It’s 6.30am and I am sitting in our private onsen at the Seikai. I soak in the comforting warmth of the hot spring water, and take in the golden rays of a beautiful sunrise. Around me, everything is peaceful with only the sounds of the ocean waves. As I breathe in the steam and morning air, I can easily see how this time-honored Japanese tradition has healing powers for both mind and body.
Breakfast at a ryokan is an elaborate affair. Like our kaiseki dinner the night before, we were presented with multiple courses of delicately manicured plates with surprising, intricate flavours and fresh seasonal ingredients. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the day.
Seafood miso soup
Slow-boiled fresh egg
Beppu –> Yufuin
After breakfast, we head for the hot spring town of Yufuin which is less than an hour’s drive away. With a population of just over 10,000, Yufuin ranks as one of the top three hot-spring towns in Japan. Located in a green valley basin beneath the spectacular Mt. Yufu-dake, Yufuin is blessed with abundant water resources: 43,000 liters of steaming, mineral-rich hot water bubble forth each minute from more than 800 sources.
Yufuin looks and feels like one of those quaint little villages found in storybooks. It is set against a stunning backdrop of thickly forested mountains, and lined with narrow streets filled with cafes, bakeries, museums and boutiques. It has a nice, unhurried vibe to it. Makes you want to spend the entire day there -strolling through its streets, exploring its many nooks and crannies. We start at Lake Kinrin which is located at the end of the town’s main walking route, Yunotsubo Kaido. 5 rivers and onsens flow into the lake, and if you visit early on an autumn or winter morning, you’ll be able to see steam evaporating from the lake creating a romantic mist-like atmosphere. On the hot summer morning that we visited, the area was clothed in lush greenery. Lake Kinrin isn’t spectacular, but it made for a pleasant morning stroll. Walking paths, small shops and cafes surround the lake. We were surprised to find a Marc Chagall Museum just by the lake. The private art museum exhibits works by the 20th century Russian artist. The museum doesn’t contain his better known pieces but in our opinion, Marc Chagall’s vibrant and whimsical art is always worth a look. We had the 2-storey museum to ourselves, and it gave us a cool respite from the sweltering and humid Japanese summer. From Lake Kinrin we walked down towards Yunotsubo Kaido, the main shopping street. Here you will find quirky museums, cafes, bakeries and souvenir shops jostling for your attention. The Hubs found it all a little too touristy for his liking but I loved it! It wasn’t your usual repetition of shops selling the same, boring souvenir trinkets. Instead, each specializes in different products and local wares. Be prepared to set aside a few hours for browsing. And of course, the walk down Yunotsubo was made even more enjoyable by all local street food! I blame the summer heat but I had 3 scoops of ice cream just walking down that street! Everything looked so good I couldn’t resist! Would it make me look less greedy if I said I shared everything with The Hubs? :) Clockwise: Black sesame ice cream; Honey Bee milk ice cream; Curry potato croquette; Illy coffee ice cream
Yufuin (Tel: 0977-85-5132). Multiple parking lots are available near the main shopping street and Lake Kinrin at 200yen/hour. We parked near the Yufuin Floral Village and parking fills up fast so go early. If you intend to spend the day at Yufuin, whole day parking is available opposite the lake at 400yen.
Yufuin –> Kokonoe
We leave Yufuin on a sugar high and head to Kokonoe “Yume” Grand Suspension Bridge. This suspension footbridge is 173m tall and 390m long and is the highest pedestrian bridge in Japan. In fact, as the Japanese would like to point out, the bridge out of Godzilla’s reach. Awesome. Walking across the bridge isn’t for the faint-hearted. Coupled with the jaw-dropping elevation, you can feel the bridge slightly swaying in the wind. It was no wonder then that we saw a number of ashen-faced tourists inching their way across, hands desperately clutching onto the railings. But walk the bridge you must because you will be rewarded with a magnificent panoramic view of Naruko-kawa gorge and Shindonotaki falls, which is one of the 100 must-see waterfalls in Japan. I can imagine how gorgeous the scenery must be at the height of autumn. Highly recommended.
Kokonoe Yume Grand Suspension Bridge (Tel: 973-73-3800; Opening Hours: 0830 – 1730 hrs; Entry: 500yen). Ample free parking available.
Kokonoe –> Kurokawa
Nestled deep in the mountains of the Aso region, Kurokawa oozes charm and tranquility. It feels like you’ve stumbled onto a hidden Japanese village of a bygone era. Sitting in a forested valley, with a black river cascading through it, this secluded town is made up of narrow roads, traditional wooden houses, earthen walls, stone paths, and lush green foliage.
The first thing you notice is how peaceful it is. All you hear is the rushing river water, and the clicking of wooden clogs as guests walk from one bath to another dressed in their traditional yukata.
Kurokawa is well known for its many natural and rustic outdoor baths and visitors can pick up a nyuto tegata – a “bath pass” that gives you access to any 3 participating hot springs. It was a pity that we didn’t stay overnight at one of the ryokans (I need to go back!) or to visit any of the outdoor baths. The best we managed was to steam our faces :)
Thankfully, we had just enough time to wander through this picturesque town, and of course, try out some of the desserts they had to offer.
DoraDora specialises in dorayaki, a red-bean filled pancake. The speciality here is the Dora Dora burger. A chilled daifuku is sandwiched within the dorayaki, and it’s an interesting harmony of flavors and textures. There are 5 flavors to choose from: Aso Oguni Jersey cream, matcha green tea, cafe au lait, custard, and “Dekopon” (a type of locally-grown orange). You can also choose to have your Dora Dora burger with ice cream!
Patisserie Roku was our next stop. I love, love, love Japanese-inspired French pastries. They are usually lighter in flavor than conventional French pastries, and a wonderfully delicate fusion of Japanese and French flavors. Patisserie Roku offers an amazing selection of freshly made pastries, including an incredibly light and airy cream puff. Everything looked sooooo good but we already had 2 dorayakis so we only tried the cream puff and a custard. Both were excellent.
I often find myself in situations when I know I really shouldn’t but I just cannot walk away. This last dessert stop in Kurokawa was one of those instances. I was already on a sugar high, and just as I was remarking to The Hubs that I couldn’t possibly eat any more, I was drawn to a traditional Japanese confectionery shop by the river. Of course, I went in :) I couldn’t help it! Unlike the usual mochi desserts we’ve had, the mochi here is served grilled. Crusty on the outside with a soft, chewy mochi centre, it was delicious. By this time, I was so full that it felt like I had sugar coming out of my ears but it was absolutely worth it!
Smothered in finely ground sesame
Kurokawa (Tel: 0967-44-0076). Parking is available near the Kurokawa information centre. Roads are very narrow so be careful when you drive.
Kurokawa –> Daikanbo
From Kurokawa , we continued our way to the Mt Aso region. The drive to Daikanbo was beautiful – sweeping views of rolling hills, vast green plains and mountains in the backdrop.
Daikanbo is situated at the highest point of Mt. Aso region and has the best panoramic view of Mt. Aso. And so we wrapped up our second day in Kyushu with a commanding view of the volcanos and patchwork patterns of rice fields and villages.
Daikanbo (Tel: 0967-32-1960)