Tsuetate Onsen Koinobori Festival

Children’s Day Carp Festival (Koinobori, 鯉のぼり) at Tsuetate Onsen

Golden Week in Japan

Have you heard of Japan’s Golden Week? This is a unique period of time from April 29th to early May that contains four closely spaced holidays. The four holidays are Shōwa Day (April 29), Constitution Day (May 3), Greenery Day (May 4), and Children’s Day (May 5).

As this is one of the longest holidays in Japan, many celebrations and festivals take place throughout the country. At Tsuetate Onsen on the island of Kyushu, you can view a majestic display of carp streamers fluttering above a rushing river during the Children’s Day Carp Festival.

Koinobori carp streamer at tsuetate onsen
Koinobori – Carp Streamers in Tsuetate Onsen

Koinobori Carp Festival for Children’s Day

Carp streamers, koinobori (鯉のぼり) are the most iconic decoration used to celebrate Children’s Day. These fabric fish are displayed to honor children and bless them with a future where they grow up healthy and strong.

Koi was chosen as the symbol of Children’s Day as it is considered to be an incredibly spirited animal – it is so full of power and determination that it can swim upriver despite rushing streams and cascades. The koi’s strength and tenacity to overcome obstacles reflect the same goal for children to grow up strong and resilient.

Koinobori Chopstick Wrapper
Cute carp wrapping on the chopsticks!

Tsuetate Onsen holds a Koinobori Carp festival every year during Golden Week. It’s a lovely sight to see that you won’t want to miss!

Getting to Tsuetate Onsen

Tsuetate Onsen is located on the border of Oita and Kumamoto prefectures in the middle of Kyushu Island. The area is known for its high-quality hot springs and nostalgic ambiance. Transportation is limited for those without car access, but a bus route does allow for relatively easy (though infrequent) travel from Fukuoka’s Hakata and Tenjin Bus Terminals.

Tsuetate Onsen
Tsuetate is a town nestled between a river and trees

I had difficulties getting Google Maps to show the desired bus route correctly. However you can find current timetables for riding the Highway Bus on the Kurokawa Onsen line here: Fukuoka –> Tsuetate, Tsuetate –> Fukuoka.

Note that travel along this route requires advance reservation, so pick up tickets before you travel. Tickets can be arranged at major Bus Terminals like the Hakata Bus Terminal.

The bus ride from Hakata to Tsuetate takes just around two hours. Once you get out of the city, prepare yourself to “ooh” and “aah” out the window as the most beautiful scenery passes by. (The last hour of the ride was honestly one of the most scenic bus rides I’ve been on).

Bus Ride to Tsuetate Onsen
Scenic view aboard the highway bus

Side note: If you visit during Golden Week, the location of the Tsuetate Bus stop may be different than usual.

Additionally, since Golden Week is the most popular time to visit the area, traffic and parking can be very complicated for those coming by car.

Things to Do in Tsuetate Onsen

You made it to Tsuetate Onsen, and hopefully, you are traveling during the famous Koinobori Festival!

While the town is pretty small, it is still a nice place to slow down and relax in a valley of nature.

Tsuetate Onsen Steam
Hot steam at Tusetate Onsen

Take in the view of the flying carp from various places around town. You can relax by the river or stand on one of the many bridges to get a different perspective of the more than 3,000 swimming fish. When the wind picks up, they flutter in the air in ripples of rainbow color.

Flying carp during the Koinobori Festival
Flying carp during the Koinobori Festival

One of the best places to see the carp is on Momiji Bridge which is located downriver at the edge of town. In addition to seeing all the hanging streamers, you can buy an ema, a small wooden plaque, to write your wishes and hang on the bridge. Ema cost ¥300 and come in different shapes like carp, hearts, and a bear (Kumomoto’s mascot is a bear).

Momiji Bridge Tsuetate Onsen
Momiji Bridge

On the opposite side of town from Momiji Bridge, you can find stalls selling Tsuetate pudding, charcoal-grilled food, ice cream, curry, and onsen steamed eggs. Order your favorites and enjoy your snack sitting by the river.

A cup of pudding cost ¥320 and had sweet caramel at the bottom. Be sure to mix it before eating!

The salted steamed egg was ¥100 yen. To me, it tasted just like a regular boiled egg…

Pudding Tsuetate Onsen
Onsen pudding

Charcoal-grilled fish and chicken for ¥800.

Charcoal Grilled Fish
Charcoal Grilled Fish

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, Tsuetate Onsen has particular “steam-it-yourself” locations around town. Since the area is gushing with hot water and billowing steam, these little stalls were built so that anyone can steam-cook their own food as they like.

Tsuetate Onsen Steam
Steam coming out of the town’s pipes

Each location has directions on how to use the steamer station and recommended steaming times. There are even vending machines around town that sell eggs, potatoes, and vegetables to use for steaming.

After eating, explore the sedoyas, or small back-alley streets. These narrow roads twist and turn between the tightly packed buildings, and occasionally offer a nice view of the river from above.

Where to Stay in Tsuetate Onsen

Many families who drive to Tsuetate Onsen only come for the day before heading home. If you’re limited to the bus schedule, however, this could make your trip quite rushed. Instead, how about staying the night at one of the traditional Japanese-style inns called ryokans?

The ryokans at Tsuetate Onsen date back many years, some 100 to over 300 years old!

Bookings can be challenging to secure if you travel during Golden Week, so advance planning is recommended. Additionally, most of the ryokans do not allow for solo guests to stay.

Japanese style room in a Ryokan

Luckily I was able to find a place that does accommodate solo travelers: Hakusui-so Ryokan (旅館白水荘). For a list of all the ryokans in the area, check out here.

Not only can you soak up the culture that comes with staying in a ryokan (sleeping on a futon in a tatami room, working the thin sliding paper and wood doors, wearing a yukata, and eating traditional food), but you also have the opportunity to take a dip in one of the famous onsen baths.

The water from the hot springs in Tsuetate is said to contain a high amount of metasilicic acid – a natural moisturizing ingredient that is good for the skin.

Ryokan Onsen
Indoor onsen bath

Here is a list of the hot springs in the area. Some are for guests of that ryokan only, but others allow for drop-in visitors and even have private baths for families to enjoy together.

Final Thoughts

Tsuetate Onsen is a bit out of the way if you live in one of the major cities, but if you make the venture out, you will be rewarded with a humble sanctuary full of history and nature.

If you are looking to make a bigger trip out of a Tsuetate adventure, you can add Hita to the itinerary. Hita lies in between central Fukuoka and Tsuetate, and is also accessible by bus. It is another quiet town that is preserved in its times. Some people call Hita the Kyoto of Kyushu!

Sunset in Hita

Are you interested in more Japan adventures? Make sure to check out these blog posts too!

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