By Mandy Bartok
On the outskirts of Yamaga town in northern Kumamoto prefecture, the onsen village of Hirayama welcomes visitors with a variety of baths in a rural atmosphere. While most places rely on the standard gender-segregated larger baths, the small onsen complex of Yunokawa boasts ten private baths for families, groups or couples looking for a chance to soak together.
Each of Yunokawa's bathing "suites" has an indoor and outdoor tub. The inside tubs are mostly made of hinoki (cypress) and can be a bit scalding on first entrance. A stone or granite tub stands in a small courtyard attached to the inside room and on cold days, the air cools the water to the perfect temperature. On the day of my visit, we were even gently pelted with large snowflakes for a good portion of our bathing hour. Sadly the only thing missing from the outdoor area is a true view. A high bamboo fence surrounds the perimeter of each bathing area and the most you can see are the tops of the pines behind the complex.
Each onsen "suite" can be rented out for one hour and can host up to three people for the base price of ¥1550. If you come with a larger party, there is an additional charge of ¥350 for adults and ¥200 for elementary-aged children. Kids under six are admitted free of charge. There is no English language information available but the staff was incredibly kind and helpful during our visit, even promising to come find us in our car if we chose to wait outside. And be prepared for a wait. This is a justifiably popular destination for locals, and we waited nearly an hour for a bath to become available. Luckily, there is a foot bath on the patio behind the main waiting room and a television and drink machines are located near the check-in.
Yunokawa Onsen is easily reached from downtown Yamaga in a five-minute drive or taxi ride. Afterwards, why not return to the nearby city and stroll their historical main street, perhaps popping into the Yachiyoza Theater. In February, Yamaga also hosts a beautiful lantern festival on Friday and Saturday evenings.
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