Hidden away in the mountains of Kumamoto prefecture is the onsen town of Kurokawa. OK, so it’s technically not ‘hidden away’ at all because plenty of tourists visit but it’s still a great way to experience a more ‘rural’ Japan and escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
Kurokawa is situated around 20km from Mount Aso (which explains the abundance of natural hot water). If you’re not driving, the best way to get there is by bus. We took the Beppu-Kumamoto Kyushu Odan bus, hopped off at Kurokawa and spent two nights, then hopped back on and continued to Kumamoto. From memory it takes about 2.5 hours to Kurokawa from both Beppu and Kumamoto. Be warned, the bus only goes once or twice a day so you’re in trouble if you miss it! You can book the bus in advance through their website, then pay the driver as you board on the day. Once you’re on, sit back and enjoy a journey through the hilly landscape!
Kurokawa is most renowned for its outstanding outdoor baths (rotenburo) and onsen-hopping experience. Historically, the town was popular with local daimyo (samurai lords) who believed the waters were good for curing wounds. Today, Kurokawa is more widely-visited but manages to retain a more ‘traditional’ feel thanks to strict planning laws that prevent huge concrete hotels and flashing neon signs popping up. The little ‘high street’, where you can pick up your souvenirs and stop for lunch, still manages to feel welcome and touristy without being tacky.
Kurokawa is best experienced overnight but some people will just visit for the day for the famous onsen-hopping experience. This involves purchasing a wooden pass (tegata) for 1300 yen from the information centre or any participating rotenburo, which then allows you to visit three rotenburo. With each visit, you get a stamp on your tegata and when it’s used up you can either take it home as a souvenir or hang it at one of the many shrines in the area. If you consider yourself a collector or competitive, you might be tempted to visit all 26 of the participating rotenburo. I did six in two days and it was probably one too many – onsen-hopping should be a relaxing experience rather than a challenge!
The best rotenburo are usually located close to the river or facing the mountain. Most are within a walk of each other but a few require catching a bus from the town centre. It’s perfectly acceptable to walk around all day in a yukata, which you’ll obtain from your ryokan if you’re staying the night. In fact, most of the rotenburo are connected to hotels. My favourite rotenburo were Yamamizuki, which overlooks the mountains and is surrounded by greenery; Yamanoyado, which is literally located in a cave but may be a bit claustrophobic for some; and Yamabiko, which is particularly spacious and located close to the river. Each rotenburo has different water types that treat various conditions (from insomnia to excema to anemia). For more information, check out the tourist website and pick up a map from the tourist information office on arrival.
If you can only hack so many rotenburo, Kurokawa also has some spectacular walks that take you along the woodland and the beautiful countryside. My mum and I took the warabi nobori path, which is marked out by weathered wooden signs lining the roads. It was supposedly the shortest route but, somewhere along the way, we took a wrong turn and went around in a circle. It was still a wonderful walk that took us along mountain streams, terraced paddy fields, a natural spring and the Hirano-Dai (Lover’s Hill) plateau observatory, which offered amazing views of Mount Aso when we finally got there. Given how you are largely walking along mountain roads and well-trodden paths, I don’t think you could genuinely get lost walking around.
After all that bathing and walking, you’ll need something good to eat. Despite its size, Kurokawa delivers quite well in that department. If you’re staying in a ryokan, you can opt for to have breakfast and dinner there, which is a unique experience. I have a confession to make – I accidentally ate horse sashimi! I highly recommend Warokuya, whose speciality is horse katsu in black curry sauce (I’m really sorry, the second time was not an accident) and Kisho, which specialises in creative tofu meals. You’ll also spot eggs sitting in stone bowls of hot water pumped straight from the earth, which you can take for the small price of 100 yen.
If you want to experience the onsen-hopping, surrounding countryside and food in full, an overnight stay in Kurokawa is a must. Two nights was perfect for us, before we hopped back on the bus and continued on to Kumamoto. And that will be the last holiday blog I have scheduled…. *sniff*