The wetness is beyond soothing. The warmth indescribable. The relaxation never ending. If only I had the strength, not just the desire, to freeze this moment, to stay in the comfort of this fantasy and pleasure world.
A private rotemburo. A world of our own. A pool of water, still steaming from the natural volcanic heat, its waves washing over us, cleansing us of the unnatural worries we bore prior to our visit.
Can there be such a place? Away from it all, away from the stresses and physical injury we give ourselves every day? A world of volcanoes, natural hot springs, people walking in the night wearing their yukata and geta, without a care in the world? Where the food is rich and plentiful, as if you could pluck off the branch of a nearby tree and have it taste as sweet as the most succulent honey?
There can be.
Kurokawa Onsen village.
Arrive on time. I can give you no better advice than that. Be at your ryokan at 3:00, ready to enjoy every last amenity this piece of rural Japan has to offer you.
What is it? One of the best onsen villages in Japan, filled with western and Japanese lodging. Small shops are everywhere, offering fresh soft cream and nice lunches if you want to explore after checkout (which you should). Surrounded by nature, in the valley between two rather large hills. Recently they have been building a "super hotel", which contrasts sharply with the small tradition ryokan in the area.
Where is it? Central Kyushu, just north of the famous Aso-san volano. Unfortunately, it's inaccessible by train, but a few buses do make it from Beppu, Kumamoto, and Fukuoka.
To Beppu: 10:57, 12:07, 14:51, 16:47, ¥2350, 135 minutes To Kumamoto: 10:35, 11:15, 16:45, 17:55, ¥2000, 145 minutes To Hakata: 9:00, 14:30, ¥3000, 165 minutes
From Beppu: 8:20, 9:00, 14:30, 15:40, ¥2350, 135 minutes From Kumamoto: 8:30, 9:40, 10:00, 14:20, ¥2000, 145 minutes From Hakata: 8:56, 13:36, ¥3000, 165 minutes
Routes to/from Hakata are operated by Nishitetsu (English page here. Routes to/from Beppu and Kumamoto are operated by Kyusanko
What to eat? Naturally your breakfast and dinner will be provided. Don't miss out on some huge spectacular meals, including: basashi (horse sashimi), yakiniku, sashimi, and fresh vegetables.
Where to stay? You have many choices, including the new modern onsen hotel I mentioned. Kurokawa's lodgings are reasonably well-separated, so be sure to look on the map for one within walking distance of the main village (although there's no harm in never leaving your ryokan, you'll want to see the village at night). It's impossible not to find a bed with a great view, though.
My personal recommendation: Shinmeikan. Undisputed. It has the best location out of all other lodging in Kurokawa (set apart by a bridge, practically built on a cliffside), it's in the middle of the village, and it has the most unique onsen in the area, the cave rotemburo.
Rooms can cost up to ¥18,000, but you shouldn't come to Kurokawa without expecting to pay at least ¥15,000/night.
Relax. One thing. Relax. It's a very bad idea to come to Kurokawa and not stay the night – I'd recommend at least two nights if you can afford it. The last thing you want to do in the best onsen village in Japan is stress out about bus timetables and onsen closings. Don't. Relax, and try not to come alone.
If you have no choice about an itinerant stay, you can purchase a special wooden medallion at the visitor's center:
This medallion, costing ¥1200, will get you into three onsen of your choice (note the special onsen stamps after use). Although it does make a nice souvenir, you can buy the same medallion without the onsen admission charge for ¥200. Although I do recommend trying all the onsen of Kurokawa, it's just not worth the hassle in this case, walking from onsen to onsen, keeping track of the time, and managing your own clothes and towels; check into a ryokan.
Just how many soaks can you get in during one night's stay?
Arrive 3:00 Onsen 3:30-5:30 Dinner 6:00 Walk though Kurokawa village 7:00 Onsen 8:30 Sleep Onsen 7:00 Breakfast 8:00 Onsen 9:00 Check-out 10:00
What's the appeal for me? Sitting outside in the rotemburo, slowly letting my head sink into the mineral-rich water, listening to my heartbeat slow... slow... slow. You know it's working.