Day 1 begins much the same as any other trip. The one deviation was that Plaza Premium had opened lounges in the airport so the credit card had switched to them as the partner lounge. There were actually two Plaza Premium in Terminal 2, one an open cafe style area where food with self serve foods, and another more lounge like one off to the side where the food came in sets and couches were plenty. I actually preferred the old Moore lounge’s food, there were more variety even if the seating were terrible.
Other than that it was the same old, the EVA Air Hello Kitty jet was joyful as ever, the outside was painted with the cuddly cat and and food containers and utensils were similarly designed. The food felt worse than last time but my parents actually liked them.
The rental car chosen was Budget Rental. It is not the cheapest rental car company around but it was the best option given our plans. We needed to pick up from the airport and drop the car off at Yufuin. There were only 4 or 5 rental companies in Yufuin and only 2 had branches also at the airport. However only Budget had branch on the International Terminal side. The other company, Nissan Rental, was on the Domestic side. Outside that we would have to head to Hakata station.
When considered that we were staying at Hozantei and the sooner we reach there the sooner we could enjoy the onsen, a few thousand difference in car rental was secondary. Budget offered significant time saving and convenience over the other options.
I called Budget on the phone, the person talked a little English and after confirming my name, told us to wait outside the departure level, to the right side where there is a small police post. If I hadn’t read it about it on their website beforehand though I doubt I would have understood where we were supposed to wait.
We headed upstairs and the shuttle van showed up before I could even take a photo of the police post. The driver confirmed my name again then drove us to the store situated just across the road at the entrance ramp of the airport terminal.
We were quickly ushered inside and a chinese lady walked us through the procedures, most of which I had already known about. Insurances, must inform the police and rental company after any accident, even if it’s just driving into a wall yourself, driving and parking rules, needing to fuel up before returning the car, things like that. The lady also mentioned that Yufuin had seen some weather lately and that we should be careful since we were driving there. I wasn’t too worried, I had checked the forecast earlier that day and things were expected to remain about 5 degrees C, overcast but otherwise fine.
Despite our plane’s delays of about 15 minutes behind scheduled time thus arriving at Budget after 12, a fair bit behind schedule, we actually left ahead of time, before 12:30.
The trip down to Kurokawa was expected to take around 2 hours, with a quick stop or two we should reach there by 3:00pm.
The total cost of the rental was about 28k for 48 hours. The base rental cost about 17k, plus 13k for dropping off at a different location, 4k for the total safety pack (2k per day), then there was a 33% promotional discount for offseason, plus a 1k coupon for being a first time user.
I did not rent an ETC card as we were travelling on a weekday so no discount was to be had from using an ETC. We couldn’t blitz past the toll booths, but we won’t need to confirm the ETC usage upon dropping off the car either. The toll was expected to be about 2.5k all up.
The GPS navigation in the car was a thing of beauty, giving extremely precise voice directions (we chose Chinese, but it can also do English, the interface remained Japanese though which could be an real issue for others), and is very meticulous about which lanes to drive in so there were never any surprising lane changing.
Japanese signages, at least on the expressway, were also very well designed in giving directions, even the shape of the interchanges and which lane to take.
One peculiar thing one notices while driving in Japan is that no one obeys the speed limit. Usually, at least in Taiwan and Australia, one drives 10k above the indicated limit. Every car in Japan was driving at least 20k above that. I settled on about 12~13k above the limit to not hold up traffic while still feeling some plausible deniability if any police cars pull us over. Never did see a police car however, didn’t even see any speed cameras. I hope there weren’t any cameras anyway. We paid the rental car in cash and they didn’t ask for any credit card details, I wonder who would have to pay the fine if we were caught speeding.
The loop expressway around Hakata had a single toll fee and one had to pay upon entering it, after that upon entering the main Kyushu expressway systems at Dazaifu, we had to take a ticket similar to the ones at the mall car parks. Then upon exit feed the ticket to the toll machine for it to calculate the appropriate fees.
The driving went surprisingly smooth, so smooth I could hardly believe it when we turned onto the Oita Expressway, way ahead of schedule. A little bit into the Oita Expressway I pull the car into the Yamada service area. This was one of the larger service areas along the expressway and one of the last places where we could stock up before heading into the mountains where even convenience stores were rare.
The service station had a eatery and a grocery shop area, turned out to have a little less instant noodles or bread than expected, focusing more on local goods such as various sweets and other food products. We did manage to pick up a bunch of locally grown oranges and persimmons, they were cheap and delicious. There would not be other fruits as cheap as here throughout the trip later, a good thing we stopped here.
We turn off the expressway at Hita. Since we hadn’t picked up any instant noodles I pull over at a 7-11. We load up on some noodles and bread, plus dad bought a hot bun, then was back on our merry way.
The road from Hita to Kurokawa was more winding than looked on the maps, even if one didn’t cared for the speed limit one couldn’t really drive too much above anyway. After Minamioguni, the town nearest to Kurokawa, specks of flakes began to drift into the windshield. Snow? I frowned before deciding a snow this light couldn’t pose any trouble.
We reached Hozantei around 3:30pm. It’s clear the GPS expected one to drive above speed limit too as its initial timing estimates were spot on. And I had thought we would manage it early by driving over the limit. It was good enough, I had originally envisioned us reaching there around 4pm.
A Taiwanese staff picked up our luggage and an old Japanese lady brought us to a small cottage which had been turned into a bar. We were glad to be out of the cold, the place was a little cramped and did not seemed to have proper seats. A welcome drink was served, it was a fruit wine, though I could not understand the lady at the time other than it was some form of alcoholic drink.
Mom was none too pleased about the cleanliness of the place however. Someone before us had spilled their drink over the table and floor, now dried into sticky patches. I tried to inform the old lady but either I couldn’t make it clear or she couldn’t really be bothered, it wasn’t until we asked for a towel to wipe the table ourselves that she came around to clean up the spilled patches.
After drink we were taken to our room, Yamaboushi (山ぼうし). The old lady showed us around the room, asked for our heights so she could fetch yukatas of the right sizes. Seemed a little odd as yukatas are loose wears so sizes needed not be exact, she could surely judge the approximate fit just by looking.
Anyway, we were more taken in by the outdoor onsen to be bother by the small details.
Yamaboshi was one of the Hozantei’s two Standard III rooms. The Standard I and II rooms are similar, with a simple rock onsen bath next to the gently flowing stream, the only differences in the bath’s size. Standard III sees some big differences. Standards I and II have the shower installed on the wall right next to the bath without any protection from the elements, in winter taking a shower can be quite cold. In addition to an even larger bath, Standards III gets the addition of a secondary shallow lie flat bath and a half enclosed shower area which became sufficiently warm once the hot water is running and steam fills the shower space.
Despite the name the two Standard III rooms are not alike. Yamaboushi’s lie flat bath is right next to the regular waist deep bath with a wooden awning overhead. The other room Azami have its lie flat bath indoors, inside a small hut by the regular bath. Indoor was more comfortable in the cold, but the little hut also blocked much of the view of the river from the room. Things considered Yamaboushi’s view probably makes it the better room.
Hozantei also has two large public onsens baths. In the old days they were one female and one mixed, but now they are strictly gender separated. A decreasing number of ryokans in Kurokawa still has mixed public baths; as private room baths proliferated there was less demand for mixed public baths for couples wanting to bath together.
In the morning the two public baths are swapped so one gets a chance to experience both.
The room is separated from the onsen by an engawa, a kind of half open air corridor connecting the interior with the outside, almost like a veranda. The exterior facing side of the engawa has clear glass doors and on the inside another set of more traditional Japanese screen doors. The screen doors have slidable paper windows, closed up they allowed guests to change in the engawa then go out and take a bath without being seen or disturbed by those inside the room. I can enjoy a tea in the room while my parents bath outside.
Like many ryokans the room does not have separate shower inside, just toilets and wash basin.
We change into the yukatas brought to us. As the weather is quite cold 3 piece of wear was provided. The standard yukata, a haori (almost like a jacket) and a tanzen (thick lined robe). Deceptively warm, the tanzen blocked out even the chilliest wind.
I head to the public onsen while my parents settled into the private bath outside. We were one of the earliest to arrive and Hozantei being about 1km out from Kurokawa Onsen main street few day bathers come by. There were no one in the public onsen yet. I grab my trusty Acro S to snap off a few shots (this is why I insist on waterproof phones), leaned back against the side and let the hot mineral water soak away the chills.
The sky had grown dark by the time I returned to the room. It was still snowing lightly. I killed some time in the gardens, soon it was 6pm and we headed to the main hall for dinner.
Hozantei’s meals are served in a dining hall, with no separation between the tables. It’s not a big deal, but it does indicate that in terms of service and quality the place didn’t aim for the highest.
The first course is a platter of appetizers, soup. A float is brought over, upon were plates of sashimi, including horse sashimi. Horse sashimi is kind of a local delicacy. I cannot say I like it too much, felt abit like slightly rougher beef sashimi.
The comments about Kurokawa Onsen’s weakness being food has some merits to them. From the very start to the end of the dinner course it was clear that Hozantei was at least 2 or 3 levels below Yatsusan-kan. From the presentation, the delicateness of the dishes, method of cooking, to the overall speed of serving and choice of orders.
It’s a very subtle thing and hard to describe. I do understand now why sometimes kaiseki meals are described as being a poem. A good course has a natural rhythm to it, you do not realize it when it is there, but when it is missing it becomes apparent. Yatsusan-kan served a very proper, traditional kaiseki, while Hozantei was more a countryside home cooking using better ingredients.
Take the western dish inserted in the middle. It came right after the tempura dish, yet still contained a western batter fried prawn, right next to western style salads. It seemed a little jarring.
The speed of serving was also uneven, sometimes they would serve 2-3 in succession before we had finished, other times needed some waiting..
Minor details, the food was good and we enjoyed the meal.
The main course was a hoe grill. Literally, a black iron hoe was placed over open flame, pieces of Higo beef and vegetables were grilled on it. It’s basically teppanyaki in a very fun way and fitting of the rural landscapes. The history behind it was that in ancient times farming families may not have many cooking utensils, so when necessary they would simply turn over their farming hoe, put it on a flame and cook food on it.
The Higo beef was good with some flaws. The meat wasn’t marbled evenly and there were pieces which contained large bits of fat and tasted fatty. Can’t expect them to serve 5A meat though, even at Yatsusan-kan it required booking a special 5A beef plan.
We retreated back to our rooms, enjoyed some tea then headed back into the onsens. The public onsens closed at 9, which seemed a little early since we only finished dinner at 8, which meant it was 8:30 by the time we felt digested enough.
The public onsens had lights that could be switched off. In summer this would provide perfect stargazing while enjoying the hot onsen, sadly today was cloudy with drifting snow.
The seats and trees in the garden were now glazed in a thin sheet of snow. It didn’t looked to be stopping either and worry crept into the mind. Maybe the snow will stop during the night. I hope.