February 2015: the long awaited First Trip to Japan. We had two glorious weeks to explore the Kansai region. Our goal? Experience as many onsen – traditional Japanese baths – as possible. Basing ourselves in Kyoto, we decided on just two side trips – one to Kinosaki, and one to the Kawa-yu Onsen area (specifically Yunomine, Watarase, and Kawa-yu Onsen). This post explores a portion of this trip: the Kawa-yu Onsen area and the Kumano Kodo Trail.
Kawa-yu Onsen Area
According to our Lonely Planet Guidebook to Japan, Yunomine, Watarase, and Kawa-yu Onsen are “among the best [onsen] in all of Kansai.” I quickly discovered why. All three are within easy walking distance from each other, though if sidewalks seem essential to your well-being the walk may challenge your comfort level. Each town provided distinct onsen experiences, making this a great crash course in the many styles of bathing available in Japan.
The main attraction for our stay was the Sennin Buro at Kawa-yu Onsen. The aqua-marine river sits on a bed of hot water, which trickles to the surface with varying degrees of strength. Throughout the year, tourists and locals alike can go down to the river bed, dig a hole in the stones, let hot water fill it up, and sit in a personal onsen bath. However, from December to February 28th, a section of the river is bulldozed to create a large rotemburo, where many people can sit and enjoy the hot mineral water together. In fact, “Sennin Buro” roughly translates to “thousand person bath,” though I wouldn’t have gone in with 1,000 other people.
As an outside onsen, and one with mixed genders, bathing suits were expected. However, a few men (note: men only) stripped down to traditional bathing attire – nothing at all. I must admit I envied them at first. Bathing nude delights me. But after sitting awhile while hot algae encroached on my personal space, I felt grateful for the lycra protecting my special parts ;).
Kumano Kodo Trail Hike
In addition to the exceptional onsen in the area, Kawa-yu Onsen provides a great starting point to explore sections of the Kumano Kodo. Though many people refer to the Kumano Kodo as an ancient pilgrimage trail, this isn’t exactly correct. Instead, it is a series of trails and sub-trails that pilgrims took to reach Hongu Taisha – a holy site. Filled with World Heritage sites, ancient ruins of teahouses, shrines, and some well-placed vending machines, our experience with the Kumano Kodo certainly felt filled with the divine.
Instead of ending our section of the trail at Hongu Taisha, as would have happened historically, we went backwards. Hitting up Hongu Taisha in the early morning, our 11+ mile hike ended in Yunomine and the small World Heritage onsen. It was perfect. Well, except for the part where I got so excited about the onsen that I overheated and almost passed out – scaring the lovely, local, old Japanese women.
If you like hiking at all, I would highly suggest working this area into your itinerary. The meandering trail, the beautiful small shrines, and the remote feeling made this one of my favorite hikes to date. Though I am not generally a religious person, cleansing and praying on this trail filled me with peace.
I will definitely be back to this area in order to explore the mountains even more. Breathtaking views, atmospheric weather, and a hot bath at the end – how can it get better? Traveling in February, which may be slightly off-season for this area, made it even better. 10 out of 10. Would do again.