Our trip to Kumamoto was one of extremities. We had the most indulgent, luxurious ryokan stay, where we basically just alternated between eating and soaking in onsens; we took 5 baths in less than 24 hours! It was paradise!
Then on the other hand, we experienced the most nerve-wrecking drive through the mountains. If you took the intensity of concentration and focus I possessed as I manoeuvred the car through the winding paths and anthropomorphised it, it would probably take the form of the most acute samurai. You know, the kind that can hear a leaf falling a hundred meters away, and cleanly slice it in half before it touches the ground. What? Of course such samurais exist!
If you’re ready to hear our exploits in Kumamoto, let’s begin!
✥ DAY 1 ✥
From Nagasaki, we drove directly to Kurokawa Onsen! We arrived at about 5pm after a 3+ hour drive. It was a pretty relaxing and fun drive after we left Nagasaki City. The roads in Kurokawa Onsen were pretty narrow, but slowly does it!
Kurokawa Onsen is an onsen town, which is an area tucked away in nature, full of nothing but onsens and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns). If you’re looking for a place of ultimate relaxation, this is the place!
KONO YU RYOKAN こうの湯
We immediately checked into our (very awesome) ryokan:
The most awesome part is that it comes with… OUR VERY OWN PRIVATE ONSEN!!!
The private onsen (and the food! oh god, the food…) was the main reason why we chose this ryokan over the others. Of all the onsens we browsed, this was the only we saw that had a private onsen attached to the room. Many other ryokans offer private onsens in another part of the ryokan that you have to reserve. We can jump into our onsen at any time of the day! Kidding. Don’t jump. Really, don’t do it.
This stay was by no means cheap, but certainly worth every yen we paid. I intend to write a full post on it soon! (edit: post is up here!)
In the meantime, if you’d like to check out prices, HotelsCombined is a good site. It searches all the major accomodations sites (booking.com, expedia.com, and many more I haven’t even heard of!) and compares prices for you, so you don’t have to!
Side note: oh my goodness, I just realized how popular Kono yu is! I randomly entered dates to get a price and no matter what date I selected, the rooms are all sold out! So to give an estimate, we paid about 48,000 yen for our room (which means ~24,000 yen (S$240 per person).
ROTEMBURO MEGURI 露天風呂めぐり
If you traveled all the way into the middle of nowhere where there’s nothing but hot springs, it is quite safe to assume that you like hot springs. This little wooden token here allows you to maximise your visit by going on a little rotemburo meguri, which roughly translates to outdoor bath tour.
With this token – called the入湯手形 nyuutou tegata – which costs 1,300 yen and can be purchased from any ryokan, you get to visit any 3 onsens of your choice.
We had about an hour before dinner time and hurriedly headed to our first rontemburo meguri stop. Each of the 20+ onsen places in the town has their own unique characteristics and appeal. They also have different types of water – for example, there are some that can help you achieve baby-smooth skin (also the first one we went to, heh).
DINNER (AT KONO YU)
After our first soak, we headed back to our ryokan for dinner!
Our stay includes both dinner and breakfast, and they are made of PURE WIN.
Set on the table before us is our first dish… of T-E-N. Each dish was carefully selected and prepared, and we got to taste many of Kumamoto’s local specialities. I’ll leave the details for the ryokan post when I write it, but for now, just one word: AWESOME.
After dinner, we went back and had a quick soak in our onsen before calling it a night. It’s just so different when you have the onsen right at your doorstep!
✥ DAY 2 ✥
Unlike dinner where they served course by course, they set up everything on the table for breakfast, so it made for a nice, complete picture.
And yes, ALL of this for one person!
I usually have no appetite for breakfast, but this morning, I stuffed myself to bursting point because everything was just so fresh and delicious!
After breakfast, it’s back to our room for another dip in our onsen! Technically, we are not supposed to go into the onsen directly before or after a meal (especially after a too-many-dishes-to-count breakfast), but… it was our last chance to dip in our onsen before check-out! And really, the risk of regurgitating our breakfast is totally worth it for this:
GOING TO TOWN
After checking out of our ryokan (I will miss you, private onsen!), we drove to town less than 10 minutes away.
Although it was a rainy day, we still enjoyed exploring the area and walking into all the little shops.
ROTEMBURO MEGURI – PART 2
After shopping (we bought so much souvenirs!) it was time to use up the remaining 2 visits on our onsen pass. We went to one located in town, and it was interesting because it had a standing onsen. That’s right; an onsen that is so deep (about 1.5m) that you can stand in it! There are also poles for you to hook your arms around while you suspend your body in the water.
For the last onsen, we decided to go to one that is famous for beautiful, scenic views. It is located on a mountain and runs along the river, with all onsens boasting a view of the river. We had to drive about 10-15 minutes out from the center of town, but it was totally worth it!
And at last, it was time to leave Kurokawa Onsen. Farewell, for now…
DRIVING TO KUMAMOTO CITY
Now, for the most intense part of our trip.
Are you ready?
(if you want to skip it – but why would you? it’s such a gripping tale! – jump ahead to the next header, “Kumamoto station”)
It was drizzling as we left Kurokawa Onsen, just as it has been the entire day. I really wanted to get to Kumamoto City before dark, because rain + night + foreign roads + newbie driver really does not make for a good equation.
But little did I know there were more variables waiting to jump into the party.
We were faithfully following the GPS route, when surprise #1 made its appearance.
Wait, what? What do you mean this road is closed off during winter? Where the heck are we supposed to go then?!
We had no alternative route to choose from the GPS menu, and it won’t reroute, so we fired up Google Maps on our phones.
Surprise #2: There was no signal.
I think it was at this point I exclaimed “We’re out in the boonies!”
Both of us broke out laughing, but it was nervous laughter more than anything else. We stared at each other and contemplated what to do. It was almost 6pm. Night would be upon us very soon.
There was a small road branching off to the side and we decided to take it. Maybe it was the way around the closed path?
After bumbling along the dirt path (which should have been a hint as to what laid ahead), this was awaited at the end:
I had to turn the car around and had I been just a little careless on the skinny road, I could have sent the car off the edge. There were no barriers.
With Carys’ guidance (she got out to guide me, but now that I think about, maybe it was partly to escape plunging to her death…) we turned the car around. We decided to get back on the main road first and hope the GPS reroutes or we get internet.
The GPS rerouted. I followed the route and turned off the main road.
That was when everything went south.
It was still drizzling, and by this time, the skies were darkening. This was not good.
Then we soon found out, to our utmost shock, that we were in fact driving through a mountain.
If you have ever driven through a mountain, you will be familiar with the crazy number of hairpin turns like small intestines winding through the mountain.
So… little newbie driver me, in the rain, in the dark, on an insane mountain route which goes on for eternity.
I thought things couldn’t get worse, but if you’ve been following the story thus far, you’ll expect that the best is yet to come.
I was just amused at this point; likely because I was going slightly mad. I mean, what are the chances of all these conditions coming together like that, right?
I told Carys to take a photo because “This will be funny later”.
At that point, my world consisted solely of two things: The car in front of me, and the lane markings.
Everything else was pitch black and at times I imagine that I am in fact on a bridge strung up in the sky and if I veer off the path even slightly, we would all plunge to our untimely deaths.
I did everything I could to keep up with the car in front, because I didn’t want to lose the guiding light! But the driver is really quite mad and was driving so fast! Even at 60km/h (which on hindsight was really too fast under those conditions), I lost the car. And I became the first car, with a trail of cars behind me. Oh, the pressure!
At some point, I spotted deers on the other lane, and told Carys. Although Carys didn’t voice it then, she was actually worried that there was a possibility that a deer might suddenly jump into our path. What would happen then? It’s a scenario I don’t care to imagine. As for me? At that point, all I thought was “Wow, cool! Deers!” Hey, when your entire being is focused on a single thing (in this case, staying alive), it leaves little processing power for anything else.
With Carys quietly guiding me via the GPS “Ok, a slight turn ahead… and a right now…” we somehow made it out in one piece.
To be honest, I actually wasn’t nervous at all, despite the fact that it was really quite dangerous and in the extreme case, could possibly have killed us. To me, I was just extremely focused on the task at hand. At the end of it, I was completely drained mentally, but the upside is I gained about +1000000 levels in rainy, foggy, mountainous driving!
After returning the car at a branch near the station, we walked over to the JR station. There were many shops selling Kumamoto specialties (dekopon, horse meat, etc). A great place to pick up local foodstuffs and souvenirs!
KUMAMOTO NEST HOTEL
While we were trying to book a hotel for Kumamoto, we were baffled by what we found. Hotels were sold out e.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e. We checked to see if there was some major festival or something in town, but nothing turned up! Then why?! The nearest hotel was literally an hour away!
After keeping a close watch on the availability of hotels, a room finally freed up and I snatched it immediately. Business hotels are generally not my first choice of accommodation but in this case we had no choice.
Regardless, we were ready to crash for the night! It’s hard to believe we were just relaxing in onsens earlier in the day. It seemed like a lifetime ago!
✥ DAY 3 ✥
First stop was Kumamoto Castle! Kumamoto Castle is commonly thought to be one of the Three Great Castles of Japan. The castle grounds were vast; one of the largest I’ve seen to date. Although the buildings are mostly reconstructions, I think they are still impressive to see.
It was also at Kumamoto Castle that the hotel mystery was solved. The reason why all the hotels were fully booked?
The Kumamoto Castle marathon was being held!
SAKURANOBABA JOSAIEN 桜の馬場 城彩苑
Right at the foot of Kumamoto Castle is an Edo-themed area. It’s a bit touristy, but still a nice place to walk around and eat all the different delicious things the shops are selling!
We searched for a place to find us some good ramen and decided on Akagumi. We arrived at 12.15pm, and there was a short queue. We had to wait for about 15 mins, so it wasn’t too bad.
The broth was tonkotsu, but it wasn’t porky at all and I could even eat all of the charsiew! This was delicious! This gets my stamp of approval! :D
Access: Google Maps
SHIMOTORI SHOPPING STREET
After lunch, we somehow wandered into a shotengai (shopping street), which I later learned is a major shopping area in Kumamoto. Seems like Carys and I have a knack of locating these shopping areas without meaning to!
It’s not a place I will specifically travel to, but then again, I live in Japan… so I guess my opinion is a little skewed. If Kumamoto is your only stop in Japan, then visit this place for shopping. If you’re going to bigger cities (Tokyo, etc) then you can skip this place if you don’t have the time.
Access: Google Maps
SUIZENJI GARDEN 水前寺成趣園
This is a Japanese-style garden with an interesting story as to how it was landscaped.
The circular path around the garden is meant to recreate Tokaido, the most important road during the Edo period which connected Kyoto and Edo (modern-day Tokyo). There is even a mini Mount Fuji which I thought was kind of cute!
We completed the park quite quickly, and we had about 2 hours to spare. We were googling to see if there’s any place else we could go, and when we saw that on the list of things to do in Kumamoto
- #4 was taking the tram (which we did), and
- #12 was the Kumamoto Station Tourist Information Center (which we visited too)…
… at which we turned off our phones and nodded to each other “Yep, I think we’ve seen almost everything Kumamoto has to offer”.
I think apart from the Mount Aso area (which was emitting poisonous sulphuric fumes), we pretty much covered all that we wanted to see in Kumamoto!
We headed back to the hotel to pick up our luggages before parting ways. Carys via train back to Fukuoka to catch her flight back to Singapore, and me via bus to the Kumamoto Airport for my flight back to Tokyo.
It has been a whirlwind trip, full of adventures and memories to last us for at least a while ;) I hope you enjoyed stories of our trip as much as I enjoyed recounting them!
Till the next adventure!