I can hear the gushing of the stream as its white-frothed water cascades over a small boulder and rushes towards a cluster of rocks. It’s snowing. Big feathery snow flakes swirl towards me, threatening to turn my hair white and my face red. 

But I am sitting in a pool of perfectly warm hot-spring water, comfortably insulated from the snow and chilly air around me. Evocatively named “bath in the forest,” or Mori-no-Yu, this onsen open-air bath overlooking the rushing stream is one of several I have been enjoying at Kurokawa Onsen in Oita Prefecture, on the southwestern island of Kyushu.

To reach the forest hot pool, I had to walk along a path with just a tiny wash towel to protect me from the elements. So, it was a relief to sink into the warm hot spring water and let the snow melt around me.

The outdoor rotenburo at Yamamizuki in Kurokawa.

This open-air bath is one of four baths at Yamamizuki, an onsen ryokan (hotel with hot spring baths) reserved exclusively for women. There are two other baths, including a rotenburo by the stream, reserved for men.

We were not staying at Yamamizuki, which was fully booked, but at a neighboring onsen ryokan, Miyama Sanso, a sister hotel . Guests at either ryokan are free to enjoy the baths at each place. Some ryokan at Kurokawa Onsen, including Yamamizuki and Miyama Sanso, also welcome visitors from other ryokan for a fee (about Y600 per person, per ryokan) to enjoy their hot spring baths.

Part of the kaiseki dinner at Miyama Sansou, this hassun, or appetizer sampler featured vegetable tempura, sushi with donko shiitake mushroom, which have a strong umami flavor, and shira ae, or mashed tofu salad.

The accommodations at the atmospheric Miyama Sanso are in thatched-roof buildings clustered into what looks very much like a traditional country village that could be found anywhere in Japan in a bygone era. Meals were of a very high standard in the kaiseki, multi-course style, with seasonal specialties, such as dried persimmon and ochi ayu, or ayu that have spawned.

Both Yamamizuki and Miyama Sanso are on the outskirts of Kurokawa Onsen town, enabling more spacious and rustic accommodations than those in central Kurokawa.

Kurokawa Onsen is not as well-known as Beppu, another onsen town about 90 minutes drive to the east, or Yufuin, which is between the two towns but closer to Beppu.


Chinoike Jigoku, or Blood Pond Hell, is a natural hot spring pond where high levels of iron oxide and magnesium oxide create a bloody red color. The temperature is a hellish 78 degrees centigrade. There are seven such “Hells” in Beppu.

Nevertheless, it seems to have been discovered by many visitors from Asia, judging from the Chinese and Korean we often heard being spoken here. 

While in Kurokawa, we also visited Shinmeikan, another ryokan, which is affiliated with the Yamamizuki group of hotels, where we had the unusual experience of bathing in a hot spring pool in a cave. According to the ryokan literature, the founder of Shinmeikan spent 13 years carving the cave bath by himself with just a chisel. 

There are two cave baths – one for men and one for women. Those who enjoy feeling cosy in a sauna might like the enclosed atmosphere of the cave bath but I much prefer being in the open, gazing up at an expansive sky.  

Just an hour or so by car from Kurokawa is Yufuin, one of Kyushu’s most famous onsen towns, surrounded by mountains, which has become a very popular destination for Chinese and Korean tourists. 

Yufuin town is small but atmospheric with many cafés and shops where you can pick up local products, such as yuzu kosho, a piquant seasoning made with yuzu (a kind of citrus fruit) chili peppers and salt.

As soon as we arrived, we headed to Kinrinko, a picturesque lake which is a favorite photo stop among Instagrammers. The lake’s water is warmed by hot spring water that mingles with its fresh water, causing steam to rise from the surface on cool days.

Kinrinko is warmed by hot spring water flowing into the lake.

What is not so well-known is that Yufuin used to be a center of Christianity in Japan for a time after Otomo Sorin (1530-87), the regional daimyo, or feudal lord, converted to Christianity upon meeting the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier (1506-52.) During the Edo period (1603-1868) almost half the Yufuin population was Christian before the religion was brutally stamped out.  

After a leisurely stroll around Kinrinko and the lush grounds of Kamenoi Besso, our ryokan for the night, we decided to warm our chilled bodies in the silky hot-spring waters of their onsen baths.


The picturesque autumn scenery surrounding Kamenoi Bessou.

The rooms at Kamenoi are beautifully appointed with mid-century wooden furniture, shoji screens and soft lighting. There are both Japanese-style rooms with tatami mats and western-style rooms with beds. In addition to the spacious communal onsen baths (both indoors and open-air rotenburo) all the rooms have baths where guests can enjoy the hot-spring waters in the privacy of their own room.


Kamenoi Bessou used to be a private guest house.

Sitting in the lobby of Kamenoi Bessou is like being in a friend’s cozy home.

Dinner at Kamenoi Besso is a kaiseki, or multi-course, affair featuring local specialties, such as buri, or yellowtail, and Oita beef, which is counted among one of the highest grades of wagyu beef.

Kamenoi dinner

The sashimi course came with spring rolls containing plump prawns.

Slices of Oita beef and a mild manganji chilli pepper.

Kamenoi Besso used to be the guest house of a local hotelier, Kumahachi Aburaya, who welcomed famous writers, politicians and aristocrats there. A comical statue of Aburaya, who seems to be leaping into the air with a big smile on his face and an impish child devil hanging on to his coattails, is a local landmark in front of Beppu station.

When the hotel first opened to the public, Yufuin was not the famous onsen town it is today and the previous Kamenoi president, Kentaro Nakatani, tells the story of how he used to stand on the side of the highway with a big sign proclaiming, “we have toilets,” to entice drivers to stop by and maybe even spend the night.

Kamenoi Besso goes to great lengths to keep modern eye-sores out of view.

In sharp contrast to those days, today Yufuin is so popular that we felt it was best to avoid the crowded narrow town streets and stay in our room at Kamenoi, where it was easy to forget the bustle of other tourists outside and enjoy the quiet and serenity of our natural surroundings. Which, to us, is what an onsen holiday is all about.