Christmas 2019: Kurokawa Onsen

It was 3 years ago when I first visited Kurokawa Onsen. On my first trip back to Japan as an adult in 2016, my boyfriend and I splurged on a stay at a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) at the famous onsen hotspot in Kumamoto prefecture. With absolutely no previous experience staying in any ryokan, this upscale ryokan in Kurokawa became the basis to which I compared all other ryokan experiences to follow. With 6 different private baths, including their public ones, intimate dining rooms and traditional futons and tatami room bedrooms, it was an easy choice to come back here for our second Christmas in Japan.

Unlike our previous trip to Kurokawa by bus, we had the luxury of travelling by car this year. Within an hour and a half taking backroads from Oita, we arrived to our ryokan at Yamabiko Ryokan.

Yamabiko mascot: Ume-chan (ウメちゃん)
View from Yamabiko.

After a quick browse through the town, we return to our inn and immediately check on the openings of the private baths downstairs.

With 6 private baths in total, each one has a different layout and style including its own changing area. A quick glance at a locked door and lit sign tells us if it’s occupied.

Our first bath:

Our second:

Dinner is spent in our room eating snacks we’ve bought from nearby stores, which is good enough– we’re both a little under the weather with a fierce cold that has robbed us of our appetite. We spend the rest of the evening in our futons and get an early night.

In the morning, we get up for our first breakfast. In our own private room, most of the meal is set out for us when we arrive.

Our Christmas breakfast.

Our breakfast is complete with dish, fresh tofu, pickles, rice, a soft boiled egg and steamed vegetables. We manage to finish our meal and spend the rest of our Christmas day resting in our room and visiting the remaining private baths.

All the baths are wonderful, but this is my personal favourite. Everyone has their own criteria when it comes to choosing their preferred styles of baths, and for me, a good combination of complete submersion with the right lounging heights where I can keep my upper body and legs out into the open air is a must. This hinoki bath has a bench within the bath that allows me to keep myself partially out of water. With the windows open to the river outside, I could have stayed in there for hours.

After an afternoon full of bathing, we have our first dinner in a private dining area.

We’re served horse meat, a local delicacy. It’s not my favourite, but everything else is delicious! Good thing we don’t have lunch ordered – there is A LOT of food for dinner.

After dinner, I venture outside to catch the bamboo lanterns hanging down the Kurokawa River.

Breakfast:

We explore more of Kurokawa. We stop for a much needed coffee in town.

With several other ryokans in the area, visitors can go “onsen hopping”, where one can visit their public baths with a small fee, or use a wooden token received at your ryokan. There are also a few free “foot baths” and public fireplace, where we rest our feet for a few minutes.

My feet are shrivelled from a visit to a foot bath!

Dinner and more baths afterwards.

We’ve had different waiters for each of our dinners. Tonight, we have a man in his late thirties serve us. He describes the contents on our plates, almost like a question. “Cook your meat in here and dip it in here?” “This is sashimi?” Eventually, he asks if this is our first time here at Yamabiko. “Yeah, we came here 3 years ago. In March I think?” “I think I remember you from that time. You look familiar”. We’re shocked, and at that moment, we start to think he looks familiar too. Maybe it’s the suggestion that makes us think that. Either way, it’s nice that he remembers us. We tell him we’ll be back; we like it here.

After our large meal, we waddle to our rooms and change into our robes for another bath. Afterwards, I take a nap in my futon that turns into a deep sleep until morning. I think I’ve had 9 baths in total today.

Our last breakfast:

I didn’t have the foresight to take a picture of our room before we turned it into our little gerbil nest these past few days. Oh well, still a very nice room:

What been a beautiful stay and good, long rest we’ve had. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Until next time.