Step back in time as we explore Kyoto’s hidden onsen culture. 

There’s so much to see and do in Kyoto that you could spend a lifetime discovering new gems in the historic old capital. One way to methodically tick these hidden gems off your must-see bucket list is by dividing them up into categories like historic sites, restaurants, stores, and bathhouses, and for that last category, Japan Rail has a way to help us out.

Called “Zen to Yu Totonou Kyoto“, which translates to “Kyoto Ready: Zen and Hot Springs“, this is a special self-guided tour campaign that’s only available from 7 January to 13 March. Our Japanese-language reporter Egawa Tasuku was recently invited to try the tour for himself, so let’s join him on his journey through the hot spring section of the deal to find out what it’s all about.

▼ Pamphlet for “Zen to Yu Totonou Kyoto

When Egawa arrived in Kyoto for the tour, he was surprised to find that a lot of public baths are in easy walking distance from the busy hub of Kyoto Station, and the city still has over 100 public baths in business — no mean feat in this day and age, when bathhouses are sadly going out of business around the country.

Before he set off to his hotel for the night, Egawa stopped in at the JR Tokai Tours branch, located at the central Shinkansen exit at Kyoto Station to pick up his “Totonou Set”, sold by JR Central for 2,000 yen (US$17.44).

▼ The set includes a gorgeous towel with a label that reads, “Yes, Kyoto, let’s go.

The Totonou Set is just one of the options in the campaign, and it’s a good deal as it includes bathing tickets for select bathhouses belonging to the Kyoto Prefectural Bath Association, numbered tickets for worshiping at participating temples, and a map summarising all the public baths, temples, and restaurants you can visit as part of the promotion.

▼ Egawa decided to dive into the bathhouse section of the tour first, starting with a visit to Funaoka Onsen.

Funaoka Onsen is a little far from Kyoto Station compared to other public baths in the city, but it’s very famous. The bathhouse has 807 reviews and 4.3 stars on Google as of this writing, which is an impressively high rating for a humble public bathhouse in Kyoto.

▼ When the long noren is up at the entrance, this onsen is open for business.

Funaoka Onsen has been designated a Tangible Cultural Property, and though the wooden building itself dates back to 1923, the interior is modern and spacious.

▼ It’s also beautifully light and airy.

▼ In addition to the main public bath, there’s also a sauna…

▼ …and a spick-and-span washing area, with a cypress bath here as well.

▼ Outside is a beautiful courtyard area, where you can view carp swimming in a tranquil pond.

This is where visitors can soak in open-air baths with an amazing atmosphere. Check out the dragon spouting hot water from its mouth!

▼ One of the few places in Japan where you can bathe beneath a spouting dragon.

The beauty isn’t solely reserved for the bathing areas — the ceiling of the dressing room is beautifully carved with an image depicting the long-nosed Kurama Tengu, a mythical creature believed to have lived on nearby Mt Kurama.

In Tokyo, a visit to a hot spring will set you back around 1,000 yen, but the usage fee for Funaoka Onsen is just 450 yen for adults, 150 yen for elementary school students, and 60 yen for preschoolers and infants, which is a really great deal. Doing the math, if an adult were to visit every day, it would cost just 13,950 yen for 31 days, which is cheaper than a month’s gas bill at Egawa’s place for hot water.

Shampoo and other items are also sold at cheap prices that hark back to a simpler time. With so many bathing accessories available to purchase, you’d be fine to just bring a towel here and pay for the rest of what you need. If Egawa lived in the neighbourhood, he’d bathe here every day.

After his visit to Funaoka Onsen, Egawa had worked up an appetite, so he made his way to Sarasa Nishijin, a cafe about a block away from the bathhouse.

This cafe sits inside what used to be an old public bathhouse called “Fujinomori Onsen“. As the photo below shows, the name of the old onsen can still be seen above the entranceway.

The building’s former life as a public bathhouse lives on in the new cafe, with its original ceiling and tiled walls creating a stunning interior.

▼ Old plumbing features like these hark back to the bathhouse’s heyday.

▼ The ceiling feature is particularly stunning, flooding the space below in natural light that creates a unique ambience.

The cafe’s former life as a bathhouse isn’t its only claim to fame — it’s also appeared in the anime K-On!

The cafe attracts anime fans, history buffs, bathhouse enthusiasts, and anyone looking for a good feed in the area.

▼ The recommended dish here is “Turkish Rice” (1,300 yen).

▼ How beautiful is this handwritten menu?

Combining a meal at Sarasa Nishijin with a trip to Funaoka Onsen is a wonderfully relaxing way to spend a morning or afternoon, and with big temples like Kinkakuji (the “Golden Pavilion”) and Imamiya Shrine within walking distance, you can easily work all these sites into a day’s itinerary.

With other public baths included in JR’s Totonou Set, Egawa decided to stay a few nights in Kyoto so he could make good use of the deal. After sightseeing during the day, Egawa was able to rest his tired muscles with a trip to an onsen at the end of each day, which made him sleep like a baby at night, recharging him and energising him for the next day of sightseeing.

Egawa loved immersing himself, literally, in the local bathing culture, and now he’s keen to take us on a tour of the “Zen” portion of the trip next. But first…he’s off to have just one more soak at Funaoka Onsen.

Related: Totonou Campaign Site
Photos © SoraNews24

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