Perhaps you are an onsen-pro, visiting your public bathhouse every weekend and chatting with the locals, or perhaps you’re still more of a novice to the whole public bathing experience. Either way, if you’re a fan of the hot springs of Japan, you can’t fail to be impressed by the Hirayama Onsen Resort in Yamaga, Kumamoto-Shi.
The Hiroyama Onsen is set up in the hills away from the centre of Yamaga, nestled in a valley of perfect peacefulness. There are actually two complexes – the Hirayama Onsen Zenya and its more luxurious partner Hirayama Onsen Taichi (where we stayed). If you want to visit for a day trip, there is a restaurant and beauty treatment centre available for use, as well as the public bathing areas. But if you have the time (and the money) to stay overnight, I highly recommend immersing yourself in a night of wonderful relaxation to get the most out of the experience.
The Western-style Villas are reminiscent of hillside chalets, built in a Japanese style. Each little house is clad in light-colored wood, with sliding doors and huge glass windows. With the doors open and a gentle breeze flowing through, the villa is light and airy – the perfect atmosphere to let you relax in the peaceful surroundings. A simple bedroom, a spacious tea-room, a modern bathroom and a comfy living room – this is no standard hotel room you’ve rented out but more like a tranquil apartment.
Best of all, each villa comes with its own private onsen (hot spring) for you to use as much as you like. In our villa, the indoor bath was constructed of wood, made silky smooth by the hot water that continuously flows into it. The outdoor bath was made of polished granite, set in a miniature rockery garden with dazzling light filtering through the leaves of the trees. Don’t worry about the little white bits floating in the water – the Yamaga water is famous for it’s ‘creamy’ texture – these are the natural minerals that give the water such a unique quality.
As you can imagine, a hotel experience such as this comes at a cost – but considering what you get for your money, it’s certainly not a rip-off. Especially when you consider what comes with it: not only is your villa amazing, but you have free use of the public onsen all day long, and your stay includes a luxurious dinner and breakfast. Served in a private dining room, the meals are intricately crafted, delicious and authentically Japanese. Not the kind of food you’d want to eat every day but an incredible thing to try, especially for tourists.
So for the basic plan at Hirayama Onsen Taichi which includes the villa with dinner and breakfast, you’re looking at 13,000 – 16,000 Yen per person per night. There are three grades of villa to choose from, and options for an even more elaborate evening meal, plus packages which include beauty treatments in the spa area (such as massages, facials and stone sauna.) With these extras, costs range from 14,800 Yen to 24,000 Yen per person per night.
Aside from the use of your own personal onsen, you may wish to use the public bathing area as well to try out some of the different baths. Next to the showering area, the main public bath was sizeable and of a good temperature – you can easily tell which onsens are naturally hot compared to the artificial ones – natural hot springs are much warmer! Also, you can tell by the smell. As with the private bathing rooms, the public bath had a very distinct sulphuric smell – sort of like a cross between an old egg sandwich and a fart. It doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, but despite the unique smell, the health benefits are clear in how amazing your skin feels afterwards, and you soon get used to the unusual odour.
Apart from the main pool, the public bathing area has a cold plunge pool, a milder temperature ‘walking pool’, a shallow sloped pool for lying in, and a ‘mist sauna’ – basically a steam room. With all these different pools to try, you will definitely feel pampered by the end of your bathing session.
As if the sound of the luxurious bathing, delicious food and comfortable accommodation aren’t enough to entice you to visit, here is the best part of your visit to Hirayama Onsen: the feeling of utter tranquillity. For us, travelling to the resort consisted of a one-hour bus from Kumamoto to Yamaga, and then a 15-minute shuttle bus from there to the resort. On arrival, we had a fast-paced tour of the complex and an intricate explanation of every detail in our villa by the chatty and jovial maintenance lady.
After all the rushing around and information overload, we shut the door to our villa and sighed deeply – breathing out not just the chaos of the minutes and hours before, but all the pent-up stress from work, from daily life…. everything just drifted away in the peaceful surroundings. How wonderful to sit back and say ‘Right, I’m not going to worry about anything. I’m going to soak in some wonderful hot water, I’m going to drink tea, read my book, and not look at the clock all afternoon.’
The Hirayama Onsen is the best place to forget your worries and totally unwind. Aside from the tiny amount of traffic on the country road, you will feel completely at peace. With sunshine streaming in through the windows flung wide, warming your squeaky clean and yukata-clad body, you won’t have a care in the world. I can’t wait to book my next visit. Click here to visit their website.