Onsen (hot springs) have been hailed for their healing power since ancient times in Japan. In the Nara period (710-794), soaking in one meant restoration of balance as well as physical and spiritual purification. In modern speak? A wellcation is something that we’ll all need in a pandemic aftermath.
Kyushu will have you spoilt for choice when it comes to onsen getaways. One-third of the country’s over 27,000 hot springs are said to be found in this southwestern region of Japan. Rather than let you sift through the plethora of options, we’ve narrowed down two of the most picturesque onsen towns that have remained under the radar of most foreign travelers.
Located in Kumamoto Prefecture about 20 kilometers north of the famous Mount Aso, Kurokawa Onsen is the perfect choice for those looking to slip into another world, where time stands still and doing plenty of nothing is the name of the game.
Cocooned in a lush forested valley, the entire vibe here is old-school Japan and the nostalgia is almost palpable. Wooden buildings, clay walls, stone staircases and earthy colors form a town-scape that invites languid strolls in a yukata and geta sandals. The town center, which can be easily explored on foot, is dotted with quaint shops and cozy cafés that are ideal for lingering.
Kurokawa Onsen’s thermal waters were discovered in the mid-Edo period, when some feudal lords were fans and frequent visitors. But its growth as an onsen resort only took off in the 1970s, thanks to coordinated efforts by second-generation ryokan (traditional inn) owners, who based their development on the concept of the entire town as one ryokan in itself. Much focus has also been given to building exquisite rotenburo (outdoor baths) alongside a river with stunning views.
Today, Kurokawa Onsen is often ranked among Japan’s top onsen destinations by domestic travel companies. There are about 30 ryokan with their own hot spring baths. Some of these are located along a river with footbridges that are guaranteed to inspire grammable moments. For those seeking bigger baths, where you can soak in almost meditative silence as you look out onto the panoramic views of the verdant hills, you’ll have to head a little further outside of the town center.
Soak, Stroll, Repeat
To truly soak up the essence of an onsen getaway, it’s almost mandatory to stay a night in one of the atmospheric ryokan. You’ll feel the stress melt away once you step into one, change into a yukata, roll around on the tatami, soak in the onsen bath and savor a beautifully crafted kaiseki (Japanese multi-course) dinner while imbibing one of Kyushu’s signature shochu drinks.
Whether you’re staying the night or just doing a day trip, don’t miss going on the rotenburo meguri – strolling around town and dipping in different hot spring baths. Purchase a tegata (wooden pass) for about ¥1,300 at the information center (or one of the ryokan), and you can choose to soak in three of the 28 participating ryokan hot spring baths.
If you don’t want the onsen therapy to end, just hop on a bus from Kurokawa and head northeast – a 90-minute scenic bus ride will transport you to Yufuin, another Kyushu hidden gem. Yufuin is located in Oita Prefecture, where Beppu – known as Japan’s onsen capital with the highest number of onsen sources and famed for its jigoku (hell) hot springs – is found.
Unlike its bigger and more famous cousin, however, Yufuin is off the tourist circuit. Sitting in a basin at the foot of twin-peaked Mount Yufu, the small resort town about 10 kilometers inland from Beppu is more refined and understated. Surrounded by nature (with the 1,500 meter-tall-plus Mount Yufu always within view), this quaint town is perfect for leisurely strolls in between onsen baths.
There are about 100 ryokan and hotels scattered around Yufuin with no lack of options for day-trippers as many of them have onsen baths that are open to non-staying guests. Choose one with a rotenburo and you can marvel in silence at Mount Yufu as you let the hot spring water work its magic.
For laidback wandering, the main Yunotsubo street in town has about 50 different stores, including trendy cafés, boutiques, traditional souvenir stores and a Snoopy tea house. If that’s not enough, check out a Cotswolds (an enchanting rural region in Great Britain)-themed setup called “Yufuin Floral Village,” where part of the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Find an owl café and shops selling all kinds of character goods including Pokémon, Studio Ghibli characters, Peter Rabbit and Heidi.
When all that gets too much, just head straight to the end of Yunotsubo street, where you’ll find the tranquil Kinrin Lake, surrounded by momiji (maple) trees and picture-perfect mountain scenery. The small lake is fed by five river sources, one of which contains hot spring water of about 30 degrees. When this thermal source flows into the cold water during fall or winter, mist forms over the lake in the morning giving it a mystical appearance that will surely make you forget where you are.
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