After Autumn Leaves, Bliss by the Sea
Choosing an onsen after 5 full days of red-leaves frenzy in Kyoto was hard. Compared to Kanto, options in Kansai were considerably limited and pricier.
Went to Kinosaki in 2015, out. Kurama /Arashiyama /Takao – too near, good for day jaunts not a getaway, out. Arima – too steeped in concrete and Tocen Goshoboh (its most rustic ryokan) cost a whopping SGD600 per head per night, out. Sumiya Kihoan in Yunohana, famous for having hosted John Lennon & Yoko Ono (in 1977) – not value-for-money, out.
The search expanded and strayed further south till it reached Wakayama’s Shirahama Onsen 白浜温泉. Shirahama was a venerable onsen town with a sprawling view of the Pacific Ocean and a 1300 year-old history.
If it was good enough for an emperor, it was more than good enough for us.
Country Road, Take Me … There
Though we did wonder if Shirahama might be in some backwater country.
How else to explain the worn-out JR Limited Express Kuroshio that brought us from Shin-Osaka to Shirahama Station?
The seats were clad in brownish velvety covers that had seen better days. The train rattled vigorously every time it took a corner. Even our fellow cabin mates carried themselves in a decidedly un-Japanese manner. This group of feisty elderly folks traded seats frequently and couldn’t, wouldn’t keep their voices down and a couple seated in front of us with their feet propped above their heads on the front board. The man, all gruff and buff, was attached to the hip of his twiggy-like female companion, she who spoke in a lolicon voice. We had our trip cut out for us, obviously.
2.5 hours later, we stumbled out of the train at Shirahama station with as much haste as we could muster, glad for the fresh air, the promise of the sea nearby and because we needed to get on the Shirahama Onsen Shuttle bus before it rolled away at 3pm sharp. Less than 15 minutes and counting.
The Shirahama Onsen Shuttle bus is a complimentary shuttle service provided by the Shirahama Ryokan Association. It picks guests up from Shiraham Station at 3pm and 5pm daily and is first-come-first-serve for the first 20 guests. In the mornings, there is a free drop-off service which you need to reserve through your hotel (reservation is a must!). If you miss the shuttle, you have to pay to take the local Meiko Bus instead. Get the schedules here: P.M. Buses & Morning Buses.
We found the bus parked in the middle of the car park in front of the station, no sweat.
There … By The Cape – Hotel Kaishu 海舟
15 minutes later, the bus dropped us (and a few other guests) off at the entrance of Kaishu‘s sprawling compound.
We hesitated at first because there was no staff nor signage to guide us. So we did the only logical thing – follow those in front. We marched silently towards the building at the other end of the driveway (about 5 minutes) in a loosely dispersed formation. When we neared, as if in ambush, a lady in uniform appeared and began to walk the first 2 guests into the building (while ignoring the rest of us). We shrugged, then followed. This was a bit unusual because we usually get cheery welcomes from ryokans.
The bustling reception area was a world apart from the deserted driveway outside. It was a Thursday (not yet the weekend) but already bursting with onsen hoppers. That probably explained the less-than-lukewarm welcome. We waited quite a while for our turn to check-in but the hotel was smooth enough to provide, free flow, a selection of plum juice, charcoal-infused water, snacks, coffee and tea. Ruffled feathers could be soothed down with unlimited good chow anytime.
Kaishu, official name Nanki-Shirahama Hamachidori no yu Kaishu 南紀白浜 浜千鳥の湯 海, has all the facilities to help guests unwind. The 2-storey main building houses the reception, lounge, library, banquet halls and is flanked by two 5-storey hotel blocks on either side: Nami-no-Sho 波の抄 which we saw as we walked in and Akatsui-no-Sho 暁の抄 where our room was.
From Akatsuki-no-Sho, a footpath leads to 5 detached bungalows Hamaya 浜屋離れ facing the sea, for those who have moolah and prefer more privacy. The path ends at Boyotei 望陽亭which is a good place to watch the sun set over the cape. In all, Kaishu has 109 rooms and can accommodate up to 316 guests. Every room has a sea view.
Dinner is served in 2 turns – one at 530pm and another at 8pm. Those who have to deal with rumbling stomachs while waiting for 8pm to arrive get served delicious local snacks at the lounge. Those who ate early get free ramen from 2200 – 2330 hours (while stocks last).
We paid 21,450 円 + bathing tax 150円 per head (could be cheaper because we booked it last minute). The western-style corner room we had was small but the panoramic view overlooking the sea sort of made up for it.
In The Baths
The baths are supplied by 2 water sources: Aiki Hot Spring合気温泉 (62.5°C) and Monju Hot Spring文珠温泉 (54.7°C).
The large main bath Umitsubaki 海つばき(separated into ladies and gents) is where you do your bathing, get warmed before take the plunge in the outdoor pools. From the pools you can catch glimpses of the sea but not much.
A stepped footpath leads from the indoor bath to 3 private open-air baths, Umeka-no-Yu梅香の湯, Sekisho-no-Yu石匠の湯, Iwato-no-Yu岩戸の湯. Reservation is not required but you need to be extremely lucky to be able to snare the wooden tag-keys from the bath lounging area.
Finally, at the end of the steps we come to Hamachidori-bo-Yu浜千鳥の湯, the big prize. It’s a mixed open air bath that offers a splendid view of the cape and rocks. Special bathing gowns (yuamigi 湯あみ着) are provided and bathers can change into them at the changing rooms just before the bath. So guys and gals can relax in the mixed bath stress-free, shame-free. Can’t get better than this.
When you tire of soaking yourself in the pool, you can head back up to the resting area outside the main bath and help yourself to a few yakults or ice popsicles.
My Favourite Thing – Food
The food was reasonably good even though the hotel was positioned to appeal to the masses.
While the dishes were not quite exquisite, they were executed with a certain degree of finesse that was curated to impress.
Kaishu being next to the sea, it was inevitable that dinner revolved around seafood. But they did tweak the menu for this non-seafood eater.
Because of my dietary limitation, I was advised to take the western style breakfast which to my surprise, was quite sumptuous. There was a generous buffet line for guests to fill up on eggs, cold noodles, salads, bread and dessert while waiting for the main course to be served.
I’m not a fan of the mass-appeal ryokan but Kaishu’s baths were excellent. Consider Kaishu if you are a first-time onsen tripper. You get the comforts of a hotel, the vibes of a traditional ryokan, real onsens perched next to the sea and authentic kaiseki dinners. But be prepared to rub shoulders with many other foreigners mostly Chinese, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese. The sole Caucasian we met was a guy who came with his (Asian) wife. Good job, dude.
Stayed 20 November 2019
References: Kyoto’s Best Onsens, 7 Recommended Onsen Near Osaka And Kyoto, Kansai Onsen Guide Map, Yunohana Onsen, Tocen Goshoboh, Kyoto’s Best Hiking Trails And Hot Springs, Arima Onsen