KUROKAWA ONSEN, KUMAMOTO PREF. – Rolling mists fill the valley as we descend from Mount Aso to Kurokawa Onsen, a riverside town in the depths of Kumamoto Prefecture. The trees that border the road stand tall and straight, and the cool air is redolent with the fragrant smell of damp cedar. Higher up the slopes, the canopy is tinged red, the first signs of transition from summer to autumn.
Twenty minutes outside of Kurokawa Onsen, on the edge of the town of Oguni, is Soba Kaido road, nicknamed for the noodle shops positioned every hundred meters or so alongside its course. Our group stops at Kagoan, a 100-year-old farmhouse that has been refurbished as a soba restaurant; its mossy roof and thick wooden beams hint at its age.
From the restaurant’s window, the Baba River can be seen flowing fast and powerful on the other side of a well-kempt garden. Catching our gaze, the waitress tells us that the water is used to make the noodles, mixed with buckwheat flour in proportions that change with weather conditions such as temperature and humidity. The noodles, when they come, are sublime: The earthy taste of buckwheat defines each mouthful, complemented by a rich soy-based soup and a generous side of tempura maitake mushrooms, lightly fried in a crisp batter.
The meal closes with a cup of buckwheat tea and it is with overly full stomachs that we complete the rest of the journey to Kurokawa Onsen, through forest made dusky by the progression of the day.
Twenty-nine ryokan inns line the Kuro River to make up the bulk of the village. Though it has its roots in the Edo Period (1603-1868), it was not until the 1960s that Kurokawa Onsen became well-known to the general public; historically, it was a rest stop for daimyo lords and travelers as they crossed between the Kyushu towns of Hita and Taketa.
In the latter half of the 20th century, efforts to turn Kurokawa Onsen into a tourist destination resulted in significant expansion. In 1961 only six hotels were open to the public, but this number more than quadrupled as the Kurokawa Onsen Ryokan Association promoted the town’s open-air rotenburo baths.
Despite the growth, the town maintains a charm that effuses throughout the buildings and the narrow alleyways that run down the steep banks to the Kuro River. It feels old, and has escaped much of the overenthusiastic concrete landscaping that is present elsewhere in Japan.
By the time we have checked in to Ryokan Sanga, the town has emptied of day visitors, and the streets are deserted but for a few guests of the ryokan, strolling quietly along the river dressed in striped yukata and holding orange umbrellas to protect them from the light drizzle that has begun to fall with the onset of evening. The slap of their sandals reverberates through the streets, echoing the soft pitter-patter of the rain.
From the town’s information center we buy nyūtō tegata, onsen-hopping passes that allow the wearer access to three different outdoor baths for just ¥1,300 at any of the 24 participating ryokan. After visiting onsen at two different inns — the large, riverside baths of Yamabiko Ryokan and the cave baths of Yama no Yado Shinmeikan — we are boiled through, faces a deep red and fingers wrinkled and pruned. The cool air provides relief as we wander the town, stopping at Patisserie Roku, to try the shop’s speciality, choux cream pastries, filled with fresh cream to order.
Up the hill from the patisserie, a circular window reveals a bounty of sake: nihonshu, umeshu, shōchū, all produced locally and sold by Sake no Yado. Across the road, a souvenir shop sells trinkets and gifts from friends and family. A cafe is closing up for the evening, but a staff member beckons us in, handing out free samples of locally made ice cream.
For all the allure of the shops, and the quaint produce inside, the real attraction of Kurokawa Onsen is the river, which cascades down from the mountains above and defines the town’s architecture and construction; from its riverside baths and elegant bridges to the color of the buildings — and vending machines — which are painted black in tribute to the Kurokawa, which translates to “black river.”
Though it is too early in the year, one of the town’s main events is its winter bamboo illumination. From December through March, spherical bamboo lanterns are hung above the water, tracing the course of the river, their flames reflected in the dark water beneath. In the pitch black of rural Kumamoto Prefecture, they can be seen running up the valley for hundreds of meters.
Instead, as darkness falls, we are treated to the reflections of the soft orange lights from the ryokan, as rooms are lit up by guests. Tuneful laughter floats across the river, accompanied by the clink of glasses and gentle chatter of people starting their elegant kaiseki (traditional multicourse) suppers.
And after dinner? With nothing to distract, there is little to do but bathe again and succumb to sleep in this secluded riverside retreat.
Kurokawa Onsen is best accessed by car and is approximately a two hour drive from the city of Fukuoka in the north of Kyushu. Public bus transport to the town is available (2½ hours, ¥3,090 one way), but only runs four times a day and is ineffective for day trips, as the last bus returns to Fukuoka at around 4 p.m. The Kurokawa bamboo illumination runs annually from the end of December through March.