Hot springs (or onsen) are synonymous with Japanese culture and for many, a part of every day life. In fact thermal springs are so abundant in Japan that there are many dedicated onsen towns that lend themselves to ‘onsen hopping’ – a rather charming way to sample a selection of the town’s best baths. Kurokawa Onsen is one such town, and whilst it is more difficult to access via public transport, it’s historic baths and rural location in the heart of Kyushu make this picturesque onsen town well worth a visit.
Easily explored on foot, Kurokawa Onsen’s steep cobbled roads are lined with little gift shops and restaurants. Nestled among them are several ryokan which you can stay in for a small fortune, or for a much more reasonable price you can spend an afternoon making use of their onsen by purchasing an ‘onsen hopping pass’. You can buy your pass at the visitor centre or from any of the twenty- four participating ryokan, which gets you into three baths of your choice and is presented on entry in exchange for a stamp.
It is customary to wear a yukata throughout town between bathing and most local hotels or ryokan provide these when you stay with them, along with a belt, jacket and small modesty towel. If you need to store your luggage there are lockers at the visitor centre in town. Just don’t forget your towel and camera!
There are maps displayed in town and you can find a helpful free English onsen guide at the visitor centre explaining about each onsen clearly numbered on the map. Some are more sulphuric, acidic or alkaline and may be reputed to have specific health benefits. You will find that some onsen may be closed due to maintenance – check at the visitor centre before you go.
Most of the onsen are gender separated although some are mixed. We tried two that were gender separated, one of which was accessed by walking through a beautiful moss garden and we both had the onsen all to ourselves.
We did also visit quite a unique but very popular mixed onsen in a cave. I enjoyed the onsen and it was possible to find a private spot away from other people, however I did feel a little exposed when dressing as there did not seem to be an obvious separate changing area for ladies. There seemed to be mainly men in the onsen, some with children, and not many of them used their modesty towels!
I believe it is possible to reserve certain onsen in the town for private bathing for an extra fee. If this still doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, why not take advantage of one of the free foot spas dotted around town? Just take your shoes and socks off at the entrance and roll up your trousers to enjoy the hot springs and rest your feet.
There is something peaceful and very Japanese about watching people strolling around the quaint streets of this beautiful rural town in their yukatas. Onsen hopping is a must for anyone that loves bathing in natural hot water and wants to enjoy an interesting cultural experience.
Note: Your onsen pass will set you back 1300 yen (£9) per person and is valid for up to six months.
Top tip: Kurosawa Onsen is accessible by bus, however getting there by car gives you more options for basing yourself slightly out of town where you can find less exclusive accommodation at a more reasonable price.
For more advice on what to do at a Japanese onsen, visit my blog post on how to onsen in Japan!