Guides

Soak Away Your Stress At Arima, Japan’s Oldest Onsen Village

Arima Onsen, these days, is known not only for its crown as the oldest hot spring village in the nation, but for its natural beauty and its magical golden waters said to heal a seemingly endless stream of ailments. Its pristine natural setting on the outskirts of Kobe, just beyond the great Mount Rokkō, gives the town the perfect mix of relaxing seclusion and convenient accessibility.

Legend has it that one day long ago, two gods by the names of Onamuchi no Mikoto and Sukunahikona no Mikoto spotted an injured crow who appeared to be tending to its wounds by bathing in the bubbling red waters of the area’s naturally occurring hot springs. The gods watched with intrigue as the crow’s wounds seemed to miraculously heal in the warm spring waters. Impressed by what they witnessed, the two gods christened the area: Arima. Or so the legend goes.

A hot spring at Arima Onsen

Arima is cozy, and can be explored easily on foot — the best way to fully enjoy the way Arima seamlessly sews the bounds between nature and architecture, tradition with modernity. A stroll through the town centre is a spectacle of natural steam, narrow lanes, and wooden buildings. The atmosphere is calm, relaxed, and awe-inspiring, but what else would you expect from one of the most esteemed Japanese onsen towns?

Not just a one trick pony, Arima is home to more than just incredibly chill hot springs. In the town centre you’ll find scores of streets filled with quaint little cafes and bars, charming gift shops, and enticing little restaurants. There are also a number of small shrines and temples to be explored in Arima, and even the Arima onsen museum, if that’s your thing.

Two cans of Lady Pee Soda from Arima Onsen

Alternatively, you’ll find ample spots to sit back, relax, and dip your feet in the famous Japanese onsen waters for some R&R. Oh, and while you’re at it, why not pick up a fresh can of “Lady Pee Soda” which can be purchased in selected vending machines around town, and absolutely isn’t weird at all. While the name may be offputting, it’s actually a local version of cider using water from the hot springs – it’s fizzy, refreshing and actually pretty bloody good.

Stick around pal, what’s the rush?

The pools at the Arima Grand Hotel in Arima Onsen

Due to its convenient location close to both Kobe and Osaka, Arima fills with day trippers from early morning, and whilst the town is an absolutely lovely day trip destination, to experience the full splendour of what Arima has to offer, it is highly recommended to stay overnight in a Ryokan resort and experience the ultimate in restful rejuvenation by partaking in a tradition that has served weary travellers for over a thousand years.

When I was in town, I stayed at the Arima Grand Hotel – a large yet homely Ryokan Onsen Resort which proved the perfect setting for one of the most relaxing and unashamedly indulgent nights I’ve ever experienced in Japan. The resort offers three floors of natural hot springs. With its high ceilings and massive windows, the indoor baths provide a liberating view of the surrounding mountains. But the real highlight is when you step outside and into one of the two outdoor baths overlooking the town of Arima.

The facility also offers smaller private baths, which are absolutely perfect for couples. You’ll have to pay a little extra, but it’s well worth the coin. And if you happen to get sick of all that hot water business, have a dip in the vast outdoor swimming pools complete with water slides (sick).

Experience Kaiseki, “the world’s finest meal”

Drinks at a Kaiseki, a standout culinary experience, in Arima Onsen

No authentic Ryokan stay would be complete without indulging in one of Japan’s real standout culinary experiences – known as kaiseki. Put simply, it’s a multi-course dinner made up of dishes that are meant to stimulate and excite all the senses. Indeed, every course is like an act in a vast intricate play entirely performed by delicious edible actors. The contents of a kaiseki meal are not a fixed business. Exactly what’s served up is completely flexible and at the discretion of the chef to create an experience best suited to his or her guests. One thing is certain though, you’ll always leave a kaiseki meal extremely satisfied.

Once reserved for the noble elite, kaiseki is now accessible to anyone who’s willing to pay the (usually quite high) price. Like the private baths, it’s expensive, but well worth its weight. The ultimate manifestation of omotenashi (wholehearted Japanese hospitality), kaiseki is less a meal and more an experience of ultimate sensory pampering. The hosts tend to your every need at a very relaxed pace, and it’s not unusual for kaiseki to last many hours into the evening.

How to get to Arima Onsen, Japan

People sitting in an onsen in Arima Onsen

Arima can be conveniently reached from both Kobe and Osaka in under an hour. The train journey from Kobe takes between 30 to 40 minutes, while one- or two-highway busses depart per hour from Osaka station, with the one-way journey taking just under an hour, and setting you back ¥1,370 (AU$17.30). Highway buses also operate from Shin-Kobe Station, taking about 35 minutes to reach Arima.

If you’re keen for more details on experiencing hot springs, check out our guide to the best Japanese onsen around the country.