Nestled behind Mount Rokko in Kita-ku, Kobe, Arima Onsen is a small hot spring village full of charm and local delights. Known for its peaceful atmosphere and the famous “gold” and “silver” baths, Arima Onsen has an important historical and cultural significance in Japan which it proudly displays around each corner of its sleepy, winding streets.
Arima Onsen is one of the three oldest onsen in Japan, and although its folklore likes to boast that it is, in fact, the oldest, these sorts of things are difficult to prove when the key figures in the legends are gods. As the story goes, the gods Onamuchi-no-Mikoto and Sukuna Hikona-no-Mikoto were wandering the mountains one day when they came upon three injured crows. They observed the crows drinking and bathing in a pool and were amazed to find that doing so cured the crows of their injuries. The pair proclaimed the site to be an onsen after witnessing the miraculous event.
Throughout the years, Arima Onsen has received many notable guests, including two early imperial visits which made it famous; the monk Gyoki, who had another religious experience at the site; and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who loved Arima so much that he had it reconstructed after the damage it suffered during the Muromachi period. The Taiko no Yudonokan museum showcases Hideyoshi’s excavated bath, as well as items recovered from his palace. The site was discovered when workers who were cleaning up a collapsed portion of the Gokurakuji temple following the great Kobe earthquake of 1993, noticed that some of the items they were pulling up were over 400 years old.
Today, Arima Onsen honors its dignified past with statue representations of Hideyoshi, his wife Nene, Gyoki and even the three crows of legend. These statues are set around the town against the backdrop of seasonal foliage, decorative canals and of course the stunning mountains of Kobe.
As a resort town, hotels, traditional ryokan and small, western style inns line the periphery of the village, and many have a pick-up and drop-off service available for guests booked to stay with them. Each accommodation has its own private bath for overstaying guests, but there are public baths as well, both attached to larger hotels and separate within the town. My personal favorite is Taiko no Yu, which has recently undergone renovations to add even more attractions. The spa, in addition to the area famous “gold” and “silver” baths (so named by the iron and salt, and radium and carbonate that respectively make up their mineral composition), also has a gold and silver steam room, a tiered cold water bath, an enchanting dry sauna and a relaxing open air terrace with many more baths available. Rock baths, a live fish foot scrub, a variety of massages and a lounge room are just a few more of the delights that make Taiko no Yu a magical day trip. Like most onsen in Japan, guests are expected to bathe naked and obey the strict ‘no tattoos’ policy of the baths.
Arima Onsen has much more to offer guests than a pampering at the spa. In addition to the Hideyoshi Bath Museum, Arima also prominently features the Arima Toys & Automata Museum. The three floors of this museum feature toys from around the world. Specializing in automata, there are demonstrations of the toys in the collection and a gift shop full of paper automata that can be made at home. There’s also a floor for children to play with and explore some of toys that are on display. Onsen-ji Temple on the opposite side of town offers guests a peaceful reminder as to the spiritual origins Arima, and is lovely in the spring when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
Arima’s regional craft specialties include hand-woven baskets and doll pens. The latter are adorable brushes woven with silk thread. When tipped brush side down, a tiny, smiling doll pops out the opposite end. Arima also makes a variety of edible cider products. Arima Cider Teppo Water is a heavily carbonated drink made from the purified spring water that also feeds the onsen. This same cider water is also used to make cider senbei, thin wafer crackers that can have either a sweet or savory flavor.
Many small restaurants and food stands can be found within Arima’s narrow streets. From world-class beef croquette to traditional sashimi and soba there is simply too much to eat here in one day. The Tama Café in particular, just around the corner from Arima Onsen Station, serves truly excellent beef udon.
If you’re planning to do souvenir shopping before you leave Arima Onsen, a wise traveler should not put it off until after dark. Arima is a small town, and when the sun goes down many of the shops close up for the day. Get your fill of the colorful trinkets and novelty items during the day, and spend the evening strolling through the quiet streets, or enjoying the night view from the open-air baths available in many of the resorts around town. If you’re lucky enough to visit Arima during one of its festivals (see below) spend some time admiring the lights along the canal and soak up the peaceful atmosphere that has for centuries been the pride of Kobe.
Arima Onsen can be accessed from Sannomiya station to Tanigami Station via subway. From there, the Shintetsu Arima-Sanda line can take guests to Arima Guchi. Hop over the tracks to the Arima Line for a single stop trip to Arima Onsen.
Notable Festival Events
Irizomi-shiki – New Years Procession (January 2)
Cherry Blossom Festival (April)
Release of Fireflies (June)
Ryofu River Festival (July / August)
Principal Tea Ceremony (November 2 - 3)