Japan 2023: Day 14

Mos Burger, Kinosaki Onsen, commuter pass insights, accidental summit of a mountain, and the best (Tajima) beef.

I had a good 3-4 hours of sleep after my nighttime computer stuff, getting up at around 9 a.m. My plan this weekend was to spend time in this famous hot spring town called Kinosaki Onsen, walking to different public baths and shops in a yukata, biking through this trail, and maybe taking some rope ways to some temples and shrines. I was excited because two of my coworkers went here and really liked it.

I researched last night that there is a direct train from Nijo station, a short bus ride from my area, to Kinosaki Onsen station; one leaves at around 7:30 am., and another leaves at 11:31 a.m. There were other flexible schedules that required really tight transfers, but I didn't want to deal with that risk. I planned my morning around the 11:30 direct route departure. I got ready to go, called my partner, and then almost immediately caught a bus to Nijo station. Nice!

I was a little sad leaving since this would be the first time after my Tokyo airport hotel that I spent the night (or two) in a different place from my homey hostel.

  • Steps taken: 11,820
  • Money spent: 9,340円 | $69.12 USD
    • Excluding pre-purchased Sanyo-San'in Pass: 20,000円 | $147.30 USD
    • Excluding pre-purchased ryokan stay, 2 nights: 33,700円 | $272.17 USD
    • Total: 63,040円 | $466.96 USD

Table of Contents

Learning how to reserve train seats with a commuter pass

Before I got to Japan, like many non-Japanese passport holders, I purchased JR passes for my partner and me during our PTO together in late March. In addition, I purchased a Sanyo-San'in Pass for 20,000 yen in anticipation of my solo trip to Kinosaki Onsen, and hopefully other areas in West Kansai. Now was my first chance to learn first-hand how to use a commuter pass like this (or the JR pass, etc.).

I remembered from countless Youtube videos telling me that I reserve seats by going to the midori green ticket machines at a given train station and using my commuter pass with it. And indeed, that worked: I selected the option to reserve seats with a commuter pas and  inserted my Sanyo-San'in Pass into the machine. Then I was given some options to find a route by departure and destination station, estimated time to depart or arrive, etc., and a choice of whether I wanted to have the machine choose my reserved seat or have myself choose based on window or aisle preference, train car preference, or directly selecting from a car map. I found my 11:31 a.m. train, thankfully with plenty of seat options left. I chose the last option of selecting by car map, learning from my first experience in Day 2 to choose, lest I get some awful middle seat or similar!

Once I made all my selections, from the slot where I inserted my commuter pass, out came both the pass and my reserved ticket at the same time. How, I don't know, but ok!

I saw that, at least for the Sanyo-San'in Pass, I have a maximum of 6 reservations I can make in my 1-week period.

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Brunch at Mos Burger

Learning from past commuter woes, I had given myself plenty of time to compensate for any bus delays, navigate Nijo station, and reserve my train seat. Thankfully, while it seems Nijo station has many lines going through it, it only has one shared platform and is way simpler than Kyoto station. Major sigh of relief. I had a bit more than a half hour of buffer time, so I went outside and looked for coffee and food. I saw that there was a Mos & Cafe right next to the station, so I figured it was a good opportunity to try this popular fast food chain.

I quickly scanned Reddit for recommendations on Mos Burger. The first several comments in this particular thread raved about the fish burger, so I got a meal set of that with their signature thick french fries and a black coffee for 790 yen or $5.78 USD.

It was tasty and good value for the money! Definitely better than McDonald's fillet o' fish. And I absolutely love fries, so I'm extra happy when I have good quality of these, which they were! I would honestly come back here and try their other food items. As I waited for my food (no more than 3 minutes), I scanned the rest of that Reddit thread and found that folks just seemed to like quite a variety of Mos Burger items – a big favorite seems to be the milk tea. This love for many or all things Mos Burger surprised me since I heard conflicting things from other Internet threads in the past, but I shrugged and was satisfied with my first experience.  

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To Kinosaki Onsen

At 11:13, I made my way to the train platform.

Learning how to use a commuter pass and corresponding train ticket

When I approached the ticket booth machines, I vaguely remembered some Youtube videos saying that you insert the commuter pass and the train ticket into the ticket booth at the same time, but that sounded so fishy.  (And maybe I just misremembered.) I did what I thought was sensible and just inserted the train ticket into the machine, but it didn't accept it. I tried this a couple more times with the same outcome, and then a ticket booth serviceman came out to help me. He showed me that I actually insert the commuter pass into the machine instead of the ticket. That did not make sense to me... but now I know! I also noticed that my commuter pass now had a single hole punched into it, perhaps noting the 1 out of 6 reservations I have made so far(?).

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The train ride from Nijo

The train ride, while not via a fancy shinkansen, was really nice and seemed pretty fast to me as a limited express train. I'll need to check what's the technical difference between them. Yes, it arrived at exactly 11:30 a.m., left right at 11:31, and arrived at Kinosaki Onsen station at 1:49 p.m. <3

Like my Tokyo-to-Kyoto shinkansen experience, no train conductor checked my reserved ticket. I assume they just check if the expected occupied seats are indeed so, and anything seems off, that's when they check.

I had a regular blue seat reservation, though I wonder if I could've gotten a premium green seat with my commuter pass; alas, I'll find out on my way back to Kyoto on Day 16. That said, I had plenty of space, no one next to me, and chose the least occupied car (the last car) which was quiet and peaceful. No power outlets that I could find, but I had enough juice to last me. The weather was clear blue skies, so I enjoyed seeing the mountain villages pass by as I typed away on my blog posts.

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Crab-and-beef town

When I arrived at Kinosaki Onsen station, I was greeted by a cute main street bustling with tourists, mostly Japanese and some foreign. Lots of shops and restaurants beckoned my attention, and the theme was particularly crab and beef-heavy. I quickly learned that this area is famous for its snow crab and Tajima beef.

I had a 15-minute walk to my ryokan. My check-in time was not until 3 p.m., so I had a little over an hour to wander. I left most of my belongings at the front desk with the owner, who seemed very proud of his relatively new business, eager to help me, and switched back and forth between English and Japanese when he realized I could speak both. I rearranged my stuff so that I was only carrying my pocket wifi, portable charger, camera, phone, goshuincho, and passport wallet in a portable shopping bag.

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A surprise hike

My ryokan happened to be very close to Onsen-ji temple and the Kinosaki Ropeway. I wandered into the temple grounds to get my goshuin, and then I discovered a set of stairs leading up a large hill. I thought to myself, that doesn't look too bad! Let's go up it. It's 2:23 p.m.; I have plenty of time.

When I got up there, I saw there was another set of steps, and I thought the same thing... It can't be that long, right? There was a group of women in fashionable clothing and high-heeled boots trekking up, which gave me more confidence that this walk up wasn't long. Of course, that sort of scene fooled me before on Day 3...

The way up was very pretty: moss-spectacled stone steps, trees with gnarly trunks and Jizo statues lining the sides... There are so many moments like this in my Japan travels that it's easy to see where Miyazaki got his inspiration for his forest scenes in his Ghibli movies.

Unfortunately for me, this getting-up-a-set-of-stairs-only-to-discvoer-more just kept happening, until I finally reached an are about half a kilometer up that apparently was the first landing for the Kinosaki Ropeway and the grounds of Daigo-ji temple.

After paying my respects at the temple, I found an unassuming path going up, next to Daigo-ji that told me it led to the mountain summit in 0.5km. I again had a similar thought: this can't be that difficult; I just did 0.5km!

Well, summiting a mountain via an all-vertical climb with no snacks or water while carrying a non-ergonomic shopping bag is actually kind of difficult, did you know?

In addition, I quickly realized that the same group of fashionable women I was following was not on this same route. They must've gone up the ropeway... I saw that ropway go up at least two or three times during the second part of this hike, full of people comfortable standing in a little pod, and I was a bit jealous.

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Accidentally summitting Mt. Daigo

And admittedly, the path after Daigo-ji, to the summit just wasn't that pretty or fun, haha. Don't believe all the hype those travel blogs say. I mean, I guess if you actually were mentally prepared for a hike like this, you wouldn't mind it, and I have done much more difficult hikes to be sure; but I was upset at myself since I was kinda tired from my commute, was carrying a shopping bag, and wanted to relax. If you're wondering, yes, on my way up, I did look up this hike and came across travel blogs glamorizing every single thing they did at Kinosaki Onsen, including this hike – with pictures of themselves wearing proper hiking backpacks, hiking sticks, water, snacks... because "you should be prepared"!

But hey, I can say I summited Daigoyama with my own legs! That's what counts, right? (eyeroll) Yeah, I guess that's pretty cool. And I didn't even need fancy hiking shit.

I got to the top at 2:53 p.m. I saw the same women from before at the top, laughing away and throwing little pottery shards through a hole. I felt oddly comforted to see them, as well as proud at my feat and embarrassed at my tired state.

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Hanging out at the summit

Despite my frustration, I was glad to have summitted. The view of Kinosaki Onsen from the top was just spectacular.

There was another temple as well with an un-staffed shop contauning souvenir charms and pre-drawn goshuin (the same one I got at the base). I noticed there was the same purple charm I considered getting at the base temple, which had a pretty turtle on it. As a present to myself and a memento of my summiting this mountain, I dropped 500 yen into the money box and took it.

The building at the top had a cute cafe with its own spectacular view of the town. I resisted in hopes of having a big, nice dinner later. The same cafe ran a small shop that sold the pottery shards to throw in that hole on the mountain for 250 yen for 3 of them. I considered it but resisted, laughing to myself at how many gimmicks Japan can come up with to entice folks to spend money.

Despite that thought, I also came across this stand that purported to give you a fortune based on your birth month and blood type – and I couldn't resist this one, so I forked over 100 yen! It's all in Japanese, so I need to spend some time later to actually read it.

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Descending via Kinosaki Ropeway

I was not going back on that muddy, narrow hike downhill. Did not sound pleasant at all, and I was already probably in the negative zone in terms of energy. Plus, I had to do computer stuff that night. Ugh.

I took the next available ropeway down, which was its own nice experience with the scenic view. I had a special one-way ticket rate as someone who hiked up and was descending via the ropeway car.

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My first ryokan experience while solo

I checked into my ryokan closer to 4 p.m. instead of 3 due to that longer-than-expected detour. The owner spoke to me in his best English and showed me to my room in a separate, nearby building that was recently renovated from an old fire station! (I later flipped through a picture book about it, which was pretty neat.) The room was spartan, classic, and modern all at once. The walls and doors were white, the hallway floor was solid wood. It was small but intelligently designed: half the wall dedicated to storage space for futon, a small clothes closet, and a small refrigerator closet; the other half being the wall and door to the bathroom with just a (very fancy) bidet toilet and sink.

The bedroom floor was lined with tatami. There were adjustable lights,a flat screen TV, A/C unit, and a single, low wooden table with chair (and no legs) with an English tourist map of Kinosaki Onsen. Next to the table was a large tray with what seemed to be my ryokan yukata and towels for my onsen hopping. In the corner was a tokonoma, or traditional teahouse alcove with an electric kettle and round container with tea-making essentials. I was filled with nostalgia again from my college days, sleeping on tatami enjoying this kind of experience with my classmates.

At the far end of the room was a glass wall facing a small deck with an egg-like swing chair that faced the street. There were blinds as well so I could have privacy and darkness at night.

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Tea and an overview of the town

The owner left me for a few minutes to get another staff person. Soon enough, a kind woman came to my room with tea, a tea cookie, and a very sweet, personalized postcard set for me to welcome me as their guest. She spoke me all in Japanese (!), so I'm not sure if the owner forgot to tell her about speaking in English, or she wasn't comfortable speaking in English and the owner said I knew some Japanese. In any case, I think I got most of the main points enough to know how to properly wear my yukata, contact the staff if needed, and navigate the town. I knew to clarify which side to keep on top when wearing my yukata, because one way is only for the dead (right side is on top) and the other way is for people who are alive (left side is on top).

I learned that there are 7 onsen in the area that have slightly different opening hours. Despite my somewhat long walk from the station, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this ryokan was super close to two of them (2-minute regularly) and somewhat close to most of them (7-minute walk regularly). That was important if I wanted to walk to them in traditional geta...

As a solo traveler, it appeared that a dinner meal option was not available to me; or it was because of the particular room and building I was staying in, I'm not sure. In any case, I didn't mind because I usually prefer to try various restaurants at my own pace, and ryokan dinners are often very expensive; I felt a bit too indulgent to do that on my own, so I was happy to forego that experience until I was with my partner later in the month.

Given that, after the kind staff woman left, I settled in a bit into my room and then went out to try my first onsen and find food. My goal was to eat as quickly as possible and then take a nap before my night-time computer stuff – it was already passed my bedtime, after all.

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My first Kinosaki Onsen experience

I stopped by one of two onsen very close to my ryokan in my new yukata and geta outfit. I felt super cool and comfortable! until I started walking. Omg. I remembered walking in geta very briefly in the past, but wow. Not a fan! The clickety-clack sound was lovely but not worth the pain, especially after a long commute and that accidental hike.

Regardless, I pushed through it and was rewarded with a lovely onsen experience. Even though I had been at public baths before with other naked women in Japan, I still had a to mentally readjust to it all, but the shock quickly subsided. The bath itself was super soothing... The most uncomfortable part for me, actually, was not wearing a mask surrounded by other people in an indoor space, but I prayed that I (andd everyone else) would be okay.

I remembered in the past that I would warm up pretty quickly, to the point where I would be uncomfortable and lightheaded staying in the bath for more than 10 minutes. I thought about how some people reportedly would speed-run through the 7 onsen to check them off the list in their even-shorter stays, and I couldn't figure out how! I got out, dried off, and went to find food.

Difficulties finding food

This task of finding food is usually not difficult, so I didn't bother to plan ahead with this and would just wing it. I was up for a rude awakening: all the nice restaurants were fully booked, and anyway, I later learned that I can't even make a reservation at most or all the restaurants as a solo diner! at least online. Wtf.

The other difficulty was that many restaurants were still closed until between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m... So I kept searching for something while browsing shops until 6 p.m., when I came across a casual yakitori restaurant that had very good reviews called ぼん・Bon. The owner, an older man, was punctually opening his restaurant right at the top of the hour.

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The best beef I've ever had?

I was the second customer and seated right in front of his grill; the other group was at the far end, perhaps for social distancing (?). In any case, I felt both excited to have a front seat to the action and incredibly exposed because this was the first time there was absolutely no barrier between me and the chef.

I ordered the two things this town was famous for: the snow kani (half order, boiled) and 但馬焼き肉・tajima beef, grilled. The crab was a little difficult to eat because I didn't have usual crab cracker tool, and I was a bit embarrassed since the chef had to direct me to use chopsticks (which were hidden to the side instead of promptly laid in front of me, as I was used to in other restaurants). There you go, feeling exposed! It was very good, though I admit not terribly different from crab I've had in Maryland and Delware. :)

The beef, on the other hand, was out of this world. It was incredibly flavorful and melted in my mouth. It came with a few grilled vegetables as well that had soaked in the beef juices. Omg!

I was so impressed with these two orders that I wanted to try a couple other things from the restaurant – and I had the room in my belly anyway. So I got 今日のおすすめ (today's recommendation) which was grilled salted squid legs, as well as grilled fish seasoned in various ways. The chef seemed a bit surprised, perhaps because it was a lot of food for a single person, but I showed him! I ate most of the food, leaving off some from the fish because of the small fish bones – and, admittedly, I was quite full. But in the end, I regretted it because these two items were just very blah compared to the beef and crab.

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Feeling belittled

When it was time to pay, the chef told me my total in Japanese but didn't show me a receipt or calculator with the visual number. I got the number mostly right: it was 七千二百二十円, or 7,220 yen; but I missed the 200 part, so he yelled "Two hundred!" in English and I said 「あ、二百十ですね、すみません。」 After the last two blah items and that kind of treatment, I felt negative. It was a shame because I just loved that beef, and the crab was great as well.

A rough night

By the time I got back to my room, it was around 7:30 p.m... so another reason I should've just left after my first two orders, to save time (and money). Doing computer stuff was really difficult since I just didn't have time to take my second sleep of the day, and I had exhausted so much energy commuting and hiking. But I pushed through... In retrospect, I should've just called out sick!

A late-night sweet to cheer me up

In the middle of my suffering, I walked out to get a quick dessert and some caffeine. I wanted to ensure I would be nourished enough throughout the night, given that all stores here would be closed (unlike in Kyoto where I had 24-hour konbini). I got a mini-set of warabi-mochi, vanilla ice cream, and a matcha latte for 800 yen at Soft Serve Kobo, one of the few dessert places still oepn. The caffeine did jack shit to keep me energized, but I enjoyed the late snack regardless.

Pictures pending.

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See the rest of my posts about Japan 2023.