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Lcuy's 2015 Jaunt to Japan; Kyushu w/ Fukuoka, Kumamoto & Kurokawa Onsen


Jan 11th, 2015, 12:38 AM
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Lcuy's 2015 Jaunt to Japan; Kyushu w/ Fukuoka, Kumamoto & Kurokawa Onsen

In early December, I was lamenting the fact that neither of our daughters were coming home for Christmas and figured a quick trip might ease the pain. I found two First Class Frequent flier seats at the Saver rate on United to Fukuoka, Japan 12 days before the flight date. We've traveled to Japan many times (from Hawaii it's not a lot further than California) but had never been to Kyushu, the most southern of Japan's main islands.

With only 10 days to prepare for our 5 nights in Kyushu, I pulled out all my Japan guides, browsed http://www.japan-guide.com, came here to Fodor's and raced through the reports of Hawaiiantraveler, rkkwan, Kavey, Mrwunrfl, Kalihiwai2. I knew the weather would be cold, so had to eliminate a lot of the popular activities that are available in warmer months. Actually, with only 4 ½ full days on the ground, we had to eliminate most all the popular activities, period!

My report is pretty long for such a short journey, so here's the quick summary:

Dec 18/19 & 20: Flew to Narita on United, then to Fukuoka on ANA. Arrived approx 4:30 PM and took a Shinkansen straight to Kumamoto. Stayed two nights at the Comfort Inn Shinshigai.

Dec 21: Took a one hour train ride to Aso Station, then approx 30 minute bus up into Kurokawa Onsen. Stayed at Ryokan Yamashinobu for two nights

Dec 23: Bus &Train& Shinkansen back to Fukuoka, about 2.5 hours total.
Spent one night at Grand Hyatt at Canal City.

Dec 24: Shopped for holiday food to take home in our insulated cooler. At 2:25 PM we flew FUK -NRT- HNL and arrived home the same day but seven hours earlier.
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Jan 11th, 2015, 01:03 AM
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Now the long version:
Because our time was so short, I strayed from our normal style for quick Japan getaways and booked all the hotels as soon as I knew where we'd be going.

My first priority was our onsen stay. Several Fodorites highly recommended Ryokan Sanga in Kurokawa, but it was fully booked for all except one of our nights in Japan. I eventually booked two nights at the nearby Ryokan Yamashinobu through Booking.com at $342 total per night. This included dinner and breakfast and rides into the town.

The Comfort Inn in Kumamoto got good reviews from some Fodorites, was in a great location in Kumamoto, and was only $51 per night, so that was easy.

The Grand Hyatt Canal City in Fukuoka was $157.00, and they are supposed to give me a small since I got it on Kayak.com for about $30 less than on their own website. On thing I will say about Kyushu is that prices were a lot cheaper for everything- hotels, food, souvenirs- than in central Honshu. Combining that with the US Dollar at 120 Yen made this trip much more affordable than others we've taken.

So.. We flew into Narita, where we went through customs and immigration, then waited in the ANA lounge for our ANA flight to Fukuoka. Upon arrival in FUK, we got our bags quickly, took the subway into Hakata Station (250 Yen). At the Japan Rail office in the station I made reservations for the Shinkansen to Kumamoto, the train to Aso and then the final train from Aso back to Fukuoka. He priced it as single tickets and then again with a 5-Day North Kyushu rail pass. The rail pass was a little cheaper at about $78, and more flexible so we got those, then headed over to the shinkansen tracks.

The bullet train to Kumamoto took about half an hour, and we got there about 6:30 PM. A taxi to the hotel cost about $10 dollars.

The Comfort Inn is a business hotel, which mean basic amenities, friendly service, small rooms and very clean surroundings. One double bed, a small bathroom, breakfast and a low, but decent view for just $51. The location is excellent. The hotel is surrounded by restaurants and bars and is right off one of the long covered shopping/dining arcades. The front desk had a hand drawn map of the immediate area with recommended dining spots; although it was in Japanese, the clerk was happy to translate it for us.

The next morning, we had the hotel buffet breakfast. I wouldn't call it great, but some items were quite good, and there was free coffee and tea in the lobby all day. It was raining lightly, so the front desk gave us some umbrellas and we walked up to the south entrance to the castle, maybe 4 or 5 city blocks away. The rain stopped when we got to the castle. It was very cold, but sunny the rest of the day.

One distinct advantage to going the week before Christmas was that there were no crowds anywhere. The castle grounds were nearly empty, maybe 50 other people in the courtyard and castle itself. There were several young men in the main courtyard dressed in Ronin costumes...these were really beautiful with all the details...boots, leggings, hats, pikes, and swords, even their hair looked appropriate. They were there just to take photos with tourists at no charge.

We enjoyed the castle. It has museum displays and photos on each floor as you come off the staircase and wind around to the next set of stairs. One floor had the story of the big assault on the castle and hundreds of word plaques with names (I'm guessing the casualties). At the top (five or six floors up?) were beautiful views of the city and the mountains off in the distance. We were very happy the rain had stopped.

After the climb, we went across the courtyard to walk through the living quarters. It was a beautiful building with some very interesting displays and gorgeous painted shoji doors.

We left the grounds on the north side of the castle and crossed the street to the Prefectural Crafts Museum. The museum was interesting, but the two sales galleries were even better. One had a huge selection of traditional forged knives, tools and other metal items like tea kettles, candle holders, hearth pieces, etc., and several of the artists were there to answer questions.
The other had many traditional craft items of very nice quality. Everything from washi to fabric, toys, pottery, temari (thread balls), tea sets, and towels at pretty reasonable prices for such nice quality. I think this is the permanent museum shop, but the metal work room was clearly not a permanent thing...They only accepted cash and had a fold up table for the “cashier”

From here, we walked back around the side of the castle grounds then down Ginza Street heading toward the top end of the of the second shopping arcade. There were several bridal shops and a really nice housewares shop- glasses, linens, vases, wooden and bamboo kitchen utensils, etc. Everything was cheaper than it would be in Hawaii, so I went a little crazy. They had beautiful fabrics to make custom curtains and pillow covers, but they said it would take about two weeks to make, due to the holidays.

We had lunch at an Italian/Japanese fusion sort of restaurant, wandered down the mall, then spent the rest of the day wandering the arcade and one of the huge Depato, mostly for the food and stationery floors. Dinner was at the sushi restaurant Sushizanmai, yes the same one as in Tokyo.

Next morning, we had breakfast then took a taxi to the train station. We were quite early, so we stored our bags in a coin locker, and went across the pedestrian overpass to the tourist info center. I would advise you to go here first when you arrive in Kumamoto. They had all kinds of info on historical sites that are not in any guidebooks, as well as some interesting displays on local agriculture, history, an historic tram car, and a nice “made in Kumamoto” gift shop. The girls were happy to give us the dates and details on several local festivals and a handful of maps and brochures, especially when they found out my husband's grandparents emigrated from Kumamoto in the early 1900s. We spent the remainder of our time downstairs at a Whole Foods type supermarket, buying fruit, pastry and making DIY bentos for our train ride.

Kurokawa Onsen
There are several ways to get to Kurokawa. You can take a JR train to Aso station, then a bus to Kurokawa, or you can take a direct bus from Kumamoto (or Fukuoka). The fastest way is to rent a car and drive, but we don't like driving on the left or driving in wintery conditions, so we took the train/bus combo. There are several trains to Aso each day, but only a few of the connecting buses. We had a choice of either the express train or a local. Though it takes longer, the local arrives at Aso Station closer to the bus departure, so we opted for that.

It was an interesting ride. First there were tons of students in school uniforms (on a Sunday!), then some nice scenery as we headed out into the farming country. The Aso Station has a little cafe and there is a small market across the street that shares the building with the info center. As Mt Aso erupted a few months ago, you cannot go up to the caldera at this time. It was still blowing tons of steam into the air and the entire valley was somewhat hazy.

We'd had the Comfort Inn reserve seats on the bus for us, so we bought our 990 Yen tickets from the vending machine outside the train station. (Tip: Bring exact change in case the office is not manned, and on the way back from Kurosawa you just pay the driver.) The drive was very smooth and at a speed that didn't cause my husband to feel sick, so nice. It took about 30 minutes and was quite a climb off the valley floor up into the mountains.

As we neared our destination, I told my DH that I was sad there was no snow. The very next curve had patches of snow and showed us the peaks covered in snow! Most of us passengers got off at the Kurokawa stop, where drivers from the various inns were waiting with name cards for the guests. I had forgotten to call from Aso, so it took our guy about 5 minutes to arrive after I called, and meanwhile it started snowing. I was very happy!

Yamashinobu is three minutes outside the main town. It's on a quiet road, and surrounded by rice fields. The front desk crew all greeted us, checked us in and then let us choose our yukata and sash colors, before taking us on a little tour of the property, then to our cottage. We had an entry, living room with kotatsu (heated table), TV, and kitchen in a closet. The bedroom had an alcove with flower arrangement, room safe in the closet, and closet with yukata, two heavier winter kimono, split toe socks, and soft linen pajamas, and towels, hairbrush etc. There was a refrigerator in the hall, and a separate toilet room. After a vanity area and a dressing room was an indoor stone bath, then our private outdoor bath.

All the rooms had shoji doors covering sliding glass doors out to the garden. The heater/AC units above came with remote controls. It was all immaculate and though it looked very traditional, we were told our cottage was only 6 years old.

The property has an observatory with telescope, a library with a piano, and a traditional style room with the sunken fireplace (with free tea or sake from 8-10 PM). There is a women's indoor bath, a natural outdoor one, and two similar ones for the men. There were also 3 other indoor baths where you can put the “occupied” sign on the door and have co-ed baths, I guess for guests who didn't have two baths in their cottage!

We had about two hours to take a bath & rest before dinner. By this time, it was really snowing, and the grounds became really magical. We were out in our yukata and geta, taking photos of the snow on the pine boughs, the bamboo fences and on the stone lanterns. There is a covered walkway, but everywhere else looked like the snow had been staged.

Dinner was not served in our rooms, which doesn't seem to be the style in Kyushu. The dining room though, looked like an old woodblock print. We had a private raised “room” with shoji doors or curtains separating it from the other tables. There is a well under the table so you aren't sitting flat on the tatami. All the guests came in their yukata, adding to the feeling of old Japan.

The dinner was amazing. Dish after dish after dish, all wonderful. We were relieved when the rice finally came, thinking that was the end. Nope, just a breather. It ended with dessert and a choice of coffee, tea, or hot local milk. Our waitress spoke decent English, so we were able to know what we were eating and talk a little about the inn and life in Kurokawa.

After dinner, we went out and admired the snow some more, then sat in the sake cottage with a few young people from Kumamoto. We had a lot of fun using a google translator, as their English was not much better than my Japanese. The more sake we all drank, the better our language issues...

Back at our cottage, the futon fairies had laid out our beds in the second room.

Breakfast in the morning was another feast. Afterwards, we got dressed and they drove us to the Kurokawa visiter center. We spent about 3 hours wandering the little shops, warming our faces in a wood box over a riverside steam vent that said “face mist”, and admiring the river. Kurokawa does not allow big concrete buildings and many of the shops are local crafts/foods and unusual or unique items, not the typical keychain souvenirs.

Back at the Yamashinobu, my husband and I decided to try the rotenburo (outside baths). After I was brave enough to strip out of my clothes in the frosty air, then dunk in the water,it was heavenly. It was so beautiful watching the snow on the trees and rocks and hills in the background. We took naps before heading out to the feast, I mean, dinner. The food was all different the second night. Both of us agreed that the three pieces of ahi in our sashimi box were absolutely the best fish we've ever had..perfect dense texture, melting in the mouth. I tried to count the number of dishes, but after 30 gave up!

I have to say that the staff at Yamashinobu was really wonderful. We could tell they don't get a lot of foreign guests, but they were extremely welcoming and nice. Everything was perfect, from the confirmation e-mail in which they gently asked me to identify our genders and if we were "able to eat horse meat"( we don't, even if it is a local specialty) to our check out and final ride to the to the bus stop. One of my favorite ryokan in Japan so far.

Back at Aso station after our bus ride, we chatted with the information clerk, got some fresh mochi, bentos, and a little squat “milk” bottle that had a flan type pudding inside. It was pure white, so it seemed to be made with only egg whites. One of those snacks that I would have bought a dozen if I'd known how good they were! They were marked “Aso milk” and we never saw anything like it again.

This time our train was one of the themed ones that seem to be the norm in Kyushu. Ours was called Aso Boy and featured Kuro, a cartoon Boston Terrier. There were pictures of him on the walls, decals on the doors, even the curtains had Kuro on them. There was one car with old fashioned seats and port-hole windows. The club car had a children's play area with a ball pit full of polished wooden balls, children's books and an attendant in case mom and dad wanted to nap instead! We later saw another train called “Super Star” that looked like a 1930's train. The attendants all wore 1930's uniforms with period hats, shoes and stockings with seams.

From Kumamoto, we switched to a Shinkansen, and we arrived at Hakata station in Fukuoka about half an hour later. (Note: All these trains had either screens with the destinations and ETAs in English, Japanese and Chinese, or the stations were announced in the same languages.)

There was a European Christmas market going on outside the station. It appeared to be a project of a local college, and quite a few of the students were either American or European. It was pretty popular with the locals, but not so much to us.

We took a taxi to the Grand Hyatt, which is attached to Canal City shopping Mall. It took about 5 minutes and cost $7. Everything was decorated for Christmas and both the hotel lobby and mall had lots of people in a holiday mood.

We had a 6th floor room with a view of the mall. It was a really pretty room, and pretty big for Japan. Lovely light wood throughout, and curved shoji covering the bathroom wall. The bathroom was huge with a separate tub, shower, glass sink and top of the line Toto, of course! We had a safe, closet, desk, bookshelves with (glued down) art, TV and wi-fi. Very pleasant and comfortable.

We walked along the river (canal?) to a covered arcade to see what was happening there. It seems that Sexy Santa mini-dresses are the thing to have in Fukuoka; we saw them everywhere! Found a shop the specialized in soy sauce and other flavored sauces and vinegars. Some we knew, others were delicious, but unfamiliar. The owner kept giving us samples and chatting in Japanese.. I guess my “Ikura desu ka?” must have been very believable. We ended up buying several small bottles of the sauces that we liked, even though we have no idea what they are made of.

After returning to the Hyatt, we were too tired to think about dinner (and still full from the two days at Yamashinobu) so we ate at a kaiten sushi place in the mall. Surprisingly good sushi and other items and a fun atmosphere.

For the next time, we found out there is a 100 Yen shuttle that goes from Canal City Mall to the Tenjin area shopping and Hakata station. The subway seems to cover the city pretty well, too.

Our flight the next day was at 2:25, so we headed down to Hakata station and again put our bags in a locker. We had some terrific tempera udon at a place right outside the station and saw the KFC 2015 Christmas Buckets. You have to pre-order in advance; Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without KFC Chicken. Really. I'm not making this up. The KFC lines will be two hours long on Xmas as people dress up and come to get their meals!

We had our insulated bag, so headed for the food floors on the bottom of the Hankyu Department store in the Station. We bought manju, pickled vegetables, mochi, yokan, fancy fish cake, a beautiful frozen cheesecake and various other foods.

Fantasized about the $300 gift platter that included steamed lobster, sashimi, all sorts of chilled vegetables and fruit, crackers, etc., but passed it by since they need a few days notice to deliver it to one of your friends.

A nice thing at the depato food counters is that they almost always have little ice packs to toss in with your chilled items. I asked for a few with every items “We're flying to Hawaii” and by the time we walked out, we had enough packs to keep our stuff chilled the next 12 hours.

I think I mentioned earlier that prices were really reasonable in Kyushu. In Hawaii we celebrate a traditional Japanese style New Years Day, so we were thrilled that the items were not only cheaper than home, but fresher and fancier.

Finally, we had to head for the airport. The subway from Hakata is about $2 and takes 6 minutes. Very convenient, and once we got to the airport, we were able to switch to an earlier connecting flight to Tokyo at no charge. In Narita, we had a little more time to hang out and shower at the ANA lounge and walked around a bit to burn off some calories. Our return flight was uneventful, but fast (about 6 hours) due to a strong tailwind. We got into Honolulu at dawn on Christmas Eve day.

Hope these details help some of you. We definitely plan to go back to Kyushu. I'd like to return to explore more of Kumamoto and Fukuoka, see Nagasaki, and perhaps go hiking in the south or use it as a jumping off point for Okinawa. Five days was definitely not enough.

Thanks to everyone who gave advice and/or had trip reports. It really helped in putting this together!
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Jan 11th, 2015, 05:53 AM
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Makes me want to go again. Hope you and the girls had great holidays , even though you weren't together. Missed you in BOS this year. Did you keep part of your movable feast for NYday? I assume none of it was fish.
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Jan 11th, 2015, 09:19 AM
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Thanks for the great report. That ryokan sounds wonderful!
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Jan 11th, 2015, 10:02 AM
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OMG---a trip report
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Jan 11th, 2015, 10:40 AM
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What a wonderful trip report! We had thought about trying to do a short stopover in Japan on our way to Bangkok in November, but couldn't get the ff tickets to Japan. Maybe I'll keep checking for tickets.
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Jan 11th, 2015, 11:15 AM
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Great report, thanks for sharing!
Eight hours from Hawaii to Japan...how cool is that!
Better than my almost 14 hours from NYC... ;-)
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Jan 11th, 2015, 11:54 AM
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What a great read -- thanks, Lcuy!
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Jan 11th, 2015, 04:03 PM
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Great report. I love the description of the ryokan in the snow. Coming from Southern California I can relate to your excitement over having snow!
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Jan 11th, 2015, 04:38 PM
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Thanks for making me hungry Lucy. Glad you had a nice trip. Fall colors and weather are the perfect time to visit drive/train thru Kyushu. Let me know if you going

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Jan 11th, 2015, 07:23 PM
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Can't wait to go back to Kurokawa. During our stay at Sanga 2 years ago, as well as at another onsen nearby, we also ate in a dining room, and not in our room. At either tables or with the "sunken" pits for the legs. I certainly can't sit on a tatami for 3 hours for the 9-course dinners.
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Jan 12th, 2015, 05:02 AM
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What a wonderful report and love that you made so much of just a few days. We found Kyushu less expensive than the other areas of Japan we visited too, and also a slower, gentler pace, I think.
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Jan 12th, 2015, 05:04 PM
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What a great trip report! So glad it worked out.
I always think that I have to go for at least two weeks but your report has me rethinking that attitude.
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Jan 12th, 2015, 05:27 PM
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Friends of ours just bought a home in Japan and it has that type of table in the middle of what they will use as their living room. It is huge, ten people could sit around it. Sadly it is not in a convenient spot so they will remove it. It was a great place to sit and drink sake and beer when we visited!
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Jan 12th, 2015, 08:17 PM
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Kalihiwai2, in early November of last year, we did an even shorter trip:

One night in Tokyo, then down to the Izu Peninsula where we spent one night in Ito, then two nights at Kanaya Ryokan, near Shimoda. We also had about 4 hours in Narita Town on our last day.

We had a great time, and though it was was too cold to go to the beach, it was sunny. I hadn't planned much, but the tourist info people- both at JR office in Tokyo and the one in Ito- directed us to a lot of fun places. We ended up being pretty busy, and of course ate very well!

I've often found very cheap airfares in late October/early November, and hotel rooms are usually pretty available. On that trip I had only booked the Ryokan, and the info center people found us the other rooms on the spot.
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Jan 13th, 2015, 02:41 PM
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I finally got back to reading this... what fun.. it all sounded so lovely, with the snow etc... maybe peter will take us.
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Jan 13th, 2015, 02:55 PM
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lcuy, our friends home is in Ito. We were there in September. I am in love with that area! It reminded me a bit of Laguna Beach and of pictures I have seen of towns on the Mediterranean. I am glad we had the chance to visit an area that isn't really on the list of places tourists from the US usually go. We have an open invitation to go back to see the remodel and I plan to take them up on it!
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Jan 26th, 2015, 09:31 AM
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Rhkkmk, any time you are ready for a return to Japan I will be your guide. This place would be great for you because we can drive around the island of Kyushu.

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Feb 19th, 2016, 08:37 PM
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Lcuy - loved your trip report! We will be in Kyushu in March-April. Like you, we will go from Aso to Kurokawa by bus. Can you please tell me how far the bus stop is from either the tourist info center or the town center? This will help me in determining where to stay. I tried finding out this info on google maps, etc., but haven't had any luck. Thanks in advance!
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Feb 20th, 2016, 09:20 PM
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Buses should stop on Highway 442, as the access road to the village is narrow. About 200m or 200yd walk down small roads to the middle of the village. Some ryokans are further from the village, like Sanga, but they should be able to come pick you up at the bus stop on the highway.
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