Due South of Osaka
Hugging the coast south-west of Osaka, Izumisano city offers blessings of a modern town, while serving as a stunning gateway to top nature travel. A thirty-five minute bus ride from its city center ferries you to both some spectacular hiking spots and a peerless hot spring (onsen) hotel which holds the distinction of being the most accessible from abroad. Reading rave reviews of all these elements online, I made some bookings and boarded a bullet train for a short trip. Now that I have completed this journey, I can highly recommend it. Much like myself, you’ll surely dream of returning to this landscape.
PM 4:00 Comfortable Stay at Vessel Hotel
Setting out from Tokyo station, I boarded a bullet train for Shin-Osaka. Then, I transferred to the Midosuji subway line to reach Namba station. And, from that junction, I rode a Nankai line train to my final destination. A room awaited me at the all-new Vessel Hotel (opened in September 2023) so that I could rest up for the coming exploits. Snuggling into bed in order to recharge, I was happily surprised that the bed, although not too long, was quite perfect for my 6’6” (198cm tall) frame.
AM 06:30 Morning in Izumisano
Rising early following a deep and perfect sleep, I broke my fast on the hotel buffet which covered an array of bases, from sushi to yogurt treats in charming glass milk pots and even nihonshu (sake), clearly marked in English: “This is alcohol”. I did not imbibe, as I planned to hike later that morning, but loved the option as a stress reliever. Breakfast consumed, I returned to the train station to meet Masa Tamura: an English-speaking guide I had hired from a local tour company called Viator. Although this trip may be done without translation, I thought some inside knowledge might increase my enjoyment.
AM 09:10 Heading to Mt. Inunaki
Heading to the south side of the station, the bus bound for Inunakisan was easily found. It was positioned perpendicular to the station’s ticket wickets and was the closest to the path leading from the hotel. Slightly smaller than a North American bus, its paint job harkened back to vintage times, and the seats were comfy, so we barely noticed thirty-five minutes passing. Hearing the voice of the bus driver calling out “Inunakisan” alerted us to the fact that we had arrived at the bus stop bearing the same name as the mountain where we’d hike.
AM 09:45 Start Hiking the Mountain
After strolling one or two hundred meters, we arrived at a stone gate marking the trek’s start. At its threshold, Mr. Tamura explained that this mountain is one of the most sacred in Japan and that its temple was founded in the seventh century by En no Ozuno (or Otsuno), the founder of Shugendo, a syncretic religion composed of a hybrid of folk-religious practices, Shintoism, and Buddhism. He also informed us that this site is unique due to the fact that it permits female visitors, whereas many Shugendo temples are off-limits to them. In addition, Shipporyuji Temple, around which these paths were built, welcomes folk of every faith, and even those without one. The mountain received its title from a folk tale involving a hunter whose dog wouldn’t stop barking and thus scared away its master’s prey. Infuriated, the hunter beheaded his dog and was surprised to see its head fly up and then kill a poisonous snake, protecting its master with its final movements. The hunter then christened his late companion a “royal dog” and renamed the area in its honor.
The midpoint climax of the hike reveals a dead-end waterfall - named Gyoja no Taki - where followers of Shugendo (and lay people alike) may partake in five minutes of meditation under its chilly falling torrents while clinging to chains for safety’s sake. However, the whole mountainside seems to glow with energy, and its nature finds itself punctuated by a litany of sacred statues. As we climbed I noticed how fresh the air smelled, and how refreshing breathing felt there. In addition, seven waterfalls spaced out at intervals, added to the omnipresence of a nearby stream, seemed to orchestrate a soothing meditative music. And, the further along we trod during this outing, the more I realized that it was not arduous. The entire course had been clearly delineated, and no part was too strenuous for any age group. In fact, this could be lovely as an outing with one’s children, while keeping in mind that it takes ninety minutes one way and that there are few public toilets to be found. Also, possessing a subtropical climate, the area lends itself to hiking year-round; never being too hot or too cold. And, although the mountain path was filled with many ups and downs, as well as many twists, none would be challenging for most ages and fitness levels.
Having traveled extensively across Japan for work, I did not anticipate this day being particularly different. However, to my delight, I was mistaken. Inunakisan resonates like one of the most sacred sites I have encountered. It reverberates with holiness that I have rarely sensed. This submersion into an ethereal world grew deeper as we passed such sacred landmarks as the Waterfall of Both Worlds, the Grave of the Royal Dog, and the Hall of Seven Deities of Good Fortune. At Shipporyuji Temple, we were informed about the daily Gomadan fire rituals, whereby priests burn offerings of small wooden staffs meant to cleanse people of their earthly attachments. Adherents to the faith (and lay people alike) may purchase one of the small wooden staffs at the temple and write down their attachments on it to be burned in a ceremony. The trek back down the mountainside proved to be much swifter than our ascent, but all felt quite reborn through all we had witnessed.
PM 12:15 Fudoguchikan Full of Hospitality
Around noon, we strolled down off the sacred path and back into the real world, but still near Inunakisan. There, near the bus stop where our hike began, we all crossed the doorway of Fudoguchikan, a “boutique”-style onsen hotel of healing luxury. Limited to eleven rooms, spread over three price ranges, this hot spring hotel offers a unique respite. The general manager told me that its setting on the edge of a river, combined with its small range of rooms, offered peace almost unparalleled by any inn. And, given my history as a vegetarian (with some years of veganism), she proceeded to order a meal devoid of animal products just for me. Since I have witnessed many slipshod attempts in this regard prepared by those not dedicated to the craft, I did not set my hopes high. However, what followed absolutely stunned me to my core. The deliciousness of the feast would satisfy even the most steadfast fan of meat. But, lucky for me, it contained nothing but plant-based sources and was one of the best meals I have ever savored. A perusal of the menu quickly revealed “melty yuba (a delicate soy “skin”) within tasty dashi soup, with a wasabi flower and a leaf of Chrysanthemum…vegan sushi served alongside Japanese ginger,” and a stunningly long list of other luscious offerings.
And the baths followed the same tradition as the hotel’s bespoke cuisine. Billing themselves as the “most accessible” (Japanese) hot spring from abroad (due to their proximity to Kansai Airport; KIX), their quality all but guarantees repeat visitors. Segregated between sexes, both the gentlemen's and the women’s bathing rooms offer scenery plucked from your most soothing dreams, with tubs constructed out of elegant wood and stone, and views of an idyllic river down below. I opted for the deluxe room with its open-air bath placed on a veranda with views of the nearby forest and stayed almost fully immersed for half an hour, despite the recommended time of five minutes per single soak. Such was the overwhelmingly soothing power of its therapeutic waters. The veranda also hosted a sofa of wooden bamboo for relaxation as well as a glass shower for refreshment and your cleansing needs. Having worked across the nation as a journalist, I can clearly say that this hotel offered a peak escape from all of your city stressors. I literally did not want to go home to Tokyo. Additionally, I was pleased to find that this hotel offers a chance for anyone to rent a separate private bath for 3,500 yen per hour, so that all can taste this luxury regardless of their budget. Given its proximity to Kansai Airport, it is truly an experience that should not be missed. Having pondered all those thoughts as I journaled in the lobby, I then boarded the quaint bus to ferry me back to the city. Had I had time, however, I would have preferred spending a night or two in this lavish recess. And I would suggest it to anyone who reads this.
- PM 4:25
- Back at Vessel hotel, amazed at how fatigued I was, I stretched out on the cozy bed and savored a long nap.
- PM 8:00
- Awakening and not wanting to go to bed hungry, I quickly snatched up snacks from the convenience store near the hotel. Having consumed my meal, I set my alarm and slipped back into sleep after showering.
AM 7:00 Soba-Noodle-Making Workshop
Once again awakening rested and prepared for brave new adventures, I headed for the buffet as soon as I slipped on a shirt, some shorts, and my Dr. Martens. Glad to see my favorites from the day before, I was also happily surprised to spot some brand new offerings. Being unable to sample everything on offer, I still indulged in seconds of the mapo tofu, which was stunningly delightful. Having filled my tummy and my heart with glowing joy, I ran back to my room and showered before heading out.
- AM 9:50
- Greeting me warmly at the train station, a representative of the local board of tourism guided me to a soba-noodle-making workshop at Furusato Machiyakan. Much like the day before, I could have found my own way there, but I appreciated guidance in a foreign city. Joining me in the workshop was James Hills, a local ambassador for tourism. It was nice to partake in some learning with a fellow novice, and we laughed as we studied the complexities of noodles. Our teacher remained patient with us through the many steps of sculpting this most intricate dough and through the safe handling of the blade that shapes the noodles. About two hours in, we were schooled in their cooking and then sat down to feast on our first attempt. I was struck by how heavenly a fresh noodle tastes when it was sculpted mere minutes before being served. Surely, the rural air lent itself to our enjoyment, and I think it’s something that makes this class a must-take.
PM 1:20 Recommendations for Travel to Izumisano
Content from two days filled with profound experiences, I settled into my seat on the homeward-bound train, already dreaming of a return to Izumisano, perhaps for Expo 2025 in Osaka. If I were to sell this day trip to a certain demographic, a few quickly spring to my mind. First of all, it is perfect for a loving couple who would like to treat each other to some opulence. Many of us dream of more affluence, and this type of private sample plants its seeds in our minds. The second group to which I would recommend this trip would be new couples who are seeking new adventures. This type of posh respite from the usual can help couples form a deeper bond. Yet another demographic to which I would recommend this is middle-aged and elderly couples who are looking for a well-deserved recompense for their efforts. Most aspire to this type of unique experience in their retirement, and it would be excellent for those who have reached it or are soon to be doing so. And the last group to which I would sell this would be groups of friends who have longed for bonding time. Regardless of one’s reasons, a trip to Izumisano should delight almost anyone and tempt them to return time and again.