Kurokawa Hot Spring Village, Kyushu
The charming hot spring village of Kurokawa in Kyushu is such a gem that I had a dilemma about whether or not I wanted to divulge the details! Many people visit Kyushu for the famous hot spring resort of Beppu, but venture a little further inland and you will discover the quaint village of Kurokawa.
Located about 20 kilometers north of Mount Aso, I first visited this village in 1999 and it made such an impression on me that I vowed to return one day. It was incredible to see how it has changed over the years, but fortunately it has retained the rural charm and friendly hospitality for which Kyushu is famous.
Kurokawa has a number of very unique hot springs, including one inside a cave. Visitors can purchase an entry pass called a Nyuto Tegata from one of the participating Japanese inns (ryokan) in the village to allow them to enter three different onsen. The pass is valid for six months and it is a unique keepsake in itself, as it is carved from tree bark. You will see most visitors wandering the village in their yukuta with the Nyuto Tegata draped around their necks. Alternatively, you can pay a small entry fee for each onsen. If you are staying in a local ryokan then you can automatically enter its hot springs as an overnight guest and keep your onsen pass for visiting the other participating ryokan in the village.
There are so many unusual onsen in Kurokawa that it can be hard to decide which ones to visit. Shinmeikan has a hot spring inside a cave and is well worth a visit, but it is not for the faint hearted or the prudish. The changing area is basic and you may want to take a modesty towel for entry and exit to the cave, as it is partially overlooked. However, once inside the comfort of the cave you can relax and let your worries go. It is a sublime feeling to soak in the hot water in the cave and it feels like you are journeying to the center of the earth.
A personal favorite of mine was the onsen at Fumoto Ryokan. Climbing a series of steps in the woods, you emerge into a beautiful hot spring surrounded by bamboo trees. On the afternoon I visited, I was lucky enough to be the only person in there, which felt absolutely heavenly!
Another favorite was the bijin no yu or the “hot spring of a beautiful woman” at Ikoi Ryokan. With a name like that, you can’t help but feel beautiful when you take a dip. It is a charming old Japanese inn that serves ice cold beer by the fire when you have finished bathing. Needless to say, this one was my husband’s favorite.
Should you decide to stop for a sweet treat in between dipping in the hot springs, there are numerous cafes and ice cream stalls around the village. I recommend the custard pudding at Roku Patisserie, close to the Fumoto ryokan in the center of the village. The dessert was so creamy and delicious that we went back for a second one.
We spent two nights at Kiyashiki Ryokan during our trip. It is located a short distance away from the village, but has a free shuttle service. It is one of the few places with an elevated view of the local area. There is a lovely selection of private onsen that you can use with your husband or partner, offering breathtaking views of the local scenery. There is also a very atmospheric bar overlooking a valley of trees that is perfect for a nightcap after your sumptuous evening kaiseki meal.
At the end of your trip, there is the option of offering your used Nyuto Tegata to the gods at the local shrine before you leave. I decided it was too pretty to leave behind, but my husband diligently offered his. We agreed that between us we had struck the balance between tourism and spirituality, and there is no doubt that you will leave Kurokawa feeling like a goddess!
Getting there: There is a direct bus from Kumamoto airport to Kurokawa Onsen. There are also direct buses from Mount Aso. For alternative bus routes, please click here. Many visitors also choose to hire a car and visit Kurokawa as part of a driving tour of Kyushu.
More info: There is a visitor center close to Kurokawa bus stop where you can pick up English maps of the village. To learn more about Kurokawa, please visit the town’s official tourism site.