Mount Aso’s Wonderful Spa Resort
Kurokawa Onsen is a spa resort in Minami-Oguni, at the north of Mount Aso and in the east of Kuju mountain range, in Kumamoto prefecture. Renowned as one of Japan’s most beautiful hot spring villages, its gathers about thirty ryokan traditional inns over 4km along Tanoharu river, in the heart of a forest valley. Some 400,000 visitors come each year in Kurokawa for rotenburo meguri, touring the outdoor onsen.
Kurokawa’s curative hot baths became famous during Edo period (1603 - 1868) when Kumamoto province’s officers started to enjoy the place for relaxation. At the end of Meiji era (1868 - 1912), the village’s ryokan traditional inns were still popular, but it was only in the 1960s that the resort started to thrive and look like what it is today: a lovely and authentic onsen ♨️ destination in Japan.
Thirty ryokan providing an inclusive and unique experience
Kurokawa Onsen modernized thereafter with the construction of a highway near the village, while the youth came back in the rural areas following the first oil crisis in the beginning of the 1970s. The returners decided to revive the place and developed new ideas, whose main one was to view Kurokawa as "a whole, unique ryokan". Locals then started to consider the approximately thirty traditional inns that constituted the village as a unique ryokan, where each inn is a room, each street a corridor and each part of the landscape a different view of the garden.
This inclusive vision created a cooperative competition relationship, that allowed each establishment to continue its business without much confrontation. When in Kurokawa, it is therefore is recommended to spend each night in a different inn to enjoy each inn’s particular atmosphere. As a matter of fact, each ryokan has specific services, specific gastronomical menus, and specific baths laid out in the mountain, on the riverbank, in a bamboo forest, in rock caves or in the center of the village. Luggage are moved from inn to inn without the customer having to do anything and with a perfect logistic. Moreover, each inn provides a yukata 👘, to wear for walking in the village’s streets and a carefree enjoyment of the onsen.
Rotenburo Meguri: the outdoor onsen tour
Kurokawa is renowned for its many rotenburo open-air baths, that can be individually explored, without needing to stay in the related ryokan. While doing the rotenburo meguri or onsen hoping, visitors can enjoy several different types of healing waters. Beware however: some baths are for women only, other are mixed and one has to be naked in all.
The onsen hoping starts with the purchase of a wooden pass, the nyuto tegata (入湯手形) that offers various discounts and includes free admission in three of the twenty-four participating bathhouses. The wood pass is stamped at each bath, and at the end of their tour some give it as an offering to Jizo temple, others bring it back home as a souvenir. The revenue generated helps the local economy of the whole village.
With a good reputation in Japan, the resort is particularly busy on the weekends. The touristic peaks are in early May, during the Golden Week, as well as in autumn 🍁 for the red maples season. Overseas tourists may prefer avoiding these periods to better enjoy Kurokawa Onsen budget and attendance-wise.
Kurokawa Onsen is a remote hamlet in the mountains, very peaceful and a pleasant visit, ideal for a couple of relaxing days during a trip. It offers an authentic experience of the Japanese onsen, a feeling of being "back in time" immersed in a traditional atmosphere enhanced by the preserved architecture of the old inns.