Rotorua, quite in the middle of the North Island, is one of the world’s most active geothermal and volcanic region, making it an interesting mix of bubbling natural hot springs, mud, lakes and giant redwood forests. It also happens to be the centre of New Zealand’s remaining maori culture, and a hub for activities ranging from mountain biking to rafting.

Steam from underground.
Steam from underground.

Rotorua is situated between several mountains: Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. A maori gentleman I met at the spa told me that kiwis use the mountains as reference points, to distinguish which tribe you come from. Unfortunately as my trip was at first mainly for relaxing, and I didn’t have a car to get me out from the city, I missed out on the mountains and forests.

Rotorua information center.
Rotorua information center.

In the celebrations of Valentine’s day, I was lucky to have a chance to visit Hell’s Gate, quite similar geothermal activities and bubbling steamy and stinky hot pools as in the beloved town I once used to live in, Beppu, Japan. Right away when arriving to Rotorua the familiar odour of sulphur reminded me of the good ol’ times in Beppu, and as they also have different Hells, I felt right at home.

Mini volcano.
Mini volcano.

Hells gate is a thermal reserve, and a spa specialising in mud treatments and traditional massages. I was pampered and treated to an experience consisting of the mineral rich spa pools, a mud bath, and an hour long massage. Apparently after the treatments I looked relaxed, my skin was soft and I was pretty much spaghetti. The rest of the evening was pretty much soaking in my own spa (also a present), and sinking to sleep like a rock.

Spa pools all to myself.
Spa pools all to myself.

Had I had more time, still up and running maori village of Whakarewarewa would have been on my to-do list next. I wasn’t not that interested in the traditional maori dance (performed just for tourists), but more of their hangi food, steam boxes in the natural fumes, again very much like in Beppu. For some reason there were no restaurants in sight in Rotorua making this traditional (and cheap to make!) fare. It is rather sad to see McDonald’s and Subway everywhere, and not a problem to find pizza either, but when you try to find some original food, things get a tad tricky (unless sandwiches and fries are the traditional foods). So far I have not encountered any authentic kiwi food on my trip! I have noticed that they call sweet potato “kumara” and like to deep fry ‘em, and that kiwi burger might have lamb meat (why not, there’s 40 million sheep in the country!), but that’s about it. I wonder if I even get the chance! Anyway, Rotorua is a great destination for anyone looking for a bit of relaxation, some mineral rich water treatments, and spa life. Besides that, it’s a good base for adventuring to Hobbiton, Waitomo caves, and Taupo sky diving.

Yama, shiro, faamu and gift shoppu!

Field trip Japanese style! 3 destinations, 12 hours and closer to dozen gift shops – despite being behind schedule for a while, we made it back to Ap House in time, happy and tired.

The first stop (after the 10 minute bus pit stop) on our trip was Aso volcano, about 2 hours away from Beppu.

Crater, not an onsen, though both look pretty similar

The terrain on Asosan was rather rocky and rough. Since the volcano is located over 1500m above sea level, it was rather chilly, too. There was several warning signs for people with asthma, heart disease etc., since the fumes contained something not too healthy to breathe.

Pray to gods the volcano won’t erupt

After looking at the craters, we were supposed to walk down the mountain to the bus. Me and my friend too initiative and rode the cable car back down: we had plenty of time at the gift shop, and avoided freezing outside.

Cable car ride to Asosan, Mountain Aso volcano crater

Next stop was next to Asosan, a bowl shaped meadow Kusasenri, which actually was just a visit to a gift shop to hawk on all the free samples of the regional omiyage. (No pictures of the pond.) Next stop, my definitely most favorite part of the trip: lunch in Aso farmland.

Shrooms! And many different kinds…I would have needed a tour guide

The mushrooms pictured above were just a small part of the most likely best buffet I have ever had on an organized trip. The restaurant was called “Viking” for some reason, but the food was mainly Asian, luckily with many different salad and mushroom options. Unfortunately we did not have nearly enough time in Aso Farmland, so I did not even get to understand what the place was all about. There were some exercise domes, farm animals and funky activities for kids, spa, shops selling beauty and health products as well as loads of omiyage and other food, milk factory, mushroom cultivation and I can’t even imagine what else. I would have definitely liked to spend the whole day (or weekend) there! After rushing to the bus, we were off to the tourist highlight: The Kumamoto castle.

Part of the Kumamoto castle, and not even the best part

After few hours bus ride, we had an hour to explore the Kumamoto castle. After rushing through the main castle, me and my friend got to the best part: shopping area. Unfortunately, once again time was against us.

Time is money, so I saved my money here by not having time to shop!

3 hours on the bus with a sugar rush, I learned few new Japanese words. The trip was an overall success, and the price was ridiculous as well: 3000yen (30e) wouldn’t normally have even covered the entrance fees, let alone transportation and the magnificent lunch! I wish I had 2 or 3 days trip, but this was definitely worth going as it was. Now I just need to find out, if there are any similar places to Aso farm land!

Ps. The Kumamon bear started off as being cute and nice, but seriously: how many products can you make with it? It is everywhere! If you don’t know which bear I am talking about, google it and see if it looks familiar. If not, you should definitely visit Kumamoto – the castle is nice, too! And the city, even brom inside the bus, seemed so alive after Beppu.