Article updated on May 19, 2020
Text & photos: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
In Japan, onsens are natural hot springs. There are many due to the intense volcanic activity of the country, and Kyushu Island specifically is famous for them: Beppu which is no less than the second hot spring district in the world after Yellowstone in flowrate, Yufuin, and Kurokawa are some of the most renown.
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And Kurokawa is the cutest! The mountain village with no less than 24 onsens has retained its traditional atmosphere. The spa resort town is built amidst a forested valley with the Tanoharu River passing through. On each of its banks, ryokans (Japanese inns) built with natural materials in earthen tones house the natural hot springs. Guests can enjoy the onsen or rotenburo (露天風呂 or outside bath) of the ryokan where they stay as much as wished. Should they want to discover others, or for day visitors, the wooden onsen-hopping pass (tegata) allows visitors to hand pick three of them as each offers specific water properties and a unique setting.
Before wearing your yukata robe (light cotton bathrobe) and wooden geta sandals to walk the village and indulge yourself in one of the onsens of Kurokawa, you must follow a step-by-step ritual to make sure you do not offend Japanese people and get thrown out abruptly! Bear in mind that to Japanese, these waters are considered as a gift from nature and it is critical that they do not get contaminated by anything (jewelries, sweat, hair, soap, etc.).
- Mosts baths are gender-separated: 女性 (pronounce “josei”) means women and 男性 (pronounce “dansei”) means men. In the case of a mixed bath (混浴風呂 pronounce “konyoku buro”), the changing areas leading into the bath are gender-separated.
- Get rid off your footwear before entering the changing rooms where you get fully naked, keeping only a 30cmx80cm modesty towel to cover up your privates. Make sure to remove all jewelry (lockers are provided).
- Then, move to the shower area. A Japanese shower is low: the shower knob is roughly 50 centimeters (20 inches) above the ground, with a little stool and a bucket in front of it. Rinse the stool, sit on it, and fill up the bucket to pour it over yourself. Wash using the often-provided shower gel and shampoo to make sure to not contaminate the onsen. Rinse yourself thoroughly afterwards, and rinse the stool after using it. Your last rinse can be with the water from the bath using a bucket or scoop.
- You are ready to enter the bath of your choice. Watch out to make sure the modesty towel never touches the water: leave it on the side of the bath or carry it on your head.
- After your bath, do not rinse the hot spring waters from your skin for your own benefit. Wipe off excess water with your modesty towel before changing.
Kurokawa onsen benefits
The naturally heated spring water is cooled down to an enjoyable bathing temperature, between 40 and 42°C. This is ideal for relaxing, and a simple full pampering experience. The waters of Kurokawa are also famous for their properties used to treat some specific conditions. Here is a quick summary of the water types and their usage:
- acidic (2<pH<3) to kill bacteria (if you have sensitive skin, do not try),
- mildly acidic (3<pH<6) to relieve fatigue and insomnia,
- mildly alkaline (7.5<pH<8.5) to smoothen the skin,
- sulfurous to treat acne and other skin conditions,
- hydrogen carbonated to soothe burns and heal scars,
- chloride and sulphate to help the body retain heat, and the skin, moisture,
- ferruginous to treat anemia, rheumatism and eczema.
Kurokawa onsen guide
Onsens are located along the river. Some are a bit further away from the historical ones in town. They tend to be more spacious and with great views completely immersed in nature. The oldest ones saw daimyos (Japanese feudal lords), and beyond the pampering experience it is also a dip into Japanese culture. Here is a highlight of three of these onsens, each offering a different setting and atmosphere, as well as various water properties.
Entering the Yamamizuki onsen is truly amazing: a small path along the river among bamboos and cedars to the sound of cicadas and birds leads to a minimalist wooden Japanese style building, housing the onsen. A slight smell of sulfur emanates from the mildly acidic spring. Some hot baths overlook a nearby waterfall, while the rotenburo is made of volcanic stones. It is a truly unique experience to bath in Yamamizuki, knows as one of the best riverside onsens of Japan.
The onsen of Kurokawaso is between the lush forest and a cliff face. Its emerald-colored rotenburo contains hydrogen carbonate, chloride, and sulphate. Its rich properties make it a favorite for Japanese who tend to just hop on the bath for a few minutes to soak in its benefits.
Located in the heart of the village, along Shimokawabata Dori (the equivalent of Main Street) that parallels the river, it requires to cross a footbridge to reach Yamanoyado Shinmeikan. From the peacefulness of the onsen and through the steam emanating from its sulfurous waters, bathers enjoy a view on spa-goers in yukatas strolling the quiet street in the distance. Some of its baths are hosted in a dark cave providing a completely different experience.
The onsens of Kurokawa nested in their beautiful settings among the peaks of the Yufu mountains provide way-more than just a relaxing and pampering spa experience: they are a truly unique way to come in contact with the Japanese culture and some of its very specific rituals. They are a communion with nature, where one can thoroughly indulge oneself to the condition of respecting this gift from deep inside the Earth, as do Japanese, often bowing to the spring in a thankful prayer upon leaving the onsen.
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- If the onsen-hopping pass (tegata) is great to check out various onsens, it is also possible to arrive at every onsen and pay admission to experience it.
- Take a visual tour of Japan!
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!