Hiking–and Riding–on Daishiyama at Kinosaki Onsen

To celebrate my 50th birthday in July (2021), I headed five hours southwest to Kinosaki Onsen, a famous onsen (volcanic hot spring) town in Hyogo Prefecture.

In addition to some of the best hot spring baths in Japan, Kinosaki is famous for the Japanese white storks that live and nest in the area (there’s a preserve within bicycling or walking distance of the onsen town)–and the large white birds also lend their name to the Stork Express, the train that runs between Osaka and Kinosaki Onsen Station.

The Stork that carried me across the Kansai

Although the “nature” portion of the hike wouldn’t start until I reached the foot of Daishiyama, on the far side of the onsen town, I started my timer for the hike at Kinosaki Onsen station because I planned to walk the entire way.

Kinosaki onsen town. The white building at the far end of the street is Jizo-yu, one of the town’s eight public hot spring baths

The walk through town took about 20 minutes (or would have, if I hadn’t stopped every two minutes to take another picture)–and there’s a lot to see. At first, you’re walking down a charming street filled with shops and restaurants.

Kinosaki Onsen is famous for kani, or crab–specifically, snow crabs, which are caught in the nearby Sea of Japan. It’s available year-round, although the official season runs from December to May.

Kinosaki Onsen is built along a wide canal lined with weeping willow trees. The town gets snow in winter, and is beautiful at any time of year. It’s one of the few places in Japan where guests are not only allowed but encouraged to wear yukata (a type of Japanese robe customarily worn only inside, and usually when going to and from the onsen) not only inside the ryokan (traditional inn), but anywhere in town.

At the foot of Mt. Daishi, I stopped for a gelato beside a natural hot spring fountain. Although the day was overcast, with rain in the forecast, it was hot and humid (over 85 F / 29 C), and gelato seemed like a perfect way to cool down a little before I began the vertical portion of the hike. (Note: Hot or no, gelato is ALWAYS the right answer.)

A ropeway runs from the base of Mt. Daishi to the summit, with a stop at the worship hall of Onsenji–the mountain’s famous temple–on the way. It’s possible to buy a ticket for a round-trip ride, a one-way trip, or a “3/4 course” that lets you hike as far as Onsenji and ride the ropeway from the upper temple to the summit. Given the forecast, and the fact that the clouds were closing in, I popped into the ropeway station and bought the 3/4 ticket just in case.

The entrance to Onsenji, at the foot of Mt. Daishi

The main gate of Onsenji sits at the foot of Mt. Daishi, near the start of the mountain’s famed “500 stone steps” that pilgrims traditionally climbed upon arriving at Kinosaki Onsen–before visiting the baths. After making an offering, saying prayers to the enshrined Kannon (the Buddhist deity of mercy), and receiving instructions on how to use the bath from the priest at the mountainside temple were visitors permitted entry to the seven public baths. After instructing visitors on the proper onsen etiquette, the priest loaned each visitors a bathing ladle, which served as their “ticket” to the baths. (No scoop, no service.) The climb and the ladle are no longer required, but I wanted to make the traditional journey anyway.

The stairs are ancient; the hand rail is modern…

The 500 stone steps to Onsenji are lined with a variety of small shrines and dosojin (carved figures of bodhisattvas and obelisks designed to protect travelers passing by), and there are modern benches installed beside the stairs in several places, for those who want to stop and rest. The mountain is heavily forested, so you climb in the shade at any time of day.

The photo above is the view back down the slope from the top. As you can see, the hand rail only goes part way. The rope in the photo isn’t sturdy enough to hold or lean on, so I recommend hiking poles if you want support.

Above: approaching Onsenji. The climb took me fifteen minutes (your mileage may vary), even stopping to take about a dozen pictures. It will probably take a little longer if you’re not used to stairs, or if you choose to stop and rest along the way.

Onsenji was founded during the early 8th century, and enshrines a special statue of the Juu-ichi-men (Eleven-headed) Kannon. The 2.1 meter (over 6′) statue is carved from a single piece of wood, and came from the same tree as the statue of Kannon housed in Hasedera Temple in Nara, many miles away. The two statues were carved by the same man, a priest named Keibun–who, according to local history, had come to Kinosaki Onsen to bathe in its healing waters at the very time his sacred statue was discovered floating down the river that runs through Kinosaki Onsen town. (Local history says the statue was believed to be bad luck, and thrown in the river–repeatedly–after Keibun left for Kinosaki.)

The statue of Kannon is so old, and so sacred, that it’s only displayed where the public can see it for a 3-year period every 33 years; the rest of the time, it’s housed in a special place behind the altar, out of sight, and a smaller, more recently-carved Kannon stands on the altar in its place. As it happens, the real Kannon was on display (and nearing the end of her three-year run) when I arrived, and I had the chance to see her. Photos are not allowed inside the worship hall, so the best I can offer you here is a picture of the picture of her on the posters announcing her display.

When I finished at the temple, I noticed a few drops of rain beginning to fall, so I opted to use my 3/4 Pass Ticket and take the ropeway the rest of the way to the summit. The picture above shows the ropeway car ascending from the base of the mountain, while the one below shows another car descending.

Below: the view from the summit of Daishiyama. If you look closely, you can see a bit of the Sea of Japan on the horizon, beyond the mountains about halfway between the center of the image and the left side of the frame.

There’s another small temple–called Onsenji Okunoin–at the top of the mountain. Near the little worship hall, there’s a memorial monument, similar to the ones that adorn graves, in honor of the many crabs that give their lives for the benefit and enjoyment of the people who eat them at Kinosaki Onsen.

There’s also another statue of Kannon (more modern than the ones in the worship hall below), and a number of statues of Jizō, a compassionate Bodhisattva known as the patron of travelers, children, and the lost.

The summit of Daishiyama is also home to the main branch of Kinosaki Coffee, a company that blends, roasts, and brews delicious coffee. There’s a shop in Kinosaki Onsen town as well, for people who want their coffee without a climb–but the mountaintop shop also sells hot dogs made from 100% Tajima Beef (Tajima cattle produce Kobe beef, so basically these are Kobe beef hot dogs, and they’re amazing.)

The coffee shop has spectacular views (see the view from the summit picture above), and since I hadn’t had lunch, I decided to treat myself to a hot dog and a cup of Kinosaki Coffee’s special iced coffee.

After lunch, I hopped back on the ropeway and rode back down to the foot of the mountain. It started raining fairly hard five minutes after I reached the bottom ropeway station, so all things considered, the ropeway was the better choice for the descent. I plan to go back another time (in better weather) and climb not only all the way to the top of Daishiyama, but along the ridge to a couple of other mountains in the area.

And there you have it: a cloudy but lovely afternoon on Daishiyama.

Hike Info: 

Access/Trailhead: Kinosaki Onsen station. 

Total distance: 2 km (closer to 3km if you hike the whole way to the summit)

Elevation Gain/Loss: 229 m ascent / 2 m descent (i.e., “mostly up”)

Time Spent: 44 minutes (Not counting the stops at Onsenji and the summit. YMMV)