Kyushu has its fair share of hot spring towns, but none are quite as quaint and idyllic as Kurokawa Onsen.
Located in the mountains north of Aso caldera, Kurokawa Onsen kicked off in the Edo Period as a popular place for daimyo and other travellers to stop and relax on the journey between Kumamoto and Oita. After experiencing a major tourism boom in the 1960s, the town slid into a recession, but through careful town planning and marketing, they were able to rebound and build Kurokawa Onsen into what it is today. Despite the fact that it’s only accessible by car or bus, it’s still one of the most popular onsen in Kyushu, so picturesque and relaxing that it was awarded two stars by Michelin in their 2009 Green Guide Japan.
Even a seasoned Japan traveler or onsen connoisseur will notice something’s a little special here: Kurokawa has purposefully opted out of the invasive development that plagues so many of Japan’s other onsen towns. There are no massive concrete hotels, flashing neon signs, not even a konbini to mar up the classic landscape. The town’s lush green slopes cradle traditional wooden ryokan, many of which overlook the rushing waters of the Tanohara River. When the blue glow of dusk sets in and the town becomes gently illuminated with the warm glow of lantern light, a stroll in yukata along the narrow streets feels almost like taking a step back in time.
Kurokawa’s claim to fame is its outdoor hot spring baths, and almost all of the town’s ryokan have at least one of them. The thing to do is rotenburo-meguri, which is kind of like a pub crawl, but instead of soaking their livers in pints of beer, participants soak their bodies in steamy outdoor onsen. Your 1,300 yen buys a nyuyoku-tegata, or ‘onsen hopping pass’, a little wooden medallion that gives you access to three outdoor baths at any of the 24 participating ryokan. There are some pretty spectacular options, from a bath perched up high overlooking the town, to one right beside the rushing river. There’s a bath next to a waterfall, one in a forest, and one in a cave that’s been hand-dug by the ryokan owner. There are also eight different types of spring waters, each with their own purported healing properties.
When your skin is properly pruned up, it’s time for a bit to eat. The second thing to do in Kurokawa is stay at a ryokan, where guests are treated to lavish multi-course meals in between all that bathing and sleeping. Kurokawa is known for being slightly pricier than other onsen towns, with stays starting around 16,000 yen per person per night. But part of that price is experiencing the extravagant meals, and once you finish the last morsel of your 13-course dinner, you’ll know it was worth it. Other dining options in town range from delicate tempura soba to curry rice made with horse meat—a Kumamoto regional specialty. Some ryokan also offer kaiseki lunch for those who have come just to bath.
The hills around Kurokawa are a great place to break up the marathon of hedonism, burn off all that delicious food and stretch your legs in between baths. The visitor’s center has an English map for hikers with routes that are paved and short enough to complete in a couple of hours. The trek up to Hirano-dai viewpoint, also known as ‘Lover’s Hill’ is a popular one for sunset. There are lots of options for more adventurous hikers of course, but watch out for snakes if you stray off the path.
With all its rustic wonder, a visit to Kurokawa is like a step back in time in one more way: the village has no ATMs. While ryokan and some of the shops do accept card payments, be sure to withdraw enough cash before setting off to avoid missing out on snacks and souvenirs.