December 2 – 3, 2011
Ramen, red leaves… these were just time fillers before we arrived at Takefue (竹ふえ) near Kurokawa Onsen (黒川温泉), the sole reason for us to travel to Kyushu. I have never been passionate about accommodation – it is the one area I am least willing to spend on because I don’t find where I spend the night adds much value to my traveling experience. But since onsen ryokan (hot spring inn) was our focus for this trip, we had to choose our accommodation from a list that began at around 15,000円 per person a night.
After a long research process, I decided to splash on a super luxurious ryokan for one night instead of dividing my budget into two nights at ryokans of lesser quality. We were treating ourselves at Takefue’s Amato suite (天飛) at 81,000円 for two and then at the cheapest yet still centrally located place I could find online (6,000円 per) in Yufuin on the next night.
So the 81,000円 question is, with dozens of choices in Kurokawa Onsen and Yufuin, why Takefue?
From my research, Takefue seemed to stand out in three ways:
The bedroom and living room of the Amato suite are 180 sq ft and 110 sq ft, respectively.
The suite has two private onsen baths, one indoor and one outdoor. The outdoor bath can easily fit a dozen people.
A five-minute drive from Kurokawa Onsen, Takefue is situated on a hill surrounded by a bamboo grove. From its website the ryokan looks like the setting of a ninja themed movie.
Like most other ryokans, each night’s stay at Takefue includes servings of dinner and breakfast.
What’s unique about Takefue is that there is a fridge full of free milk, soda and juice in the room and an unlimited supply of homemade ice cream at the reception.
Even though the stated check in time was 15:30, we arrived an hour early to try our luck as there wasn’t much to do in Shin Yabakei when most of the red leaves had fallen on the ground. Our room was sadly not available yet, so we drove over to Kurokawa Onsen to kill some time. We tried a forgettable cream puff and some stale cookies at one of the bakery mentioned on the Japanese travel magazine we bought yesterday in Fukuoka.
At a tad past 15:30, we once again arrived at the ryokan. What’s different this time was that a male staff was standing at the entrance to greet and direct guests to their parking spaces.
We were introduced to Mr Tanaka and Mr Uehara, the two gentlemen who would take care of our needs during our stay. They grabbed our luggage and then led us down a flight of stairs with bamboo grove and dark-red Japanese maple trees on both sides.
As Mr Tanaka introduced us to the ryokan’s three public onsen during our long descent to the reception house, my attention was instead diverted to the sublime beauty that encircled me.
The light rain, the bamboo, the red leaves, the single storey wooden houses… the setting appeared to be as classical Japanese as it could be, but looked more closely there were some modern twists in the form of peculiar stone statues of birds and other unidentifiable creatures. We were genuinely surprised to hear that the ryokan were in business for twelve years already as the complex didn’t show many signs of wear and tear.
The Amato Suite
After checking in at the reception house, Mr Tanaka invited my wife to choose from a tray of colorful yakuta one that she liked to wear during her stay. We appreciated this small gesture – it allowed us to personalize our stay in a very minor yet noticeable way.
We reached the Amato Suite after walking through a long corridor. The exterior was quite discreet – just the kanji “Amato” above the sliding doors. After taking off our shoes at the genkan (玄関), we passed by the toilet and the bathroom on the left and the bedroom on the right until we reached the living room. There it was – the onsen we had been looking forward to for so long was in plain sight from the living room.
Mr Tanaka continued to dutifully explain the numerous gadgets and facilities in the room, “Here is the fridge… here is the stone grind to grind the coffee beans… here is the aroma machine…”, but we were wishing that he could quickly wrap up so that we could take our dip in the hot water outside.
Last stop of our introductory tour – the bedroom. The room impressed the guests in a straightforward way – it looked every bit as spacious as advertised. Not to diminish its biggest asset, the room had no unnecessary decoration. Except for the two double size futons folded neatly on the tatami floor, there were only a wardrobe, two lamps, a sink and a digital music player in the room.
Between taking photos, exploring the room and taking a hot spring bath, two hours passed by in the blink of an eye and it was dinner time. We sipped on our apéritif while Mr Uehara began the kaiseki dinner by heating up the irori (囲炉裏) in the middle of the living room.
Two more staff appeared and brought along two trays of food. For each of us were five appetizers on a long wooden dish, a bowl of grilled beef, two plates of sashimi and a dobin mushi (teapot soup). Another wave of food – this time a paper hotpot, two dishes of raw Saga beef to be grilled at the irori and a bottle of champagne arrived when we were not even half finished with the sashimi.
To properly enjoy the feast, I asked the staff to hold up the remaining dishes until we finished what were in front of us. The huge quantity of food was a little overwhelming. I had to concentrate on eating before the food turned cold, causing me to skip my usual practice of documenting what I had just eaten.
I was 90% full after the hotpot, but then came a dish of tempura, a dish of grilled fugu, a chawanmushi (egg custard in fish broth) and a bowl of steamed mushroom rice. Not to mention dessert and a piece of cantaloupe.
After another long grind, I did the improbable of actually transferring all the food into my stomach. Just as I was walking over to my wife with a glass of champagne to celebrate on this accomplishment, a surprise in the form of a complimentary six-inch sponge cake was brought in front of us.
The staff congratulated us on our marriage, swiftly cleaned up the living room and left us alone with the cake. We were dumbfounded for a full minute – it felt like beating a video game’s final boss and then after the closing credits I realized there would be a secret boss and there was no way I could take it down. Although probably not a wise thing to do, we each had a small slice and it turned out to be the best sponge cake I have ever had.
Even being unbelievably full, I still enjoyed every single dish of this marathon-like meal.
Since the check out time was 11 am, the latest we had to have breakfast was by 9:00. Our table was again full of food – there were salad, pickled vegetables, grilled mushrooms, tamagoyaki, grilled fish, miso soup and a clay pot of rice. The ingredients of the breakfast was not as luxurious as last night’s, but being someone who doesn’t eat much in the morning, I unexpectedly managed to take in all the food. It was certainly a hearty start to my day, which got even better after I took another bath in the onsen.
So was our stay at Takefue worth 81,000円?
Not to go all philosophical all of a sudden, but worth is a relative thing. Under normal circumstances this is not a budget I would consider spending on a night’s accommodation. But given it was our honeymoon, I thought Takefue’s combination of setting, service, food and facilities provided us with a memorable experience that won’t be replicated anytime soon.