Saturday, June 23, 2007

Existing as Vapor

The wetness is beyond soothing. The warmth indescribable. The relaxation never ending. If only I had the strength, not just the desire, to freeze this moment, to stay in the comfort of this fantasy and pleasure world.

A private rotemburo. A world of our own. A pool of water, still steaming from the natural volcanic heat, its waves washing over us, cleansing us of the unnatural worries we bore prior to our visit.

Can there be such a place? Away from it all, away from the stresses and physical injury we give ourselves every day? A world of volcanoes, natural hot springs, people walking in the night wearing their yukata and geta, without a care in the world? Where the food is rich and plentiful, as if you could pluck off the branch of a nearby tree and have it taste as sweet as the most succulent honey?

There can be.

It exists.

Kurokawa Onsen village.

Arrive on time. I can give you no better advice than that. Be at your ryokan at 3:00, ready to enjoy every last amenity this piece of rural Japan has to offer you.

What is it?
One of the best onsen villages in Japan, filled with western and Japanese lodging. Small shops are everywhere, offering fresh soft cream and nice lunches if you want to explore after checkout (which you should). Surrounded by nature, in the valley between two rather large hills. Recently they have been building a "super hotel", which contrasts sharply with the small tradition ryokan in the area.

Where is it?
Central Kyushu, just north of the famous Aso-san volano. Unfortunately, it's inaccessible by train, but a few buses do make it from Beppu, Kumamoto, and Fukuoka.

From Kurokawa

To Beppu: 10:57, 12:07, 14:51, 16:47, ¥2350, 135 minutes
To Kumamoto: 10:35, 11:15, 16:45, 17:55, ¥2000, 145 minutes
To Hakata: 9:00, 14:30, ¥3000, 165 minutes

To Kurokawa

From Beppu: 8:20, 9:00, 14:30, 15:40, ¥2350, 135 minutes
From Kumamoto: 8:30, 9:40, 10:00, 14:20, ¥2000, 145 minutes
From Hakata: 8:56, 13:36, ¥3000, 165 minutes

Routes to/from Hakata are operated by Nishitetsu (English page here.
Routes to/from Beppu and Kumamoto are operated by Kyusanko

What to eat?
Naturally your breakfast and dinner will be provided. Don't miss out on some huge spectacular meals, including: basashi (horse sashimi), yakiniku, sashimi, and fresh vegetables.

Where to stay?
You have many choices, including the new modern onsen hotel I mentioned. Kurokawa's lodgings are reasonably well-separated, so be sure to look on the map for one within walking distance of the main village (although there's no harm in never leaving your ryokan, you'll want to see the village at night). It's impossible not to find a bed with a great view, though.

My personal recommendation: Shinmeikan. Undisputed. It has the best location out of all other lodging in Kurokawa (set apart by a bridge, practically built on a cliffside), it's in the middle of the village, and it has the most unique onsen in the area, the cave rotemburo.

Rooms can cost up to ¥18,000, but you shouldn't come to Kurokawa without expecting to pay at least ¥15,000/night.

Shinmeikan Onsen (新明館)
Check in 3:00, check out 9:30

What to do?

Relax. One thing. Relax. It's a very bad idea to come to Kurokawa and not stay the night – I'd recommend at least two nights if you can afford it. The last thing you want to do in the best onsen village in Japan is stress out about bus timetables and onsen closings. Don't. Relax, and try not to come alone.

If you have no choice about an itinerant stay, you can purchase a special wooden medallion at the visitor's center:

This medallion, costing ¥1200, will get you into three onsen of your choice (note the special onsen stamps after use). Although it does make a nice souvenir, you can buy the same medallion without the onsen admission charge for ¥200. Although I do recommend trying all the onsen of Kurokawa, it's just not worth the hassle in this case, walking from onsen to onsen, keeping track of the time, and managing your own clothes and towels; check into a ryokan.

Just how many soaks can you get in during one night's stay?

Arrive 3:00
Onsen 3:30-5:30
Dinner 6:00
Walk though Kurokawa village 7:00
Onsen 8:30
Onsen 7:00
Breakfast 8:00
Onsen 9:00
Check-out 10:00

What's the appeal for me? Sitting outside in the rotemburo, slowly letting my head sink into the mineral-rich water, listening to my heartbeat slow... slow... slow. You know it's working.


Kurokawa Onsen (Links to all ryokan)
Sinmeikan Ryokan

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Running on Molten Lava

It's been a while since I posted an entry to suit my blog title. Just opposite of Kagoshima City lies the peninsula once-an-island Sakurajima. Although the name suggests a large growth of cherry blossoms, I can assure you there are more onsen and dormant lava flows in the area.

The “island” offers many opportunities to see the destruction caused by eruptions in 1914 and 1946. One such area not far from the ferry port is the Nagisa Lava Trail. Accessible only on foot, this is a great area for running in the Kagoshima area: the cool ocean breeze, a view of Kagoshima City, and perhaps most importantly, your surroundings. The entire trail offers views of blackened lava rocks.

Take the Sakurajima Ferry from the northernmost port in Kagoshima. Ferries leave every 10-15 minutes, and take 15 minutes to reach the peninsula. Once there, walk or run to the visitor’s center – the trail is just west of the center.

Other running trails in Japan

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

First Taste of Ash

There are many advantages to living in Kagoshima City (鹿児島市): ferries to take you to any number of islands south of Kyushu; onsen far and wide; beautiful beaches practically within your grasp; ohhh, and the food... c'est magnifique.

However, the landmark that dominates the skyline over Kagoshima City is the source of both the greatest onsen in the city and the showers of ash.

Sakurajima (桜島) is still quite the active volcano, but it has not had a serious eruption in over fifty years. Nevertheless, small eruptions, resulting in earthquakes and more often than not, ash showers, occur quite often. So often in fact that residents of the prefecture capital city are given yellow garbage bags with which to dispose of the ash on their property.

During the summer months of June and July, the prevailing winds usually shift the ash towards Kagoshima City and the western coastal areas. In the fall, the direction reverses to rain upon Miyazaki and eastern Kyushu.

June 5th, 2007... a day that will soon enough be forgotten. I'm emerging from an internet cafe while NTT assesses whether my apartment is a candidate for a fiber optic line. The sky is grey, the crowds around Tenmonkan dense. It takes me a few seconds to realize that the light drizzle I'm feeling around my face and neck isn't wet. Soon enough my black shirt looks like a few tiny birds had a field day.

In the distance, I can see a huge cloud over Sakurajima slowly dispersing, guiding its way towards our fair city. People just put up with it, and so did I; it's too big to inhale, so I doubt there's much risk to your health. If you're wearing a suit I can see where some frustration might go down, but other than that... just treat it like rain and cast up your umbrella.

Another unique experience in Kyushu. The days are just packed.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Seeing the Appeal

...of my future home. What other area can boast a foot onsen in an airport?

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lesser Known Onsen ♨

Kannewaen Onsen (神和苑)

This place came highly recommended by a hot spring master in Beppu, so I set out to find it on a return visit.

This onsen is definitely a local secret - it's not mentioned in any guidebook, you can't find it on any tourist map, and the entrance isn't too well marked.

However, it's not difficult to find, as it is located in one of the big touristy areas of Beppu - the Kannawa jigoku tour. The jigoku (地獄, loosely translated as "hell") are hot spring areas with unique features. These hot springs are for viewing, not for bathing.

Jigoku in Beppu

Umi Jigoku
Features bluish water due to the mineral content

Oniishibozu Jigoku
Bubbling mud

Shiraike Jigoku
Milky water

Chinoike Jigoku
Blood-red water giving the appearance of hell

Tatsumaki Jigoku
A natural geyser which erupts every twenty five minutes, lasting six minutes

Yama Jigoku
Small ponds with boiling water and overcrowded zoos

Kamado Jigoku
More boiling ponds

Oniyama Jigoku
Enjoy the sight of one hundred crocodiles packed into a cage about the size of three cars

Kinryu Jigoku
Golden Dragon Hell - has a greenhouse where bananas and other plants are grown from hot spring water

Kannawaen is tucked neatly away in the greenery next to Umi Jigoku. If you see a big blue and white sign with "Umi Jigoku" written on it you're very close.

Map of Kannawaen

The bathhouse is on the road before you reach the main inn. Just walk right up to the inn's threshold and get someone's attention. If you're loose with Japanese, try saying "onsen dake" (only the onsen). It costs ¥800 for adults and ¥400 for children. There is no time limit, but the ryokan guests have priority; that is, the bath is only available between 10:00 and 4:30, between check out and check in.

As for the onsen itself... very relaxing. This is an uncrowded, well-maintained, seldom used onsen. The dressing area would be a tight squeeze for a dozen people, and is very modern, featuring a vibrating foot massager and everything you need to change and wash.

Step down a flight of stone stairs and you're sure to enjoy the first stage - the showers and the hottest bath. Take your time in the indoor bath because it is significantly hotter than the others.

Next up - the main course. The rotemburo (outdoor bath) at Kannawaen is very unique due to it's milky blue water rich in silicon. This water changes color from dark to light blue depending on the mineral content. It's warm, the area around the bath gives you the feeling you're surrounded by nature, and the water itself is quite healthy. Stay in as long as you want, and don't rinse off so as to take advantage of the mineral properties on your skin.

In one of the more well-known areas, having a secluded feeling, and unique in appearance and quality, this onsen is a fine attention to Beppu. Ikimashou.

Kannawaen website

〒 874-0045 大分県別府市御幸6組

Kurokawa Village (黒川温泉)

Kurokawa is one of the best onsen villages in Japan, and one I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting. Located northeast of Kumamoto, it is not accessible by train, and it would be best if you had a car.

Set in the Japanese countryside, these onsen are tucked away from the outside world and in a more traditional Japanese setting. One of the best baths there is Shimmeikan, which features cave baths and huge rotemburo.

If you're looking to try different onsen in the area, the tourist information desk provides you with a wooden medallion for ¥1200 that gives you access to three onsen of your choice.

Although I highly recommend staying in a traditional onsen ryokan at least once (around ¥12,000-20,000/night), you have the option of commuting from the cheap Aso Senomoto Youth Hostel (¥2300/night) and just visiting the baths.

Onsen ryokan in Kurokawa

Bus from Aso at 10:30, ¥940
Buses from Beppu Bus Terminal at 8:20, 9:00, 14:30, 15:40, ¥1180
Buses from Hakata Station at 8:17, 9:39, 11:07, 12:19 weekdays
Buses from Kumamoto Station at 8:30, 9:40, 10:00, 14:20

And if you think those areas are interesting, take a good look at this champagne bath in a popular onsen facility:

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Super Sento in Hiroshima

Following my recent excursion to Beppu to enjoy the specialty onsen, I wanted to find a solution closer to home. The answer?

Yamato No Yu

This super sento is conveniently located between the Mazda (マツダ) and Delta offices, making it a prime target for Japanese businessmen finishing a long day of work.

Although it is not fed by a natural hot spring (as far as I know), this bathhouse is still quite the place to relax - rotenburo (outdoor baths), massage chairs, a full vending machine cafeteria...

This is not the place for tourists. Know your Japanese bathing etiquette, and be prepared to read plenty of kanji. If you just want a quick in-and-out, the bath costs ¥600 (the top left button on the vending machine).

This is not some small old neighborhood sento, but rather a luxurious spa-type sento that is quite the perk for those living in the area. Enjoy.

Location of Yamato No Yu

Take the Sanyo or Kure line east to Mukainada Station (about 7 minutes from Hiroshima)

GetHiroshima Details

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Beppu (別府) in Black and White

Photos of Beppu are up, and I'll have a report on the onsens and area specialties soon...

Pictures from Beppu, Japan

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ondo Ohashi Yasumiyama Marathon


Here's one for the books. I haven't seen a course going straight up a mountain since the Mt. Marathon race in Seward, Alaska.

Mt. Yasumi in Kure city may not be the steepest on record, but you're still ascending 500 meters inside a 7 km course.

Date: May 6th, 2007

Distance 14.5 km
Price ¥2000
Start Time 10:00 AM
Deadline April 10th

Traveling by train from Hiroshima. Take the Kure Line from Hiroshima Station (広島駅) to Kure Station (呉駅). Take the #3 bus from Kure Station until you reach Ondo Lodgeshita. The starting line is a few minutes walk from there, in Sakura no Sato Park.

Registration includes admission to the Ondo Lodge Onsen, a rather popular bathhouse in the Kure area.

Map to Ondo Lodge Onsen
Onsen website

GetHiroshima race details
Runnet registration
Map of Yasumiyama

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Talking with a Naked Yakuza

" look around and see you are not alone in the neighborhood: The prepubescent boy or girl scrubbing father's back. The saggy old men lolling about, forcing you to face the inexorable effects of gravity on male body parts. The yakuza with his vibrant and fascinating tattoos, brooking stares from no one. The screaming kids and chattering women audible from the female side of the bathhouse (in stark contrast to the male side, where stolid silence is generally the status quo). And the soaped up shaving salaryman with fogged-up eyeglasses who seems to enjoy few things in life - except a smoke, a good meal with friends and family, maybe the occasional tryst with a co-worker, a professional or a casual. And this bath."

Japanese Only, Arudou Debito

Never will I ceased to be amazed by the bathing culture in Japan. This weekend wrapped up my first trip to Beppu (別府) in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu. Beppu, a city sitting on quite a large volcanic vein, is well known for its unique and various onsens (温泉): ranging from full mud baths, warm sand, scented waters, multi-colored waters, and traditional outdoor pools (called rotenburo, 露天風呂).

Although onsens create the occasional stir (i.e. concern over contagious people in a public area, and the Otaru Onsen lawsuit by foreign residents of Japan in 2001), they are still widely celebrated as some of the best places to relax in Japan. Relaxing after a long work day by enjoying a dip in the local hot spring. Taking the weekend to stay in a luxurious onsen hotel and never leave the premises. If the Japanese are a hard-working people, then they know exactly where to go after such stressful conditions, and how best to relax.

When I first heard about the concept of onsen in Japan, I didn't think I would partake. Why? Because I was thinking like a stupid closed-minded foreigner. Sure, showering and cleaning yourself is a private activity, but who defines privacy? The Romans enjoyed public baths two thousand years ago, when they were considered the epitome of civilization. Japanese deserve the same consideration. Leave your modesty at the curtain.

How to behave in an onsen

The procedure varies slightly depending on where you go, but in most cases...

1. Entrance area. Pay a small fee (usually anywhere from 50-700 yen depending on how nice the onsen is) and remove your shoes. The onsen will have a coin or free key locker right next to the entrance, where you can exchange your shoes for onsen slippers or geta (wooden shoes). Head towards the main changing area, where you are divided up by gender unless it's a group onsen. Remember:


2. Once you are in the group area or locker room, remove all your clothes. Lockers will be provided or there may just be a small wicker basket in which to place your personal items.

3. Entering the bath. Grab a small hand towel for use in the onsen. I know we're more commonly taller and bigger as foreigners, but don't take the full-sized bath towel inside. You'll get to use it when you emerge. When you do enter the bath, you should see a showering area. Pull up a stool and clean yourself thoroughly with soap and shampoo. Rinse yourself off completely, and do not splash other people with water.

4. You are now ready to enter the first bath, the hottest bath. I doubt any of us need instructions at this point. All I can tell you is: don't swim, don't splash, and try not to get your hand towel in the water too often - set it on your head when you're not walking around.

5. The order of baths goes - hot, warm, cold. Skip the cold if you like, and repeat as needed to ensure maximum relaxation. Many bigger onsens have options like electric baths, steam rooms, baths with cypress tree oils, and other specialties.

So how do you feel? Like you've submerged yourself in pure, wet, tasty sunlight. As if your spirit could be lifted a few inches from your body and felt by every essence of your being.

I can sort of relate to Arudou Debito in his qualms over exclusion at the onsens in Otaru; although I believe he was more concerned with the racial discrimination issues, I'm in the habit of seeing only the onsen side of the equation: these are places without barriers. Young and old, rich and poor, short and tall, yakuza and businessman, foreigner and Japanese... we all come here seeking the same destination. There's no business, no stress, and no serious talk...

I'm enjoying the second round of soaking in the warm bath at Tanayu Onsen (棚湯) in the Suginoi Palace Hotel (スギノイパレス) when a most curious sight passes before me: a man with bright red tattoos covering his backside, showing no shame or embarrassment, entering the special steam room. Sidestepping a five-year-old girl (who might have been his daughter; I couldn't tell), I proceeded to follow him; if nothing else, just to engage him in simple, relaxed conversation.

He was sitting upright near one of the walls, and started on me first:

"Doko kara? America?" (casual, where are you from)

"America kara. Shikashi ima Hiroshima ni sumimas."

We continued on for a few minutes with my limited vocabulary and his patience. I should point out that this particular steam room in Tanayu was shaped like an igloo; great design for holding in the vapor, terrible for echos. I finally had to give up and mutter that I couldn't hear him too well with my listening skills combined with the bad acoustics. He nodded his head in understanding, and I left to submerge myself in the hot bath once again.

A yakuza (if he was one - I'm just basing that on tattoos). Many public baths and private clubs reject Japanese citizens if they have visible tattoos, commonly associated with the Japanese mofia, the yakuza. And yet no matter what his name or stance was in the outside world, he was no yakuza. I was no foreigner. We were two residents of Japan enjoying a soak. As it should be for all entering the world of the onsen.

Beppu, Japan
Tanayu Onsen (棚湯)
The Way of the Hot Springs - onsen in Beppu

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Running on Solid Ice

Lessons learned in Sapporo...


Sincerity. Sincerity in expressing gratitude or conveying an apology. The essence of behavior in Japan.

The Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (札幌雪祭) wrapped up this weekend after being on display in Odori Park for a week. Nearly two million tourists typically come from around the world to see this famous Japanese event. People from Australia, America, Russia, and Korea are particularly common.

This year, the snow sculptures did not quite get the attention they deserve. Last Tuesday Sapporo experienced a sudden rise in temperature, putting midday at just over the freezing point. Even those few degrees, combined with the natural sunlight, were enough to dull the features of the best sculptures. The main exhibits were touched up and reshaped, but many of the smaller pieces of art weren't spared for time. Even locals admitted the quality was somewhat lacking this year.

However, that's not to say it still wasn't a great event. Any Japanese matsuri is worth going to, especially on the unique island of Hokkaido. Snow sculptures lined Odori Park along with hot chocolate booths, Coca-Cola drink stations, crabs on a stick, and plenty of kids' ice slides. It has to be seen to be believed. Near the TV tower are the ice sculptures. Don't waste your time on these during the day; they're best seen at night when they're backlit. There are several snow sculptures each the size of a small building.

There is more to the festival than just Odori; if you take a bus from the #6 platform for ¥200, you can reach Satoland in about 40 minutes. Satoland is mainly for the kids, but still quite a sight. A snow maze, many ice slides, fresh ramen and chocolate covered bananas, and a performance stage.

If you walk past Odori towards the south, you'll reach the entertainment district, Susukino, in about ten minutes. Here is where we see the major ice artwork. Ice dragons. Ice karaoke booths. Ice shot bars offering Bailey's and milk. Ice benches to relax. Fish frozen into the ice. Spend about an hour discovering everything, then walk down to Rad Brothers (an easily sighted international bar) for some conversation.

As far as food is concerned, Hokkaido is well-known for its seafood; be sure to sample the crab while you're there. Or, you can enjoy the local varieties of ramen (also delicious, but I think I prefer Fukuoka-style) in a famous alley with a dozen ramen shops. It's difficult to find: Ramen Alley in Susukino.

The Ishiya chocolate factory, the birthplace of Shiroi Koibito (white lover's chocolate), was magnificent. I highly recommend visiting it if you're in Sapporo. Just a short subway ride away from Odori Koen on the Tozai Line.

Naturally, a giant sign boasting "chocolate factory" looked like nothing less than heaven as I walked through the snowy streets. The tour of the factory is pretty unremarkable with the exception of a free sample guaranteed to get you hooked; you also might enjoy the assembly line viewing. Cookie. Chocolate. Package. Only three steps.

The real treat is the store at the end of the tour - every kind of chocolate you can imagine. Custom shaped chocolate. They even have a workshop for kids to make their own cookies. My advice: pick up some of the milk chocolate Shiroi Koibito (brown wrappers) and the chocolate drink in a can - it's absolutely DELICIOUS.

If you're interested in visiting a nearby onsen, go to the #12 platform in the bus terminal near Sapporo Station. The ticket window there will provide a package deal: round trip bus tickets to nearby Jozankei (an area famous for hot springs), plus a ticket good for a soak at any area onsen. ¥1700 for the whole package.

It'll take you a little over an hour to reach Jozankei, but if you want a closer option, Koganeyu is also a good onsen spot known for sulfurous waters; I happened to stop here... very relaxing; a few places have outdoor baths right up to the snowy slopes. Spending an afternoon naked soaking in an authentic Japanese onsen while looking at a snowy mountain... priceless. Be sure to enjoy some Hokkaido milk once you finally get out.


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