A Guide To Kurokawa Onsen
Soaking in a steaming hot onsen is a quintessential Japanese experience, and what better place to enjoy it than a whole town dedicated to the cause. Kurokawa Onsen, in the southern region of Kyushu, is exactly that. Yukata clad onsen goers shuffle down narrow streets, ducking through a front door here and there, the parting cloth revealing a momentary glimpse of the delights beyond. Old wooden inns line the riverside, steam rising into the air all around. It’s a special place, and perfect for whiling away a day or two.
Smaller, sleepier, and infinitely more charming than Kyushu’s most famous hot springs town, Beppu, Kurokawa Onsen is an idyllic little retreat. Numerous inns, a few small restaurants and attractive shops dot the river, meandering alleys snaking between. More inns are scattered around the central cluster, up hillsides and hidden in forests. While there are plenty of good walks and hikes in the surrounding region, there’s not much else to do in the town itself other than lie back and relax.
Choosing which of the thirty odd onsen inns to soak in is about as stressful as it gets around Kurokawa. Thankfully the decision is made slightly easier with the Onsen Hopping Pass. Purchase your giant wooden necklace at the tourist info centre in town (¥1300), grab a map and pick three inns of your choice. The map gives you a run down of each, helping you to narrow down the options. Some offer single sex baths, others mixed bathing. You’ve got up to 6 months to use the pass, but you can easily try them all out over a couple of days. You can only access the public baths with your pass (not any private baths) and most inns welcome onsen hoppers between 830am~9pm.
You can hire a yukata set (a cotton robe, belt and sandals) for wandering around the town in true onsen style. Head to the building behind the visitor centre. Rentals are ¥1500, between 10am~430pm.
Our completed Onsen Hopping Passes
If you’re looking for a little solitude (or you’re super shy) then you can opt for a private bath at a number of inns. Sessions last for around 40 minutes to an hour and cost on average around ¥1500.
There are a few foot spas dotted around town. Most are free, while some charge a few hundred yen. Pop off your shoes and soak your feet in these glorious baths.
Soaking our tired feet at a foot spa
Your first trip to an onsen can be a little daunting, especially if you’re not used to public displays of nudity. And if you were still wondering if swimsuits are OK, the answer is no. It’s your birthday suit all the way.
First things first you need to remove your shoes at the entrance to the inn and pop on the slippers that are laid out. Pay your entry fee at the desk or get your pass stamped then head to the relevant changing room. Choose a cubby hole or locker (you’ll need coins handy for these) and leave all your belongings and clothes here. Look out your towel so it’s easy to grab when you’re done and take your small cloth in with you (you can buy one at the tourist information shop or at most inns).
*Note that toilets may be located outside of the changing rooms so make sure you go before you get naked!
Next, head through the door to the bathing area and straight to the showers. Take a seat on one of the tiny stools and wash your whole body. Most places have shampoo and body wash available, otherwise feel free to take in your own. Be sure to rinse off all the soap and shampoo – you shouldn’t get any in the baths.
Outdoor showers at Ryokan Konoyu
When you’re ready, scoop some water from the bath onto your feet with the nearby bucket or your hand. This helps your body adjust to the temperature. Leave your cloth on the side or tie up your hair with it as it’s considered bad form for either to touch the water. Lower yourself in gradually and enjoy! Keep a bottle of water handy to stop you feeling faint from the heat.
When the time comes to drag yourself away, try to dry off as much water as possible before heading back into the changing room. There are usually sinks and mirrors, plus hairdryers in the women’s. Finally, sip on some refreshing tea in the common area after if your inn has one.
Use the small bucket to scoop some water over you
While we can’t claim to have tried all the onsen in town, we did sample a few. Over a couple of days we tried out three of the public baths, and one private. As we each had a different experience we can’t actually agree on our favourite, but we can tell you what we loved about each.
Our private bath session was taken at Ryokan Yumotoso in the centre of town. This beautifully decorated inn, built in the Edo period, oozed charm and class. We peeked in a couple of baths and opted for the middle one. Beyond the private changing room lay a deep rectangular tub, water flowing over a large round stone in the corner. Light poured in through a partly opened window, the sound of the river outside echoing the water gushing into the tub. Darkened wood and ochre paint adorned the walls, that slightly damp and aged look to them. It fitted perfectly the image of a traditional Japanese onsen in my mind. While we can’t personally vouch for the public baths here, if the private bath experience is anything to go by then we’re sure you won’t be disappointed.
Enjoying a private bath at Ryokan Yumotoso
Another atmospheric old inn in a central location is Ikoi Ryokan. We visited this place in the evening, when the soft orange lighting created a warm ambience. While the map suggested this inn had a mixed bathing area, only the single sex baths were available to us. Both the men’s and women’s baths featured falling water, the force of the water pummelling you on the back when you sat under it. In the women’s I loved draping my arms over the suspended bamboo poles in the standing bath, just about dozing off a few times as I swayed back and forth. Over in the men’s, Del got to sweat it out in the sauna. After, we sat around the central fire in the courtyard, admiring the huge kettle hanging over it. This place was Del’s favourite.
Relaxing after a soak at Ikoi Ryokan
A little out of town, hidden amongst the trees, lies my inn of choice, Ryokan Konoyu. We visited here on a Thursday morning and had the public baths entirely to ourselves. It was bliss. The large airy changing room had me grinning with anticipation from the moment I rounded the entrance screen. Adjoining toilets didn’t go unnoticed, scoring more satisfaction points in my book. Stepping outside I took a moment to appreciate the setting. A standing bath with suspended bamboo poles (my new favourite) straight ahead, and a beautiful large bath to the side, the water glinting in the sun. I alternated between the two. Reclining on the large rock – perfectly seat shaped – in the centre of the main bath and dangling off the swaying poles in the other.
The standing bath at Ryokan Konoyu
The set up over the fence in Del’s bath mirrored mine, except with a view over the fields below from the standing bath. With a flight to catch later that day, I seriously had to drag myself away from this place, having savoured every moment.
The men’s baths at Ryokan Konoyu
The one onsen that we do agree on as being our least favourite of the bunch was Iyashinotosato Kiyashiki. Apart from the private bath, this was our only mixed bath experience. While the baths themselves were attractive enough, the men’s featuring a round wooden tub and the women’s a swim through section leading straight into the mixed pool, there was just something lacking. No old world charm, lacklustre changing rooms, and a feeling of being squirrelled away in a forgotten part of the inn, across the car park in some little used building.
The men’s private baths at Iyashinotosato Kiyashiki
WHEN TO GO
Nothing ruins the serenity of a tranquil rotenburo (outdoor bath) quite like a crowd of people. If you want to maximise your chances of a blissful onsen experience then choose your timing carefully. When planning our road trip around Kyushu we purposely chose to visit Kurokawa last, because that meant staying mid-week instead of over a weekend. If you can, I highly recommend doing the same.
Avoid busy holiday periods like Golden Week (end April/start May), Obon (mid-August) and New Year. Domestic tourism is at its peak during these times.
When the Autumn leaves around Kurokawa turn glorious shades of orange, yellow and red, the draw to this beautiful town is even bigger. Expect to share your experience with plenty of others if you’re visiting at this time.
Bathing early in the mornings or later at night is a good idea if you want to avoid the crowds, as is opting for inns further out of town.
WHERE TO EAT
Being a small town, eating options are fairly limited. Many people eat dinner and breakfast at their ryokan, so places tend to close up by early evening. There are a few cafes and restaurants dotted along the riverside, on the Main Street Shimokawabata Dori.
Ufufu is an atmospheric place, with mini dining rooms off the old wooden corridor, most with windows overlooking the river below. Their food is delicious and reasonably priced at around ¥1300 ~1600 for a set.
Lunch at Ufufu
The only place we found to be open at night is a new place (not on the tourist info map yet) on Sakura Dori, just down the hill from the visitor centre carpark. We didn’t pop in, but from the looks of it they do teppanyaki and draft beer in attractive modern surroundings, with a few tables outside too.
For a snack on the go head to the local shop just beyond the visitor centre carpark. They have a bunch of souvenirs but also a convenience store section. They have some excellent creamy yoghurt and other dairy products too! They close at 10pm. There’s a beer vending machine just outside.
WHERE TO STAY
If you have the budget, staying in a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, is a truly special experience. All of the onsen inns in Kurokawa offer rooms, some with private baths attached. Dinner and breakfast are usually included in the rate and are beautifully presented and of superb quality. The food is a highlight in itself, a traditional Japanese multi-course meal, or kaiseki, being a memorable experience.
Slippers at Ikoi Ryokan
Some ryokans offer western style beds, others traditional Japanese futons. Slip on your yukata, a more casual version of a kimono, and relax post soak. Staying in a ryokan is not cheap, with the higher end places setting you back hundreds of dollars a night. It’s a wonderful experience though, and use of the various baths is of course included.
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For those on a backpackers budget, camping is available nearby at a few different spots. Our pick is Chayanoharu Camping Ground, a few kilometres east of Kurokawa Onsen on the main road, the 442. At first it doesn’t look like much, but drive down the narrow road to the right of the wooden building and the many levels below will start to reveal themselves. You can keep on going all the way downhill, uncovering quiet little spots. We pitched up in May and there was only one other group of people staying. As there was no-one around we didn’t pay for our stay (we also didn’t use any facilities). In summer you may need to book in advance and will likely be charged around ¥3000.
Camping at Chayanoharu Camping Ground, near Kurokawa Onsen
Kyushu is the perfect place for a road trip, and having your own wheels makes it much easier to access the town itself and the various ryokans dotted around the surrounding hills. There’s a central carpark at the visitor centre, and various smaller car parks scattered around town.
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Reaching the town on public transport is still possible, but the options are limited. There is no train station, the closest being Aso Station. There is a direct highway bus from Fukuoka (Hakata Station, Tenjin Bus Center or Fukuoka Airport). It takes about 2.5 hours, costing approx ¥3090. You can also board the bus at Hita Station, useful if you have a JR Rail Pass.
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