Ladies’ Weekend at Kurokawa Onsen Village

From the moment I returned to Japan from my winter trip home to the states, I pretty much hit the ground running. I had to work two weekends in a row, co-led a workshop for the annual Miyazaki JET Skills Development Conference, and spent the dreaded inauguration weekend answering questions and playing American-themed games at a the local “World Festa” event, where I was meant to engage families in internationalization. If I had 100yen (roughly a dollar) for every old man who came up and made a joke about Trump over the course of those 5 hours, I’d be able to buy enough alcohol to make the whole thing slightly more bearable. But alas… In a small act of defiance, I wore my “The Future is Female” shirt, and all Americans in charge of decorating our booth refused to use any pictures of the Cheetoh in Chief. All complaining aside, I did manage to have a few thoughtful conversations about the state of the US, and overwhelmingly the Japanese people I spoke with were concerned about the relationship between our countries. It was a long, interesting day.

16388499_1271894946208121_391476711_o
Walking down the street in Kurokawa

Needless to say, after two weeks of non-stop work and a bit of jet lag, I was absolutely ready for a weekend of relaxing in an onsen village. A friend of mine had organized the trip, apparently a semi-annual tradition among the foreign ladies of Miyazaki, and we were all very excited. Kurokawa Onsen Village is about four hours north of me, up in Kumamoto. It’s pretty close to Mt. Aso, the volcano that caused the massive Kumamoto earthquake last year, so I was surprised that everything was open and functional.

I had volunteered to drive and so early in the afternoon I set off with my friends Amber and Dasha. Dasha, who is from Siberia, spent a lot of the ride telling us about what life is like in Russia, and what she thinks of working as a TV personality in Japan (she’s the co-host of a local show about travel and food). The whole thing made me want to book a ticket to Siberia immediately, and I think Amber felt the same. It was also nice to talk with someone who wasn’t a teacher, which is a rarity these days. Anyway, we were having a lovely time when we entered the Mt. Aso Geopark. It was stunningly beautiful – the mountains were covered in yellow grass, and the clear weather meant we could see the whole mountain range. It felt a bit like being on another planet, like a set they could use for Star Wars or something. Dasha said it reminded her of home.

img_8507
There are worse places for your car to break down

As we were appreciating the scenery my car made a rather ominous sound and came to a stop, much to my surprise. We were a bit confused, and since none of us knew much about cars we fussed around a bit before managing to get the hood up, all on the side of a two-lane mountain road. After much googling we decided that my car had probably overheated after I pushed it a bit too hard up some serious hills. Remember, my car has a pretty tiny engine, and I had not paid close enough attention in my haste to get to our destination. We let the engine cool a bit, took some pictures, and then slowly made our way out of the park. Luckily everything was fine after that, and we made it to the village with no further problems.

img_8515
My weekend companions

When we arrived in Kurokawa we bought a pass for three onsens (hot springs) each, which was about $12. The village has tons of options to choose from, and after driving I sort of left the decisions up to the others. They decided on an outdoor bath and we walked through the town to find our first stop. The town was really cute, full of tiny shops, a pretty river, and lots of charm. The onsen was equally lovely, and to our delight we were the only ones there! Normally you’re not allowed to take your camera anywhere near the baths, since everyone wanders around nude, but we took the opportunity to snap a few shots of our surroundings.

img_8517
A lovely rotenburo all to ourselves

Kurokawa is pretty high up in the mountains, and at the end of January it was pretty cold. Most onsen require that you rinse yourself off before getting in, and they usually provide a special area to do so. This particular onsen had the rinsing area on the opposite side of the pool from the changing rooms, so we had to run to the other side in the freezing cold, to douse ourselves in scalding water, before getting in the super hot pool. It was quite the experience. After the initial shock it was lovely, and we spent a nice long time lazing in the water before we decided it was time to move on.

We dried off, put our clothes back on, and set out to meet up with the others at an onsen a bit further away. The lovely thing about hot springs in the winter is that they leave you feeling warm from the inside out, so when we walked around town this time we felt nice and cozy. We stopped by the river, now lit up, and took in our surroundings before getting back into the car.

16442714_10158106611995048_1769406504_o

Onsen number two was a bit fancier, and involved a decent walk from the hotel to the water. We met up with most of our friends, about 12 of us in total, and practically took over the place. There were only a few people there when we arrived, but by the time we left (nearly 2 hours later) we were the only ones left. I’ve been told that large groups of foreigners speaking English sometimes make Japanese onsen-goers uncomfortable, so this wasn’t entirely a surprise. We tried our best to keep our voices quiet and respectful, but the sheer numbers were a bit much, I think. In any event  this led to us once again having the place to ourselves, and I had a great time chatting with everyone. This particular onsen had a nice view of the stars, and a second pool overlooked a small waterfall. Not too shabby.

img_8525

After a while we realized we had stayed way longer than we had intended, and the place was about to close. We quickly packed up and made our way to the cabin we had rented for the night. The rest of our group had already arrived and started preparing a nabe (hot pot) dinner. I’m convinced there’s nothing nicer on a winter evening than a Japanese nabe, especially when surrounded by friends. There are versions of this type of communal hot pot dinner in many Asian countries, and I always enjoy the process (even though I will say that I like the flavor of the Japanese version more than the Vietnamese lau). As we cooked dinner Dasha made spiced wine, and we had a lovely, silly, slightly drunken time.

16403289_10154798799056007_7403970204095715070_o
Nabe party! Photo by Lindsay

In the morning one of the ladies had thoughtfully brought a waffle iron, so we had a leisurely waffle breakfast, followed by one last onsen. This time we chose a spot overlooking the infamous Mt. Aso. This particular volcano is one of the easiest mountains to recognize – it has a trademark jagged rim, which is both really cool to look at and a bit terrifying to think of, given how recently it went off. But we were far enough away to enjoy the view without too much fear, and so we had a lovely morning soak. By the end of our time in the onsen we were, surprise, alone again. Cameras came out, and we decided to take a few photos. The whole thing was such a strange combination of super Japanese and not at all culturally appropriate, but extremely fun and pretty memorable.

img_8548
Onsen #3 – the mountain in the distance is Mt. Aso

Finally it was time to go home. We took a commemorative group photo, hugged goodbye, and hit the road again. My car held up just fine, and we made it back without incident. I was happy to be home and ready to not drive again for a while, but I could easily have spent another day or two soaking in the onsen town. It’s been a few weeks now and I can definitely say I’m ready to go again!

img_8543

Hot Springs Weekend – Ibusuki, Kagoshima

Japan is made up of 47 prefectures. I live in Miyazaki, on the southern island of Kyushu. Much like in the US, it’s very easy to travel between prefectures, and many travelers make it their goal to visit as many as possible. Personally, I’ve visited roughly ten prefectures, mostly via road trips around Kyushu. The travel fanatic in me is very tempted to go the “gotta catch em all” route, but it does seem a bit unreasonable if I’m only living here for two years.

So instead of traveling the whole country, I’ve been enjoying the sights a little closer to home. A few weeks ago we had a national holiday on a Thursday, so I took the opportunity to make a long weekend for myself and do a bit of exploring in neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture.

Originally I had planned to go to Yakushima, a heavily forested island famous for ancient cedar trees and its role as inspiration for yet another Miyazaki film, Princess Mononoke. But as my trip approached so did Typhoon Malakas. There was so much talk of how big it would be and how much damage it could wreak that I decided to cancel my island trip in favor of one on the mainland. And as the storm came and went (without much damage to anything but my sleep schedule), I felt pretty happy with my decision.

While my Yakushima trip would have started on Thursday, I instead took the day to relax and clean my apartment. This plan would have gone really well if the building managers hadn’t scheduled an 8am lawn mowing. Seriously, 8am on a public holiday,  right after a late-night typhoon, for the teacher’s building. Sometimes I just don’t get this country…. Sleep was pretty much off the table, so I settled my plans, moved furniture, and generally felt productive. I packed up and the next day I set out for Ibusuki, Kagoshima.

kyushu-map
A handy map of Kyushu

Ibusuki is a town on the eastern coast of Kagoshima’s Satsuma peninsula. It’s not a super exciting place but it is well known for its hot springs, and for its thermal sand baths. I spent Friday night at 心の湯, an onsen (hot springs or spa) recommended to me by one of my favorite teachers. The hotel itself was nothing particularly exciting, but one thing I was particularly pleased with was the availability of a single room. Anyone who’s ever traveled solo knows that finding a single room is a challenge most places, and more likely than not you’ll end up paying full price for a double room. Not in Japan! I presume this is because of traveling businessmen, but basically if you’re looking to travel on your own you’ll have very little trouble finding single rooms and single-serving anything. It’s really nice and has made me a little bit spoiled – I’m not sure I’ll be able to go back to sharing hostel rooms after being able to get single hotel rooms for a comparable price!

But anyway, the onsen. Because I was staying at the hotel I was given a yukata, which was basically a slightly more formal robe. I could then walk next door to the spa spend as much time as I liked in the hot springs. I was pretty excited, but also a little nervous. This was only my second time going to an onsen, and I wasn’t totally sure of the rules. I’d say that onsen, while a staple of Japanese culture, are a bit notorious among foreign visitors. First, there’s the fact that they are almost always completely nude – no swimsuits allowed! This makes a lot of foreigners a bit nervous and uncomfortable, especially if you’re the only non-Japanese person there. Luckily, I’d visited a similar spa while back in the US, so I knew that after a few minutes of slight discomfort, I’d get over the whole no-clothes thing. The second reason onsen are a bit notorious, however, is due to a particular type of etiquette that needs to be observed. There are rules (both written and unwritten) about the order in which you are to shower (before you get in the baths), you must keep your hair out of the water, must be courteous to your fellow spa-goers, you must be careful with where you put your towel, etc. Famously, you are also not usually allowed in public baths if you have tattoos, since these are traditionally worn by yakuza (Japanese gangsters).

1
A few Onsen no-no’s. You can read a longer list of rules here

So onsen can get a bit complicated. But after a few minutes of confusion and self doubt I managed to relax and enjoy myself. The spa was outdoors, the water was nice, and I even spent some time chatting with a few other women about the area. I took a break for dinner at the spa restaurant, then treated myself to a massage and a bit more time in the hot springs. It was a pretty relaxing evening.

img_7760
A mysterious space ship in Ibusuki

The next day I had a lot planned – the end goal was to meet up with some other JETs for a beach party on the far side of the peninsula, but there were plenty of things to do and see on the way. Leaving the hotel I passed by a really strange building and had to stop to take some pictures. This place looked like an abandoned spaceship, crashed in the middle of all these small traditional houses. I still have no idea what it actually was, but I walked around and watched as people cleaned up after the typhoon.

After that slight detour I visited a small art museum attached to the Hakusuikan hotel, which was gorgeous. They had tons of beautiful satsuma ceramics, historical information about the area, and a pretty thorough English audio guide.

Next up was the main event, the whole reason for visiting Ibusuki – the thermal sand baths! Because this area is heated by volcanic hot springs, the beaches are warm as well, and Ibusuki has made a name for itself by setting up sand spas where you get buried in this hot sand. They claim that since the sand is heated in hot spring water, it’s got amazing health benefits, and 10 minutes of lying in the sand can cure you of all your ills. I’m not so sure about that, but it was certainly an experience. I was given a yukata and then lead down to the beach, where I was instructed to lie down in a slight hole in the sand. The staff then buried me in extremely warm sand (very little of which touched my actual skin) and I stayed put for about ten minutes. It was not exactly a super relaxing experience, since I felt a bit claustrophobic and had to keep wiggling my toes to remind myself I could get out at any time. And that sand is hotter than you think – by the time I got out I had worked up quite a sweat. When I freed myself from the sand (it’s easy to do, after all – it’s just sand) I was directed towards the baths and washed all the sand off. In the end, I’m not sure I’d do it again, but I’m glad I tried it out.

on3_3
The sand baths in Ibusuki. Photo from Japan-tour.jp