The Tako family is currently traveling around Japan for the entire month of October. We’re exploring the Land of the Rising Sun again (it’s not our first trip to Japan), and I’ll be blogging about our travels.
In Part 1 of our Japan Trip Report I showed where we’re staying for a big chunk of this month-long Japan adventure. We aren’t just staying in one spot however — We’re taking lots of mini-trips to different parts of the country!
The first of these mini-trips was scheduled two days after we landed in Japan. It was a 2-day trip to a small town in Wakayama Prefecture, called Katsuura.
Wakayama is a relatively unpopulated prefecture in Japan known for it’s small coastal towns, and beautiful seaside views. We were headed far away from noisy city environments to the quiet hot spring town of Katsuura for a little R&R after our long journey to Japan.
While it is possible to get to Katsuura by train, taking the bus is the far more economical option.
Our bus to Katsuura left from the depot at Shin-Osaka station (The largest train station in Osaka). To reach Shin-Osaka, we needed to take a $5 JR train ride into the heart of Osaka.
Total cost: $10 (The kids rode for free).
We then boarded this pink butterfly bus to Katsuura… Hey, don’t laugh! The pink butterflies made our bus look tough!
The bus was roughly half the cost of taking a train to Wakayama at $35 per person, but it was slightly slower than the train (about an hour slower). In total, the bus ride took 5 hours, including a few rest stops.
Instead of the typical ‘toilet and vending machine’ fare you find at American rest stops, Japanese rest stops are more like strip malls — You can find bakeries, restaurants, gift shops, outdoor food stalls, and sometimes even food trucks… all right off the highway.
The gift shops typically focus on ‘local’ fare that’s made by small companies in the area. Wakayama is famous for satsuma oranges (called ‘mikan’ in Japanese), and the gift shops sold all kinds of local satsuma orange products.
I thought these mini orange custard pies looked delicious, but I didn’t buy any. The price seemed a little high, and I had a big meal waiting for me at our destination.
After 5 hours of watching the Japanese countryside roll by, we arrived at this traditional Japanese hotel. The place was a called “Yukai Resort Koshinoyu”. It can be booked cheaply via Agoda.com if you’re interested.
Traditional Japanese hotels are called ‘ryokan’, and they only have Japanese-style rooms. Ryokan usually include meals (breakfast and dinner), japanese-style hot spring baths, spas, manicured gardens, and lovely scenery to help weary travelers to relax.
This was definitely an older hotel, but I thought it provided a lot of value! We stayed two nights here, and our room cost $135 per night (two adults $90/night, and two kids $45/night). This included an all-you-can eat breakfast and dinner.
Our room was (of course) a traditional tatami-style room with futons, and some really fantastic wifi (for being out in the country). We also had a great view of the ocean from our room.
Despite it’s age, it really was a beautiful hotel, filled with all kinds of beautiful Japanese-style decorations in the alcoves.
Some of the hallways even had these little interior Japanese gardens that treated our eyes to some incredible quiet beauty.
Back in it’s heyday, this place probably cost a real mint. While I’m not a fan of expensive hotels, I felt we got our money’s worth at $135/night for four people (plus food).
For those of you who are curious, even out in the countryside I think the hotel did a fantastic job of providing English language signage everywhere.
English speaking travelers would have absolutely no trouble at this hotel.
After unloading our bags, we had the boys try out some yukata in kid sizes. A yukata is a traditional Japanese garment… a lot like a bathrobe. Funny enough, the word ‘yukata’ can be roughly translated as “clothes for after bathing”.
The boys must have thought they were in samurai robes or something, because suddenly every photo had to include action poses.
After that, it was time to eat! Some ryokan will actually serve meals in your room, but I think this practice is dying out in modern times.
The meals at our ryokan were served buffet style in a dining room. (The hotel called it a smorgasbord on the sign, which is actually a Swedish word… but whatever!).
The big specialty of Katsuura is maguro (tuna), and there was plenty available at the buffet for the eating.
We filled our plates with maguro and all kinds of delicious Japanese edibles. I went back multiple times, but didn’t managed to taste every dish before I was full.
Oh, and the Japanese beef was all-I-could-eat too…
Oh man was that stuff tender — Knives weren’t even provided! Melt in your mouth soft. You could easily eat it with a pair of chopsticks.
For healthier options, there were plenty of salads, tempura, miso soup, Japanese curry, udon noodles, and other dishes I couldn’t identify.
Did I mention the maguro was in abundance? Yes, it was…
This was right around the time the storm started. The wind began to howl and the rain began to pour, and I was really glad to be inside a nice hotel on such a miserable night.
With the weather being so terrible, nobody wanted to walk into town, so we headed to the onsen instead.
An onsen is a traditional hot spring bath, typically found at fancy ryokan hotels like this one. Japan is an extremely volcanic country, and these hot spring baths are found all over. They are frequently outdoors, and can even be used in winter due to the extreme heat of the water.
Like most Japanese bath situations, you scrub yourself down before getting in the hot water. It’s considered socially unacceptable to get in the onsen unwashed, or with soap remaining on your body.
Unlike a public pool, you go into an onsen ‘sans’ bathing suit… that is “in the nude”, along with other bathers. For Westerners uncomfortable with public nudity, this might seem pretty strange … but it’s really not all that different from a gym shower. Usually male and female bathers are separated into different hot springs.
Unfortunately I couldn’t take pictures in the main onsen, but I was able to find this photo of the “Jungle” onsen from the hotel’s promotional photos.
Yep, it looked kinda like that … only with a hell of a lot more wind and rain. The storm was still raging, but under the hot water, I hardly noticed!
There was also a smaller ‘private’ onsen I was able to get pictures of.
The water was super hot in this onsen, and I had to find a cooler spot on the far end before I was comfortable.
If you ever get to Japan, an onsen is a very unique Japanese experience. Try it — It’s very relaxing!
The storm continued to blow all through the night and into the next day. This ruined our plans for exploring the area, but there was still sufficient food to be had at the breakfast buffet.
Nope, we didn’t starve. No lack of food here.
Japanese breakfast is a little different from a Western breakfast. You won’t find a bagel or frosted corn flakes here, but you will find stuff like sausage and eggs. There’s also more “Japanese” breakfast items like miso soup, broiled fish, pasta, meatballs, and this dish called ‘ocha zukke’.
The dish involves Japanese rice bathed in tea along with seaweed, green onions, miso paste, sometimes wasabi, and then some form of protein. I had my choice of egg or chicken, and chose both to get the “full experience”.
The eggs are often ‘soft boiled’ as can be seen in the photo above. In onsen towns, these eggs are frequently cooked in the natural hot spring waters and are called “onsen tamago”.
Despite all the unusual food, our kids really enjoyed it! They cleaned their plates (which is something of a miracle). In many cases this was their first time eating these dishes, which provided for some hilarious facial expressions.
The Silver Lining
The storm caused this mini-trip to be a little disappointing. It raged on for two days. We were stuck in the hotel with very little to do but eat, take hot baths in the onsen, try out the massage chairs, and read books. I guess it was relaxing, and I finished a book… but I sure felt like a slug not exercising.
On the very last morning of our stay, the storm finally broke. We had three hours to explore before our bus left. It was a rush to see what we could.
One of our first discoveries was this ‘foot onsen’ Tako Jr. #1 found in the hotel’s Japanese garden.
This foot bath uses the same hot spring water as the main baths, and is intended so weary travelers can rest their tired feet. And yes, the water was quite hot.
We walked into Katsuura town to check things out, but first we had to pass through this small tunnel which was pretty cool.
It gave me memories of the Ghibli film Spirited Away. Perhaps we would be transformed into giant pigs (like in the movie), after gorging ourselves on the endless buffet.
Apparently Katsuura has a local fish market where fresh tuna are often sold right off the fishing boats — but the storm had been so terrible the last few days none of the local fishing boats had been out fishing.
There was nothing for me to even take pictures of.
Other than the tuna fish market and onsen hotels, Katsuura is a pretty typical ocean-side Japanese town.
We didn’t have a lot of time to explore, and only had time for a few quick looks into the tourist gift shops that lined the streets.
I thought the town’s public ‘foot onsen’ was far more interesting than any gift shop…. It’s open and available to the public for free from 6am to 10pm. The water was hot and soothing on my tired feet. You do need to bring your own towel though.
I love how the town blended its two main tourism themes here — the onsen and the maguro together into this beautiful tile artwork inside the foot onsen.
Well played Katsuura, well played. This traveler ended his stay in your town a pretty happy camper.
Although this mini-trip didn’t go perfectly due to unforeseen weather events, I still think we got our money’s worth….
In total, the mini-trip cost us $420 for four people for two nights. This includes our bus fare, train tickets, as much food as we could possibly eat, access to the hot springs, and a beautiful (but older) hotel room.
It was a very “Japanese” experience, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to try it.
Until next time!