You can't come to Kyushu and not visit an onsen, those steamy baths of volcanically heated water that dot the "explosive" countryside of Japan. But an onsen experience here is often uncomfortable for the uninitiated, involving an (over)exposure of flesh and towels that are entirely too little.
So, what to do if you want to savor a soak but aren't keen on baring it all in front of strangers? Seek out one of Japan's family onsen. These establishments - some in the middle of nowhere and others located near larger cities - are the perfect solution for the shy bather. In Kumamoto, the perfect place to test the waters is Ikkyu, a bathhouse just meters from the Mashiki-Kumamoto exit of the Kyushu Expressway.
There are two large, gender-separated bathing facilities at Ikkyu, but for a more intimate experience, enter the complex and turn right to get to the family onsen. Cross the carefully-tended courtyard with beautiful maples that change color in fall and enter through the purple-curtained door. Inside, you'll see a vending machine that sells tickets to the private baths. Pictures are available for each bath so you know exactly what you are getting - the pricier options have both indoor and outdoor tubs. Costs range from 2200 yen to 3200 yen per bath and baths are open from 11:30am to 1:00am.
Your bathing time is 50 minutes, no matter which tub you choose. Once you purchase your ticket (cash only, no credit cards for these machines), hand it to the front desk staff. If your chosen bath isn't ready yet, they'll have you wait in the comfortable lobby. When it's time, you'll be given a paper with your end time marked on it and the key to the bath of your choice. All of the baths are located along a dark wooden boardwalk lined with beautiful foliage.
It's hard not to want to settle into your private spa for the entire afternoon. Couches and a television are provided in the changing area and you can set the room temperature to your liking. Depending on what bath you choose, you may have a small garden, patio or rock wall with water quietly streaming down it. Our chosen bath (Aoi) had both an indoor tub (slightly hot) and an outdoor rock-lined pool that looked onto the shady patio and water feature. Like all onsen, there is a shower station where you soap and rinse before climbing into any of the tubs.
Ikkyu Onsen has twelve private baths and while I can only speak on the loveliness of one of them, I'm sure I'll be making a return trip ... or eleven trips, to try them all!