North of the volcano, the Oguni area!
At long last, in this series where we ask locals to introduce their recommended spots, we have finally reached my hometown!
And of course, I will happily step forward and share a few of my favorite places that I’ve found since moving here. And who am I?
My name is Max and I work at a public community development corporation called SMO Minamioguni. I’ve been living here since 2018 and can normally be found at the town’s tourist information center.
But firstly, let me say a few words about the Oguni area!
The Oguni area, or Oguni-gou (小国郷) as it’s called here in Japan, is actually two separate towns called Oguni and Minamioguni. Even in Kumamoto, most people don’t know about this and collectively call the two towns for Oguni. With that said, the people who live here are very particular about this fact, and the relationship is similar to sibling rivalry. With that said, I hope no one will raise an eyebrow at me for taking the freedom of representing both towns here!
Let’s start from the top with my two favorite spots in Oguni! There are endless exciting hidden spots in Oguni. This time I’ve chosen two that haven’t been brought up in previous articles and I love because of their rich story.
And since the Oguni-area is famous for its hot springs, let’s start with:
The hidden rustic onsen town, Tsuetate Onsen!
Tsuetate Onsen, the largest onsen area in Oguni and often referred to as Kyushu’s inner parlor. This onsen town is located along the Tsuetate river that weaves along a gorge right at the border of Kumamoto and Oita.
This rustic hot spring town has a rich history stretching back an impressive 1800 years and is today home to 18 ryokans (traditional Japanese inn).
At first glance, you might be surprised by all the white smoke that rises all over town. What is this? Greenhouse gases and pollution?… No!
This is actually 100% natural steam that seeps out from the ground in a constant and seemingly endless stream!
Both visitors and locals gladly utilize this blessing of nature to prepare delicious steamed food!
You can even find vending machines loaded up with eggs and vegetables. One set cost 500 yen so feel free to start cooking at any of the numerous steaming spots around town.
But since Tsuetate is an onsen town, the bread-and-butter is, of course, the hot springs!
While many onsen establishments boil the water to increase temperature, recycle or add tap water to adjust the temperature and such, Tsuetate guarantees 100% natural hot spring water right from the source. Furthermore, it gushes forth at an astounding temperature of 98 degrees and has some of the best water qualities in Japan. It is also thanks to this high temperature that you see steam rising from all over town and can enjoy naturally steamed food.
Among the numerous indoor-baths and open-air baths, you can also find different types of steam saunas.
Around Tsuetate onsen, you can also find ashi-yu, which means footbath!
Tsuetate was originally famous for the healing properties of its water. Many people ventured here to heal sickness by staying for longer periods. The water contains high amounts of Metasilicic acid which work as a natural moisturizer and keeps your skin soft and shiny!
The name “Tsuetate (杖立)” is a combination of the symbols for “cane” and “to stand”. According to the legend, elderly and sick people who couldn’t walk without a cane came here, bathed in the water, and as it became time to set out again, they left their cane standing and walked away on their own two feet.
If the legend is true or not is hard to tell, but one thing I know for sure, Tsuetate has some of the best hot spring water Japan has to offer.
Tsuetate had its glory days after the 2nd world war and the atmosphere of the area makes it seem like time has stopped. The townscape is very different from what you typically associate with Japan but this distinctive style, often referred to as Showa (Showa period: 1926 – 1989), is still very present and beloved in Japanese society. Even though many places aim to imitate the Showa atmosphere, there are probably few that have preserved an entire town in the way that Tsuetate onsen has.
It’s a marvel to explore the area while crisscrossing back and forth over the river.
There are many small back alleys with winding staircases that guide you through a labyrinth of buildings that haphazardly seem to be stacked upon each other.
Squeezed in between the buildings, there is a long and ancient-looking staircase that feels like the entrance to a different world.
At the top of the staircase, sits a small and lovely little shrine surrounded by impressive moss-covered trees. I love to visit local shrines because they remain a testament to Japanese Shinto-culture rather than being turned into tourist attractions.
Sadly, many shops are closed in Tsuetate, but if you keep strolling around you will find small cafés and shops scattered around the town.
This here is the entrance to Café PLUS. Keep your eyes open for what looks like a spiral staircase in a glass box. It obviously pulled me in and after a few moments of confusion on whether to go up or down, I managed to decipher the puzzle and headed up to the second floor!
On the second floor, you will find this open café space with seats towards the river. Look out at Tsuetate onsen as you enjoy a relaxing break from exploring. Here you can also find souvenirs, local specialties, handmade goods, and even enjoy art exhibitions from local artists.
Speaking of local specialties, this is Tsuetate purin(custard pudding). Making a steamed sweet egg custard called Amatamago for guests has been a custom here for a long time. It is very similar to the famous dessert “purin” which is popular in modern Japan. From this custom, Tsuetate pudding was born, a dessert which combines the Amatamago of the old with the pudding of today. You can find different variations of this steamed pudding around Tsuetate. The smooth consistency and flavorful pudding that mixes with the slightly bitter caramel sauce hidden at the bottom is irresistible!
Tsuetate Onsen is one of a kind, and anyone with a love for the rustic and nostalgic feeling of the Showa period will without a doubt love this place. Sadly, the area faces many challenges. Many of the buildings need to be renovated but it’s a costly process to renovate while maintaining the current townscape. With fewer customers and no guarantee that the money you spend will come back, many are forced to reluctantly close down their business.
Tsuetate Onsen has been a place for rest and healing for almost 1800 years and I truly hope that this isn’t the beginning of the end for the inner parlor of Kyushu.
If you want to experience the full flavor of the post-war era of Japan while also enjoying both some of the best hot springs and ryokan in Japan at a very reasonable price, then come to Tsuetate onsen! I’m convinced that Tsuetate Onsen will capture your heart the same way it captured mine!
Tsuetate Onsen Tourism Association
Open hours: 08:00 – 18:00
Fixed holidays: None
Website: https://tsuetate-onsen.com/english (Partly in English)
Let’s move on to our next destination! Did you know that two people from Oguni have ventured to Germany and spent many years obtaining the highly esteemed qualification as a Master Craftsman(Meister)? One of them is a meister of meat and the other a meister of bread.
And they have their shops lined up next to each other in the outskirts of Oguni, close to Waita onsen.
Firstly, we have Düssel, the specialist on German sausage and ham. Düssel’s small shop has a modest and charming appearance. The design with its red color and white trim has a nostalgic feeling and reminds me of Sweden.
The inside of the shop has a calm atmosphere and everything is constructed with local wood that creates a cozy feeling. Outside you can see a veranda and some benches where you can rest your weary legs on a sunny day!
The atmosphere of the shop might be calm, modest, and cozy. But you can be sure that the product they sell pack quite the punch!!
I love Japan, but in all honesty, they aren’t great at sausage and ham. That is why Düssel is a blessing from heaven! Both the sausage and the ham keep top-quality and it truly feels like a privilege to have access to authentic German meat products right here in Oguni.
So, let me introduce the masterminds behind Düssel!
This is Sugimoto Kazuyoshi-san and Naoko-san. As a child, Kazuyoshi-san was spellbound when he saw a documentary that introduced the entire process of breeding a pig to making sausage. Since his family also owned livestock he wanted to do the same thing here in Oguni. As soon as he graduated high school, Kazuyoshi went to Germany to learn from the true masters. After earning his Craftsman license, he came back to Japan and met his lovely wife Naoko. Only three days after the wedding(!), they went back to Germany together so Kazuyoshi could get his Meister license.
But during Kazuyoshi’s time back in Japan, he didn’t only meet his wife, he also inspired another dream. A dream that would lead to this, possibly unique, master craftsman combo.
Right next to Düssel is this heartwarming and welcoming bakery called Danke.
Danke is also run by a married couple! Here we have Sato Daichi-san and Mitsuru-san together with their, as you can tell, very happy customers!
When Daichi was in high-school he met Kazuyoshi who had just gotten back from his first stay in Germany. Daichi-san got inspired by Kazuyoshi-san and decided to follow in his footsteps by moving to Germany right after he finished high-school.
After 12 years of living in Germany, Daichi-san finally managed to obtain the prestigious rank of bäckermeister, master baker.
Thanks to this, we can now enjoy freshly baked bread according to the German traditions right here in Ogun. Daichi-san also combines his skills as a bäckermeister with local specialties such as Jersey milk to create some of the fluffiest and tastiest milk bread I’ve ever had!
Buy yourself a loaf of bread and get it neatly sliced so you can start the feast as soon as you get home!
If you visit on a weekend, you can look forward to Düssel and Danke’s combined hot dog which uses Düssel’s sausage and the bread from Danke! Many visitors come specifically for the immediate satisfaction of biting into this rare delicacy!
Naoko-san recommends you to buy a couple of sausages and other delights. Bring them with you to Waita onsen, or any other of the closely located hot spring areas in Oguni where you can steam food. Leave your sausages on the natural steamer and soak in the onsen while waiting for your feast to be prepared!
Düssel & Danke
Open hours: 10:00 – 17:00
Fixed holidays: Tuesday
Phone (Düssel): 0967-46-4186
Phone (Danke): 080-8565-4254
Let’s work our way down and move south to Minamioguni.
The first place I would like to take you to is another place that has captured my heart like few others. Tateiwa Suigen!
Welcome to the small village of Tateiwa. This is a small and rural village that consists of 13 households located around the Tateiwa river source, known as Tateiwa Suigen (立岩水源). This small community faces, like many other rural areas in Japan, the constant threat of decreasing population and Tateiwa’s inhabitants have reluctantly watched as people move away for more urban areas. In 2002 the people of Tateiwa sat down and opened the discussion on how to turn this trend around.
The conclusion they arrived at was to utilize the blessing of nature. In other words, the plentiful water that constantly gushes forward from the Tateiwa spring source. Since the actual source is located on private property, the water was redirected, and in 2006 the Tateiwa Suigen Park where you can draw water, buy local vegetables and say thanks to water god, was established.
Since 2008, the Tateiwa Suigen Festival became a new tradition and is held on the last Sunday of July every year at Tateiwa Suigen Park. This is a popular event that attracts both locals and visitors from outside of the town. It is a lively local festival with Japanese traditional performances and food made from local ingredients!
But don’t think that the people of Tateiwa was satisfied yet!
In 2016 they started a new project. They renovated a plastic greenhouse and turned it into a restaurant that operates from the golden week, which starts at the end of April each year, and keeps open during weekends all through summer until the end of August/beginning of September.
So what can you enjoy here?
Well, of course, the main dish will utilize the water of Tateiwa, which at this point (2010) had been appointed as some of the best water in Kumamoto! It is Soumen Nagashi! Maybe you have heard about “Nagashi Soumen” before? A popular dish during summer where you catch cold noodles that flow through a split bamboo. The Soumen Nagashi follows the same concept but you sit down around this donut-shaped container where the water flows in a circle giving you an infinite amount of tries to catch those slippery noodles.
You can also get your set of noodles served with freshly tempura-fried local vegetables straight from the fields of Tateiwa!!
I love to simply go for a walk in the Tateiwa area while absorbing the simplicity and beauty of this small rural community.
The peaceful and heartwarming blend of nature and habitation feel like something snatched right out of a movie by Studio Ghibli.
And as you keep strolling along, you soon notice that there is one more thing that the plentiful water of Tateiwa provides. Lush green and entrancing nature!
Follow the stream that flows from the river source and you will soon find yourself surrounded by a beautiful moss-covered forest that rises on both sides of the stream.
The water that trails along the gorge of Tateiwa is crystal clear and keeps a constant temperature of around 13 degrees all year. This makes Tateiwa into a cool and refreshing place to spend the hot summer days.
As you eventually pass through the gorge, you will find yourself facing this long row of plastic greenhouses. It’s one of these that transforms into a restaurant during the summer season! But that is not the only greenhouse that is special. If you peek into the one furthest away you will probably get a pleasant surprise.
It’s a secret base!!! This space, which also functions as a photo gallery, is warm and cozy even in winter thanks to the stove. Feel free to enter and look around in this whimsical and unique greenhouse! The perfect place to have a rest after exploring Tateiwa.
Tateiwa is one of my favorite places in Minamioguni. This small community has nurtured strong and deep bonds through its efforts to protect and revitalize their village. Tateiwa has so much love and warmth and I really wish everyone could visit at least once!
Tateiwa Suigen Park
Lastly, I will introduce another local treasure that I want to shine a spotlight on! The local Izakaya Piero in Minamioguni.
Piero might not the usual place that would be introduced in an article. But that is exactly why it is perfect here! It is hard to define Piero. It could be an Izakaya, a bar, a restaurant, a café, a snack bar, whatever you need it to be.
I will call Piero an Izakaya because that is what Piero is to me. Piero is located in central Minamioguni and is frequently visited by locals. The span of the guests covers everything from teenagers who visit Piero to eat some parfait, to families going for dinner, and local politicians dropping in for an after work. Piero is also the obvious event hall for new year parties, reunions, going away parties, or any other type of event that requires food and drinks.
This is what Piero looks like inside, a small and cozy restaurant that can at around 30 guests. My favorite seat is the bar counter!
The reason for that is because it’s the best place if you want to talk to Piero’s owner.
This here is Miyuki-san, she is the lovely, warm, and completely wonderful owner of Piero. Her husband started Piero almost 40 years ago. Soon thereafter, Miyuki-san visited Piero as a guest which led to her meeting and eventually marrying her husband. Sadly, Miyuki-san’s husband passed away at a young age and since about 20 years back, Miyuki-san has kept his legacy, Piero, alive.
And what makes Piero great, apart from Miyuki-san, is that the food is delicious! It’s simple finger food that goes perfectly with a beer or your drink of choice. My absolute favorites are tempura fried Maitake mushroom (Maitake tempura), cucumber sticks with miso paste (Morokyuu), and deep-fried lotus root stuffed with minced meat (Renkon hasamiage)!
Piero is a small and local shop that is stuffed with love and a great atmosphere. If you are staying a night in Minamioguni and want a different experience that lets you peek into the local life in rural Japan, then you should definitely stop by Piero!!
Open hours: 18:00 – 24:00
Fixed holidays: Sunday
So! There we have it! 4 places, in the Oguni area, that I think are amazing and deserve to bask in the sunlight. Each of them have a rich history and showcases the efforts and passion of the people in this area.
I’m convinced that a visit to any of these places won’t leave you disappointed!
Come and visit the Oguni area in Aso and spice up your trip!