Woke up about 3 in the morning to find bath’s awning outside completely covered in thick white layer, and snowing heavily. I was terrified now, what if the roads became sealed off? I checked the road status websites to find all roads to Yufuin under snow gear restriction, meaning either chains or studless tyres. Despite my mom’s attempt to assuage my fears, that even if we were trapped it wouldn’t be a problem, I could barely sleep. I could have requested the car be equipped with studless tyres, but I didn’t.
Sunrise, I took a bath in the room’s private onsen. All the hills and rocks was now covered in white, a lovely view which I tried my best to enjoy.
Before breakfast time I went to the main hall and found the Taiwanese staff there, and I asked him about the conditions. Good news was if it became absolutely necessary it would be possible to swap into studless tyres at the local service shop, however the other local staffs who had been here much longer were not worried and say the light snow would have melted by the time we check out.
I was a little skeptical, but felt much more relieved. Worst case was just a matter of spending some money and changing tyres. Outside, Hozantei’s mascots, a flock of ducks were frolicking in the freezing pond unbothered by the cold, their feathers thick and fluffy.
Breakfast served at 7:30. Platter of pickles, tofu sides, miso soup, rice and the requisite grilled fish. It was a simple, satisfying meal and we thought better than dinner last night.
Turned out there were two Taiwanese staff working here. Apart from the young man there was another young lady who helped serve our breakfast. My parents struck up a conversation with her and asked about her experience here. The rural onsen towns were facing depopulation, combined with the hard working involved it was difficult to attract new young staffs, so many in the areas turned to people from overseas who were interested in working in Japan. It also had the benefits of helping overcome the language issue with foreign guests.
The sun had fully risen and the riverside view from the room was exquisite. The bright glittering snow contrasted with the dark of the bush and tree branches. Whatever trouble the snow might cause, this view might be worth it along. Had it not snowed the view might have been a barren brown of winter, now it was like a scene out of a traditional ink painting.
The staffs were right about the snow. By 10:30 much of the snow on the road had melted away. I’m not sure whether they had sprayed them with water or the asphalt naturally soaked up sunlight more and was warmer; the grass and trees on either side were still covered thickly.
The staffs helped carry our luggage up the ramp to the car park, the luggage were held up in the air to avoid them touching the wet grounds. They had already helped brush away the snow from the car windows, though upon the hood and trunk the snow was left there which gave some quite interesting sights later in the day. As we drove chucks of powdery snow would break off and scatter into the wind poetically.
Hozantei overall was a good experience. There were some bad spots, like the old lady in the first day a little cold (probably due to the language issue). The Taiwanese staffs on other hand were very friendly (probably nice to see someone from back home). CP was average, the room was definitely worth the extra price (I think Standard III is a must, only 2k more than a Standard I but the bath is so much larger plus the shower room). Food was average. The room and ryokan buildings were adequate and traditional, a very rural farmhouse feel to them. It would be better in other seasons as the warmer weather would encourage guests to wander into the main hall and gardens and enjoy some other activities.
We drove to the tourism centre of Kurokawa Onsen. Parking was very limited in Kurokawa Onsen, this was one of the few spots where one could park. In the peak seasons it might be hard to find a spot and will have to park at the carpark on the outskirt, today there were plenty of space.
One must learn abit of Kurokawa in order to fully appreciate it. Kurokawa is a legend amongst Japanese onsens. What makes it special? Nothing, which is why it is so special.
The 60s and 70s were Japan’s golden age. In the boom years companies and people were flush with money. Companies would host onsen outings for their employees, and people joined tours and visited onsens for leisure. Onsen tourism exploded and many onsen towns saw big investments.
Large onsen hotels propped up in onsens that were close to the cities, the most famous being Kinugawa and Atami. These hotels may be 10s of storeys tall, with grand lobbies, shops and theatres. There would be nightly performances to entertain guests, the stereotypical pingpong tables for guests to pass the time, and various gaming machines. These hotels sought to capture guests, satisfy their every possible needs in order to keep them inside and take every yen they spent.
But this destroyed any feeling of an onsen town. Instead of having a sense of township each hotel and ryokan became their own little isolated fortresses, competing against each other with little regard of the overall appeal of the onsen.
Then the bubble burst and companies could no longer afford employee trips, the number of visitors to onsen towns fell off a cliff and the huge hotel complexes which costed a fortune to maintain went into the red. As the hotels closed up it caused a downward spiral. Each shuttered hotels and shops became derelicts and made the town felt ever less lively until everything became a deathly quiet broken only by the light of the few hotels that still struggled on. People felt less inclined to visit these onsens.
Kurokawa escaped such fate by a combination of luck and misfortune giving birth to ingenious ideas.
Kurokawa is essentially a small onsen town in the middle of nowhere. It has no access to trains and is several hours out from the major cities by car or bus. It has no long history or traditions, no landmarks or famous shrines and temples, its onsen water quality is not spectacular. There’s nothing special about it that distinguishes it from the several hundred other small onsens throughout Japan and while the major onsen towns boomed, the ryokans in Kurokawa merely existed, with only Shinmeikan doing decently due to its open air baths.
Then in 1985 the second generation took over running of Shinmeikan and sought to bring changes to the onsen. The idea of running the onsen town as a single entity with a single brand and identity was born. The theme would be open air baths amongst the wild forests. Tree were planted, a standard appearance was adopted throughout town, black signage with white text, black on earthen orange walls for buildings and any unnecessary sign boards removed. The onsen hopping pass was born, for 1200Y (now 1300Y) one could visit any 3 ryokan’s baths, to encourage guests to visit different ryokans and enjoy the feel of different onsen baths, the idea was to treat the entire town as one big onsen ryokan, and selling the hopping pass also gave the tourism association a steady source of income which they could utilize to maintain the town’s appearances and host events.
Because of Kurokawa’s initial lack of investments the town had no large ryokans that would affect the small hidden village in the mountains atmosphere and were able to come together as locals. The town was reborn, against the overall trend of onsen town decline, Kurokawa’s visitor numbers increased 3 fold by the 2000s. Over a million visitors a year for a town less than 4000.
That’s the story of Kurokawa.
I bought a onsen hopper pass from the tourist centre, no intention of using, just a souvenir. The tourist centre also has lockers and provides accommodation booking service, and other general information.
Kurokawa onsen is not very big, to make a walk around the main street would take about half an hour only, apart from the ryokans there’s only about 10 shops. We went at a leisurely pace, checking out the various ryokans and shops along the way. Many ryokans either also operate restaurants or have public sitting spaces outside to encourage tourists to drop in, take a bath or buy some snacks and other products. Day onsen guests can contribute significantly to a ryokan’s income.
For example Ikoi operates a restaurant and offers lunch + onsen packages as well as selling onsen eggs outside with free sitting areas around a warm hearth and footbath. The footbath is also free but usually people would buy a towel for about 200Y. Their daytime operation accounts for 20% of yearly revenue. Many other ryokans also earn about 10% during daytime.
We take a break at the Shiratamako, a Japanese sweets cafe specializing in shiratama (a kind of little rice balls) and mochis. The grilled mochi was delicious, it was the first time I had a proper grilled mochi. I had bought mochi before and tried grilling myself but they never tasted right, at last I understand how they are supposed to taste.
The main street curves gently uphill. There’s a few souvenir shops, a honey specialist, a cafe selling Aso milk and horse meat buns and croquette, pottery and local sake seller.
At the end of the main street we decide we should have something to eat before we head for Yufuin. Cafe Fu-Do, meaning Wind Degrees C, had a burger using meat from a local cow breed, akaiushi meaning red cow. Tasted about the same as other beef, nothing special but a decent choice if you felt like something with no surprises. Lunch choices in Kurokawa can be a limited as there were only 2-3 other eateries, not counting the slightly more expensive ryokan restaurants.
We returned to the tourist centre and I asked the staffs for opinion on how to get to Yufuin.
The scenic Yamanami highway was out of question, it went high up in between two tall peaks and was knee deep in snow. The best detour available was the 387 highway that led from Minamioguni to Kokonoe, takes about the same time as the Yamanami highway, however this one was also marked with a snow restriction on the road status website. If the 387 was no good then we would have no choice but backtrack to Hita and take the Oita Expressway, adding over an hour to the original 1 hour journey.
The staffs weren’t so sure about highway 387. It may be okay, they suggested.
My parents suggested we should give it a try, if not we can still take the detour to Hita. It was a good thing we did, the road status website must be a little slow in updating information as we saw no sign of road restrictions on the way. The road surface had less snow than areas around Kurokawa.
Initially I was nervous and constant expected to see a check point. We descended the mountains and it turned to elation. The scenery along the way was quite beautiful, plenty of rolling woods and hills. There are a lot of onsens along the way, can’t go a 5 minutes without running into signs pointing to onsen hotels. There was a small stretch of road where steam was readily rising out of the sides.
Kokonoe showed that we had cleared the snow area completely; the path to Yufuin was now assured. We take a short break at the information and local produce promotion centre at the intersection.
Because we left early incase we had to detour via Hita, we now looked to reach Ryu no Hige ahead of schedule. Given that we decided to drive through Yufuin main street first instead, get a feel for the town, confirm where the rental return and petrol station are, and pick up our train tickets so there’s one less thing to do tomorrow.
We parked at a 7-11 near the station, I went for the ticket while my parents went inside for some shopping. Convenience store parking is probably the best source of temporary parking in Japan, easy to find and so long as you bought something all is okay.
We bought more bread and a bottle of sake for dad, after that we head for Ryu no Hige, which must be discussed in its own chapter.