Happy Hot Spring Hopping at Kurokawa Onsen
Kurokawa Onsen (黒川温泉), in Kumamoto prefecture, is a hot spring town or spa resort with plenty of things to do. You can enjoy the many hot springs (温泉 or onsen), some are even outside (called rotenburo 露天風呂), just by the river. You can walk around the town, which is very picturesque, and try delicious food. Its location, surrounded by nature, is perfect for relaxing. The best way to get there is probably by car, as you can go through smaller roads and stop for pictures of the beautiful, natural scenery. Alternatively, there are also highway buses from Fukuoka (Hakata station, Tenjin bus centre and Fukuoka airport) and other locations throughout Kyushu, such as Kumamoto.
We went by car, so on the way there we visited a small but very nice waterfall (Nabegataki 鍋ケ滝, 9 m tall, 20 m wide) near Oguni Town (小国町).
There is a shuttle bus to get there from the car park, but we just walked (about 10 minutes), as the nature views were very nice. It’s an agricultural area, with fields and a few country houses. We walked past some interesting “installations” in the middle of the fields and next to some of the houses.
There was even a little self-service stall selling local produce. I got some chestnuts to roast at home. The access to the waterfall is via some wooden steps going down into the woods. There is a little stream and the air is very humid, with lots of mosses growing on the ground and over the trees. There is an observation platform and you can even go behind the waterfall onto the other side, which is very nice for photos.
Then, we had lunch at an Italian restaurant on top of a steep hill, Pizzeria Tre Passo, with amazing mountain views. Just off Road 442, about 4 km away from Kurokawa Onsen. It’s a very steep drive uphill through a very narrow road, but the views are totally worth it.
In the afternoon we made it to Kurokawa Onsen which is like an onsen version of an amusement park except the rides are the baths. There are lots of different foods and sweets shops, tea houses, etc. and you can rent a yukata set (robe, slippers and obi sash for 1000 yen, from the Bechin-kan building behind the visitor centre) and walk around town in it, instead of having to change clothes all the time. You can get a pass (nyuto tegata 入湯手形) to go onsen hopping (rotenburo meguri) from the visitor centre or any of the 24 inns that are part of the Kurokawa Onsen Ryokan Association (1300 yen for adults and 700 yen for children for 3 different outdoor baths) and for each onsen you visit you get a stamp on your wooden pass, which you can just wear around your neck and take home as a souvenir. There are bigger and smaller onsen and even some on the river or in the woods. You just sit by the water and put your feet in the “bucket”.
You can even alternate between the hot water from the bath and the cold water from the river. Most onsen have separate areas for men (dansei 男性) and women (josei 女性) and a few are mixed. There are lockers for your valuables and you are not allowed to take food or drinks into the onsen.
When we arrived, it was very hot, so we went to one of the shops and got a refreshing ramune (a kind of like lemonade/soda). This is a funny Japanese drink, which you need to open the cap, press a little marble in and then drink it whilst trying to stop the marble from blocking the flow.
Quick Tips on How to Onsen
The onsen itself is not for washing. Please don’t take any shampoo or body products in it. For that reason, you need to put your all belongings in the basket provided and proceed to the preparation area with your hand towel. Here, you should take a proper shower/bath, using the products provided. You can use the shower or the more traditional scoop and bowl that are also provided. When you enter the onsen, you need to be naked. You can take the towel with you and leave it next to you. You may not wear a bathing suit. Don’t worry, no one will be staring at you since everyone else will be naked! After enjoying a relaxing bath, most places will have an area where you can drink water and unwind a bit more.
We ended the trip at a teahouse, with a very nice cup of matcha (Japanese powder green tea) and a selection of dango (Japanese rice flour dumplings). This is one of the most beautiful onsen towns I have visited in Japan. You can see more photos here.