His yukata is comfy but the traditional clogs cause a few problems for Lincoln Tan in Kinosaki.

These days it's the "in thing" for visitors to Japan to dress, walk and even learn to behave as Japanese do. In little Kinosaki, a hot spring town two and a half hours by train from Kyoto, locals and visitors potter around town in traditional Japanese garb, a light cotton kimono.

En route to Kinosaki two friendly locals, Mai Shirai and Arisa Kojima, shared their excitement and plans to visit each of the seven hot springs at the town, which has a usually resident population of just over 3500.

"In Kinosaki, it's like time has stopped, and everyone who goes there feels just so relaxed," said Kojima, 25, as our train meandered through hills, rural villages and rice fields. Both women were on a mission to chill and unwind. "Japanese people work too hard and we don't get enough rest time, but we will be guaranteed to be recharged after a Kinosaki holiday," said Kojima.

After alighting at Kinosaki Onsen Station, I appreciated Kojima's description of how time had stood still in this northern village in the Hyogo Prefecture.


Folk strolled in their traditional yukata, women pottered about on bicycles and locals soaked their feet in public hot foot baths.

The little town stretches just 1.2km and its main street, Yunosato-dori, is lined with souvenir shops, izakaya snack bars and wooden ryokan (traditional-style inns).

Off the main street is the picturesque Kitayanagi-dori, through which the willow-lined Otani River runs.

Of the seven sotoyu, or bath houses, the oldest is Kouno-yu, originating about 1300 years ago after an Oriental white stork was seen bathing its wounds there. Visitors can buy a day "Yume" pass to all the bath houses or get in free when staying at a ryokan.

The picturesque main street of Kinosaki village, Japan. Photo / Lincoln Tan
The picturesque main street of Kinosaki village, Japan. Photo / Lincoln Tan

Mari Kondo, a Toyooka City tourism representative, explained the finer points of wearing the yukata, which includes wrapping it around your body first with the right side then the left, because the other way around is how the Japanese dress their dead.

"We see Kinosaki as one big ryokan [inn], people are encouraged to wear the yukata everywhere they go in the village," she said.

Kondo said locals regard the train station as the main entrance to their home, the streets the hallways, the ryokans are the bedrooms and hot springs are the baths.

It was mid-afternoon before I was installed in my ryokan, - Koman - which also has a long history and is recognised as the fourth oldest such facility in the country.


Built about 1300 years ago, legend has it that a priest prayed for 1000 days for villagers in Kinosaki who suffered from incurable diseases, and water miraculously gushed from the ground.

My traditional Japanese-style room came with a tatami mat and a low table, at which a kimono-clad hostess served me green tea. She laid out the yukata, blushed and nodded when I asked if I needed to wear underwear with it. "But when you go onsen inside, no underwear, no nothing," the hostess said, and apologised for her limited English.

When I got back to the ryokan reception I was presented with geta clogs (wooden sandals).

After 10 minutes of learning to walk like a baby in the clogs, I honestly felt like it would have been easier moving around in women's high heels.

I did a "practice run" and took a quick selfie at Koman's private hot spring baths, before preparing for my first public onsen experience.

I chose Mandara-yu, only because it was the closest to the ryokan, and I was still far from being expert in walking in geta clogs.

Mai Shirai (left) and Arisa Kojima visit onsens in Kinosaki, Japan. Photo / Lincoln Tan
Mai Shirai (left) and Arisa Kojima visit onsens in Kinosaki, Japan. Photo / Lincoln Tan

Two other onsen, Ichino-yu and Satono-yu are said to be the best in town, but they will have to wait for another time.

Stripping down, I followed the "monkey see, monkey do" philosophy, doing everything the other naked men did to get cleaned before entering the onsen. After a while, I became adept at showering while sitting on stools and scrubbing myself with a tiny towel. At a temperature of 41C, the onsen was perfect for soaking - and I was thankful the six other naked men in the pool kept a respectful distance.

The high heat meant it was impossible to stay in the onsen waters for more than just a few minutes.

Returning to the onsen later, still geared up in yukata, I was ushered to the hall for a traditional "kaiseki" multi-course dinner. A platter of crab, sashimi, tofu, seafood and shabu shabu greeted us, and we were told that was just the entree.

Kinosaki - on the coast of the Sea of Japan - is also famed for seafood, particularly Matsuba snow crabs and Tajima beef, stock cattle for world renowned Kobe beef.

Our kaiseki dinner included beef, which was grilled on our personal hot plate, rice, dessert and locally brewed sake.


While we dined, ryokan staff were busy getting our rooms ready for the night.

When I got back to mine, the low table had been moved to one side and a futon mattress now occupied the centre of the room.

Kinosaki is a charming little town, which in April is festooned with Somei Yoshino cherry blossoms. In winter, snow and ice blankets the village, transforming it into a rather magical sight.

The town last year had only about 14,600 foreign visitors and remains one of Japan's best-kept secrets.

I may have spent just one night in Kinosaki, but my memories of this charming little onsen village will remain forever.



Getting there: Korean Air flies daily from Auckland to Osaka via Seoul. Kinosaki is three hours by train.

For more information: Visit kinosaki-spa.gr.jp and jtboi.co.nz.

The writer travelled to Osaka as a guest of JTB and Korean Air.