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July 15, 2011

Japan Travel: Arima Onsen, Kobe

Although I had been living for a year in Kobe, I had not yet made my way to that part of the city where the hot springs of Arima are located. There was no need to play the tourist, I thought, but last weekend curiosity drove me if not to the baths themselves, at least to the town around them. Here is a guide to what I found.

[Arima Onsen, Kobe - the winding streets with old houses]

Arima Onsen proved to be compact, and more interesting than is usually the case with famous onsen. There are narrow lanes with old shops snaking up the hill, there are a few old temples and a nice piece of history to top it off.

Arima is one of the oldest hot spring resorts in Japan and its discovery goes back to the mythological mists of time. Two deities (whose all too long names I will mercifully withhold) were tramping through the mountains when they came across three injured crows bathing in a hot puddle. Apparently, those waters possessed healing properties and the deities also enjoyed a good soak in the hot spring.

After that, in the 7th century came two emperors who stayed in Arima for lengthy periods, both longer than eighty days, the time needed to heal imperial wounds.

In the eight century the ambulant wonder-worker priest Gyoki came here, bringing an old man to the springs to be healed, and when the hot waters proved efficacious (the old man changed into a golden Buddha and flew off on a cloud to the east) he built a temple dedicated to the Healing Buddha, Yakushi Nyorai. Gyoki is a historical person, but the deeds ascribed to him are still very much the stuff of legend - he would need nine lives to found all the temples he is said to have founded.

[Arima Onsen, Kobe - visitors enjoying a foot bath]

Arima became a spa town and prospered, but was cruelly wiped off the map by a flood in 1097. It would take a whole century before another priest rebuilt it: Ninsai, who came from Nara and was miraculously guided to the hot spring by the thread of a spider. Ninsai not only rebuilt the Yakushi Temple, but also set up twelve Bo or lodgings for monks, named after the Twelve Generals who usually accompany the Yakushi Buddha. Weary priestly as well as lay bodies would from now on be revived by yuna, bathing girls, in rituals unholy but pleasant enough to keep a constant stream of men coming to the springs.

These men stayed long, too, and even made a sport of it. They would wear white yukata robes in the baths, which thanks to the water with high iron content, gradually would take on a reddish color. They competed to have the reddest robe - after all, the redder the robe, the richer its owner, as only the very wealthy could afford a limitless stay at an expensive resort.

The Arima spa paradise was finally hit by a new string of disasters: in 1528 and again in 1574 the town suffered destruction by fire, and in between a civil war raged here.

[Arima Onsen, Kobe. Taiko no Yudonokan Museum, showing Hideyoshi's bath house]

A new re-builder was necessary. He appeared on stage in the historical person of Hideyoshi who took his first Arima bath in 1583 and from then on was addicted to the healing waters and even started a large-scale reconstruction project. In 1598 heavy rain prevented him from visiting Arima's hot springs - and unhealed, in the same year he died.

The hot springs of Arima prospered in the Edo period. Women came here too, as the iron holding waters, rich in sodium chloride and on top of that carbonated, were believed to enhance fertility. Hideyoshi, desperate for an heir, had brought his wife Nene here to that same purpose.

Later, 20th c. literary giant Tanizaki was a frequent visitor, as he enjoyed the rustic atmosphere of the old inns.

The nicest place in Arima is the area around Onsenji Temple, with the Tosen Jingu Shrine, Gokurakuji Temple and Nembutsuji Temple all standing close together. Onsenji is the successor of the Yakushi temple originally built by Gyoki and Ninsai and has a large Yakushi statue on display. Nembutsuji stands at the location of Nene's summer villa, Gokurakuji occupies the site of Hideyoshi's bath. This became clear thanks to another disaster: when the residence of the priest collapsed in the 1995 earthquake, the foundations of the ancient 16th c. baths were discovered and now a museum has been built on top to preserve them, the Taiko no Yudonokan. It is fascinating to see the exact onsen bath that once accommodated the mighty Hideyoshi!

[Arima Onsen, Kobe - Onsenji Temple]

Arima is full of old wooden houses, shops selling crafts as bamboo baskets for the tea ceremony and decorative "doll" brushes. Nibble on a "carbonated" rice cracker baked in spa water and ascend the serpentine slopes at leisure... this all against the serene backdrop of the green Rokko mountains. Kobe seems far-away, too.

See also A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs by Anne Hotta and Yoko Ishiguro (Kodansha International, 1986).
Arima Onsen is only 40 min by bus from Sannomiya (once an hour). Even faster is the subway/train combination (Hokushin Express to Tanigami St, then Shintetsu Arima Sanda Line to Arimaguchi and finally Shintetsu Arima line to Arima Onsen St) from Shinkobe Station, which takes only 30 min.

Festivals: On Jan. 2 the statues of Arima's founders are carried in a procession and washed by women dressed as yuna. On Nov 2 and 3 there is a maple and tea ceremony festival.

The public bathhouses Kin no Yu and Gin no Yu are for a quick "return-trip" soak, for longer stays there are many luxurious hotels.

Read here about the health benefits of the various types of hot springs in Arima.