Since we arrived in Japan we have already seen quite a bit of the daily life, cities and nature in this country, but there is so much more to explore! This is why we decided to travel as far as Kyushu, at the western end of the main island of Japan, to stay in the mountains for a couple of days and experience a traditional ryokan and onsen.
Kyushu is a volcanic region and is host to Japan’s highest active volcano, Mount Aso, at around 1,500m altitude. We didn’t go to the volcano because we didn’t want to spend yet more time traveling and preferred to enjoy the local atmosphere of our ryokan, village and local mountain, but I heard from fellow travelers that it’s a great destination, especially with children.
The last two days were the best travel experience of my entire life, and I’m a pretty seasoned traveler. I had picked an onsen in Kurokawa, a small thermal station well known by Japanese people for the quality and diversity of its springs and the hospitality of its ryokan. We were not disappointed. Ryokan Sanga is a world apart from the big and expensive hotels, including 5-star hotels (I only tried one though), because it blends a unique atmosphere with an individual service of the highest level.
I won’t elaborate too much on our experience at Ryokan Sanga, which I picked on the basis of the pictures I saw online and its delicately crafted website. We had the most incredible traditional Japanese dinners and breakfasts of our whole trip and the former can easily compete with starred restaurants in Europe.
Here’s a small selection of the food: the presentation itself is a delight!
The room we had picked was a standard room (meaning without a private hot bath) but we still had a large room, a small dining area, a kitchenette and washing area, and our very own view of the waterfall and river passing by (Sanga stands for ‘mountain river’).
Every day we were given a yukata, haori, obi and tabi to dress in traditional onsen style. If none of these words ring a bell, they mean a sort of bath robe, a jacket, a belt and a pair of Japanese socks (which you can also use with flip-flops). We had lots of fun wearing those as you can see, as well as the summer kimono I had bought in Kyoto and for which a waitress kindly helped with the obi.
The ryokan and the baths were beautiful. There were 4 baths: two indoors and two outdoors, including a mixed bath which is the one we enjoyed the most. The ryokan was busy but it never felt like that and most of the time we enjoyed the baths all to ourselves.
Every time I walked along the corridors of the ryokan or in the nature around it, I had the impression of being in some world imagined by Miyazaki, everything was so unreal, exquisite and mysterious. It felt like a travel through time and space.
So was the service. Extremely helpful but invisible when we didn’t need them, unlike in some Western (especially American) hotels. We made friends with a trainee that came from Malaysia but was actually Chinese. She spoke 7 languages!
Kurokawa and the surrounding mountains
We toured the little village and the surrounding nature and soon realized we were the only hikers. The tourists here seem to come for the baths, not for the nature around. Too bad for them! We came across lots of Spring flowers and two snakes, which was lucky because the people working in the ryokan told us it was very rare to see snakes here. The forest was teeming with new life and there were blossoms and flowers everywhere.
We also discovered that local villagers use slash and burn techniques to make the grass grow greener and richer for their cows, which came as a surprise to me. It left the whole top of the mountain barren and dry and also harmed the many local oak species.
Parting with this wondrous place was hard, but in a couple of days we knew we’d be in Brussels kissing our children we hadn’t seen for more than two weeks, so sadness would soon give way to joy. I have a feeling we’ll be back here sooner or later. Even though it’s not the real Japan we’ve experienced here, because the real Japan simply doesn’t exist, we did experience our dreamed Japan and that’s even more precious to my heart.
And now, off to a shopping spree in Tokyo on our last day in Japan!