This morning, I got my stuff together and headed for the train station after a ‘Viking’ Breakfast, which was a huge spread of all sorts of breakfast foods. The hotel was great, and the food was the cherry on top of a nice stay. It was just a few minutes walk from the station, so it was easy to get to the station to head down to Kumamoto to meet up with Shoko.
After riding the Shinkansen for a short time, I texted Shoko to get her ETA. I’d taken an earlier train since I was up anyway, and arrived literally as she was arriving as well. We met at Mr. Donuts, and of course, we had to get some before we went to pick up our Rent a car. Luckily, it was right next to the station and we were able to walk directly to the place and pick up our small sized car. It turned out to be a Cube, which is actually quite big. Obviously, in Japan, the more compact the better, as they tend to drive in small places. After a quick review on how to drive this car, we started out onto the roads of Kumamoto and headed toward Kurokawa Onsen.
After about 2 hours of driving, we arrived in a little village, and it began getting colder and started drizzling rain. This town was literally out of a fairy tale book with winding narrow roads, old Japanese architecture, and an air of gray throughout the entire walkable village. Barely squeezing through these winding roads, we weaved our way to literally the last inn of the town and found Fujiya, a beautiful old Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) that was kindly awaiting our arrival. We left our bags after being formally greeted by the Inn keeper, and went out to get some lunch.
A town this small you would think would have at least some lunch spots, but we were surprised to find most of the places that showed signs of food were closed for the day–which was fine too, as it made this sleepy little village feel even more like an old village of days before. We finally happened upon a spot that was serving lunch, and we had a nice traditional lunch. By this time we got warm and sleepy and went back to the inn to enjoy the natural hot springs.
The inn was absolutely amazing. After returning, we were shown our rooms. Each room was named after the character for a day of the week. Moon, Fire, Water, Tree, Gold, Earth, and Sun. We were in the ‘Earth, or Saturday) room. Sliding open the door to our foyer, we took off our slippers onto traditional tatami mats. There’s nothing like the smell of a room covered in Tatami, it’s got an earthy yet fresh scent.
The room was completely traditional Japanese style with a table on the floor, chairs with no legs, but the window was cracked open to let the noise of the rain water falling creep in. The fresh cool air with hints of sulfur filled the room as we were pleased to finally relax a bit. After unpacking a little bit, we went to check out the Onsen baths that were available for us to use.
The baths looked like a Hollywood set they were so traditional. Walking into the men’s bath, was a normal cubby system to put your clothes in, along with rows of sinks for you to do any toiletry items. Then through a sliding door, you time traveled into a stone laden floor with dripping water and fog that filled the air that was open to the outside. To the left were little stools for you to sit on to bathe yourself before entering the bath. Sitting on the little stool, I bathed myself in my own completely private onsen, as no one else was there. After bathing, I explored a little by putting my hands into a stone barrel like structure that had a sign telling you to pour this water over your feet when finished with the bath. It was ice cold.
I then put my hands into the lower bath that was like a small lap pool. It was hot, but not too hot to be able to enjoy by simply wading and sitting. I then saw a little ewok like door that led outside. So, completely naked, I crouched over and fit through the small door and I found myself outside looking at the creek that was flowing below. The air was crisp but I found another little door with a sign above reading the characters for ‘Sauna’. I tried to open the door, but it was stuck, the little latch that closes the door was a little jammed. So I went back into the cubby area, grabbed my key, and used the key to push open the latch to release the door. Inside was a personal sized sauna room, with a ceiling high enough only to be sitting up right in. I immediately had a frightening thought. What if this door closed, and I was locked inside. So I ensured that the door didn’t close, which lost the meaning of the sauna, and gave up to head back into the true onsen part of the bathroom.
Now that I had explored, I felt I could relax in the water. The womens and mens room were basically touching, and I heard a noise, I shouted over to see if Shoko was enjoying the bath, and she was. We chatted back and forth for a little bit, until we both succumbed to the power of a hot bath relaxing our muscles, including our mouths.
After some time passed, I heard a noise of someone else coming into the bath. Drats, I thought. I wanted this to myself. A little old man in his 50’s/60’s bathed and left out the little ewok door. I was impressed he was able to fit through because it really was a small door. After he returned, his face appeared and he joined me in the bath. I smiled and informed him to be careful with the sauna door, because it was stuck. He said he wasn’t even able to get it open, so I told him how I did. Then he realized that he was speaking to a foreigner, and we started chatting about why I speak Japanese and why I was in Japan.
Mr. Iwaki was here with his wife, to celebrate his retirement. Though they lived nearby, they didn’t come to Kurokawa Onsen often. He had worked for over 30 years in various retirement homes, and had actually stopped work for a short time before getting bored and wanting to return to doing something. Finally, he decided to retire, and just 3 days ago, had been his last day at work. Mr. Iwaki and his wife were staying in ‘Wood, or Thursday’ which happened to be the room right next to ours. He seemed extremely interested in our conversation, yet a little reserved, as if to be skeptical as to why I was able to speak so well. After another good 15 minutes or so, he peered out the side of the bath across the creek to a little bath house and said, I think it would be fun to go check out that bath. Won’t you join?
So we gathered our things, put our yukatas on, and got umbrellas to walk over to explore various Onsens. Shoko was just finishing as well, so she joined us to the first one. The rain was dripping consistently now and cool air was a welcomed feeling after warming up from the hot spring. We weaved our way up to a bath and within minutes, were derobed and wading in the hot springs in the outside like little monkeys. Mr Iwaki and I continued our conversation, and we both put our washcloths on our heads while sitting in the smoking hot spring.
He then said, ok let’s head out for the next one, and we dried off, and donned our yukatas again, and off we were to another hot spring. I think this is probably Japan’s version of ‘Bar Hopping’. As we hopped to the next hot spring, it was a mixed bath, which was unusual, but again, within minutes we derobed and were wading in a hot spring. This time, there were about 4 other foreigners including a woman who were all enjoying the hot water in the cool, rainy outside. Again, we continued talking about things from the Ukrainian situation, to the Malaysian airlines disappearance, to basically any topic that came to our minds.
Again, he was ready to see the next and next. Our last bath was at one that included caves. It was cool, because after you entered, you walked through a cave, and inside the cave had the hot water with little coves that you could sit in. At this point, I had had enough of the hot water, though I don’t even remember pruning up at all. Mainly, I’d just gotten tired of drying off, putting on the robe, then taking the robe off and doing the same thing all over again—haha.
Finally, we were done, and the time was close to dinner, so we headed back to Fujiya to make it on time for our dinner serving. Shoko was in the room in her robe enjoying the scenery from the window that had paper sliding doors. It was truly an amazing place.
We then went downstairs in our robes and enjoyed a traditional Japanese feast. Beautifully arranged, every dish had a little container, and the flavors varied from sweet to salty to savory to sweet again. I had no idea really what I was eating, but each bite was so delicious. After enjoying our meal for an hour or so, we went back to the room and watched some tv while we chatted about the next day’s plan.
Our futons had been placed out during our dinner, so we were able to simply lie down and go to bed. What I didn’t know before laying my head down, was that what would feel like years later, one of the best sleeps I’ve ever had was about to be had.