Getting to Kurokawa, a tiny onsen town on the island of Kyushu, requires a leap of faith and, for someone who speaks baby Japanese and can read only romaji, an act of god. For me, it meant two Shinkansen, a local train, a “limousine” bus, and a taxi driver with a smart little cap and clean white gloves.
Like nearly all Japanese we came across, our driver loves his home and seems to understand that it is something special, not to be taken for granted or dismissed with the contempt of familiarity. On the way to our onsen, in the middle of a nowhere that was in the middle of nowhere, he pulled his taxi over so we could take photos.
I’m not kidding, the streets here really have no name. It’s “turn left at the lettuces and go right at the soba shop”. Needless to say, I did not find one place I was looking for once I arrived. That includes the soba shop.
However, I did manage to get from Kyoto to this tiny onsen town on the island of Kyushu. Considering everything is written in Kanji and I can barely decipher Roma-ji, and there is no direct route from Kumamoto station to Kurokawa Onsen, I’m not sure how.
Contrary to Japan’s position as a super power, the vast majority of the country is still rural. Forest areas cover 65% of Japan’s total land area and agricultural land 15%. Certainly, there is electricity and modern plumbing wherever people live, as well as internet and all the infrastructure expected of a developed nation.
However, there are still many places, such as Kurokawa, where people live in ramshackle farm houses and wash their clothes down by the river.
If you want to experience traditional Japan, authentic and relatively untouched by foreign influence, this is where to find it.
Kurokawa itself is an onsen town, quaint and unspoiled. In the village, you can purchase a token, which allows access to all the onsen in the town. You could go onsen-hopping until you are wrinkled like a prune, a very clean and relaxed prune. There are shops and food stalls, and many onsen of course.
It’s recommended to rent a car as there are long distances, too far to travel on foot, between sights. If you are staying at a ryokan, there will probably be a car and driver to drop you off and pick you up from wherever you want to go. If you are staying at a ryokan, you will probably not want to go anywhere.