The Beautiful Village of Kurokawa

Kurokawa is an onsen town in the middle of our island (Kyushu).  It is about 40 kilometers north of Mt Aso (Japan’s largest volcano – which would explain why there is an abundance of hot springs).   According to the Kurokawa Spa Association website, the history of the town as a hot springs/spa/onsen destination goes back at least 300 years.  Feudal lords use to come from nearby areas to “cure their wounds” or as a rest stop on long journey.  However, it has only been about 50 years since the town started marketing the area as a resort, and only within the last 10 years that it has become really popular.  Some claim it is one of the best onsen towns in all of Japan. I have no idea if it is or not, but it certainly is a beautiful place.  There is no touristy glitz, no big ugly buildings or signs, no convince stores or fast-food chains, and even a very limited number of shops and restaurants.  It seems to have stayed true to it’s roots.

There are only about 30 ryokan in the area, each with less than 20 rooms, so they tend to book up months in advance.  Getting a room on a Saturday night is nearly impossible, so Robert actually had to take a Friday off so we could go.  Most of the places only have Japanese websites, so I had to get assistance from a co-worker to actually book the place.  The ryokan we picked, Hozantei, was recommended by several people, and each room has it’s own private rotemburo (outdoor bath).  The village is only accessible by car or bus…we took the bus.  The scenery getting there was spectacular.  The bus ride was like a roller coaster ride (but without the tracks).  The roads were incredibly narrow, curvy and built on cliffs.   Our bus driver earned every penny he made by managing to get us there safely.

We arrived in Kurokawa around noon.  After glancing at the map near the station, we proceeded down stairs to a small back street that headed into the heart of town.  I found the restaurant I had read about previously which serves curry, so we decided to have lunch since neither of us had any breakfast.  We then walked around the town and figured out where everything was.  We could have easily walked our ryokan, since it was only about 3 km from town, but we had already set up the pick-up time and didn’t want to confuse them.  Upon arrival, they immediately escorted us to our own little cottage, pointing things out and telling us something (I have no idea what).  We did manage to figure out when dinner and breakfast were and where we needed to go, the rest (I hope) was not important.  We settled in, had our tea and biscuit, and took full advantage of our private hot tubs until dinner.

Dinner was served in a special dining room.  Tonight’s menu was laid out in front of us (in Japanese) and course after course was presented to us.  They did their best to explain what each thing was, but there’s no way I could remember it all.  It was all delicious.  I ate everything, except for the whole fried fish (the bugged out eye, spine and intact stomach just didn’t appeal to me).  Robert, however, ate even that – head, tail and all…which really impressed the Japanese women.  We both had horse sashimi (the speciality of the area) – which is actually very tender and tasty.  I’m not sure what the best part was…so many flavors and textures, all so fresh and each presented as a piece of art.  I’m really sorry I didn’t have my camera with me.

When dinner is over, you can’t move.  You’re so full, you only want to sleep.  We each slept on a single futons with a buckwheat pillow.  This experience is literally one step above camping.  After sleeping like that for one night, it’s no wonder they love their onsens…you get so sore sleeping on the hard ground, you need them to recover.  These cottages (like the Japanese houses) are made very simple, so you hear every outdoor noise.  The river and the rain was wonderfully hypnotic.  But right before daybreak, Robert was sure there was some creature in our room eating the treats I brought.  He had to get up and check it out.  In fact there was plenty of animal activity going on outside that morning…it had me giggling.

Our own private hot spring bath

Amazingly we didn’t wake up still full, thus enabling us to enjoy our wonderful multi-course Japanese breakfast (mainly a variety of fish, tofu, vegetables, rice, egg) which was also fantastic.

We didn’t have to check out until 11am so we spent a leisurely morning watching the ducks and heron from our spa.  We were both so completely relaxed at this point we didn’t want to go.  We finally checked out and decided to walk to town.  We did some shopping, had some coffee and ice cream and eventually caught our bus back to the city.  The drive back was equally as beautiful on the way back, but fortunately it wasn’t nearly as frightening since we now had the inside lane. 🙂

I’m already looking for another place to stay there….maybe in the spring.

 

 

Sisters’ Visit: Takeo and Nagasaki

Japanese Dinner

Our Japanese Dinner

We arrived at our Japanese Hotel later than we probably should have for check in.  It was 6pm, but the staff was extremely gracious and they were more than happy to accommodate our request for a 7:30 dinner.  After some tea and treats in the lobby (which are usually served in the room), they showed us to our tatami room where we unpacked and relaxed while having a few drinks.  I’m sure they giggled when they saw that we brought our own pillows (sorry, we are just not fans of those buckwheat pillows).  Since it was already pretty late, we didn’t have time for the onsen, but we put our yakatas on anyway.  It wasn’t long before our dinner server was there loading up our table with TONS of food: soups, appetizers, sushi, sashimi, and all the makings for shabu, shabu.  I ate everything, it was fantastic (especially the shabu, shabu).  I really thought we were done, but then she arrived with grilled fish, fried fish, more soups and sides, and some mixture to help congeal the remaining shabu shabu broth.  As full as we all were, we tried a little bit of everything, but there was no way we could finish it all.  Finally she came by one more time with dessert – a crepe filled with cream, strawberries and kiwi.  There was no way I wasn’t going to eat that though.  YUM!  Immediately after dinner they cleaned everything up and laid out the futons.  We had internet access finally, so we Skyped our families and then went to bed to the sound of rain.

Azalea Heaven

Amazing Azalea Garden

Morning arrived in a blink.  We headed downstairs for breakfast.  It was hard to imagine eating breakfast since it literally felt like I just had dinner.  We were wondering how they can eat so much food and still stay thin.  Our Japanese breakfast consisted of lots of little bite-sized dishes, some rice, egg, nori, fruit and yogurt and a little grill to grill your own fish.   Surprisingly we were able to eat quite a bit.  This place must have the world’s smallest coffee cups…like from a child’s play tea set.

Immediately after breakfast, we headed outside for the garden next to the hotel, since the entry fee was included in the room price.  The rain had finally stopped, but we took our umbrellas with us just in case.  We walked down the hill and through the big entry gate.  I immediately knew I was going to like this place.  I’m sure this place is beautiful in full sun, but with the low clouds and everything still wet it was quite magical.  I kept thinking how beautiful this place would be in the fall too.  In the distance I could see some wisteria as we walked along the edge of the little lake.  We eventually made our way to the crown center of the garden.  At the foot of this granite mountain was something that looked like it came out of a children’s story book….there were hundreds of azalea bushes of every color everywhere – like little mounds of ice cream.  We all felt giddy, totally amazed by the sight in front of us.  We almost got lost in there and we couldn’t stop snapping pictures.  Before exiting we had to pass the wisteria and, though not in full bloom, it was so beautiful and smelled so good I didn’t want to leave.  We all love gardens, and this was one of the loveliest we’ve ever seen.

Dejima

Visiting Dejima

We headed back up to the hill and after a quick photo of all us in front of our hotel, we were on the road to Nagasaki.  It was an interesting drive, because we went through more tunnels than I ever imagined there could be in one place.  At least half the distance to Nagasaki was tunnels…huge, long tunnels.  Even our final approach into downtown was a long tunnel.  After that last tunnel, we literally only had to drive for two kilometers through the city before we reached our hotel.  It was only 11am, and we couldn’t check in until 2pm, but they held onto our bags while we went out to explore the city.  Robert met up with us at the hotel…he got there about 10 minutes before us.  We all hopped on a street car to nearly the last stop on that line and just started walking up and down (and up and down) all the streets.  Our goal was to stop at all the places highlighted on our bare bones map (it’s amazing we found anything).  All the steep hills reminded us a little of San Francisco.

Our first stop was where the first Catholic Church was built in Japan….it’s now a temple.  We ended up walking through several shrines and temples.  We eventually found the main walking street (which was pretty quiet on a Sunday).  It was around here we shopped in a few antique stores and had lunch (steamed eel) at a little local restaurant.  After visiting the Spectacles Bridge, Shianbashi street, and Chinatown, we headed for the wharf area and had some drinks to relax.  A little before 7pm, we had our free taxi ride up to Inasayama for the night view of Nagasaki.  Even though it was a little hazy, it was still an amazing view.

Dontaku Parade Performers

Dontaku Festival Parade

The next morning, Robert left to go back to Fukuoka right after breakfast, and us girls went out to find Oura Church, Glover Gardens, Holland Street, the Western Home sites and, of course, do some more shopping.  While the Japanese seemed really interested in all the ‘western’ stuff, we weren’t (we see this all the time), so we headed back down to the wharf area to check out Dejima.  This turned out to be a really interesting place – about a very important part of Japan’s history.  While just a replica of the island village that once stood in the same exact location, it is extremely well done.  The village itself used to be an island in the harbor, but with all the land reclamation projects it is now in the city along one of the canals.  Much of Japan’s modern history started on that little island, and we all found it quite fascinating.  This is a must visit for anyone interested in Japan opening it’s doors to world commerce.

It was now late afternoon, so we headed back to Fukuoka, and that is were we spent our last day together.  We had dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant, went downtown to do some shopping, ate some more food at the stalls in the park, and watched some of the Dontaku Festival.  Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and head for the airport.  🙁   I guess all good things do have to come to an end.

Sisters’ Visit: Mt. Aso and Takachiho Gorge

So cool...

Mt Aso’s Crater

I’m so lucky to have sisters who like to travel.  Every year we try to go somewhere.  This year, after unsuccessfully finding frequent flyer flights to Vietnam, two of my sisters decided to come visit me and see Kyushu.  I was a bit worried about planning everything, because it’s a challenge booking things in Japan if you don’t know the language, so I was hoping everything I planned/reserved was going to work out and that we wouldn’t have too many surprises.  Since it was also the start of Golden Week, I was also nervous about large crowds and traffic.  As it turns out, everything turned out perfectly.  We had another fabulous time and made some more incredible memories.

With on-time flights and an English-GPS equipped rental car, we got off to a good start.  Our first dinner was a special treat at Ippudo for ramen and gyozas.  We all resisted the temptation to stay up late since they had had such a long trip, and we were planning an early morning departure.  We were out the door Thursday morning by 8am after some coffee and breakfast.  I immediately realized I was going to love having an ETC card thus avoiding having to stop and pay at all the toll gates.  The expressway was mostly uncrowded, and we had no problem finding our way to Mt. Aso.  The drive was beautiful once we got out of the suburbs of Kumamoto.  Lots of hills with every shade of green on them, lots of streams and deep river valleys.  It was interesting to watch the vegetation and landscape change as we approached Mt. Aso.  When we got there it was very windy and quite cool.  We took the ropeway up to the viewing area and we got to see down into the crater where it was glowing a florescent green.  We walked around, met a nice German family, and did some shopping and snacking before heading onward.

Falls from another angle

Boat Ride thru Takachiho Gorge

The winding road down lead us into a beautiful valley area which seemed to have a ‘western’ theme to it and views of “hairy” oddly shaped mountains.  We stopped here for a late lunch (udon and soba) and then drove through more canyons before we came upon the town of Takachiho.  Having ‘walked’ the roads here on Google maps, I knew where our Japanese Inn was, so we stopped there straight away and checked in.  They supplied us with some maps and information and off we went.  We walked down the gorge along a steep one lane switchback road to get to the park and boat area.  It was a beautiful area with very few people.  We boarded our rowboat and off we went.  Our fearless, never rowed before, captain managed to make this a fairly humorous boat trip not only for us but for everyone else in the area…it’s a miracle we didn’t get drenched by the waterfall.  I’m sure this was retribution for the rafting trip in Belize that she still gives Jody and me a hard time about.  Nevertheless, she did a great job and we got to see and experience this wonderful place.  The color of the water, the waterfall, the cliffs, the varied rock formations, the vegetation…all made it beautiful and it was great to be a part of it all.

Sharing the Sake

The Kagura Dance Performance

We walked back up to town and checked out Takachiho Shrine where we would watch the Kagura dance later that night.  The size of the cedar trees were simply amazing and I loved the smell of the cedar and pine.  The dance performance was very entertaining, especially the last dance about the ‘Creation of Japan’.  I’d highly recommend this to anyone.  I wish I could have understood the commentator.  He obviously loved telling the story and I could almost figure out what he was saying from his expressions and the small English handout they gave us.  The music was a bit repetitive (almost hypnotic), such that after an hour I was ready to leave (otherwise I might have clobbered someone with that drum).

In the morning, we weren’t in a big hurry to go back to the city, so we drove further up the road to the shrine associated with the dance performances – the place where they supposedly lured the goddess out of her cave so that it would no longer be dark in Japan.  I’m so glad we went there, because it really tied the whole experience together.  The actual shrine is the cave and there are literally thousands of piles of stacked rocks on the way to and in front of this place.  It has a very mystical feeling to it, and we were incredibly lucky to have it all to ourselves.

Just as we were leaving masses of people were arriving.  During this trip, I learned the key to really enjoying Japan’s treasures: do it early in the day, because the Japanese are not morning people.