Takefue - a luxury ryokan in Kyushu, Japan23 Feb 2020
The happiest part of a vacation often happens way before one ever steps foot in the destination, and this is especially true with planning travel to Japan. The accommodation options are so diverse and high standard that one can’t go wrong with almost any of them, but of course, we still want to stay at the best possible one for the price we can afford. Choosing where to stay in your Japan trip becomes a challenging and delightful activity.
The hotel cherry-picking game is even harder when it comes to onsen towns in Japan. During our trip to Kyushu in early 2020, we visited Kurokawa (黒川温泉) and Yufuin (由布院), two of Japan’s most attractive hot spring towns. Both offer an abundance of unique ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) with high quality meals and gorgeous scenery, and the quality of the hot spring itself is excellent, needless to say.
Among those, Takefue (竹ふえ) stands out as the ultimate choice of our stay in the area.
The otherworldly setting
Takefue is a typical Ikenyado (一軒宿). In the Japanese ryokan world, the word Ikenyado is used to describe the type of hotels which have their own private, exclusive place. They are often located in a secluded area like in a forest, by a river or the sea, undisturbed by tourists or the hustle and bustle of the city.
The property is about 10 minutes drive away from the center of the Kurokawa onsen town - there is no other business near it. Depending on visitor’s needs, the hotel provides free shuttle service from Kurokawa Onsen and paid pickup service from further places (such as Yufuin station, Kumamoto airport or even Fukuoka airport).
As implied by its name, Takefue is set in a bamboo forest. The hotel has a massive 3 acres in its land size, but there are only 12 guest rooms (at the time of writing). The villa-style rooms are scattered throughout the gorgeous bamboo groves.
The rooms are modeled on traditional farmhouses, and the baths are fed by the inn’s own private hot spring source. Each of Takefue’s 12 private lodges has its own outdoor hot spring bath, and seven of the rooms have their own indoor and outdoor soaking tubs. Enjoy a massage from the Zen Spa, savor a kaiseki meal made with Kyushu delicacies, and enjoy getting away from it all at this secluded paradise. 1
As a high end onsen hotel, Takefue’s hot spring came from its precious autologous source (源泉かけ流し). The water was directly pulled from its natural source, to the property’s all open-air baths, indoor baths, footbaths. The water does not contain any hydrolysis, nor does it go through any heating and circulation.
We were on a road trip and had our own rental car, so pickup service was not needed. Anecdotally, the shuttle bus will be a high-end Mercedes-Benz sedan (S class) or a van if it’s a group - definitely worth taking advantage of.
As we arrived at Takefue, the staff were already waiting for us outside the gate. While I appreciated this level of hospitality very much, it also added some extra stress because I could have arrived much later and didn’t know so many staff would be waiting outside.
The friendly staff parked our car and ushered us to the lobby, where we would be choosing our personalized yukatas (bathrobes), then do the check-in in our room.
Walking into the property through its intentionally designed narrow entrance, it almost felt like we were entering a different world. From this point forward, I had already made the decision to not step out the property during our entire stay.
Check-in was done in the room, but before that, guests need to pick their own yutakas at the lobby house. The house looked low key, but fit perfectly in the surroundings. It gave me a feeling that I was visiting someone’s home in a bamboo forest.
Inside the lobby house, a few featured gift items related to the property were put on a table. Notice the two rabbits in the front, they were the mascots of the hotel, because Takefue was built in 1999 - the year of Rabbit. It was sweet to learn that some of the gifts shown in the photo were given to guests before checking out.
The room was a bit dark, with traditional and retrospective decor. A big Kumamon plush toy, the famous bear from Kumamoto, was put in the leaving area. Hotel guests can borrow the toy and take photos with it when they use the property’s public baths.
Unlike most hotels or ryokans where guests are given a standard style yukata, Takefue let guests choose their own. They offer a wide variety of sizes and styles - striped, spotted, monocolor etc, all of them look surprisingly suitable.
The guests finally made their mind on the yukatas, the lady at the front desk then led us to our guest room - Bettei Tenku (天空) to complete the check-in. The suite was actually pretty close to the lobby house, but also isolated enough to be undisturbed. It was also at this point we were introduced to Mr Uehara, the gentleman who would take care of our needs during our stay.
The suite - Tenku
The name of Tenku means ’sky’, a very fitting name because this suite has an open-air Japanese hinoki cypress wood bath, set on a hill overlooking the bamboo grove.
Check-in was super fast and smooth - done with the ipad installed in each suite (same with check-out). Similar to the lobby, the lighting in the guest rooms was warm and welcoming.
The decor was traditional Japanese style, but the hardware was very modern and well maintained. The hotel did a really good job combining them without creating a weird feeling.
Like most ryokans, dinner and breakfast were served in-room. There was also some nice garden / yard view at the dinning room.
The living area shared the same space with the bedroom (futons), which did make us feel a bit crowded. This might be the reason they later did a major upgrade to this suite and added extra space for a separate bedroom.
The amenities were matching the price tag - HERMÈS shower gel, Dyson hair dryer etc, and the facilities felt incredibly new. But the highlight of the suite was definitely the in-room open-air bath! The bedroom had multiple French windows, which offered a nice view of the bath and the bamboo groves.
The bath was impeccable in all aspects. The water temperature was perfect (easily adjustable if not). Baskets of towels, drinks (sake, beer, non-alcohols) and pomelos were ready to be used on the side. A brand new tv was installed on the bamboo wall for entertainment. The view of the bamboo groves below the bath was gorgeous.
With the soft, dreamy lighting setup, the bath became even more fascinating at night. Make sure to leave enough time for your own place to enjoy some undisturbed relax.
Taking a bath here was a unique experience. To say it was heavenly would be a bit of an exaggeration, but I frequently think about returning. In the most recent renovation, they even added another outdoor bath to this suite.
I’ll be honest, the meals were probably the most unimpressive part at Takefue, but they were not bad at all. The kaiseki dinner and breakfast were served in the dining room of our suite.
The quality of the local food materials and ingredients was top-notch, so was the presentation, but the cooking itself was average in my opinion. It was quite a big meal, and the kind of dishes was various and creative. You could also order extra drinks at a reasonable price.
Japanese BBQ was the entrée of the dinner that night, and it was excellent - thanks to the fresh Kumamoto Wagyu they used (I forgot to take a photo). Kumamoto also has a reputation for horse meat, which Takefue offered too - it was surprisingly good! The dessert was quite nice as well.
The Japanese style breakfast was very rich, but it probably looked more delicious in the photo than it actually was.
Overall, we were not super impressed by the meals for the price we paid, based on our experiences in ryokans and ryoteis elsewhere.
The public baths
The private baths in each guest room are already good enough, but Takefue really invested a lot in its public baths as well. Although the public ones are available to use by the hotel guests, they are not shared and have to be reserved (known as 貸切温泉 in Japanese).
There are a total of 3 public baths within Takefue that can be reserved for anywhere between 45 minutes to 1 hour, and they each are amazing in their own ways. Chikujo no Ma (竹城の間) is a massive bath that has almost the size of a lap pool. Dokutsu rotenburo (洞窟風呂) stands for “Cave Bath” and that’s exactly what it is. You get to bathe inside a semi-man-made cave. The last one is Chikurin no Yu (竹林の湯), which means “Bamboo Forest Bath”.2
Only available for guests staying in the most luxurious rooms (Kokyuan, Sayo, Shienan or Bettei Tenku), Chikujo no Ma is a luxury space, a secret castle built on a stone wall surrounded by bamboo.
The finish of Chikujo no Ma was jaw dropping. The hardware and facilities were high end and well maintained. There was a huge rest room with an onsen view, a changing room with warm towels and amenities, and a refrigerator stocked with juices, teas, milk, can drinks and ice creams.
The onsen was so huge that you could almost swim in it. The property also provided some nice equipments (e.g. pool float) if guests got tired of just sitting in the bath. The wide view of the sky and bamboo groves only added even more satisfactions.
We had a great time here and an hour passed almost in a blink of an eye. The next morning we had a reservation for Chikurin no Yu, which offers a more natural and traditional experience (literally means a bath in the middle of a bamboo forest).
It splits the size between the other two (meaning it’s massive), has two separate bath areas, and is surrounded by the most beautiful bamboo forest that’s especially atmospheric when lit-up at night. Unfortunately we only spent one night here so I was not able to catch that.
We visited Takefue in February, and you could see all the trees other than bamboo were bare. These places would be much more colorful and picturesque in summer or fall. Can’t wait to go back in the foliage season!
I also enjoyed Dokutsu rotenburo (the cave bath), but the cave was relatively small and it was nothing special compared to the other two introduced above. Overall, the public baths at Takefue are really outstanding.
The common area
It would be an injustice to simply say that the hotel just has a beautiful “bamboo garden” - the entire property is surrounded by nature, and there are man-made accents (a pretty waterfall, ponds with Koi fish, etc.) that really give it a super charming and relaxing vibe to the overall grounds.
The highlight of the public spaces would be the walking paths. Those pavements and steps were made with a careful mind, to be part of their surroundings.
Taking a walk inside the property, guests can really feel the harmony with nature, and may forget the fact that they were at a luxury resort.
Our room Bettei Tenku is near the entrance of the property, whereas the public baths as well as the riverbed garden are at the remote end of the bamboo forest, so we needed to walk the entire distance of the paths.
Long distance walks would be a bummer elsewhere, but it was an absolute joy to have at Takefue. With the corners and paths to explore, one could even get lost a bit here, but navigation was clear and convenient.
The sheer beauty was further elevated in the evenings, when the entire property is subtly lit-up - the bamboo forest. The light was ambient, not too shiny. The entire grounds was made to look like something out of a fairy tale.
Carpets were laid out in the hallways, to prevent the ground being hard and slippery. If guests got tired while walking in the bamboo forest, they can take a rest and even enjoy footbaths setup occasionally near the paths.
Don’t forget to choose your favorite flavor for Takefue’s custom made ice cream (made with local milk), and grab a bottle of water as you walk casually over the place. The ice cream was actually good!
The common area really showed Takefue’s philosophy as well as their attention to details, hopefully my photos had spoken for it.
Our check-out was done during breakfast. At around 11am, we left with a photo book, a very nice sake cup gift set and a frame photo of us having dinner. The staff went to the gate to see off us with a bow.
Takefue is the best ryokan I have ever stayed. Its impeccable combination of the setting, service, food and facilities had offered us a unforgettable experience and we would love to come back soon, preferably in the foliage season.
Hopefully our next time would be a longer stay, to fully enjoy their top-rated SPA, lunch with a view, night activities and many more.
Note: All photos in this post were taken by the author, unless stated otherwise.