An onsen paradise
– and culinary adventure – at Mount Aso
The onsen villages surrounding Kyushu's famous smoldering volcano of Mount Aso are enchanting destinations where visitors can lose themselves in the healing vapors of secluded hot springs and the stunning mountain atmosphere. For the brave culinary daredevils – don't forget the raw horse meat.
While five different onsen are scattered at the foot of Mount Aso, the most accessible, and perhaps most alluring, is Uchimaki Onsen. Located in the caldera of Japan's largest active volcano, the therapeutic waters of Uchimaki's hot springs are drawn from deep within the heart of Mount Aso.
Consider staying at the stylish ryokan called Yunoyado Irifune, where visitors are drawn in immediately by the inn's artistic signage and intricately-sculpted exterior. The ambience inside—which features warm woods, elegantly natural tatami, and a large window framing a lovely koi pond—is even more enticing.
To achieve the stately, natural feel, the ryokan utilized cherry, pine and keyaki (Japanese zelkova) woods, and the iron artworks in the main foyer were forged with patterns containing special meanings found in traditional kimono and other fabrics.
Once visitors select their yukata from among the array on display, it's time to head to the stunningly gorgeous baths of Irifune.
In addition to the larger rotenburo (outdoor bath), five different private rooms are available that each house a different type of stone tub adorned with a fascinating animal head.
Following a long session of scrubbing and soaking, venture out into the local neighborhood to take in the atmosphere and eat dinner. Only a few blocks away from Irifune is a quaint area lined with shops, restaurants and bars, including a small retro complex featuring décor from the Showa era.
After a relaxed stroll around the Uchimaki Onsen district, now is as good a time as ever to get over any squeamishness and sample basashi—that love-it-or-hate-it local delicacy of raw horse meat. One inviting-looking restaurant called Rorri Biancca presents basashi among its offerings in its window display. Foreign visitors can feel immediately at home as soon as they step inside—not only because young children eating dinner with their parents greeted one such visitor shyly and excitedly in English (something that happens often in Kyushu) – but also because sitting randomly in the middle of the restaurant is a Space Invaders video game console straight from the 1980s.
The basashi is served ice-cold, and comes accompanied with an array of culinary accoutrements: grated shoga (ginger), a lea of shiso (perilla), two different piles of chopped onions (white and Welsh), and a shoyu dipping sauce. The flavor of the tender meat, served in slices of eight, is intense, yet not overpowering, and is unlike anything you may have ever tasted.
As dusk gives way to darkness, and as you make your way back to Irifune, the jazzy, soulful tunes of artists such as Billy Holiday can be heard wafting through the air from speakers attached to the street lamps. The sophisticated vibe is certainly a befitting end to an evening well-spent in this absolutely charming district.