A Thunderstorm Brought an Unexpected Surprise
On our last day in Kagoshima, we woke up to a thunderstorm – and out went the plans to go Ibusuki 指宿 (couldn’t imagine taking a wet sand bath). We could have moved to Myoken Onsen 妙見温泉 immediately but the ryokan staff said “hang on”. They could check us in earlier but they weren’t able to serve lunch. No lunch? No can do.
Eventually we went to the Meji Restoration Musuem (apparently a popular wet-weather option of tourists). And what a find that was! At only 300¥ per entry, we were treated to a very well curated collection of exhibits centred around the Meji Restoration and the events leading to the Satsuma Rebellion. The highlight was the animatronics show put up in the theatre (ask for audio translation headphones). We were not “museum-people” but we were mighty impressed.
I recommend the Meiji Restoration Musuem even when it’s not raining.
The storm was done by the time we took the 1338 train to Hayato 隼人 (JR Nippo line). The ryokan helped arrange a jumbo taxi for our party of 6 and we arrived at Myoken Ishiharaso 妙見石原荘 at 1445. Check-in took about 15 minutes. While we waited we were served green tea and an elegant snack.
In hindsight, 3-4pm was the best time to arrive at an onsen. It gave us enough time to relax in the room, explore the grounds, try out all the hot baths – before dinner.
Here is the Myoken Onsen bus schedule.
Onsens, a Uniquely Japanese Experience
If you ask me, all trips to Japan should include at least a night’s stay in a traditional onsen-ryokan (and Kaiseki 懐石 dinner). All the more so when in Kyushu – because Kyushu may possibility have some of the most scenic onsens in Japan.
In fact, Oita prefecture (renowned for the onsen towns Beppu and Yufuin) in Kyushu has the highest number of hotspring sources (close to 5,000) in Japan.
Kagoshima, also in Kyushu, is a distant second (around 2,800) and Hokkaido is third (around 2,300). In Kagoshima, the main onsen hotspots are Kirishima and Ibusuki.
The Onsens of Kirishima
Kirishima 霧島 (lit. Island of Mist) is a romantic moniker, giving the impression of a mysterious land often obscured by white fluffy low lying clouds that could be the result of rain or steam (from onsens) or both. But actually the Gods were mistaken when they named it Kirishima – they thought they saw an island surrounded by mist when in fact it was a highland.
But steam from onsens could be quite near the truth. Though the authorities-that-be claim that there are 4-5 onsen villages in Kirishima, in reality, the hotsprings in Kirishima number over a dozen and are pretty scattered throughout.
Here’s a beautiful video of Ryokojin Sansou’s outdoor baths.
Rather than “onsen villages”, it may be more accurate to call them onsen regions. From the north to the south, these are Maruo 丸尾, Yunotani 湯之谷, Kirishima 霧島, Kirishima Jingu 霧島神宮, Shinakawa Keikoku 新川渓谷, Anraku 安楽, Myoken 妙見, Hinatayama 日当山. Within each region, there could be other hotsprings.
The best way to travel within Kirishima to the onsens is to drive or take a bus. Taking the train is still viable but you’d still have to connect by taxi or bus.
Deciding on which onsen was tough but with pictures, it became easy – I settled on Ishiharaso in an instant. And it turned out to be one of the loveliest onsens I’ve stayed in.
Built along the Amori river 天降川 Ishiharao was at once rustic and secluded. The ryokan was traditionally-styled with mostly tatami rooms but there were visible modern influences ie the tiled floor at the reception, the metal-framed staircase leading to the restaurant at the basement etc. We could wear our shoes to our room.
The baths were located in a separate annex also known as Amori-ten 天降殿. The walk to Amori-ten (~150m) was framed by a beautiful long corridor (turn right from the main building).
10m into the walk, you’d find a flight of steps leading down to the foot bath overlooking the Amori river. The foot bath was a great place to chill while having a beer.
There were 2 baths in Amori-ten, 1 for the guys and 1 for the gals. There was a cafe/bar where guests could help themselves to tea, coffee, other drinks etc and a lounge for guests to relax after their baths.
The private baths, Nanami no yu 七実の湯 (free, needs reservation) and Natsumi no yu 夏実の湯 (1000¥ per use), were just outside Amori-ten (~15 steps). The open-air mixed bath, Muku no ki 椋の木, was about 200m away from Amori-ten, further upstream. We had to walk through a wooded path to get there.
Here Comes the Food Porn
I apologise. The dinner was so exquisite, so pretty, so delectable I can’t help it. It was definitely Michelin-worthy and made our ~S$300-a-night stay seem like a respectable bargain.
In typical Kaiseki fashion, dinner comprised of amuse-bouche, entrée, sashimi, soup, grill, a palate cleanser, hotpot, rice, and finally dessert.
The entrée (ayu fish, abalone, simmered broad beans, squid, satsuma black duck, salmon roll) was beautifully laid out in a lacquered box.
Here’s my no-seafood box. Forrest, I’d have a box of this entrée over chocolates, anytime.
Instead of grilled salmon, I had braised kurobuta which was so soft it disintegrated at first bite. For the non-beef eaters, the perfectly marbled Kagoshima beef (hotpot) was replaced by mouth-watering pork shabu shabu. I think I tried to barter-trade but wasn’t very successful.
Rice was served in a masu 枡, a square wooden box (typically made from cypress) traditionally used to measure rice. The rice was garnished by a scallop and sesame. Mine was multi-grained, topped with with green peas.
Then, there was dessert. Usually dessert is the weakest link in Kaiseki but this time round, it didn’t disappoint. Dessert was matcha green tea ice-cream with wafer and fruits served in a bamboo cup.
As if dinner wasn’t enough, the staff left fried inari sushi in our room – for supper! We weren’t sure we deserved to eat supper because the only exercise we had after dinner was the walk from the restaurant back to our room.
The Morning After
Breakfast was at 730am but we needed to catch the morning bus back to Hayato station so we had it served 30 minutes earlier. We thought the morning meal would be much simpler but oh, were we mighty ‘disappointed’. To quote from Toto-chan, there was “something from the ocean and something from the hills“.
From the hills, there was the the silkiest, milkiest tofu we’d even seen.
With our bellies filled with good stuff, we reluctantly bade farewell to Ishiharaso for our onward journey to Kumamoto – and more onsens.