Onsens, Yukatas, Sake, Cats, Peace, Forests & Sisterhood
That’s the abridged version of this 9 day sister trip to Kyushu, Japan. Before I go in to the unabridged you need to learn some vocab, like what the heck is an onsen! I didn’t know until I moved to Asia and I’m kicking myself that it took 43 years to discover.
- Onsen: A Japanese hot spring and the bathing facilities/inns frequently situated around them. Japan is a volcanically active country, so there are thousands of onsens.
- Rotenburo: A Japanese hot spring baths (onsen) that is situated outdoors.
- Ryokan: A type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1603–1868). They typically feature tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where one wears a yukata. Of the four places we stayed, three were ryokans and they ALL had onsens on site.
- Yukata: A Japanese garment, a casual summer kimono usually made of cotton or synthetic fabric, and unlined. It functions both as a bathrobe and loungewear, which can be worn at all times during your stay, including to the bath, to both dinner and breakfast, and to bed as sleepwear. Since it’s cold in Japan right now, our Yukata’s came with fashionable matching over coats. Every ryokan provides their guests with these plus slippers (indoor and outdoor) and usually thonged socks called tabi (which you get to keep).
Feeling smarter. perhaps more relaxed? Good!
If you’ve read previous posts, you’ve learned that my sister lives just across the way from me in Shekou, China now. We haven’t lived in the same time zone in 10 years so we have lots of real facetime to catch up on. The last sister trip was to Wrocław, Poland (circa 2005) for Magda’s wedding. We promised we would do a sister trip every year after that and then life happened. We each got married, moved around … excuses … excuses. It’s never too late to make good on promises though!
Japan, my new crush
I experienced my first onsen in Hokkaido, Japan and it was love at first soak. I still find them to be surreal, fascinating and beautiful. There’s nothing like it in the states. The closest I’ve experienced is Kabuki Springs & Spa in San Francisco (indoor onsen only). I heard there’s a new one called “Onsen” in the Tenderloin which used to be the armpit of SF so clearly things have changed since I lived there.
Onsens seemed like something worth experiencing more of and since most onsens are gender separated it seemed like the perfect trip to do with my sister. The southern main island, Kyushu, is known for its hot springs. We visited four onsen towns via public transit. Japan has an incredibly organized public transit system of buses and trains. It’s clean, timely and delightfully quiet (Taiwan is similar). Did you know Japan has four main islands, but has a whooping 6,852 islands in total? And thousands of onsens sprinkle this magical country!
WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN ONSENING
When experiencing an onsen, you are naked… bathing and soaking with other women (or men if you’re a man). There’s no body shaming vibes, it’s very chill. No one cares about seeing you naked in an onsen. You are there to soak and relax. Children also go to onsens with their parents so they grow up seeing all sizes and types of bodies which is so healthy. I wish more women could experience this positive (naked) body experience in America. Fortunately, Tati and I have zero hang ups about being naked.
- No tattoos allowed. Seriously. This has something to do with the Yakuza, Japanese gangsters. Thankfully, neither of us ever got tatted up and I can tell you I never will now.
- No clothing or jewelry. Swimsuits not permitted.
- Before entering the onsen, one must shower, clean your body and hair if you wish. Onsen water is very clean because people take the pre-onsen bathing part seriously. Soaps and towels are often provided. You really scrub down before entering the water, it’s not just a quick rinse. The whole process is very relaxing.
- One never puts their head under the water in an onsen. Hair is always pulled up.
- Generally no talking in the onsens. They are blissfully quiet and relaxing.
- Afterward, no need to rinse off the beneficial onsen waters, allow the body soak up those minerals.
First Stop: Kurokawa
We flew in to the city of Fukuoka for one night and then lickity split for the small mountain village of Kurokawa via bus. This turned out to be our favorite place for onsens. By design, the whole town is considered an inn. The town sells an onsen-hopping pass, encouraging guests to bathe in three different outdoor baths. Of course, we did. Kurokawa is a small, walkable town, nestled in the woods along a river. Relaxed gnomes and fairies may very likely originate from here. I highly recommend you add this to your list of places to unwind.
Onsen eggs are the best! This is the source of hot water for the onsen we stayed at and they cook eggs on it 24/7. It’s quite a delicious treat after soaking in onsens all day.
No johnsons in the onsen!
Full day stroll through the golden grassy hills of the countryside, on a misty cool day in search of two onsens (in the “onsen-hopping circuit”)… and we found them.
Proud Onsen Pass Holders
The second crappy onsen we soaked in on our countryside walk. This one was particularly stunning and required one to run naked through the woods from the bathing house to the rotenburo. Weeee….
This onsen had specs of reflective white minerals floating in it, called “onsen flour” – which cause the water to look blue.
Our third onsen-pass stop and we had it all to oureselves.
Second Stop: Beppu
A coastal city with a population of about 220,000 that’s famous for hot springs, sand baths and cats. If you’ve read Murakami’s IQ84, this city may be the inspiration for “Cat Town”. Within minutes of stepping off the bus and walking down a small street towards our ryokan, we were greeted by this. We felt quite welcomed here!
The ryokan we stayed at was very special, if we had a Japanese grandmother, this felt like coming home to grandma’s place. It’s actually what inspired the onsen trip. The inn used to be a private villa founded in the early Showa era. The family that owns it now, lives in it. She is the fourth generation and is hoping her daughter keeps up the tradition of running the ryokan.
Yamada Bessou on a full moon night
Most ryokans serve a traditional Japanese breakfast, here we are in Yamada Bessou’s pretty floral-patterned yukatas.
The rotenburo at Yamada Bessou
Sight seeing in Beppu
Take note of the signs before entering a cafe
“SHINY UNCLE” (aka Kumahachi Aburaya)– the sweet man who is helped put Beppu and the surrounding towns on the map for tourism and connected them via public transit. He also happened to love children.
Beppu’s Ropeway to the top of Mount Tsurumi
-5 degrees! WE NEED AN ONSEN STAT!
Takegawara Onsen. The YMCA of Beppu
Built in 1938. The hottest onsen of the entire trip. Tati couldn’t get in past her thighs (softie)! While we were there, three older women (they looked 60-70 but were probably 105) were there with their BYO onsen supplies (towel & soaps) bathing and taking their evening soak. We got the impression they’re regulars.
Third Stop: Yufuin
Yufuin is surrounded by mountains. It reminded us both of Montana, but add hot steam seeping out of the earth everywhere. We spent a lot of time walking around and taking photos especially in the early morning when the land was covered in thick frost, which all melted by 9am.
Our ryokan came with a personal onsen! The ryokan also had public ones (for women and men that were larger).
Every onsen has a changing room, you put your clothes and belongings in a basket (it’s so safe here)!
Then you clean your body, sitting on the small stools (standing is in poor taste).
Then soak! This was an onsen we checked out in town, near our ryokan called, Makiba No Ie. For about 6.00 USD you can drop-in to other onsens. All very friendly and none have time limitations. It’s AMAZING!
Early morning frost & steam
Onsen eggs, on the main drag of Yufuin
GOODBYE LITTLE TOWN OF YUFUIN! We love you.
TRAIN RIDE BACK TO FUKUOKA
There’s a beautiful, meticulously kept train that runs between Yufuin and Fukuoka called the Yufin No Mori which means “Yufuin’s Forest”. The interior is otherworldly, wood-lined and all the seats feature a leaf patterned fabric.
Need to relax before you board the train home? No worries, there are foot soaking pools at the train station and even at the boarding platform. Japan is so thoughtful.
We didn’t spend much time in the city, it was just where we fly in and out of, but we have three things to say about this town. (1) DORMY INN PREMIUM is the place to stay. They have an onsen and it’s amazing. (2) They serve free ramen to guests after 8 pm. It didn’t hurt that it was made by a man who looked an awful lot like Obama, who we endearingly nicknamed Obamaramen. (3) Complimentary breakfast which is superb! All this for only $130 USD. Best value in Fukouka.
Every region of Japan has their style of ramen. Fukuoka’s is rich and fatty!
BEST SISTER TRIP EVER! And yes, our husbands are very afraid we may leave them for an onsen.
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