Kurokawa Onsen Village: Birthday Bananza

Another year, another year older, and as is my custom in January, I celebrated this passing with a party. But not by spending the night at a ‘Spoons, hitting on chicks called Sandra that work in HR whilst holding back Ginger Rob’s hair as he pukes, and not by working on coursework with the deadline the next day, but, by indulging in some truly Japanese past times.

Finishing school on Friday, we were off to Kurokawa Onsen Village, an hour Northwest of Miemachi. I love heading out in this direction, as you quickly enter Kuju with its steep, beautiful mountains, and rolling grassy hills. Regretfully the winery pizzeria was shut, so we headed onwards to the Ryokan.

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, with straw-floored rooms and communal bathrooms and facilities, and you can walk around wearing yukata and chat with the owner.

Man in Yukata
A terrifying sight! The Last Samurai?

This particular ryokan was a little outside the onsen village (making it cheaper!) and was built within a narrow valley, with several wooden-construction buildings and the mossy, gravelling paths that fit with the overall wabi-sabi style you expect of Japan.

Checking in and dumping our stuff, dinner was next on the list. Only 2 or 3 of the restaurants we drove to were shut… Eventually finding a little pizzeria that was about to shut up shop, but stayed open for us, the highlight being the cured ham, blue cheese and apple pizza!

Hat, beer & pizza
I think as we get older, it’s important to bring hats into a repertoire

With the night rolling on in, there was nothing to do but make use of the public onsen! At this late hour I was able to use it alone, turning off all the lights so as to lie in the outdoor pool, arse and back in the water, chest and balls being caressed by the cool night air and look up at the stairs, contemplating what my 26th year may bring.

As tradition dictates (and also the allowed onsen times) we were up early and in the onsen a little after 7am. Again I had it all to myself, allowing for this cheeky snap!

Oyado Hanabou ryokan
Sneaky spy shot at the Oyado Hanabou ryokan

This time I could actually see the forest and waterfalls, and wave to passerbys in the distance who could see into the bath house!

No birthday would be complete without a little call to the parents, who hadn’t even stayed up particularly late, as since they both retired they both regularly stay up until midnight! But nevertheless their singing and enthusiasm, despite the hour at home, was most welcomed.

Japanese breakfast
A mix of sweet and savoury breakfast snacks – rice is a given

Japanese breakfast – I think I need a few more of these to adjust my pallette – but it exciting, entering the dining room which was a warren of small rooms, partitioned by the exact image of the Japanese paper and wooden lattice doors you image when you imagine a Japanese restaurant. Plus I got to wear a Yukata as I ate – lucky I remembered to put underwear on!

Winery-pizzeria near Mt. Kuju
The winery-pizzeria around Mt. Kuju – love it!

The schedule was to meet the posse at the onsen village a little after 12, so with some time to kill between that and checkout, adventure beckoned and we followed the river up until its waterfall head, before retracing our steps back to the winery pizzeria – I love this place! – for a birthday lunch, which Sean and Jess turned up to!

Winery pizza Kuju
Rika trying to steal all the pizza

Soon we were united with our crew of 10, and under Becca’s careful lead, we walked to our first onsen of the day.

Kurokawa has a cool system whereby you can by a wooden medallion, good for entrances to 3 onsen of your choosing, and at which you collect a stamp unique to that particular onsen!

Kurokawa onsen village
Kurokawa has worked hard to prevent chain hotels from opening in the area

The village itself looks a lot like a Miyazaki film, with definite hints of Jiufen, Taiwan, with its traditional-feel buildings, built along narrow streets and aged, wood buildings, built in a wandering style.

Our first onsen was the Ikoi ryokan. A set of low buildings, with a complex of corridors and exposed wooden beams that weren’t all that removed from a Tudor building back in England.

Ikoi ryokan
Men’s bath at Ikoi ryokan. Check out the waterfall shoulder massager

The onsen was cosy a courtyard, with an upper and lower pool, with a small cascade that connected them both, a wee sauna that us boys had a wee chat in, without the risk of the girls over hearing.

Yamamizuki ryoken’s onsen was next, reportedly one of the best in the whole of Japan! I could understand why! It was one of the most open, and close to nature onsen I had ever been to! After a quick shower, and a series of small pool just wide enough for 4 gaijin guys, with small windows over looking the river below, we moved on what was essentially a large pond, right next to the waters edge, with views of the waterfall a little upstream. The low lying rocks made a wonderful bed which you could kick back, enjoy the bare trees against the bright blue sky, and relax with the water lapping at your bare gooch – it was so relaxing, and so part of the surrounding nature, that it more than justified the 20 minute up hill walk to it; plus it served delicious soft ice cream!

By this time it was almost 4pm. With one onsen left, and an hour drive home, two of our friends had arrived in Miemachi and were wondering on our ETA… Oops!

Getting back into the central part of the village, we chose to take our guys from the car park to the parking at the final onsen of the day – big mistake!

In hindsight, trying to find space for 5 cars in a small village perhaps wasn’t the best idea! And after getting within sight of the onsen, only to find the car parks full, so began our tour of the onsen village! Leading the pack Rika and I searched high and low, narrowly avoiding the laissez-faire pedestrians who moved like cattle – without a care to their own safety – only to end up passing the first onsen we had visited, exiting the village having to loop back to our original car park!

So our final onsen was chosen to be the one that faced the carpark, Ryokan Nanjyouen! It was small place that told us to be quieter as soon as we entered!

We ventured down stairs after stairs until we ended up a in small changing room, with signs pointing in opposite directions. This one had the air of a Hogwarts common room, I think because the ryokan was situation on a steep hill, so the semi-opaque windows had the light of being high up in the air, like the top of a castle tower!

To the left were 4 showers and a little bath barely large enough for 4 people – I think this added to the bedroom dormitory/Hogwarts feels!

Then downstairs was the “Star-gaze pool”, which was a small garden that had been flooded and converted into an onsen! Complete with mini hot tub at the top of some rickety stairs, and a couple of ‘man caves’ you could retreat into!

Alas, after 4 onsens in a day, I was quite content to go a little quicker this time, merely exploring, before washing thoroughly and heading out. Thankfully everybody felt the same, and we were soon headed back to Miemachi, just in time to arrive for a curry reservation at 7pm.

Dropping overnight stuff at my place before curry, there was still one drama to come as we bundled into Windsor’s car, only for it to refuse to start! After much umming and arring, we went to get jump leads, but thankfully, one last ditch attempt and she jumped to life! We were curry shop bound!

Miemachi's Yumeya Curry
The tribe at Miemachi’s Yumeya Curry House – a dream come true!

No Japanese-style celebration would be complete with a little karaoke, so obligingly we set off from the curry shop, for the 3-hours of karaoke and dancing to close off an awesome 25th birthday.

Peace Bar in Miemachi
Snack time at our so called “Peace Bar” in Miemachi

By J.Molkenthin

James Molkenthin is an enthusiastic and energetic British Designer, with a background in Graphics, Website and Product Design.