One of my first-ever entries was a travelogue about Kumamoto City, a place that made me fall in love with Japan all over again over the course of three days filled with hospitable people, delicious and exotic cuisine, ska music, storied history, and beautiful art. I vowed to return; and I have – twice! I took my parents there last spring, and over the summer I took my friend Vijan, to let them take in its consummate Japaneseness: the castle, the garden, and of course, the beer, ramen, and horse meat.
I never did feel compelled to write about Kumamoto again, though, because I didn’t really have anything new to report after my subsequent visits. But this weekend, I travelled to the quite volcanically interesting far northeastern regions of rural Kumamoto for a much-needed countryside getaway, and the newness and excitement of the trip refreshed me in the same way my original visit to Kumamoto City did. So without further ado, here it is: Kumamoto, part two.
The first stop on our journey (by train, then bus) was Kurokawa Onsen, a hot spring resort area famous throughout Kyushu for its gorgeous scenery, especially in the fall, when the maple leaves glow red in the crisp, blue mountain air, and in the spring, when the plum and cherry blossoms burst open and their pale petals cover the mossy ground like snowflakes. Or that’s what I hear, anyway; we came a bit too early to see Kurokawa in all its exuberantly floral glory, but it was beautiful nonetheless. With time to kill before our check-in time, we took a leisurely stroll to admire the vibrant terrain around us after a surprisingly delicious lunch and a glass of refreshing Balsamic vinegar ginger ale at a cute little hilltop cafe.
However, even all of Kurokawa’s natural splendor couldn’t entice us away from Tairōkan 大朗館, our ryokan, once we checked in; the service, the food, and the baths were just too nice and too inviting to neglect. Despite hearty recommendations from six of our friends (three couples), we weren’t so sure about the place when we first got there. It was lodged awkwardly in a row of shabby, nondescript houses, and there was nobody there to greet us upon our arrival. And the lobby smelled of teacher’s room coffee – something I had really hoped to get away from during our trip.
But despite first impressions, it turned out to be a lovely stay. The baths were rustic, salty, roomy, and piping hot; the room was spacious, homey, and comfortable. The octogenarian owner told us that his ryokan had been in business since for 180 years – since the late Edo Period! The proprietors’ pride in their establishment’s history was palpable in the overall quality of the inn and in the courteous, smiling, and fretful service we received.
After a dip in a spacious, rocky bath overlooking a natural waterfall followed by a spirited game of Travel Scrabble, it was dinnertime. We knew there was going to be a lot of good food – there always is at these ryokans – but nothing could have prepared us for the amount of food brought up to our room, in three trips. I have never felt more honest in declaring gochisosama deshita (“It was a feast!”) than I did after this meal, which included, let me think… something like fifteen to seventeen different dishes. Plus ice cream. I won’t bother rattling off the whole menu (mostly because I don’t know what everything was), but here are some highlights: a hotpot piled with noodles, vegetables, and beefy duck meat, with a hearty depth that reminded me of homemade turkey soup; a cold salad in which the crispness of bamboo shoots were met with the lively, aromatic tang of creamy yuzu dressing; tender horse meat sashimi freshened up with sliced onions and grated ginger; and (probably my favorite) a teppanyaki course with eggplant, chicken, onions, and luxuriously marbled chunks of Japanese beef, sautéed to soft, browned, buttery perfection.
The meal was so large we had to take a breather halfway through to digest. Amazingly, we did end up eating everything, then relaxed in the taruburo 樽風呂 (barrel baths) before hitting the futon, thoroughly unwound and satisfied.
Huh. I just noticed this photo looks like a skull. Weird… anyway, up next: Kumamoto, part three: Aso!
If any foreigners living in Japan read this entry and would like help planning a trip to Kurokawa, please leave a comment and I will try to be of assistance!