The 52 Places Traveler: Japan Offers Lessons in Eating, Walking and Bridging the Distance

As I ventured outside, I heard loud, assured click-clacking behind me — two women in the same outfit that I was wearing. They were sisters from Singapore and moved like gazelles in their getas. I wobbled behind them, and then nearly lost my footing as I took in the scene near the lantern-lit Otani River winding through the city. It was a veritable thoroughfare of yukatas and getas, in an array of colors, on visitors young and old, shuffling, striding and practically skipping through the night.

People come from all over Asia and beyond to soak in Kinosaki’s seven onsen, or public hot spring baths, and pretty much everyone does it walking around in a robe all day. The city is one big inn. The ryokan you stay in is your individual room and the streets are like the inn’s corridors. It’s all very romantic until it hails and rains.

I had come to Kinosaki, on the western coast of Honshu, Japan’s biggest island, though, not for dressing up, but on a kind of pilgrimage. As a Japanese friend put it to me in an email, “Don’t they have that Buddha that’s only unveiled to the public every 33 years?”

The morning after I’d arrived, I took the Kinosaki Ropeway (a cable car) high up Mount Taishi to the Onsenji temple, home to the 1,300-year-old Kannon Buddha, the Goddess of Mercy. She has 11 faces, 10 in a crown to signify her wisdom, and was carved from the top of a mystical tree that produced three Buddhas, of which she is the only original one left. This April began her unveiling, which will last for three years, until she goes back into hiding for another 30 years.

Midway up the ropeway, hail had started coming down, and I rushed inside the temple. There, with the help of a translator, I spoke with Ogawa Yusho, the resident monk, who was born in the temple and is now raising his family there. He’d grown up hearing the legend of Dochi Shonin, a priest who came to this very spot in 738 and prayed for 1,000 days for the health of the people here — and on the 1,000th day, an onsen sprung from the ground. It is said to be Mandara-yu, the oldest of the seven on Kinosaki’s onsen circuit.