famous; Satonoyu for its large size, and Goshonoyu for sheer impressiveness. Our first attempt to visit Goshonoyu was a failure as for some reason they had to close and a lady was ushering us away. Maybe someone barfed in the water or something? Something similar had happened when I was swimming in Copthall Leisure Centre as a teenager, it was annoying because the pools were not heated and I had just acclimatized myself to the water when they forced us all out.

So we went to Satonoyu instead, which happened to be right next door to the station and the furthest away from town. I was wearing a kimono and had brought along the Morizuya standard yukata along in a basket, because I was quite certain I wouldn’t be able to put the kimono on again after taking a bath; I was correct. Make sure you have someone to help or use a spare outfit if you are entering the baths in a kimono.

Entrance to Satonoyu

All the onsens we’d been to shared similarities; such as a charming reception area in the ground floor with a locker area to stash away your essentials. This included our shoes as we needed to wear the provided slippers at the entrance. Japan being Japan; there were vending machines along the side, possibly next to a seating area in the case of the larger onsens, for a cool post bath drink. I swear these places make at least a quarter of its profit from the vending machines alone.

Afterwards you would be separated from your friends/partners by gender, as there was no mixed bathing available. Due to the presence of two onsen areas; it was common for the onsens to operate a set bath schedule, whereupon the bath areas swapped periodically between genders.

In the changing rooms there were even more lockers; this time to provide space for clothes, there was also a vanity area to dry your hair and to go through your standard 8 step skincare routine.

The standard onsen rules applied: no tattoos, only bring in a small hand towel to the baths, clean yourself in the provided shower areas before entering public water, never let your hand towel enter clean water, dry yourself before entering the changing rooms again and for the love of all that is holy do not bring your camera in.

This Nara deer is judging people who bring cameras into onsens

Japan isn’t weird enough to be okay with people taking pictures of strangers naked in a public space. Just take images from the internet like everyone else, or be an actual criminal I guess for those sweet sweet Instagram likes. I strongly advise against the criminal route, but would laugh my head off if an actual social media person gets arrested. Just imagine the headline: Girl gets arrested for taking pictures of Japanese naughty bits, caught by genius decision to post crime online; a true legend.

Satonoyu was large, it had space for a sizable shower area, a sauna, a cold pool, a jacuzzi, a smaller pool area with powerful jets of water to shoot into your back, and finally a large onsen pool. The whole open area is internal, however one side is made up completely of floor to ceiling windows which let in natural lighting. Satonoyu was quite impressive, and had adequate space for everyone when we were there in the late afternoon.

We had a refreshing drink afterwards to cool down from the pool heat, before heading went back to the Ryokan afterwards for our Kaiseki meal (Read my review of the Morizuya Kaiseki meal). I recommend the chocolate milk drink my boyfriend had; it seemed like the most popular item and was very creamy, smooth, and sweet like a milkshake. After hobbling back quickly in our outdoor sandals (we had a set dinner time of 6.30pm) and eating literally the biggest meals of our lives, we headed out again in the evening determined to maximize the use of our bath passes.

This was a popular idea shared by pretty much everyone, as Goshonoyu was teeming with people. I think this was standard for them though, as it was generally agreed to be the prettiest onsen of them all; starting with the beautiful golden screens in the reception area.

Goshonoyu entrance

And it was certainly impressive with two main pool areas: an internal pool separated from a two tiered outdoor rock pool area by a sliding door; with a water pool stream constantly trickling down the tiers. The internal and external pools were separated when I was there, and there was a little space between the internal and external pools that you had to pass through to access the other pool. I greatly preferred the outdoor onsen, as the contrast between the cold night air and the hot water was larger; it made the whole bathing process that much more soothing.

The only problem is that there were far too many people in Goshonoyu.

I’ve never seen so many boobs and butts of all sizes in my life and had to carefully nudge a free spot for myself outside with limited choice for spreading out. The changing room was worse due to a tighter space, and I had to stand for a good few minutes before I could even access my locker. The good news is that there’s nothing like a room full of naked women to make you realize that your body really is pretty normal in the grand scheme of things, assuming that you lie more or less within the standard BMI range.

The bad news is that I hate people.

Or specifically being squashed next to them.

Here’s some monkeys in an onsen to show how physically close to strangers I felt, because I don’t snap naked strangers. Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

This made the stress free activity of onsen hopping slightly stressful, and I wasn’t in the mood to try any other baths for a good while; especially since staying in hot water for too long made me feel woozy. I definitely recommend going to Goshonoyu around opening or closing time when it should be emptier.

I ended up skipping the next two baths, opting instead to peek into them during our walk through the pretty town, and collecting the prints from the tied stamps outside of the onsen. For stamp nerds note that if a public onsen is closed, the stamps will be transported to another onsen for you crazy folks.

An onsen of note is Kounoyu, as it was a ways away from the other onsens, and offered a more peaceful atmosphere than the others. I had a feeling it was most popular with those who wanted to get away from the crowds. You would need to navigate through a car-park in front to get to the entrance though, which was no easy feat in the dark.

Kounoyu exterior at night

Yanagiyu’s exterior made no impression, except their foot baths outside didn’t feel very hot when I tried them around 10pm. Lastly we quickly dipped into Jizouyu; it had the smallest reception, and the smallest main pool I had seen yet that was shaped like a test tube. It did have the cutest kiddy pool with cartoon artwork though, and was blessedly mostly empty.

Yanagiyu footbath
Jizouyu exterior

I never described the onsen water in detail, because they all felt like the same temperature to me. Very, very hot and very, very comforting. The onsens supposedly had different properties; such as being particularly good for improving your beauty, but I couldn’t tell the difference. They were all very good in soothing my aching feet from walking around all day though, and I could see onsens being a popular old person hobby. In fact I saw an old lady in Satonoyu who literally looked like she would crack at any second, and I was petrified of going anywhere near her in case I would be the one to accidentally break her. I really, really hoped she didn’t go to Goshonoyu at peak period is all I’m saying.

Fine china – stock photo

Lastly I took a chance to try out the cave onsen at Morizuya at approximately 10.30pm in the dead of night, so I managed to get the area all to myself. I had to admit, compared to the other onsens I’d tried that day, I found the cave onsen a bit too artificial looking for my tastes. The flooring had that garden path look where there was a greyish cement flooring with round rocks spread evenly throughout. The photos online made it look much better than I remembered though, so I may be wrong.

Despite being the only person there, due to the jagged rock enclosure covering the approximately 4m x 6m pool, I still managed to feel like there wasn’t sufficient space to truly perch and relax. So I had to say, the idea of a cave onsen sounded great but the reality wasn’t really my thing; although I’m glad I got to try it. I could see it working out better if the pool area was much larger, the stone floor looked more natural/is normal tiling, there was a walkway area around the pool that would allow you to sit, and a hole on the roof of the cave to see the sky. My boyfriend had the outdoor onsen and the pictures of it looked much more to my tastes.

Travel route

One big thing to take note about Kinosaki onsen is that planning for the journey there and onwards is very strongly advised. This is no Kyoto to Osaka hop here and missing the most straightforward route could really eat up your time and test all your closest relationships. I had stayed the night in Kobe the day before to try the beef there (read my review of Steakland), travelled to Himeji castle (read my review of Himeji) for the next morning, before I took the train to Kinosaki Onsen in the afternoon. We took the Limited Express Hamakaze train at 1.25pm, which took 103 minutes and had no interchanges. Note that all of the other journey options from Himeji given by the Hyperdia app at the time added from half an hour to nearly 1.5 hours to the journey, with up to 2 interchanges. I had specifically planned Himeji as my starting point as it was one of the closer major transport hubs to Kinosaki Onsen, and all of this was covered in the Kansai Wide Area Pass (read my Rail Passes post).

Straight route from Himeji

We had to be even more precise on our way to Osaka, as there was literally only one sensible train route from Kinosaki to Shin-Osaka in the morning, in our case the 9.33am Limited Express Konotori which took three hours with no interchanges. The alternative routes were ridiculous, with one option telling us to take the bus (which was already a huge warning sign from Hyperdia) and the plane to Osaka airport along the way!

No thank you

By fiddling with the Hyperdia app, I’d worked out that the route to Kyoto was slightly less convoluted and shorter at a 148 – 154 minutes average journey time, however services came only once an hour.

Simple Kyoto route

Basically this is a very long winded way to say: get the Hyperdia app, access to the internet, and make sure someone with brains has their eye on the prize. I’m all for letting the wind take you to the next destination, just not when I plan to visit a restaurant serving curry with rice shaped like a butt (read my review of Gudetama café).

Food with a butt

Summary

Kinosaki Onsen is a beautiful destination for a spot of Japanese style relaxation with its dreamy canals, bridges and traditional wooden buildings. The onsens are piping hot and very comforting; with onsen hopping offering a very different and soothing kind of entertainment than the usual. It’s not too crowded in the weekdays and is the perfect spot for couples to visit, or for friends who are very comfortable with each other. There is a mental barrier for those from more conservative countries, but generally speaking other people simply don’t care what you look like in your birthday suit. I will say just take a deep breath and grip your hand towel over your bits like your life depends on it and you’ll be fine. Alternatively you can stay in a ryokan with private onsen facilities, but I feel that would really dilute your experience.

I highly recommend visiting Morizuya as your ryokan of choice; I was worried about my choice initially as it was on the cheaper side of the Ryokans available, but was blown away by the hospitality of the staff and the quality of the food. Please be aware that though I say cheaper, ryokans are not famous for being affordable and should be treated like a luxurious break from life as opposed to a standard hotel stay. I found Morizuya very much worth my money in the quality of my stay and it made my time in Kinosaki Onsen a fantastic experience overall.

Good food, good people and a good experience, although Kinosaki Onsen is not a place you simply fall into during your travels, it is certainly worth planning for in your trip to Japan.

Details

Kinosaki Onsen

Website: https://visitkinosaki.com/

Address: Unnamed Road, Kinosakicho Yushima, Toyooka, Hyogo 669-6101, Japan/Unnamed Road, 城崎町湯島 豊岡市 兵庫県 669-6101

Morizuya Ryokan

Website: http://www.morizuya.com/en/

Address: 417 Kinosakicho Yushima, Toyooka, Hyogo 669-6101, Japan/〒669-6101 兵庫県豊岡市城崎町湯島417

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