You’ve spent the last couple of months cursing the heat and humidity, yet you can’t help but lament the passing of summer. As the first of the autumn breezes arrives, bringing with it the early signs of the cold months ahead, you need something to take your mind off the sense of loss that nags at you. You need a distraction. You need a hot bath.
Nestled at the foot of the Kuju Mountain Range in Kumamoto, Kyushu, awaits just the solution needed to alleviate the doubt that fall can be just as promising as summer. Kurokawa – onsen, described by many as the “hidden village,” unfolds along a crystal clear stream.
The surrounding foliage, promising all the spectacle of autumn, adds to the feeling of remoteness and hides the fact that you are merely minutes away from a major thoroughfare. In recent years, the small town has become a Mecca of outdoor bathing in Japan, especially to the younger set that flocks here in droves all throughout the year. By day, the village becomes a streaming mass of tourists, although not overly so.
At night, however, is when the magic kicks in, and you are left with nothing but your thoughts and the sound of the brook gurgling its way through the town.
A town ordinance was passed a number of years back, ensuring there is none of the ostentation that can be associated with some of Japan’s popular hot spring resorts. Rather every effort is made to distract as little as possible from the enclosing landscape.
The hotels and inns number fewer than 30, and most are styled to resemble the Japan of old, adding a feeling of nostalgia to the ever-present tranquility. Accommodation is priced to suit almost every budget, ranging from reasonable to a-wee-bit expensive, but in no way out of reach for the average punter. Spend the night, and be prepared to enjoy an exceptionally healthy meal. Local cuisine includes wild vegetables in abundance from the surrounding mountains), sweet-fish and the area’s specialty, raw horsemeat.Try it before you turn up your nose; it really is quite tasty. Chefs from each hotel share recipes so, regardless of where you stay, the treats are equally good. Wash it all down with any one of the local choshu (a kind of alcohol made from potatoes or wheat) available.
The booze can be drunk in vast quantities without much fear of hangovers or regrets the following morning.
Those with a sweet tooth will take delight in the local cake shop that specializes in cream éclairs and roll cakes. It also bakes a variety of cookies. The store is well known throughout Japan for the “cake-set,” so get in early to avoid disappointment.
For those staying the night, check into your hotel (between 2 and 3 p.m.) and be shown to your room, where you can spend a few minutes sipping the complimentary tea while listening to the obligatory welcome speech from one of the staff members. Formalities dispensed, throw off your clothes, and don the provided yukata.
Next it’s time to get down to the serious business of bathing. Overnighters will be handed a bathing pass which allows them to enjoy a choice of three hot springs in other hotels. There are 25 rotemburo (outdoor baths) from which to choose. By far the most popular and the most interesting would have to be Shinmeikan, which offers separate bathing in a cave and mixed bathing outside under a thatched roof.
The snake-like cavern has all sorts of nooks and crannies, providing the perfect place to enjoy relaxed bathing. Outside the entrance, spend a few moments enjoying the warmth of the open hearth (it can get quite chilly), and pay your respects to the local rooster who appears to rule that particular roost.
Day-trippers are not forgotten, and ¥1,200 buys a small wooden medallion extending the same three-bath privilege. Most of the hot springs are open from 8:30 or 9 a.m. with the remainder opening at 11 a.m. The majority stay open until 10 p.m. Those wishing to make the most of their time should plan to arrive in Kurokawa by 8:30 a.m.The hordes don’t arrive by bus until around 10 a.m., giving you an hour or so of relaxed bathing. Be warned; it can get quite busy on weekends.
Access to Kurokawa is available via a combination of train, bus or taxi from any of Kyushu’s major cities. The nearest stations are quite a distance away, and I would not recommend using public transport unless you plan to stay overnight. Rather, hire a car from Kumamoto City and drive along Route 57. The road is smooth and well signed.