Sunday, June 10, 2012

Journey to Kyushu's Kurokawa Onsen

Kurokawa Onsen (黒川温泉) is a tiny little hot springs village located by a river, in the mountains of Kyushu, and with no word of a lie, the place where I've had my first undisturbed sleep in years. With a bit of research on where we should go for our indulgent "treat" during this trip, the bigger half came up with Kurokawa, which is a place that I'd never heard of, and as it turns out, many Japanese have also never been there either. All I had read about it was that it was that it was inaccessible by train (ooooh! a challenge) and that the little town is chock full of beautiful ryokans with stunning outdoor baths set among the backdrop of the mountains. The place is so remote, there's not even any conbini (convenience stores). 

Shinkansen travel!
Venturing to Kurokawa was not all that difficult with a bit of planning. First off, coming from Kyoto, we had seats reserved on the shinkansen from Kyoto (京都) to Shin Osaka (新大阪), and then from Shin Osaka to Hakata Station in Fukuoka (博多). We also reserved our bus tickets ahead of time by phoning the Nishitetsu Highway Bus company, and you can find schedules and the phone number here: There are two buses daily from Hakata to Kurokawa, which since there are minimal connections, I prefer taking the single bus as opposed to taking trains to Beppu or connecting elsewhere even though taking additional trains closer may reduce your travel time. 
Hakata Station: Frozen
beer foam!
Ok, so reservations in hand, traveling via shinkansen was super easy, and we found ourselves at Hakata station without issue. After walking out of the main exit of the station, it's a quick turn right, a strolling along the side of the train station building, and if you look up and somewhat to the left, you'll see the sign for the Hakata bus terminal, which is a white building with a rounded end. The third floor is where you can pick up your tickets at the ticket window, and they'll direct you to which door your bus will arrive. When your bus arrives, just for extra confirmation that you're in the right place, I would show your driver your tickets, which is what we did. We received the nod, gave him our bags and found our reserved seats on the bus. BONUS: Between our connection to the bus, we had enough time to hop up to the upper floors of the Hakata Station (Hakata City), and set up at one of the bars to enjoy Kirin lager with a frosty foam top... all the rage nowadays. 
Riding the Nishitetsu
Highway Bus
Quite the
Ever been on a highway bus out to the boonies in Kyushu? I hadn't. And it's awesome! After the first hour of brief stops at the airport and various highway areas, you're off to the middle of nowhere, which ultimately gives way to this tiny little mountain road, weaving in and out of tunnels and alongside treacherous cliffs. It's really a remarkably beautiful ride, with water rushing along a wide, winding river below, and the occasional hawk soaring past the bus, on the lookout for a mouse or some other village prey. School kids with their bitty backpacks wave at the bus, and you stop prior to dangerous corners and before tunnels as logging trucks rush by. The trees are amazing. 
Now that you've had your excitement on the bus, the final stop is Kurokawa, making things easy in that you can't miss your stop. Depending on which ryokan you've chosen (there are no hotels), they've either come out to fetch you, or you are within walking distance and can take a brief look at the village. 

Visiting the onsen
The village itself is beautiful. When here, you can buy a Kurokawa Onsen pass, which allows you to visit three of the ryokan baths. Choose your bath, show your round, wooden token at the main desk, and hopefully they'll point you to the door for your gender. There you'll find a changing room to get into your birthday suit, and you can proceed to the area that has the little stools and buckets to scrub yourself clean. After rinsing, you are free to enter the bath. Note: if shy about your birthday suit, it seems to be okay for women to bring their little wash cloth into the bath to cover their naughty bits. Men are kind of shit outta luck. It is considered a faux pas for men to do the same, so if you're a bro, make sure not to let your little wash cloth into the bath. Soak for about ten to twenty minutes at a time, and then dry off with the little cloth as best you can before entering the dressing room again. I've read that some people like to rinse off after the bath, but I would advise against it. I didn't see a single person do this while at the baths, and all the minerals are supposed to do wonders for your skin, so what would be the point of washing off?
The Bijin-Yu at Ikoi
Which baths did we choose? Well the first we stopped by was Ikoi. I can't comment on the men's side, but I deeply enjoyed the women's "Bijin-yu" or Beautiful Woman Bath, which had wonderfully hot, clear water, and little streams of water pouring down into the alcove that was set aside for the bath. Since the ryokan is situated near the river, you can hear the water rushing by while in the bath. The women's area also had a standing bath, which had hotter, cloudier water that you wade into until neck deep while stabalizing yourself on two floating bamboo poles, also very relaxing. 
Ryokan Wakaba's women's bath
The second bath was my favorite of the three that we visited in the village, located at Ryokan Wakaba. After our visit to Ikoi, we had sat down for some udon for lunch (onsen makes you very hungry). A nice couple from Tokyo recommended the rotenburo (outdoor baths) at Wakaba, and after hearing their enthusiasm we decided that it had to be good. The women running the inn quickly guided us to the correct doors, and within moments I had gone through the customary washing, and took a soak in a large rectangular indoor bath before proceeding to an outdoor hot spring so breathtakingly beautiful and serene that I felt a mix of disbelief and general unworthiness. Lush green trees surrounded a stone bath set at different depths throughout. Minerally, sweet-smelling water was so hot that it took a few moments to edge in all the way to the shoulders, but once accustomed to the temperature, one could freely wade to the edge of the large area. You could then put your arms on cool stone at the edge of the bath and really stretch out, while glancing over a ledge that gives way to rushing water below. Steam rises slowly to the top of the loosely canopied room, and without having a less cliched way to say it, all this together seemed to melt away all troubles of the past and all concerns for the future. What a beautiful bath. 
Cave bath at
Yamanoyado Shinmeikan
The final bath that we visited in the village was perhaps my least favorite, but then again, the most unique and supposedly one of the oldest in Kurokawa. Upon walking into Yamanoyado Shinmeikan, we were struck by the beautiful antiques inside of the ryokan. The kind woman at the desk pointed out on a map which bath was which, and then also instructed us that there was no washing in these baths. I had to ask her about it twice, because I felt like I must have misunderstood. You always wash prior to onsen! Apparently not at this one though. You climb up a little stone sloop to the women's bath, there is a changing room to the right, and then upon entering the bathing area, there are no showers or spigots to draw water in which to wash. The Japanese lady who entered the bath with me also seemed a little weirded out by this. But I guess it's the way they do this at this bath. What then was so remarkable about the ryokan bath? It's a cave bath. Just like it sounds. Cave filled with hot spring mineral water, with steam rising into every little tunnel and path within the cave. There were also several nooks and crannies in which to relax, semi separate from all the other bathers. Definitely worth trying, and again, also very pretty.

Exploring the town. Look
for the onsen eggs!
While exploring the little town (this isn't rapid fire hot bathing, people), you'll want to stop in some of their little shops and food stalls. I recommend four in particular. First, down the center street of the town, there is a little liquor store, which I can only really describe as being one of about two liquor stores in town, but this one has a teeny, tiny little door. Here you can find an extensive selection of Kyushu shochu, which is a very strong liquor indeed. Look for the potato-based varieties. There is also local Kurokawa beer for sale... and you know how I always like to try the local beer (I recall a black lager being especially good...sorry, no photo).
Inside of senbei shop
Nori-wrapped senbei
Mochi-type senbei
The second shop you really need to try is the senbei shop, where they are making their own special treats. Senbei are Japanese, rice-based crackers, which can be savory or also a touch sweet.  These senbei are displayed prominently in a long display window facing the street so that the makers could call out to passersby to come try their wares. We tried two varieties. One was a very traditional Japanese senbei, flavored with soy sauce and wrapped with a nicely toasted sheet of nori (seaweed). The second that we picked out was more of a mochi senbei. Mochi is a nice chewy rice cake that my mother used to toast in the oven at New Year's time. This shop stacked tiny mochi cakes onto a skewer, soaked in soy sauce and then topped with a good dose of katsuobushi, or shredded bonito flakes. As we picked out the snacks, it was raining heavily, and the shop keeper graciously invited us inside to sit on a little bench, while she poured us some iced tea and we gobbled up both treats. I highly recommend that if you haven't had senbei before, this is the type of place to try it. They're just the right size to satiate your appetite as you bath hop without ruining whatever massive dinner you might be looking forward to at your ryokan.
Little udon shop w/ the
Bigger Half
Zaru udon with dipping
Warm udon with tempura
The third shop that I recommend is a little udon shop that I mentioned before, where we had met the nice couple from Tokyo. Udon are thick noodles that are served in a hot soup or cold with a little container of dipping sauce. They're one of my favorite meals to eat and make at home, but I've never had udon quite as delicious as these. Made each day by a little old man who is always hard at work in the shop, I chose the cold zaru udon with a simple vinegary, soy-based dipping sauce. Chewy, springy and slippery, these were a wonderful lunch. My bigger half opted for the hot noodles, which came complete with these wonderful tempura vegetables, though I wasn't able to determine what they were as I've never seen them before and was less than successful with the translation. The hot noodles, and delicious savory broth, combined with vegetables that had a wonderful green, earthy flavor and a bit of crunch and chew, were a wonderful meal before we headed to the ryokan recommended by the gracious couple.
Dora Dora Shop - making the
Bah-gah w/ sweet red
beans, mochi, and whipped cream
And the final recommendation? This one you are not allowed to miss. If you walk down the narrow, sloped main street of the town, you'll see a little shop called Dora Dora. In the front window, a nice lady is seen flipping tiny pancakes, and the aroma escaping the doorway is that of the best belgian waffles you've ever inhaled. If you're lucky, you may also see a nice, rotund little kitty lounging on a ledge by the window. Upon entering the shop, there are many different little "bah-gah" treats stacked on the front cabinet. Each has a different filling and flavor. I asked which was the best seller, and the shop keeper recommended a little pancake sandwich with a filling of sweet red beans, soft mochi, and sweet local whipped cream. It's just about the most wonderful sweet treat that I've ever eaten, and we were so glad that we stopped here. 

So those are my recommendations for the little town of Kurokawa Onsen. As I had mentioned, it's not the most straightforward area to reach, but I assure you, it's well worth it. I also have a recommendation for where to stay... but that will have to wait to the next post...

1 comment:

  1. Hi I'm thinking of taking this same trip! May I know how long did this whole journey take you from Kyoto to Kurokawa?