I've travelled in Japan a great deal, and stayed in a lot of great places over the last 20+ years. This was one of the best.
Let's deal with the negatives first - they're nearly all generic to this type of lodging. You have few choices - you'll upset the system if you arrive outside the window of 3:30-5:30ish, you don't get to order from a menu, and they don't expect you to hang around in the morning (by 10am the staff were already scrubbing out some of the baths). But that's all expected, and to be honest, 18 hours of not making any decisions is very refreshing!
The main outside baths are off-limits to men from 8pm-10pm to give shy ladies a chance, but that means that the guys get a bit of a short straw. The water in the onsen was more lukewarm than most onsens (but if you're not used to onsen baths that might be a plus). That's about it... I'm struggling to think of any negatives.
The service is excellent even by good ryokan standards. For example, they cleared the snow off the rental car for us in the morning without asking. Our server was attentive, pleasant, eager, and although I'm sure he spoke some English, flattered me by working with my ugly Japanese and explaining the words I didn't understand.
The property is excellent. It's a collection of traditional rural wooden buildings, but clearly has been sympathetically renovated and is well maintained (many atmospheric older places are wonderful but rather rundown). The baths are numerous and all interesting. We tried a couple of private baths first so my friends who'd never taken their clothes off in public before could get used to the idea. The main outdoor bath is classic, looking across the small river. We got lucky in that it was snowing (outdoor spring bathing doesn't get much better) although that translated into slippery paths requring a lot of handholding.
Our room was a 12 tatami (I think), plenty big enough for the three of us, a fairly standard, simple Japanese room with a toilet (heated, with cleaning spray), a large tokonoma, and a view across the snowy stream outside. There was enough heating (it was -4 degs outside). We slept wonderfully on fluffy futons with the sound of the stream outside muffled by the snow.
Dinner, served in our room, was a piece de resistance, one of the best kaiseki meals I've had, culminating in grilled fresh river fish, horsemeat sashimi, and boar stew, with some interesting diversions along the way (crab meat with yuzu for example). Spectacular. Breakfast (in a small separate dining room, again Japanese style) was no less impressive, with some interesting twists (a carrot dressing for the salad) and - the first time I've seen this in any Japanese dining room anywhere - a proper espresso machine!
Getting to Kurokawa was a pleasant drive from Kumamoto in a rental car (flew to Fukuoka and took fast train to Kumamoto). "Okunoyu" means the water deep inside, and the onsen is indeed a little remote from the main village, but even so everything's accessible on foot. The village of Kurokawa, although a little self-consciously pretty and obviously dependent on the tourist trade, is well preserved and worth a stroll. On the way back we stopped at a deer farm with an extraordinary topiary collection, an icecream parlour, a kids' petting zoo theme park, and the Suntory brewery for a late lunch and beer. We'd visited the dramatic Kumamoto castle on the way there. Plenty to do!
The Okunoyu staff said they now get quite a few foreign customers, mostly from PRC and Korea, and they were unfazed by us (I'm a Brit, my two friends Chinese Singaporeans). But there were no concessions to foreign tastes apart from the breakfast coffee machine. This is a completely authentic Japanese onsen set in a traditional and well-run ryokan. I can't recommend it highly enough, and if you factor in that your dinner would easily be a $100 ticket in a restaurant, it's good value too. In mid-December it was nowhere close to full, but I'd guess that for much of the year you should book a few months' in advance, especially at weekends. November would be the toughest to book because of visitors coming for the autumn colours.
Go! But don't tell too many of your friends....
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- Also Known As:
- Kurokawa Onsen Okunoyu Japan/Kumamoto Prefecture - Minamioguni-Machi