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Yufuin no moreish

When I woke up the next morning it was almost 9.30am. Check-out is a strict 10am and we had reservations for a train at 10.18am. Just as I was about to exit the door and try to book us in for another night, Alex woke up.

We didn’t quite make it out by 10am. And we missed the train, though with JR Passes we hadn’t paid anything for it anyway. There was another at about 2.30pm, so we left our luggage at the hotel and walked to the station to make a new booking.

Alex was definitely recharged and raced around everywhere at top speed and with a huge grin, while B and I struggled to keep up.

We ate brunch at the same bakery as the day before. They have nice hot chocolates.

There was a Tokyu Hands at the department store above the station. It’s full of fascinating stuff for any purpose you might imagine. In Thailand we wandered around shops and markets thinking “Do we really want to buy something here? We’ll probably regret it.” In Japan we wander through shops thinking “I really want to buy that. I’ll become a better/tidier/more fun person if I get it.” no matter how trivial it is.

Alex fell in love with a pillow. And with various other things, though he was too scared to enter the wonderful toilets. Surprisingly, what I couldn’t find was a flashy, noisy toy for him that would distract him from his other obsessions.

I think I could become obsessed with Kyushu trains. Tokyu Hands had a display devoted to them. We were about to catch one designed for the rail fan: the Yufuin no mori.

On the outside its rather green and ugly. Inside, it is like other Kyushu trains, with comfortable seats, wooden flooring and elaborate vestibule areas. The best areas are at the front and the back of the trains, with excellent views out along the tracks.

Alex also loved the doors and this time we gave up and let him play. The train was empty enough that I don’t think it was annoying.

It’s a wonderful journey, up there with the best of Japanese train rides that I’ve been on. It starts off with ordinary city and semi-rural Japan, before moving towards a valley where, it seems, that farmers grow whole trees for sale, already trimmed as topiary.

Then the train follows a narrow river valley with dramatic scenery somewhat reminiscent of the ride to Takayama. The town of Amagase looked particularly interesting and I wish we could have got off to explore.

A little later on a train attendant came through with a sign to encourage passengers to have their cameras ready for the sight of a waterfall on the right. She then passed through the train with a Yufuin no mori sign containing the day’s date, and some conductor hats and jackets, male and female, taking photos of the passengers dressed up. Naturally we had to have Alex dressed up as a conductor; he was happy to play along.

We pulled into the town of Yufuin, a preserved onsen town with the heaviest water flows in Japan along with historic buildings and streets. The train attendant was then put to work taking photos of passengers in front of the train. The Japanese love their trains and taking one of their special services is loads of fun.

I had found it difficult to locate accommodation online and had arrived without a booking. If we couldn’t find anything here then the plan was to catch a local train onwards to Oita or Beppu.

I asked the tourist office in the station and they immediately came up with Hasuwa Ryokan. Obviously, the are used to dealing with western tourists like us. Hasuwa is one of the cheaper ryokans (most are very expensive). The owner Madoka speaks English and drove down to pick us up, though it is within walking distance of the station (actually it’s right next to the railway line). The mountain Yufu-dake looms over the town and can be easily seen from the front door. The tatami matted rooms have ensuite toilets and washbasins, but not bathrooms, for a very good reason.

B enjoyed sitting with her legs under the table. There was an electric blanket under there!

We were served dinner at the ryokan and it was easily one of the best that I’ve eaten. A wide variety of Japanese dishes, some obviously with western influences. Such tender, juicy pork. Raw salmon with a mint and oil dressing that made it delicious, despite my usual dislike of it. Savoury custard, chicken and vegetables cooked in a soy broth right at the table, flavoursome age-tofu. Even Alex ate a whole bowl of rice.

When we returned to our room the futons had been laid down on the floor.

Then the best bit. We put on our yukata robes and went to the private rotemburo, or outdoor onsen bath. The ryokan has two rotemburo, one a rectangular wooden bath, the other a big stone pool with a garden setting. We chose the latter.

Firstly a wash by pouring bowls of water over ourselves while we sat on wooden stools in front of hot and cold water taps. Once clean, we carefully lowered ourselves into the hot, but not scalding, waters of the bath.

Steam shimmered off the surface while stars could be seen above. In one corner hot water gurgled down a waterfall. It was all so beautiful, so relaxing, one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my travels. Then, after our skin is wrinkled and our muscles relaxed, we returned to our straw matted room, to lie down and sleep.

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