January 10 – 11, 2014
Photo set on Flickr (Part of the Kansai Region set)
I have developed a deep reluctance to travel to Japan, unrelated to the ongoing Fukushima nuclear crisis. The nationalistic tension in the region doesn’t help, but that doesn’t affect my travel preference either. The reason is more simple – Japan is too easy a destination, a place where I can buy an air ticket today and be there tomorrow with minimal preparation required. I have already visited the country nine times and at this stage I prefer to travel to places a tad more challenging.
But sometimes a spontaneous urge to travel happens. A trip without any particularly agenda but to simply allow the two of us to relax a bit. With Bangkok in turmoil and my general indifference towards Singapore, our choices were narrowed down to the familiar: Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. No offense to the South Korea and Taiwan, but Japan is simply a superior destination. Yes Japan is more expensive and many argue Seoul has the best shopping in Asia, but Japan has better food, better transport and much better places of interest. The favorable exchange rate ($7.44 HKD to ¥100) sealed the deal.
Our confirmation of annual leaves, booking air ticket and accommodation all happened only a few days before our trip. We especially wanted to stay at an onsen ryokan (hot spring inn), and after some research we decided on visiting Kinosaki Onsen and Kyoto. January is low season for travel which allowed us to book everything at the last minute at a reasonable price.
We flew out of Hong Kong with the budget airline Hong Kong Express on January 9 and spent the first evening in Osaka’s Umeda district. Even after the opening of the much-hyped Osaka Grand Front shopping mall, we much preferred Namba to Umeda. The south side of Osaka has a unique local flavor that can’t be replicated by the central business district in the north.
Arriving Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉)
Our transport need was covered by the 4-day Kansai Wide Area Pass (¥7,000), which fit our itinerary like a glove. At 15:49, we arrived Kinosaki Onsen by taking the Kinosaki train in Kyoto (train schedule). Our ryokan (actually it is a hotel), Nishimuraya Shogetsu, had arranged a shuttle bus to pick us up at the train station. Tempting as it was to immediately try out the onsen, we decided to explore the town first.
Kinosaki Onsen was about 7°C colder than Kyoto, showing the large temperature gap between the Sea of Japan coast and the Pacific Ocean coast. Amazingly many people continued to hop between the seven public baths. They didn’t seem to mind the cold as everyone was wearing only their yukata (lit. bathing clothes) and a thin jacket. By 5 pm most shops were closed for the day, and as the snow was getting heavier, we made our way back to our hotel.
Nishimuraya Shigetsu (西村屋ホテル招月庭)
Our experience at Takefue was amazing. So amazing in fact that any onsen ryokan that follows is bound to be a letdown in comparison. And that’s how we felt about Nishimuraya Shogetsu. The biggest difference was the atmosphere –Nishimuraya Shogetsu is a multi-storied hotel while Takefue has separate cabins in the thick of a bamboo grove. It might sounds cliché, but we felt like being transported to a movie scene as we walked down the long flight of stairs from Takefue’s entrance to its reception cabin.
That said, we knew beforehand Nishimuraya Shogetsu is more like a hotel than a ryokan. More disappointing, especially given we had paid ¥32,000 per person, was the lack of a personal touch. At Takefue all female guests could choose their own yukuta. We had an unlimited supply of ice cream, milk, soft drink and tea. There were also gadgets and toys like DVD player, essence oil burner and coffee bean grinder to play with. None of them on its own was essential, but together they painted a picture of how far the ryokan was willing to travel in order to impress their guests. Nishimuraya Shogetsu offered none of the above.
Without the baggage of our previous experience, Nishimuraya Shogetsu fared fine. Our room was spacious. We also had our private onsen in the balcony. The food was delicious. The service impeccable. Everything added up to an enjoyable stay, but if that’s what ¥32,000 per person translates to, I might think hard about either pay more or a whole lot less the next time I shop for onsen ryokan.
Our slight disappointment dissipated instantly the moment we stepped into our private onsen. Watching snow fell from the sky was the perfect visual compliment to soaking in the 42°C onsen water. After our first dip it was dinner time (Read more here). Then another bath to aid digestion. It really doesn’t get better than this.
The best thing about having a private onsen is I can take a dip whenever I want. I woke up the next morning suffering from heavy-headedness because my stomach was too busy digesting the sumptuous dinner. All my senses were however snapped awake when I exposed myself to two extremes – a split second of subzero temperature before submerging myself into the scalding water.
Breakfast buffet was served at the 3rd floor dining hall. The standard choices like sausage, scrambled egg and toast were there, but also Japanese staples like grilled fish, pickled vegetable and porridge. More interesting was the regional specialties offered like crab meat dumpling, tofu and my favorite – miso soup with snow crab. I had more crab in two meals than the past few years combined.
Snow had been falling nonstop since the previous night, laying a blanket of whiteness over Kinosaki. Before checking out at 10, I had to take some photos of the snow scene. I didn’t want to get my daywear wet, so I braved the frigidity wearing only a yukata and a pair of geta (wooden sandals).
Behind the hotel was a large forest park. I had only about an hour so that’s where I headed. My feet soon went numb, but I felt surprisingly warm overall – perhaps the benefit of soaking in the onsen earlier.
A small waterfall stood at the end of the trail, where I spent 30 minutes trying to take a steady 1/20 sec shot either handheld or placing my camera on a piece of snow-covered boulder by the pond. A school of nishikigoi was swimming in the warm pond water, giving me an interesting but challenging foreground to my shots.
I got back to my room at 9:50 and I immediately jumped into the onsen. I felt blood gushing towards my feet, completely numb at that point. It is worth reiterating – winter is by far the best time for hot spring.
When we told the front desk staff our plan to take the 10:34 train back to Kyoto, she literally grasped. She arranged the hotel manager to give us a ride and we made it to the station with 10 minutes to spare. On this pleasant note we bid goodbye to Kinosaki Onsen.