The first few days of our Japan trip was arranged by friend and neighbor Kaori, who kindly went with us to translate because we were meeting relatives who could speak no English.
Kaori wanted us to experience the hot springs in the Kumamoto area and arranged for us to stay at a very old and traditional inn (ryokan) on the slopes of Mt. Aso.
It was the highlight of an overall wonderful trip. We learned later that my husband’s mother had also stayed at the same ryokan when she visited her family near there, which made it even more special.
Before we left home, Kaori asked us if we had any tattoos, which are not allowed at public baths (onsen). (One tattooed couple recently posted a video at an onsen where they were allowed to bathe but it is still an exception, especially in the country areas.) Then, because she was worried that we might not enjoy the onsen experience, Kaori sent us all this YouTube link: Video about onsen etiquette. Knowing what to expect definitely helped us enjoy the hot baths. There are many how-to videos about using an onsen, but I think this is one of the best. (I recently saw one that happens to show naked men––some [very old] back ends are visible––if that is your thing, you should look for it on YouTube.)
The Mt. Aso volcanic area is home to many natural hot spring baths and this ryokan had the best. “Had” is an operative word here, because the inn and onsen are now closed.
The mountain is an active volcano and I remember that Kaori had lined up a hotel room in town as a back-up plan in case the mountain was rumbling. But all was calm when we were there, and we loved the experience.
Our meals were all traditional and in a special dining room. Every meal included a small “river fish” cooked in various ways. I felt lucky to be traveling with five Mitsunaga men––I could always find one willing to eat my leftover fish head.
When we asked the servers where they caught the fish, they said “the back yard.” Sure enough, out behind the building were aquariums of fresh-water “river fish.”
Re-hydrating and relaxing after a soak.
Exactly three weeks after we left Kumamoto and Mt. Aso, a massive earthquake struck the area, burying the inn. Some employees and guests were trapped inside for a couple of days, but no one was killed. We are so lucky to have stayed there. I hope the inn re-opens, but it doesn’t look likely.
After five days Kaori leaves us to go visit her parents, and we’re on our own. We take the train from Himeji to the Iya Valley, where we stay at the Obokekyo Mannaka. This is an old-style ryokan also, but with a unique mix of traditional and modern services. For breakfast, we have the obligatory whole fried river fish, tsukemono, miso soup, rice, and green tea, but, with a nod to the times, the inn provides morning coffee and orange juice in the lobby.
An English-language newspaper also available in the lobby adds to the modern feel. At meals we sit at a table rather than on a tatami mat, and our beds are furniture rather than mats rolled out on the floor. Our dinner consists of many small plates, just like the historic Yamaguchi Ryokan, but here I can purchase a bottle of red wine to accompany my meal.
The first night, I like best the crunchy tidbits that are about five millimeters and look a little like curled-up larvae. I see dots that might be eyes, but I ignore those because the dish is so tasty and goes well with wine. Our sons tell me the next morning that I ate baby newts.
We can wear our inn-provided robes (yukatas) anywhere in the ryokan, which is a traditional custom, but instructions in our room include additional information for newbies: “Always put left side over right when donning the yukata, because right over left is reserved for dead people.” OK, will do. We make good use of a small coin-operated washer and dryer in an adjacent building. Our rooms include a modern shower and tub, but we choose to bathe in the public bath areas and soak in the hot tub––once you’ve experienced onsen, that’s what you want to do.
The onsen looks out to a bridge crossing a narrow canyon where an emerald green river flows over white rocks.
The same river where we took a scenic boat ride yesterday.
Obokekyo Mannaka is very welcoming to foreigners, and if you are fortunate enough to be in the area, this ryokan seems a good choice for a stay.
Japan is getting ready now to host the 2020 Olympics and of course everyone wants their international guests to feel comfortable. The country considered changing the symbol for onsen because a foreigner might mis-interpret the symbol to mean hot food (proposal for new symbol) and now I read that both signs will be used. I guess that’s OK, but I’d rather they used the traditional sign only. Once you know what the sign means, it makes you very happy to see it.
Look for the symbol: ♨️ And enjoy!
Date of travel: late March, early April 2016.
Hotels, trains, and tour guides arranged through IACE Travel, Saratoga, CA.