The origin of the trip took on several evolutions over the course of almost a year. Ever since the last trip back in October the year before, it was decided that the next time I took my parents on a trip it will be have to be at a leisurely pace. Dad is not young anymore and he gets tired easily in the afternoon.
The answer that comes to mind easily is then onsens. Despite having been to Japan many times I have yet to stay at a proper onsen town. Yatsusan Kan in Hida had onsen but wasn’t well known, the visits to Tamatsukuri Onsen near Matsue and Toya-ko Onsen in Hokkaido were day trips without staying overnight.
The date was chosen to be in either autumn or near end of year as summer can be too hot for onsens, plus it coincided with relative’s wedding in Taiwan. Preliminary plans was for 4-5 days with 2 nights of onsens.
Picking the Onsen 選則溫泉區
Scouting a suitable onsen proved more difficult than imagined. The original list began with onsens accessed via Tokyo, ones in east central Japan and north eastern Japan with good shinkansen access. Tokyo have many lovely xmas light decorations starting in December so this was a good night time activity for the day of arrival and day before departure.
Snow was a plus, though November/December the chances were maybe 50/50. The obvious choices were then Kusatsu (草津), Kinugawa (鬼怒川), Nasu (那須), Kawaguchi-ko (河口湖), Hakone (箱根), Karuizawa (軽井沢) (and the smaller onsens around the area).
Ginzan (銀山), Zao (蔵王), Shirahone (白骨), Yudanaka (湯田中) the Monkey Onsen , Nyuto (乳頭) were also considered shortly before deemed too out of the way given the short trip.
Open air onsen was a requirement and the ryokan must not be too big else the public onsen may become crowded. Heavy considerations were given to ryokans with rooms that came with their own private open air onsen, later this would turn more of a prerequisite.
The other consideration was that the onsen should be kakenagashi (掛け流し), meaning the onsen water is not recycled and with minimal water added.
The plan concentrated around two options. Hakone + Kawaguchi-ko or Karuizawa + Kusatsu. Kinugawa and Nasu were ruled out as there were no desirable ryokans (and I would later find out they are notorious onsen derelict towns, I might talk about them later as my search branched into an onsen town development research)
I turned over every ryokan in the onsen towns, trying to get a feel of their room and onsen. Over a hundred ryokans must had been researched and twenty or so seriously considered. Two practical plans were formed, one each for the mentioned routes, and the choice of onsens down to 1-2 for each town in the route. There was a ryokan in Kusatsu, Toki no Niwa (季の庭) which ran a shuttle bus from Karuizawa, this would have saved over a 1000 yen per person, time saving and incredibly appealing. Also Karuizawa have a very famous and beautiful xmas lighting in one of the resort’s church.
Technically I had already completed initial trip plans and was well into refinement stage, identifying exact transport timings and sightseeing attractions. But there was always something missing. The schedules never quite matched, the trains were always just a little too late or early, the time it took to move to and from the onsens were just a little too long, edging into exhausting and possibly not worthwhile with inadequate time for sightseeing.
Several tweaks were attempted, shifting the order of the locations and attractions. In the end I took the decision to give up 2 months of planning, go back to square one and start again from picking out an entry area.
Nagoya was immediately ruled out. Gero Onsen is boring and Oku-Hida Onsen is too far (plus we’ve already been to Takayama).
Kansai was given some thoughts but again ruled out. Kinosaki Onsen is good, the rest not so much. Shirohama in Wakayama is too far and seaside onsen in winter? Not good. Arima is a tourist sardine can. The rest of onsens were also ruled out for various reasons.
That left Kyushu.
When it came to Kyushu, the onsen choice is easy. The standard triple onsen course following the Kyushu Crossing: Begin from Kumamoto, Kurokawa Onsen, Yufuin Onsen, Beppu Onsen then return to Hakata.
Beppu was chucked out as there was only budget for 2 nights (3 nights of onsen is also a little too much for the body).
Given the highly standard nature of the course, planning could not be any easier. Day 1: Shinkansen to Kumamoto. Day 2: Take Aso Boy train to Aso, take a quick look around Aso then bus to Kumamoto. Day 3: Tour Kurokawa then bus to Yufuin. Day 4: Tour Yufuin then take Yufuin no Mori train back to Hakata. Simple, easy as pie.
Simple is not an appropriate adjective for this trip.
The Earthquake 地震
The Kumamoto earthquake in April threw everything into chaos.
The earthquake destroyed the roads and rails between Kumamoto and Aso/Kurokawa and also severely damaged the famous Kumamoto Castle, one of the key attractions in that city, and had to be sealed off. Given the effect this had on transportation, with rail severed and the bus taking long detours on a reduced timetable, it seemed obvious to drop Kumamoto and Aso entirely and look to head directly to Kurokawa from Hakata.
However the bus from Hakata to Kurokawa takes about 3 hours, and arrive in Kurokawa quite late, so I looked to break the journey by removing the night at Yufuin and replacing it with a night’s stay at Amagase on the first day, whose ryokan Tensui (天水) looks to be quite highly rated.
On surface this looked like a good plan, deep down this never sat well. Breaking the journey this way compressed time in Yufuin quite severely, down to maybe 3 hours only. Also Tensui is not a well known ryokan and I could not figure out what its private room onsens were like from promotional photos.
A tedious search was launched on youtube and japanese blogging sites to ascertain a better picture of the rooms. All while the plan for Kurokawa + Yufuin continued.
Choice of ryokan, at least for Kurokawa is straightforward. Hozantei (帆山亭) was the top choice given its private onsen rooms (only a handful in Kurokawa has private onsens, and fewer has riverside views). There’s also Yamamizuki (山みず木) and Ryokan Sanga (旅館 山河). Either way there’s only 2-3 to consider.
It was good that research was made as it turned out Tensui’s private baths were not too big and lacked changing area.
Around June the plan to stay at Amagase was abandoned and efforts were refocused around getting from Hakata directly to Kurokawa then a stay at Yufuin. The thought of using rental car entered consideration due to this.
Yufuin Ryokan 由布院的住宿
Hozantei had been chosen for Kurokawa and for Yufuin, Bettei Itsuki (別邸 樹) was originally the top choice. Bettei Itsuki follows the popular hanare (離れ) concept for hotels and ryokans in Yufuin, each room is its own separate cabin with its own private baths, spacious and quiet, free from disturbances from other guests. Bettei Itsuki is especially popular amongst foreigners, probably because of its multilingual website and just general word of mouth. Each room is also ~20k yen per person only, which is fairly cheap compared to other hotels with similar cabin rooms.
黑川的住宿已選是帆山亭，而由布院一開始首先考慮的是別邸 樹。別邸 樹走的是在由布院挺流行的離屋概念，每間房間都是獨棟的屋子，擁有自己的風呂，房間寬廣，安靜，不受其他住客影響。別邸 樹在外國人中格外出名，或許是他官網有多國語言，加上網路上互傳分想就越來越有名了。每間每人大約只要兩萬日圓，和其他離屋概念的住宿比相較下便宜。
Bettei Itsuki is not without its catch however. First is its variety of rooms, each room has its own layout and deco style. On its own this variety seems like a good thing until one digs a little more. Each room is not created equally, not even of the same size, one does not even has outdoor bath (some room has two, why??). Then consider that they do not allow specifying which room when one books using the internet (can only specify which room by phone). This means either booking by phone (which is very annoying), or take a gamble and book on the net.
Apart from the room roulette, the next catch is it does not serve traditional Japanese breakfast, opting for western style breakfast instead. This is a huge hidden saving on their part as a good traditional Japanese breakfast can run several k above a western breakfast. As for dinner, depending on the main selected there’s also some complaints about the portions being too small. Looking at the menus shared by others there are certainly less dishes compared to a typical kaiseki.
Lastly Bettei Itsuki is a little shifty about whether their onsen is in fact kakenagashi. A lot of blogs talk about it being kakenagashi but this is not mentioned anywhere on their official site nor on booking websites. This raises a few eyebrows as it seems like a good marketing point. Through various comments and posts I pieced together that they (and many other ryokan, including the one I was originally considering for Kusatsu) probably sit in a grey area of kakenagashi.
While they do not recycle the onsen water, they do not have enough onsen water to supply every room continuously. So they either ask that the onsen water be turned off during night time (people complained that the onsen was too cold and took a long time to be warm enough for use in morning), or requires notifying the front desk that one wishes to use the onsen so they turn on the supply of onsen water remotely (which takes several minutes to fill up the bath). Whether Bettei Itsuki managed to address the issue is a little unclear as the comments about restricted onsen water is sporadic, I suspect it might depend on the time of year and how much supply of onsen their well is able to draw.
The choice then moved to Gettouan (月燈庵). A ryokan a bit further out from Yufuin’s main area. It is famous for its wooden suspension bridge connecting the main building to the cabin areas. Plans progressed to where I made bookings for a room with views of the Yufudake (Mt Yufu). But again, the same feeling with Tensui nagged at the mind. It was not clear how big its private onsens were, also sometimes it gets a few harsh reviews so the quality appeared inconsistent.
After another exhaustive research it was determined that Gettouan’s private onsens were actually pathetically small, a bit like hole a little bigger than a metre square dug in the ground.
The search was on to look for another choice.
As I looked over each ryokan in Yufuin, it was dawning that perhaps, a budget of less than 25k per person was not going to cut it for what I was looking for.
Ikkoten (一壺天) then pops to the list. It had always been on my mind but out of consideration due to its price of about 29k per person. It took the cabin concept to a whole new level, with luxurious interiors and good spacious onsen baths. Rooms with a view of Mt Yufu costed over 30k per person however, and rooms without a view seemed a little pricey.
Side note, the so called 3 ryokans of Yufuin: Murata (無量塔), Tamanoyu (玉の湯) and Kamenoi (亀の井) are a class above starting at around 40 to 45k a person.
I juggled between whether to go high with Ikkoten or go low with another ryokan with maybe not such spectacular private onsens (ryokans within Yufuin’s main area tended to be a little more cramped and the outdoor private onsens are fenced in, only outdoor in the sense there’s not a roof overhead).
I cannot remember how I ran into Kusayane no Yado – Ryu no Hige (草屋根の宿 龍のひげ). Technically it’s not even in Yufuin proper. Regardless how I originally crossed path with the little known inconspicuous little ryokan (it’s probably not a ryokan, better classified as Inn or Lodge?), the place began to grew on me, and I begun to spend more and more time looking over its pictures and facebook.
我不記得究竟是怎樣找到 草屋根之宿 龍之鬍鬚 的。嚴格說他並不算由布院溫泉區內。無論我們是如何遇到這間不顯眼的小旅館（好像不能稱日式旅館，好像只能說是旅店或旅社），這小地方越看越討喜，我開始花越來越多時間在看他的照片和臉書。
I shall go into Ryu no Hige later at its own day write-ups. Suffice to say by August I was much enthralled by it and convinced by its review comments I decided it was the right choice.
我之後在草屋根之宿 龍之鬍鬚 住宿篇另外敘述這家旅館。總之八月時我已被他迷住，各種留言評價已說服選這家不會錯。
Loose ends 瑣事
All while I was busy locking in the onsen ryokans, hotel in Hakata proved to be a separate battle.
For reasons still yet unclear (speculated to be when cruise ships from mainland China docks thus swamping the hotels), Hakata hotels sees ridiculous prices on Saturdays, about 3 times more than weekdays. I ended up momentarily booking two different choices initially, a single 3 person room for about 35k total for 2 nights, and a 2 rooms option at 44k for 2 nights (original expectation was 26~30k for 2 nights). After discussion with my parents we later opts for the 2 room option.
The Kumamoto earthquake greatly affected tourism in the area, as result an accommodation coupon campaign was launched which gave huge discounts to accommodation in the area. The initial wave gave up to 20k off a minimum 30k booking. This initial wave only applied to bookings up till end of September. The second wave was issued in early September and gave discounts of 10k off a minimum 20k booking, still quite generous. I took the day off to ensure I was able to get on the booking websites right when the coupons went live. (Only a number of bookings using coupons were allowed). With two nights off I made a saving of about 18k (prices are slightly cheaper if booked via official websites, but no coupons) which allowed me to justify to myself about choosing Ryu no Hige, as I was already about 30k over initial budget of 200k yen.
Around the same time the decision was made to switch from going by bus to renting a car. This gave a lot of flexibility and potentially saved 1-2 hours each day, though took some courage as I had not driven in Japan before. Australia drove on the same side so I was not worried about the actual driving, rather I was concerned about all the traffic rules, especially parking in Japan, plus the potential of accidents and other factors that may affect the schedules. The worry turned out to be unwarranted but it was a serious concern at the time.
The plan was finally finalized in October. We would rent a car upon arrival and immediately drive down to Hozantei. The next day we will walk around Kurokawa then drive on to Ryu no Hige. The third day return the car at Yufuin, do some sightseeing and take Yufuin no Mori back to Hakata.
The fourth day I left intentionally blank with two possible plans. To Dazaifu (太宰府) and return early, or head to Shimonoseki (下関) and have seafood at the fish market.
The planning complete, all that was left was wait, and watch the weather carefully. For winter came early this year, as we would get a taste of.