Hot springs of Arima Onsen and the first sake

“On the 11th day, the Emperor went to the hot springs of Arima.” Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan) Scroll 25, Emperor Kotoku

I was planning our first trip to Japan and was trying to find a place to relax between busy Tokyo and imperial Kyoto. The hot springs of Arima Onsen piqued my interest immediately after reading about it. I liked its ancient, mysterious and divine aura as it is one of the oldest hot spring resorts in Japan and even mentioned in the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan, completed in 720CE). The onsen (hot spring) is located off Kobe in the town of Arima. It’s famous for its “Kinsen” or “golden hot-spring”, which colour is a result of high levels of iron and salt in the water.

Hideyoshi Toyotomi
Hideyoshi Toyotomi (image courtesy to http://www.samurai-archives.com/)

According to the Nihon Shoki, the Arima Onsen has existed since the age of the gods. As the story goes, one day two gods descended to earth and noticed three injured crows bathing in a puddle of murky water. “Well, tough,” the gods thought and hurried on their divine business. On the way back they saw the crows again and the crows were healed. “Interesting,” thought the gods and decided to investigate this puddle, which turned out to be a hot spring with healing properties.

During its over one thousand year history, Arima Onsen was visited by many famous historical figures of Japan including the 7th century Buddhist monk, Gyoki, the founder of mapping in Japan, and Hideyoshi Toyotomi, one of the three unifiers of Japan in the 16th century, who established the Arima town. You can read more about the history of Arima Onsen here.

The Arima hot spring feeds several onsen in the area and after a thorough research of many ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), I decided on the 800 year old Goshoboh, Arima’s oldest ryokan with a hot spring, and proceeded to promptly book a luxury suite there.

Shinkansen: Leaving on the dotIn order to reach Arima Onsen, we took a Shinkansen (a bullet train) from Tokyo to Kobe. It’s probably worth a full blog post on its own to talk about transport in Japan and the Shinkansen in particular, but I will limit myself by only saying that it was very comfortable and very fast. It took us just over 3 hours to cover a distance of more than 525 km. Also, you can buy delicious ekiben (boxed lunch) at the train station to enjoy on the train. It saves time, it’s tasty and there are so many varieties to suit everyone’s taste.

Upon arrival to Kobe we were met by a taxi driver arranged by the ryokan. The guy cleverly used Google Translate on his smartphone to communicate with us. As my daughter could speak a bit of Japanese we managed to find out a little about the area and the 25 minute ride passed in a flash. After getting out of the taxi we were greeted by the attentive staff of the Goshoboh ryokan.

Tocen Goshoboh

Tocen Goshoboh is said to have been founded on November 2, 1191, which made it almost 825 years old when we were staying there. It was the first time we were at a traditional Japanese inn and we had never stayed in a hotel that old before, so we got very excited. The ryokan’s interior was in the style of the early Showa era (1920s), the suite was spacious comprising a traditional Japanese bedroom with a tatami floor, a separate seating room and even a small balcony with a table.

I quite liked the artefacts of the era placed around the ryokan. An old telephone with a rotary dial, cylinder phonograph, an old McIntosh tube power amplifier. It created a romantic feeling of luxury and adventure like being in a film noir.

The atmosphere created by the owner was great and very relaxing. We changed into traditional Japanese attire, yukata and tabi (traditional Japanese socks), and went to the library for an afternoon drink among old books, stylish furniture and accessories, and with a calming view of the garden. I had some white wine and my daughter ordered fresh white peach juice, which was just phenomenal, she said it was like drinking a peach. After the drink we made our way to the hot spring to soak in the famous golden healing water of Arima. Again, it was the first time we did it.

Tocen Goshoboh: famous peach juice and a cake

The men’s and women’s areas in the hot spring were separated by a stone wall. It’s quite high at the beginning of the pool. However, the deeper I went, the lower was the wall. So in the deepest part of the pool, where you could comfortably sit with only your head popping up, the wall was very low so you could see and talk to your partner or friends of opposite sex over it. It was quite bizarre to sit in the hot golden-coloured water, but at the same time it helped us to relax after a few busy days in crowded Tokyo.

After the hot spring we had a kaiseki dinner for the first time in our lives. The term kaiseki usually refers to a multi-course haute cuisine traditional Japanese dinner as well as to the skills required to prepare it. The dinner usually consists of 10-15 dishes, artistically arranged and served on individual plates. We had our dinner in our room and all the dishes were ushered by a nice maid, who first introduced herself and told us about the dinner. She also provided a brief explanation for each dish she was bringing in.

One of the USPs (unique selling points as the former brand manager in me says) of the ryokan was the famous Kobe beef as well as its even more premium variety called Tajima-Guro beef. I have to admit that before trying it, I always thought that the expression “melts in the mouth” used for Kobe beef was just an exaggeration. It was not! The beef was truly just melting in our mouths and it was gone too quickly. All other dishes were also very good. I only was not too sure about the sea urchin due to its quite distinctive taste, which required some time to get used to.

First sakeThe dinner was also notable for it was my first time I tried sake in Japan. When I was asked to choose the sake I had no idea about what types of it existed and what was better. So I relied on our host’s choice, just trying not to pick the priciest. The sake came in a tall blue bottle, which as I know now is usually reserved for more premium brands. While I definitely enjoyed drinking it, I could not say it hit me as something spectacular on that particular occasion. But it was just the start.

After the dinner my wife and I went to the private onsen in the hotel’s garden. Unfortunately we could not take photos there but it was very romantic with a stream, stepping stones, glimmering lanterns and a small wooden house at the back with a hot bath. It was a spectacular ending for the day.

We spent only one night at Tocen Goshoboh. It was probably the most expensive stay during our whole trip but it was definitely worth the money. In the morning we walked down to the station through the pretty streets of Arima and left for Kyoto, first on an old-fashioned local train and then on another shinkansen.

Cherry blossom in Arima Onsen

I wish we had a chance to explore Arima Onsen a bit more. It is a small town but its old part is very picturesque. Still I definitely want to return there, probably staying in a bit more affordable inn but having the opportunity to walk around and sample local sake paired with delicious Kobe beef.

Kampai!
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