Japan on a budget, 4: Northern Kansai

(This is part of a guide to travelling Honshu on a moderate budget and in limited time. Click here for the whole series).

I didn’t really mean to go to the North coast of Kansai, but managed it anyhow. A national holiday fell on the Monday of my trip, and on the Saturday before every hotel – and I mean *every* hotel, from flea-pit to five-star – in Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima filled up. For a while I thought I’d be sleeping on a park bench. Then I found one in Fukuchiyama, a city north of Kyoto and entirely absent from the Lonely Planet guide, which didn’t bode well.

Fukuchiyama Shiro

Besides not making the Lonely Planet book, Fukuchiyama barely gets a mention on Wikipedia – see here – so I arrived via the JR Kinosaki limited express with fairly low expectations. The LE trains on this line are either the newest in the JR fleet (spangly) or the oldest thing you’ve seen on Japan’s rails, depending on which you catch, but both are pretty quick, and as you arrive in the town you’ll notice a striking castle to one side of the tracks. I dropped my rucksack at the brand new and terrifyingly empty Sunroute Fukuchiyama (minutes from the JR, turn left from the main entrance bit – you can even see it as you arrive) and took a walk through the town to find it.

Fukuchiyama Castle

Random city, giant castle!

The Fukuchiyama Shiro is maybe 20mins from the station in the opposite direction, and up a big hill. It’s open as a museum, and worth going inside for the views from the top alone. Inside there are various exhibits (Samurai armour, etc), and some rather amazing old painted scrolls. All signage is in Japanese, and I’m not sure any or much English is spoken, but they do have an English tourism map for the area. Castle aside, it suggests some visits to nature sites outside the town.

Fukuchiyama City

The view across town from the top

Kinosaki Onsen

Kinosaki - Outside the town

Outside Kinosaki

Instead, I jumped on another limited express train North to the coast and Kinosaki, an onsen town. Kinosaki is a huge domestic tourist draw, and you can see why: it’s full of onsen ryokan (all rather expensive), as well as several public onsen. I took a walk down by the water, then ate probably the best sashimi I’ve ever had for about £15. Look for a place on the left as you walk from the JR station: it looks cheap, with photos of every dish, the name begain with Dai (大).

Kinosaki - Parasols

In the town, pretty canals

Oh, and then the onsen. I visited Gosho-no-yu (御所の湯, details here), which is on the further of the two main streets from the JR station, and has a rather grand front. Cost is around 1000Y if you need to rent towels, and it’s nice: an indoor bath, a sauna, and two smallish outdoor baths with a lovely view up a waterfall into the forest behind. Not quite the best onsen I’ve ever been to, but well worth a tenner and an hour of your time.

Kinosaki - Evening

Kinosaki by evening

Towards the evening the town fills up, and ryokan customers clip-clop around town from bath to bath in yukata and sandals. If you can afford it, I’d recommend staying the night to check out more baths. As everywhere had been booked, I jumped on a late limited express – this time of the amazingly preserved 1970s variety –out of town and back to Fukuchiyama.

Kinosaki - Ltd Exp Konotouri

The oldest train in Japan, perhaps – I didn’t need my reserved seat

Food, Hotels and Travel

Konotouri and Kinosaki limited express services are a quick-ish way to head North from Kyoto down the JR-Sen line – book seats with your rail pass. The Sunroute Fukuchiyama was brand spanking new, crazily cheap, and really helpful – I arrived to find, much to my surprise, my bags delivered to my room (not normal business hotel service), but it is out of the way, so stay in Kinosaki if you can. If not, it’s a good cheap alternative, plus you get to see the castle!

Seafood in Kinosaki was, in my experience, stupidly cheap for what you get – I didn’t eat anything more than a donut in Fukuchiyama, so sadly can’t comment on restaurants there.

From Fukuchiyama I dragged myself from bed there at 5am to haul across to Hiroshima via Shin-Osaka.