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A Guide to Kurokawa Onsen

2024-03-18

If you’re looking to experience some of Japan’s best hot springs, you’ll want to make your way down to Kyushu. There are several famous hot spring towns in Kyushu, such as Beppu Onsen and Yufuin Onsen in Oita, as well as Ibusuki Onsen in Kagoshima. One hot spring town that has been popular with both local and international visitors is Kurokawa Onsen, located north of Mount Aso.

What sets Kurokawa Onsen apart is that it’s in the heart of nature, so you’ll be surrounded by forests and greenery. You can also easily walk through the small town and admire the traditional Japanese architecture featuring wooden buildings and earthen clay walls. There are roughly 30 ryokans (for overnight guests) and about 26 open-air baths in total, which the public can access. So, if you’re looking for your next hot spring town to visit, read on to see how you can make a trip to Kurokawa Onsen happen.

 

1. The history of Kurokawa Onsen 

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It wasn’t until the last 30 years that Kurokawa Onsen became more popular among locals and tourists. Until 2000, the hot spring hadn’t even been listed on Kumamoto Prefecture’s local maps. Now, it attracts at least a million tourists a year.

Stepping back, the history of Kurokawa Onsen is tied to a legend. As legend has it, long ago, a poor young salt seller from Nakatsuru in Bungo Province lived with his sickly father. The father wanted a melon, but the family did not have much money. The son offered salt to the local jizo statue and stole a melon from a nearby farm.

The farmer saw this and attempted to cut off the boy’s head. However, the head of the jizo fell off instead. The jizo had acted as a substitute and protected the son. Originally, the head was to be enshrined in the Higo area, but a divine voice said to enshrine the head near Kurokawa instead. Hot spring formations appeared in Kurokawa soon after.

Aside from the legend, Kurokawa Onsen was a place for feudal lords to take a break and relax during the mid-Edo period. Much later in 1961, the Kurokawa Onsen Tourism and Inn Association was formed, and six inns were made part of the association. In the 60s and 70s, the town experienced an influx of tourism after a major highway was built. Since then, a unique bath pass established in the 80s dramatically increased inbound tourism, and all the further developments in the Kurokawa Onsen area have since made it a must-travel destination.

 

2. How to get to Kurokawa Onsen

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Nestled near the Aso area of Kumamoto, there are several ways to reach Kurokawa Onsen. For those traveling from Tokyo or Osaka, you can take a flight to Kumamoto to start your journey, but you can also fly into Oita or Fukuoka as well. The fastest and most direct route to reach the hot spring town is to rent a car from wherever you choose to land. If you’re coming from Fukuoka, you’ll most likely be renting a car from Hakata Station, and the travel time is roughly two hours.

From Kumamoto, you’ll most likely be renting from Kumamoto Station, and it will take around one and a half hours. The car ride from either Yufuin City or Beppu City to Kurokawa Onsen is perhaps the fastest, averaging around an hour.

Alternatively, taking a bus is the best option if you want to stick to public transport. From Hakata and Fukuoka Airport, there are three buses that run once a day with one-way tickets costing around 3,470 JPY. From Kumamoto and Aso-Kumamoto Airport, a couple of buses run each day with the cheapest one-way ticket averaging 2,200 JPY. Finally, there is only one bus a day that runs from Beppu to Kurokawa Onsen, but there are a few that you can take from Yufuin. A one-way trip from these two points also costs around 2,200 JPY.

Ultimately, either mode of transportation will get you to where you need to go, but having a car allows you to explore other nature sites near Kurokawa Onsen.

 

3. Enjoying the local hot spring town culture

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After navigating your way to the quaint town, you might think to yourself, “Where do I begin my explorations?”

For starters, purchase a Nyuto Tegata hot spring-hopping pass. Crafted from local cedar, the pass is a physical round piece of wood that you can use to visit the town’s public baths. For 1,500 JPY, you can access three public baths at any of the participating inns or you can visit two public baths and receive a souvenir from participating stores.

The pass was created to increase sales for the overall town rather than just one establishment. Now, the pass is eligible for use at 26 inns. You can have fun decorating your pass, and with each bathhouse you visit, you’ll receive a stamp on the pass.

Each additional bath you visit will cost you 500–800 JPY. The concept of the pass came from the first six inns that were part of the Kurokawa Onsen Tourism and Inn Association. About 1% of the sales go back to supporting local conservation efforts. Ultimately, as Kurokawa Onsen is famously known for some of the best open-air baths, you’ll want to visit a few while in town.

While walking around, you may want to wear a yukata (traditional light cotton robe) to fully immerse yourself in your surroundings. You can rent a yukata from the tourism information center, or you’ll most likely receive one from your accommodation.

As you walk along the streets, there are little bakeries, cafes, and shops scattered about, which you can peek into at your leisure. Roku Patissiere is known for its cream puffs, but be warned that they could be sold out by the afternoon. Other places to try include Warokuya, a restaurant where you can try some famous Aso beef, or Iroriya, where you can have izakaya bar-style dishes in a relaxing setting. While there are a few eateries to choose from, you’ll most likely want to book breakfast and dinner to be served at your accommodation.

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of the bamboo lanterns floating in the river, you’ll have to visit during the winter months.

 

4. Where to stay in Kurokawa Onsen

There are around 30 ryokans to stay at in Kurokawa Onsen, each with its own unique features. Many of the ryokans have only around 8–15 rooms, so it’s important to book as early as possible. Here are a few of our picks for where to stay.

Kurokawa Onsen Ryokan Wakaba

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If you’re a foodie, you might want to take the opportunity to stay at Ryokan Wakaba. Before it was an inn, it was a sushi restaurant; two exceptional items on its current menu include horse sashimi and grilled fish. For the ultimate dining experience, you might want to stay in one of the Annex rooms since you can dine in a separate room with a hearth, which is still used for preparing food.

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In terms of the actual hot springs, there are two public baths divided by gender. The water at Ryokan Wakaba is slightly acidic, making it easy on the skin and great for moisturizing. Two private baths can also be booked for an additional fee, which is nice for couples or families. While bathing outside, you can enjoy the sounds of the nearby river passing through.

Kurokawa Onsen Wafu Ryokan Misato

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Those looking for something with a “welcome home” kind of vibe should look to Wafu Ryokan Misato. Most of the rooms have simple, Japanese-style layouts with tatami mats.

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The more interesting aspect of the ryokan lies in its outdoor bath. As you walk the path toward the outdoor bath, you’ll be dazzled by the bamboo lanterns hanging from the trees, like the ones commonly seen floating down the Tanoharu River in winter. The actual hot spring water changes color throughout the day due to the chemical properties of the water and natural light. The color of the water ranges from transparent to emerald green. There is also a gender-separated indoor bath.

After a soak, you can return to your room to enjoy a delicious seasonal course of dishes for dinner, with Aso beef and Kumamoto horse sashimi also available. For those who have not requested any meals, there's an optional breakfast.

Kurokawa Onsen Yamabiko Ryokan

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For overnight visitors who want to enjoy a variety of hot springs, look no further than Kurokawa Onsen Yamabiko Ryokan. You can enjoy the large open-air bath surrounded by trees and decorated with massive stones in the bath. There is also a smaller open-air bath that is deeper than the larger bath. The baths rotate daily based on gender. There are also gender-separated indoor baths as well. Unlike many of the ryokans in the area, this ryokan has six private baths that can be used for free by overnight guests. The hot spring water here is said to be able to relieve muscle pain.

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There are 18 rooms at Yamabiko Ryokan, offering Japanese and Japanese-western rooms. The dinner served for meal-inclusive plans includes local seasonal ingredients from the Aso area.

Lastly, a unique point of the ryokan is that for those traveling with a dog, there is a little “hotel area” called the wanpakutei (dog hotel) where, for an additional fee, your dogs can stay overnight. There are two cage sizes available depending on the size of your dog. Although you need to walk and feed your dog, there is a bathhouse available for your dog as well. If you stay at Yamabiko Ryokan, you won’t need to figure out accommodation for your dog while you come to Kurokawa Onsen and instead, you can bring your furry friend along.

Find more hotels in Kurokawa Onsen

 

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