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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Beppu JR Station 別府駅, 1 Day Mini Free Passport

Hot spring "burping" just outside the train station.
Beppu JR Station, on Nippo main line.

This is one train station which I did not alight at/board a train from. Chose to take a bus to Beppu from Yufuin because there were no direct services between these two train stations (have to transit at Oita JR Station). From Yufuin to Oita, it takes close to an hour by the local train; and takes another 10 mins from Oita to Beppu after that. 

Special sightseeing & limited express trains departing from/passing by this train station include: 
(1) Ltd Express Yufu, commutes between Hakata and Beppu (via Tosu & Kurume).

(2) Yufuin no mori (ゆふいんの森), one round trip between Hakata and Beppu.

(3) Kyushu Odan Tokkyu (九州横断特急), commutes between Beppu and Hitoyoshi.
Route: Beppu > Oita > Aso > Kumamoto > Hitoyoshi

(4) Ltd Express Sonic, commutes between Hakata and Beppu (via Kokura).

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What's nearby?

(1) Tourist Information Center: 
Did not have time to explore the surrounding area around train station. Making my way to the tourist information center to gather the area maps and brochures has become a ritual for me whenever I reach a new place/train station. Purchased 1 Day Mini Passport from here too.

Scratch the date to activate the bus pass.
Kamenori Bus (亀の井バス) offers various types of bus passes. Staff at the tourist information center recommended me this 1 Day Mini Free Passport which cost 900 yen. If you plan to visit all eight "Jigoku" of Beppu, this bus pass will come in handy (I remember this is also more economical). One perk that comes with this mini passport is the discount coupons. It includes a 200 yen discount to the entrance fee to visit all eight "Jigoku".

Recommended way to visit all eight "Jigoku":
- From Beppu JR Station West Exit, take Bus 5 or 41 to Umi Jigoku mae bus stop (海地獄前).
- Visit Yama Jigoku > Umi Jigoku > Oniishibozu Jigoku
- Visit Kamada Jigoku > Oniyama Jigoku > Shiraike Jigoku
- Walk to Kannawa Bus Terminal (鉄輪), take Bus 16 to Chinoike Jigoku mae bus stop (血の池地獄前).
- Visit the last two Jigoku: Chinoike Jigoku and Tatsumaki Jigoku
- Take Bus 16 from Chinoike Jigoku mae bus stop back to Beppu JR Station East Exit.

(2) West Exit Bus Stop
- Take Bus 36 to Yufuin
- Take Bus 5 or 41 to Kannawa (鉄輪) and Umi Jigoku (海地獄).
Bus 5: http://www.beppuni.com/bus/route/k5.html
Bus 41: http://www.beppuni.com/bus/route/k41.html

(3) East Exit Bus Stop
- Take Bus 26 to Chinoike Jigoku (血の池地獄) and Kannawa (鉄輪). 
Bus 16: http://www.beppuni.com/bus/route/k16.html (Kannawa > Beppu JR Station)
Bus 26: http://www.beppuni.com/bus/route/k26.html (Beppu JR Station > Kannawa)

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Commemorative stamp:

Friday, July 24, 2015

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Day 9 Itinerary: Beppu 别府

Day 9: 23.03.2014
* Day 2 of 5 Days JR Kyushu Rail Pass

Chinoike Jigoku
Breakfast: Gettouan 月燈庵

Gettouan > Yufuin JR Station 由布院駅
by hotel free shuttle service.

Collected P roll from B-Speak.

Yufuin Bus Terminal (1015 hrs) > Beppu JR Station 別府駅 (1105 hrs)
by Bus 36. Fee = 900 yen.

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Bought 1 Day Mini Free Passport from tourist information center @ Beppu JR Station. Fee = 900 yen.

Beppu JR Station 別府駅 (1155 hrs) > Umi Jigoku mae 海地獄前
by Bus 41.

Bought Beppu Jigoku Meguri (別府地獄巡り) admission ticket, covering all eight "hells".
Fee = 1,800 yen (200 yen discount with 1 Day Passport).
* 2,100 yen effective from 1st April 2014 onwards.

(1) Yama Jigoku 山地獄
(2) Umi Jigoku 海地獄
(3) Oniishi bozu Jigoku鬼石坊地獄
(4) Oniyama Jigoku 鬼山地獄
(5) Kamado Jigoku かもど地獄
(6) Shiraike Jigoku 白池地獄

Kannawa Bus Terminal 鉄輪 > Chinoike Jigoku mae 血の池地獄前
by taxi (missed bus). Fee = ~800 yen.

(7) Chinoike Jigoku 血の池地獄
(8) Tatsumaki Jigoku 龍卷地獄

Chinoike Jigoku mae 血の池地獄前 (1419 hrs) > Beppu JR Station 別府駅
by Bus 16.

Beppu JR Station 別府駅 > Yufuin JR Station 由布院駅
by taxi (missed 1505 hrs bus to Yufuin bus terminal). Fee = 6,000 yen.

Mt Yufu from Sagiridai Overlook.
Stopover @ Sagiridai Overloo狭霧台.

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Yufuin JR Station 由布院駅 (1707 hrs) > Kurume JR Station 久留米駅 (1846 hrs)
by Yufuin no mori 6.

Dinner: Ekiben, on board Yufuin no mori.

Kurume JR Station 久留米駅 (1854 hrs) > Kumamoto JR Station 熊本駅 (1914 hrs)
by Sakura 565.

Check in: Mitsui Green Hotel Kumamoto 三井ガーデ ンホテル熊本

Supper: MacDonalds @ Shimo Tori

- End of Day 9 -

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Gettouan ゆふいん月燈庵

Stayed 22.03.2014
Booked thru' Booking.com
- Standard suite = 54,000 yen (2 occupants)


As with every trip, I will try to arrange one day of luxurious accommodation. For this trip in Kyushu, it was Gettouan in Yufuin. As Yufuin is a hot spring town, numerous hotels and ryokan can be found around the main onsen street leading all the way to Kirinko. Decided to stay away from the heart of the town and chose to stay in the Gettouan, which is tucked away in a tranquil and remote environment. After spending an entire afternoon to explore Yufuin, we were looking forward a good night rest in Gettouan. For guests staying in the ryokan, complimentary pick up service to/fro Yufuin JR Station can be arranged in advance. Unfortunately, we had to grab a taxi as the pick up was fully booked for that day.

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Highlights:


Bottom left: Suspension bridge that links the main building and accommodation.
Service, room & facilities. First we were led to the bar counter where tea was served as we waited for check-in proceedings to be completed. A mandarin speaking staff was assigned to us, who inquired our desired timing for both dinner and breakfast on the next day and explained to us the facilities in Gettouan as he brought us to our room. The entire compound is actually much more bigger than it looks. In total, there are only 18 units within this 10,000 m3 site surrounded by lush greenery. From the main building, we had to cross a suspension bridge to reach the other highland where the rooms are located. Though the area may be huge, clear signs are put up to make sure guests do not lose their way here.

Bottom left: Communal bathhouse; Center: Private outdoor bath; Bottom right: Common area to enjoy complimentary coffee.
Reserved the standard suites (Yamabuki and Tsubaki) for tonight's stay. House is divided into two separate areas with 8 and 6 tatami mats respectively, and can occupy up to 4 person. Was delighted to see a kotatsu, a low table with heater beneath, which we tucked our legs into comfortably when the temperatures became colder at night. Every room in Gettouan is also equipped with an open air hot spring bath. Used it only once because temperature was less than 5 degC and the washing area was located outdoor as well - already felt terribly cold after washing up.

There is a common area where guests can relax to smoothing music, read a book while enjoying a cup of coffee - a good place to hang out after enjoying the bath. Night may be still young for some - Bar Ripe is located in the main building for guests to enjoy a glass of cocktail before heading to bed. My sister and I braved the cold weather at night to cross the bridge to explore the bar and ended up having a glass of mocktail here (just for the sake of sitting around in the bar)! 

Sunset.
Hot springs with a view. There are two communal bathhouses separated by gender. Hot spring source is mildly alkaline and temperature here has been adjusted to 42 degC. Each bathhouse has an indoor and outdoor section. Highly recommend the outdoor section because the size of the pool is much larger and a spectacular view of Mt Yufu awaits here. Came here for a soak before dinner and I was mesmerised by a brightly lit Mt Yufu during sunset.

Sunrise.
Food splendor. Both meals were served in a private room in Keisuikyo (溪酔居), a separate building located in between the luxurious and standard suites.

Left: Beautiful tableware arrangement; Right: Fresh sashimi and Bungo beef as appetisier.
Yuzu was featured in many of the dishes in their spring edition kaiseki dinner menu. As usual the meal kicked off with a small glass of wine. This time round, a milky looking nigori zake (濁り酒), an unfiltered type of sake, was served. Appetiser was Oita's Bungo beef (豊後牛) and seasonal vegetables, accompanied with a refreshing sauce. Next was a bowl of sakura flavoured sumashijiru (a clear broth cooked with kombu and bonito flakes) with a minced prawn and fish meat ball - love the subtle yet flavourful broth. Enjoyed the fresh sashimi which has a tint of citrus taste as it was placed onto a slice of yuzu fruit.

Left: Sakura flavoured Sumashijiru; Middle: Marbled Bungo beef cooked on hot stone. Right: Pheasant hot pot.
It was also my first time eating a pheasant hot pot (nabe) - tasted like chicken meat to me and the soup has wonderfully extracted the sweet flavours of the pheasant meat and vegetables. Marveled at the sizzling cubes of marbled Bungo beef cooked on hot stone. Was truly yearning for more meat - juicy cubes of grilled meat melting in the mouth! Had a scoop of yuzu sorbet to cleanse the palate before the last rice dish was served. Completely different from previous kaiseki, we had sansai (wild vegetables) and rice dumplings wrapped in leaves which came with an eggy gravy to dip into. The entire dinner was wrapped up with a cheese cake drizzled with a yuzu flavoured sauce.

Bottom right: The glass of mocktail we had in Bar Ripe.
Have to applaud for the chef behind this sumptuous and delicious dinner course! Throughout the entire meal, I was also impressed by the table setting and exquisite tableware used - such as the tree slice with well defined growth rings which was used as the presentation plate. Had an equally pleasant breakfast as well on the following day.

Breakfast.
Conclusion. If I have to nitpick or compare Gettouan to another luxurious accommodation I have stayed before (such as Sanyoan in Hokkaido), I felt that the staff could have been more "attentive" at times. To quote an example: the sliding door could have been closed more gently when the waitress was moving in and out of the private dinning area. Overall stay in Gettouan has been pleasant - fully immersed myself in the serenity of the natural atmosphere and have high acclamation for their food creations.

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Gettouan ゆふいん月燈庵
879-5102 大分県由布市湯布院町川上295-2 
http://www.gettouan.com/en/

Monday, July 20, 2015

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Kinrinko 金鱗湖

Visited 22.03.2014



The common goal for most people upon exiting from Yufuin JR Station is to head down to Kirinko (Kinrin Lake), a scenic spot in Yufuin.

Kinrin Lake means "golden fin lake". This name came about because the lake "glitters" under the sun just like fins of a fish. There are two sources of water to this lake: cold water from streams connected to the lake and hot water emerging from the bottom of the lake. At low temperatures early in the day, a fog is formed over the surface of the water, creating this dreamy atmosphere. Didn't manage to witness this phenomenon but looking at the beautiful surroundings and its reflection in the calm waters felt very therapeutic - something that I can stare for a long time without twitching. With the lush vegetation in the background, one can expect Kinrin Lake to portray a different look every season - finding myself a reason to visit this place in a different season next time.


Reflection of blue skies in the lake.
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Kinrinko 金鱗湖
Approx 25 mins walk from Yufuin JR Station.
Yufuin Onsen Tourism Website: http://www.yufuin.gr.jp/index.html

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Tenjo Sajiki Cafe 天井桟敷

Visited 22.03.2014


This cafe was added to my list of places to visit after reading Milly's travel book (九州:大人的理想休日) on Kyushu. On a side note, I have been an avid supporter of Milly's travel books even since I came across her book featuring Hokkaido. If you are a fan of cafes, or hope to visit laidback hot spring towns, I will recommend reading her books to gather such related information. All in all, Milly did a very comprehensive write up detailing the sights, sounds and tastes experienced during her travels in Japan.

Tenjo Sajiki is a cafe housed in Kamenoi Bessou (亀の井別荘), a luxurious ryokan in Yufuin. Do note that at night (from 1900 hrs onwards), Tenjo Sajiki is transformed to a bar, named Yamaneko (山猫). This cafe is a good place to drop by after visiting Lake Kirinko, which is about 2 mins walk away.


Cafe is located on the second floor and there was already a short queue formed when we arrived. Had to wait for approx 20 mins before we were led to a table on the attic. The attic could accommodate two tables and has a row of bookshelf. On the main floor, half round tables were arranged to face the windows, allowing diners to enjoy their drinks while admiring the serenity outside. Tenjo Sajiki felt like a western style old school cafe, with waiters dressed in black and white uniforms. For diners seated on the attic, the waiter will place the food and drinks in a box and lift them up using a pulley system. 

Bottom left: Mount Yufu
Ordered some cakes and beverages after we settled down.

  • Mount Yufu (500 yen), a signature dessert of this cafe. Cream cheese is molded into a conical shape to depict Mount Yufu. Cream cheese is light and smooth in texture and the rum soaked raisins and fine sugar gave the dessert an additional sweet touch.  
  • Apart from that, the cheese cake and fruit cake (500 yen/slice) were all delectable and satisfying. Coffee and tea served by Tenjo Sajiki also met our expectations. Like the way they placed a cover over a teapot to mitigate the heat loss from the tea. Always impressed by how small details are well taken care of in Japan. 
Overall, Tenjo Sajiki offers nice ambience and good food - a cafe that I will come again if I visit Yufuin next time.  

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Tenjo Sajiki 天井桟敷
〒879-5198 大分県由布市湯布院町川上2633-1 
Opening hrs: 0900 - 1800 hrs
http://www.kamenoi-bessou.jp/tenjo.html
Less than 2 mins walk from Lake Kirinko.

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Yufuin 湯布院, B Speak

Visited 22.03.2014

Mt Yufu as the backdrop. Left: Yufumi dori (由布見通り); Right: Yu no tsubo road (湯の坪街道)
How to tour Yufuin? Yufuin is a hot spring town surrounded by mountains in Oita Prefecture. The train station is where the exploration of Yufuin town begins. The beautiful Mount Yufu, an iconic natural landmark of Yufuin, comes into sight as soon as you step out of the train station. Hand and foot bath can be found at the first souvenir shop on the left - enjoy a rewarding soak before and after the walking trip. The recommended way to tour Yufuin is to make Kinrinko your pit stop and make a turn from there back to the train station. There are food stalls, bakeries, confectioneries, specialty souvenir shops, cafes, etc that will keep you occupied throughout the journey. As there are no high rise buildings in this rural district, you can enjoy a scenic view of twin peaked mountain wherever you go. Walked along ekimae dori (駅前通り) and Yufumi dori (由布見通り), and turned into Yu no tsubo road (湯の坪街道) when I reached B Speak, a well known confectionery in Yufuin. Depsite spending an entire afternoon here, I still felt that I haven't explore this place enough. 

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Highlights:

Numerous specialty shops

Top left: Nekoyashiki (猫屋敷); Top right: Studio Ghibli products in Dongiri no mori (どんぐりの森); Bottom left: Inuyashiki (犬家敷).
- If you are looking for cats and dogs related merchandises, do head down to Nekoyashiki (猫屋敷) and Inuyashiki (犬家敷) located along Tu no tsubo road. The huge variety of goods depicting these adorable pets are made available here and will definitely make you be spoilt for choice.
- Studio Ghibli fans will be excited to see Totoro waiting at Dongiri no mori (どんぐりの森). This shop is specially dedicated to Studio Ghibli related merchandises. Stood in front of the shelves filled with adorable looking merchandises and I was so tempted to bring one Totoro soft toy home. There is even a miniature bus stop just outside the shop where a huge Totoro plushie waits for the cat bus!

Yufuin Floral Village
- Yufuin Floral Village felt like a fairy tale like town where shops are housed in small little cottages and most of them were selling souvenirs (but not entirely unique to Yufuin). Also found out that this village also comprises of a hotel (only four rooms) with hot spring facilities. There is even a mini park here where visitors can come up close to owls, parrots, ducks, rabbits and squirrels. 
B-Speak's P roll
B-Speak 
大分県由布市湯布院町川上3040-2
Opening hrs: 1000 - 1700 hrs
http://b-speak.net/index.html

Read about this legendary swiss roll (known as P roll) that is only available here in Yufuin before my trip. This swiss roll is made by B Speak, a confectionery shop under the luxurious ryokan - Sansou Murata (山荘無量塔). The same group also owns Tenjo Sajiki Cafe (天井桟敷), which I visited as well during this trip. When I arrived at B Speak in the afternoon (~3 pm), all the swiss rolls (both full and sliced) were already sold out for the day. Was contemplating whether to revisit the shop on the next morning to purchase the sliced form on the spot or to pre-order one full roll for collection on the following day. Decided to go for the latter. On the following morning, I arrived just before the shop was opened for business at 1000 hrs that day and was astonished to see a long queue already formed outside the shop, all eager to grab hold of the limited number of Swiss roll available that day. Glad that I pre-ordered mine and could beat the queue to collect my order without much hassle. 

I have to exclaim that this is one of the best Swiss roll I have ever eaten! Best consume within the same day (and in fact within the next few hours upon purchase), this fluffy sponge cake is very soft in texture, eggy and fragrant. The cream is smooth, not too sweet and complements the cake perfectly. Wanted to savour another slice of P roll while on board Yufuin no mori but it was completely sold out.



Sunday, July 19, 2015

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Day 8 Itinerary: Oita 大分, Yufuin 由布院

Day 8: 22.03.2014
* Day 1 of 5 Days JR Kyushu Rail Pass

Yufuin
BreakfastRyokan Wakaba わかば

Explored Kurokawa Onsen 黒川温泉.

Kurokawa Onsen 黒川温泉 (1126 hrs) > Yufuin Bus Center ゆふいんバスセンター (1301 hrs) 
by Sanko Bus 九州横断バス. Fee = 1,700 yen. 

Explored Yufuin: 
(1) Walked along ekimae dori 駅前通り, yufumi dori 由布見通り, yu no tsubo road 湯の坪街道
(2) Kinrinko 金鱗湖

Tea break: Tenjo Sajiki 天井桟敷

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Yufuin JR Station 由布院駅 > Gettouan 月燈庵
by taxi. Fee = 1,000 yen.

Check in: Gettouan 月燈庵

Dinner: Gettouan 月燈庵

- End of Day 8 -

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Yufuin JR Station 由布院駅



Yufuin JR Station, on Kyudai main line.

(1) Yufuin no mori (ゆふいんの森), commutes between Hakata and Yufuin/Beppu.
Note: There are three round trips per day, but only one commutes between Hakata & Beppu.

(2) Ltd Express Yufu, commutes between Hakata and Beppu. 

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Features:


Top left: Footbath at the station platform; Top right: Mt Yufu in sight when you look out of the train station.
(1) Footbaths: Upon exiting from the train station, you can find hand and foot baths at the first souvenir shop on the left. Moreover, there is a footbath facility located on the station platform, allowing passengers to enjoy a good foot soak before the train arrives!

(2) Design: Aesthetically pleasing wooden structure which was designed by Isozaki Atara, an architect who was born in Oita Prefecture. He wanted to create a image of an Italian chapel of Medieval period. High ceiling in the middle of the building and elevated windows allows natural lighting to illuminate the interior of the train station. A spectacular view of Mt Yufu stands right in front of you, when you look out of the train station.  

What's nearby?

(1) Horse carriage rides:
There are about 15 horse carriage services per day (Mar - Nov) departing from the train station. As these horse carriage rides are very popular, I will recommend making the reservation through the tourist information center (found within the train station) as soon as you arrive in Yufuin. Apart from horse carriage rides, rickshaws and vintage cars (known as Scarborough スカーボロ)  serve as alternative means to tour Yufuin.
Website: http://www.yufuin.gr.jp/meguru.html

(2) Yufuin Ekimae Bus Center:
Approx 1 min walk from train station. 
- Take Bus 36 from here to Beppu JR Station West Exit. Approx 50 mins bus journey, cost 900 yen. Took this bus for a short day trip to Beppu. 
http://www.kamenoibus.com/data/kamenoibus_rosen_yufuin.pdf
- New: Yufurin Bus (ゆふりん) which departs from bus center, stops at Umi Jigoku & Kannawa, the gateway to Beppu's famous Jigoku ("Hells" = hot spring attraction).  
http://www.kamenoibus.com/guruspa/hp/yufurin/index.html

(3) Ekimae dori 駅前通り, Yufumi dori 由布見通り and Yu no tsubo kaido 湯の坪街道:
These three roads made up the main walking route from the train station to Lake Kinrinko. There are plenty of souvenir shops, confectioneries/bakeries, cafes and restaurants lined up on both sides of the streets - enough to spend one good afternoon to tour the area extensively. Will do a brief write up on some of these shops in a separate page.

(4) Lake Kinrinko 金鱗湖:
About 25 mins walk from the train station. Follow the signs along the main walking route to reach this other landmark of Yufuin.

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Ryokan Wakaba わかば

Stayed 21.03.2014 (1 night)
Booked via Booking.com


Although there is a decent number of accommodation options in Kurokawa Onsen, most of them are small scale and do not have many rooms available. Therefore it is advisable to book early especially when this hidden gem is receiving more media attention over the years. Ryokan Wakaba is located nearest to the main bus stop and is less than 5 mins walk to the main hot spring street. You can also request staffs to pick you up at the bus stop if given prior notice. 

Hospitality: A traditional Japanese two storey building, Wakaba is a small scale family run ryokan with only 15 rooms. The immense hospitality showed by the staff here made me felt at ease during my stay. Everyone here serve you with a smile on their faces, regardless of the type of tasks they are handling. As we were brought into our room. the attendant tried her best to explain the features of the hotel (in Japanese mixed with a few simple English words) with hand gestures. Despite us feeling tired after a long bus ride which we took from Mt Aso, we were thoroughly brightened up by her enthusiasm and friendly personality. During meals, the attendant also gave his very best to describe every dish that was served to us despite the language barrier between us. To me, these are the little gestures that will leave memorable impression in people's mind and most importantly, attract guests to come back again.

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Highlights:


Facilities: Booked a twin sharing room, with half board included, at 15,750 yen/pax. Room has a toilet but no bathroom. However, this was not an issue since we utilized the communal bath house offered by the ryokan. Each guest will also get his/her own set of Yukata, towels, socks and toiletries. One habit that I have made (to the point it has become a ritual after multiple trips to Japan) when staying in a ryokan is to first make myself a pot of green tea and enjoy the snacks before heading for my first soak. There is a small shop near the front desk where guests can grab local made/produced souvenirs before departing. 


Hot spring: Two bathhouses are separated by gender. Each bathhouse has a indoor and an open air pool. I prefer the open air hot spring pool (also known as "Rotenburo") where one can catch a glimpse of Chikugo river. At one corner of the pool, the depth is reduced allowing one to lie down while soaking in the hot spring waters - quite a comfortable experience!

Apart from the communal pools, Wakaba also has several private hot spring bathrooms which guests can reserve at no additional charges. We did try out one but the temperature was just too hot for us to even put our legs in. Hot spring water is mildly acidic and source temperature is as high as 60 degC. It is known for curing cuts and burns, and also beneficial to those with skin problems or gynecological illnesses.


Meals. Japanese style multi course dinner was served in our room. The highlight of the meal was horse meat sashimi (Basashi) - a local delicacy in Kumamoto Prefecture. The thinly sliced marbled meat was not chewy like what I anticipated it to be. For me, it felt like eating any other tuna sashimi and definitely not something that I will crave for. The sumptuous dinner also comprised of mouth watering grilled kuro wagyu beef, skin crisp salt grilled yamame trout, tender braised pork belly, yasai tempura and seasonal fruit mousse cake. Overall, I will give a thumb up for the entire dinner course. Had our breakfast in the main dining hall - rice was served with salted salmon, tamago, pickled vegetables, fresh salad and tofu soup.  


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Ryokan Wakaba わかば
869-2402 熊本県阿蘇郡南小国町黒川温泉
http://www.ryokanwakaba.com/



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Video: Found this excellent Youtube video featuring Ryokan Wakaba.

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春天之旅 - Kurokawa Onsen 黒川温泉, Shirotamakko 白玉っ子, Doradora どらどら

Visited 21.03.2014, 22.03.2014


Hidden gem. Located in Kumamoto Prefecture, Kurokawa Onsen is a hidden gem that I uncovered during this trip. You will be captivated by its serenity upon arrival. Absence of high rise buildings, only traditional Japanese style houses surrounded by mountains. Chikugo river passes through this small hot spring town, filled with ryokans, eateries and shops. The entire town is fairly small, not too commercialised nor touristy yet, and can be covered within a couple of hours. My advice is don't rush and just your time pass slowly here. A stay in this tranquil town is simply rejuvenating and do wonders to a person's health and mood - stepping out from the hasty pace of life in a growing city. Kurokawa Onsen is a place I miss most from this trip and will surely visit again.

Onsen hopping pass. Otherwise known as Nyuto Tegata (入湯手形) cost 1,300 yen and allows visitors to try out 3 different hot spring bath at any 24 participating ryokans in Kurokawa Onsen. The usage of hot spring facility normally cost between 500 to 600 yen, therefore purchasing this pass is an economical way to try out different rotenburo. Valid for 6 months, this wooden pass can be hung around the neck and will be stamped each time you visit a different bath. Bought one but was not keen in the onsen hopping activity. Brought it back as a souvenir instead.

Top right: Jizoudou, a shrine in Kurokawa Onsen
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Highlights:


Shirotamakko 白玉っ子
Opening hrs: 0930 - 1800 hrs
http://kurokawa.siratamattko.com/

This was the first place we visited after checking in to Ryokan Wakaba. If you are a fan of Japanese glutinous rice balls, this is a cafe to visit to savour their desserts. Served either hot or cold, these colourful balls can be eaten together with soy bean powder or sweet red bean paste. Ordered the seasonal set which comprised of a bowl of matcha, five mochi balls with fragrant tanba kuromame powder (black soybean) and a scoop of strawberry flavoured ice cream - a delectable dessert set to celebrate the arrival of spring!



Left: Shiro Croquette from Warokuya; Right: Mochi dorayaki from Doradora.
Doradora どらどら, located beside Jizoudou (地蔵堂).
Opening hrs: 0930 - 1800 hrs; Sat, Sun and Public Holidays: 0900 - 1800 hrs
http://kurokawa-kaze.com/index.html

Red bean pancake or dorayaki are commonly found in Japan. In Doradora, a twist was made to this traditional Japanese snack. If you can consume the food on the spot, sandwich a scoop of ice-cream between the pancakes and red bean paste. I bought one that was pre-packed - pancake surface was stamped with a picture similar to the one on the wooden onsen hopping pass, and ice-cream was replaced with mochi, but only ate it after departure from Kurokawa Onsen. What caught me by surprise was that the mochi was stuffed with sweet cream too. The various layers blended well harmoniously together with every bite: the eggy pancake, crunchy red bean paste, chewy mochi and smooth cream filling! How I wish I could have bought a few more pieces! 

Top left: the very popular Patisserie Roku; Top right: Completed onsen hopping pass hung outside Jizoudou.
... and more food! 
Explored Kurokawa Onsen again after breakfast. Did a leisure stroll along the onsen street, stopping by shops to look for unique souvenirs and food stalls to grab a quick snack. In one morning (despite after breakfast), we had fragrant and flavoured rice crackers, honey soft serve and Kumamoto pork croquette (from Warokuya わろく屋). Saw a small crowd at a confectionery - Patisserie Roku, which is famous for their Swiss roll. Squeezed into the shop but left empty handed because Swiss roll here were not sold in slices. After trying out the delicious Swiss roll from the extremely popular B Speak confectionary in Yufuin on the following day, I was already thinking how good Patisserie Roku's would turn out to be...

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Kurokawa Onsen 黒川温泉
黒川温泉観光旅館協同組合 インフォメーションセンター
869-2402 熊本県阿蘇郡南小国町黒川さくら通り
http://www.kurokawaonsen.or.jp/

How to get there?

By bus: Kyushu Odan Bus 九州横断バス
A very useful bus service that commutes between Kumamoto and Beppu, and stops at Aso JR Station, Mt Aso West Station (ropeway station), Kurokawa Onsen and Yufuin. Utiltised this bus service from Mt Aso West Station to visit Kurokawa Onsen. On the following day, I took the same bus from Kurokawa Onsen to Yufuin.
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Video: Scroll to 20:10 for 遇约九州's feature on Kurokawa Onsen. 

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Mt Aso 阿蘇

Visited 21.03.2014

Not clouds but huge plumes of volcanic gases emitted from Nakadake.
Incomplete. I always find it a challenge to pen down thoughts for a place which I did not get to explore fully due to unforeseen circumstances. I will definitely list Mt Aso was one of them. Mt Aso activity has been pretty erratic in recent years and it has become increasingly difficult to get a peek of the fuming Nakadake (中岳) crater. On the day before our visit, bus services (Asosan Ropeway was under maintenance at that point of time) to Nakadake was suspended as eruption alert was raised. On the day of visit, alert was lifted and bus services were resumed. Unfortunately, the area near the crater were restricted as huge plumes of volcanic gases (H2S and SO2) were emitted and engulfed the surrounding area. Weather was also very unpredictable that day. First had to battled a snow storm when we arrived. Had to seek shelter because of the strong chilling wind and poor visibility. A while later, the storm stopped and we were greeted by clear blue skies. And just before we left, the snow storm recovered. Despite not being able to come close to the crater, the beautiful natural landscape of this mountainous area was something worth making the trip for. Not sure whether I will get the chance to revisit Mt Aso in the near future especially when volcanic activity continues to be perpetually high at this point of time.


Facts about Mt Aso. Mt Aso is made up of five peaks - Nakadake, Kishimadake, Eboshidake, Nekodake and Takadake. It is currently the largest active volcano in Japan and only the active Nakadake is accessible to visitors. Takadake is the highest among all, standing at 1,592 m tall. Aso has one of the largest caldera in the world - 25 km north-south and 18 km east-west, spanning over an area of 380 km2.







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What's nearby?

House riding acitvity in Kusasenri.
(1) Kusasenri 草千里
Along the way to Mt Aso Ropeway, you will spot this huge grassland surrounded by mountains. Kusasenri is a round shaped grassland, which originally was a crater, located between Kishimadake (杵島岳) and Eboshidake (烏帽子岳). From photos, one may mistaken Kusasenri for a place in Mongolia - clear blue skies, a small pond hidden within the lush greenery and horses are allowed to gaze freely on the large plain. Passed by Kusasenri on the bus but could not replicate this scenery as the weather was bad (snowing) during the day of my visit.

Spotted Komezuka during the bus journey from Mt Aso to Kurokawa Onsen.
(2) Komezuka 米塚
Keep a lookout for a smaller and well defined hill that can be easily identified by its depression on the summit when you travel around Mt Aso area. Komezuka actually means "rice hill" and its name came about because of a legend. Rice harvest was piled up to form this hill by a deity of Aso (Takeiwatatsunomikoto). The slight depression on the summit was said to be created after rice was scooped out from the top by him to distribute to poor people.

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Mt Aso Ropeway 阿蘇山ロープウェイ
Operating hours:
- 20 Mar - 31 Oct: 0830 - 1800 hrs
- 1 Nov - 30 Nov: 0830 - 1700 hrs
- 1 Dec - 19 Mar: 0900 - 1700 hrs
Fee = 1,200 yen (round trip); 750 yen (single trip)
* When ropeway is closed for maintenance, buses are employed to shuffle visitors between both stations. Similar fare is charged for the bus service.
* Please check out the following website to acquire advisory information for visit to Mt Aso.
http://www.kyusanko.co.jp/aso/lang_en/

How to get there?

(1) Sanko Bus 産交バス
Board the Aso Crater line bus (阿蘇火口線) heading for Mt Aso West Station (阿蘇山西駅). Fee = 650 yen.
Timetable (in Japanese): http://www.kyusanko.co.jp/sankobus/aso_sen/

(2) Kyushu Odan Bus 九州横断バス
A very useful bus service that commutes between Kumamoto and Beppu, and stops at Aso JR Station, Mt Aso West Station (Ropeway station), Kurokawa Onsen and Yufuin. 




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Video: Scroll to 23:10 for 遇约九州 feature on Mt Aso.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Aso JR Station 阿蘇駅



Aso JR Station, on Hohi main line. This train station was refurbished to blend in with the natural landscape and the majestic Mt Aso. Was greeted by good weather and awed by an unobstructed view of the mountainous area upon exiting from the train station.

Currently, there are several sightseeing trains that make a stop at this train station.
  • Aso Boy!, commutes between Kumamoto and Miyaji. 
  • Kyushu Odan Tokkyu, commutes between Beppu and Hitoyoshi.
  • Seven Stars in Kyushu, the luxurious train which was introduced in 2013.
Kuro chan's office! The adorable black dog mascot for Aso Boy! train has an office (in fact a kennel) at this train station.

What's nearby? 

(1) Bus stop to Mt Aso and Kurokawa Onsen.

- Sanko Bus 産交バス
Board the Aso Crater line bus (阿蘇火口線) heading for Mt Aso West Station (阿蘇山西駅). Fee = 650 yen.
Timetable (in Japanese): http://www.kyusanko.co.jp/sankobus/aso_sen/

- Kyushu Odan Bus 九州横断バス
A very useful bus service that commutes between Kumamoto and Beppu, and stops at Aso JR Station, Mt Aso West Station (ropeway station), Kurokawa Onsen and Yufuin. Utiltised this bus service from Mt Aso West Station to visit Kurokawa Onsen. On the following day, I took the same bus from Kurokawa Onsen to Yufuin.

Kyushu Spring 2014 九州春季之旅 - Aso Boy! あそぼーい!

Travelled on 21.03.2014

Arrival of Aso Boy! train at Kumamoto JR Station.
There are two round trips on a day when the train is in operation (Sat, Sun and holidays). For this trip, I boarded Aso Boy 101 which departed from Kumamoto JR Station at 1028 hrs and arrived at Aso JR Station at 1155 hrs.
Do check out the train operating schedule on JR Kyushu website: http://www.jrkyushu.co.jp/trains/asoboy/
  • Aso Boy 101 and 103: Kumamoto > Miyaji
  • Aso Boy 102 and 104: Miyaji > Kumamoto
Who is Aso Boy? The train name "Aso boy" does not refer to a particular person. It actually comes from the phrase Asobuyo, which means "let's play". And indeed, as the name implies, various features of this train were designed to trigger that playful instinct in every passenger who board the train, regardless of age. Aso Boy train commutes along Hohi main line and be captivated by the surrounding rural landscape as the train cruises along the line. Alight at Tateno JR Station to transfer to Minami Aso Railway. Alight at Aso Station and continue your journey by bus to Mt Aso.

Kuro chan found everywhere in this train.
Who is Kuro chan? Kuro chan (full name is Aso Kuroemon) is a adorable black dog mascot created for Aso boy train. Most would have first caught sight of this mascot at Kumamoto JR Station, alongside the famous Kumamon. Kuro chan is spotted almost everywhere inside out the train. Follow the trails of Kuro chan as you uncover the various features of the train. There are 101 Kuro chan, in various poses (didn't count to verify this figure that was reported on JR Kyushu's website) spread all over the body of the train. His "kennel" is actually located in Aso JR Station, however it requires some luck to see him in person.

Highlights:


Panoramic view & switch back. The driver's seat normally occupies at the ends of a train. However, this norm is overthrown in this particular train. Instead the driver has taken a back seat (a separate compartment within the same carriage) to allow passengers occupying the front seats to have an obstruction free view throughout the train journey. The railway tracks are arranged in a zig-zag configuration at Tateno JR Station. After this station, the train operates in a switch back mode - first it will move backwards for a short distance then change direction to ascend a steeper gradient.  


Playroom. One of the train carriages is designated as the kids playroom. There is pool filled with wooden balls and a cabin attendant stationed there to play with the kids. Discovered a small library corner where you can see the engrossed looks in some children as they browsed through the collection of books. One unique feature of this train is the "Kuro" seats found in this carriage as well. These seats are designed for an adult and a child to sit together i.e. a shorter backrest, lower headrest and higher leg rest for kids, and the child seat is always beside the window. Yet again, impressed by the thoughtful features of this train. With the lovable mascot, Kuro-chan, appearing in every corner of the train, you will find yourself or others exclaiming "kawai" and stopping to take photos while exploring different areas onboard this train.


Cafe, ekiben & souvenirs. Cafe is located in the same carriage as the playroom. Here, you can get snacks and drinks and purchase Kuro chan merchandise. Bought Kuro's Asomoko bento lunch (1,080 yen) which contains Aso's locally produced beef and rice, salad, fried egg, chicken karaage, potato wedges and a prune - felt like a well-balanced diet! The extensive array of merchanidse left us spoilt for choice - clear folders, collar pins, mugs, towels, badges, postcards, etc, and all of them imprinted with Kuro chan on them. Bought the collar pins and postcards to send back home.   

Commemorative boarding pass & stamp. Don't forget to grab your commemorative boarding card and stamp on board the train. The inked stamp is placed at one corner in the playroom/cafe carriage.

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Video: Found this really good video featuring Aso Boy train and Mt Aso on Youtube. See how the switch back operation take place at Tateno JR Station.

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Boarding pass & commemorative stamp: