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Published: August 5th 2018
Greetings from the volcanic island of Kyushu. Well, actually, I believe all islands of Japan are very much volcanic, but Kyushu, in the south-western corner of the country, and particularly Beppu, where I’m at now, seems more so than elsewhere. Japan’s most active volcano, Sakurajima, just opposite the city of Kagoshima, in the far south of Kyushu, has been spewing ash ever since 1955, whilst Beppu is most famous as a very popular Japanese hot spring town resort. Indeed, it is quite touristy, but most of the tourists are Japanese coming from other parts of the country. It feels very much like a holiday resort town, and the main reason why I decided to include it on my journey is that it is both off-the-beaten track in terms of foreign visitors to Japan, and also full of Japanese onsen, the hot baths which I correctly predicted would be a very enjoyable part of my visit to Japan.
I last wrote on my final full day in Hiroshima, and yesterday boarded my final shinkansen train on my journey this year to Kokura, the first city you reach after arriving on the island of Kyushu from the south-western tip
Oniishibozu Jigoku, Beppu
"Demon Monk Hell", so-called as the bubbling mud is said to represent the bald head of a monk!
of Honshu. I was a little disappointed I must admit, as just as we were reaching the south-western limits of the island of Honshu, I was getting ready, with my camera, for a stunning ride over a bridge linking the island to Kyushu, but alas this was not to be so – the train took a tunnel to bridge the gap just less than a kilometre in length between the islands, through the Kanmon Tunnel, which amazingly you can also walk along, at the bottom of the sea, for free! Unfortunately I didn’t get to do this, as I was, well, on a train, but I found it amazing to learn that you can! At Kokura, I changed for the local limited express train, called the “Sonic” bound for Beppu. Sonic it was anything but, and after the bullet train it was bumpy and felt soooo slowww!! Ah well, an hour later I was arriving in my current destination, the Japanese onsen resort town of Beppu, fronted on the east by the Japanese Inland Sea, and surrounded on all other sides by achingly high and lusciously forested volcanic mountains and peaks.
From the station, I boarded a local bus
Tatsumaki Jigoku, Beppu
"Tornado Hell", this one is in fact a geyser which spouts every 35 minutes or so
on a 20-minute journey to the amazing, hot-spring area of Kannawa north of the city, to check in to my second, and final, traditional Japanese-style guesthouse on this journey, the Happy Neko (neko means cat in Japanese, by the way). Actually run by a Czech gentleman living in Japan, it is still very much Japanese-style, and is actually more of a self-catering apartment as they don’t provide meals here, not even breakfast. There is a small kitchen area with a sink, a fridge, a microwave and even a washing machine. A sliding door then opens out into the tatami-matted room, complete with futon in a sliding-door cupboard which I laid out yesterday – I actually had to lay out four, instead of the usual two, futon mats, as two were not enough to sleep on, and I felt I would wake up with aching ribs the next morning. With four I did sleep, but I still woke up a little stiff! It is still an amazing Japanese experience though, and I’m very glad to have checked in here. It is also a bargain in terms of price, mostly I think because there is no bath or shower! Yes indeed, although
there is a small room via another sliding door to a private toilet and wash-basin room, I believe this is the first accommodation I’ve ever stayed in where there is no bath or shower on-site! Apparently, the local way around here is to have one’s daily bath at the numerous (and there are indeed numerous) local, and cheap, onsen in the area. These are not the relaxing, spa-like places I’ve been to on a number of occasions now with many pools of bubbles, colours, jet-sprays and the like, just a simple hot bathing area surrounded by seemingly centuries-old wooden furniture. Indeed, this morning, instead of my usual morning shower, I headed over to the nearest one, the Tannoyu Onsen, a minute’s walk away, and had the whole (tiny) place to myself. This was good, as I was able to take photos, which I’ve never been able to do before as they’re not allowed, quite simply because people are in there with no clothes on. But being there alone this morning, no-one was looking when I took a few sneaky snaps. I’m not sure what good it did me to clean myself up though, as it is still hot and steamy,
and I think I became even sweatier getting out of the bath and on the minute’s journey back to my guesthouse, than I was when I went in there! Indeed, temperatures are still boiling hot here, officially 36 or so on the BBC weather app, but the “feels like” registering somewhere in the mid- to high-forties. Along with this, wherever you walk in the local area, you come across hot water escaping from somewhere, be it a local pipe, underground gutter, or even the hot spring stream that runs through the area. In a nutshell, it is beautiful here, but hot hot hot!
I’ve had a very enjoyable couple of days here, exploring the sights of a typical Japanese onsen town. Yesterday upon arrival, I headed out to start my tour of the local “hells” of Beppu. These are areas where the hot water springs out from the volcanic underground, into pools far too hot to be able to made into onsen. Called “jigoku” in Japanese, or “hell”, I could tell why they got their name – the furious heat which causes the volcanically heated water to rise to and gush forth from the surface is really quite something,
and many of them roar very loudly, spitting out boiling-hot water in all directions, in the process. Definitely many people’s definitions of hell – a boiling hot, inhospitable, quite scary place. There are eight hells in total, and yesterday I visited three before closing time at 5pm: the Oniishibozu Jigoku (Demon Monk Hell), so-called due to the shape of the bubbling mud sometimes resembling that of a bald man’s head; the Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell), so-called due the beautiful blue-green colour of its pool resembling the ocean water; and the Yama Jigoku (Mountain Hell), so-called as it gushes straight out at the bottom of a steep mountain cliff. Each hell has its own interesting characteristic, and I like very much the choosing of the names! After this, I visited a much cooler spring water area, cool enough to bathe in, in the form of a typical Japanese onsen: the beautiful Hyotan Onsen. This was the kind of spa-like onsen again, with the many different types of pools – very relaxing, and certainly not so hot as the near-100 degree temperatures of the hells. After this, I had a tough time finding somewhere to eat, as all of the local hotel
restaurants seemed only to want to cater to their guests. In the end, and after my third occasion of being turned away from a third hotel, I ended up in the most local Japanese place I’ve been to on my journey so far, where there was no English menu and the owners spoke no English whatsoever. The jovial owner was very welcoming however, giving me a hearty pat on the back and shoulders in the form of a “welcome” as I sat down. I wasn’t entirely sure of everything he said, but generally feel I got the gist. I decided to play it safe when ordering though, and went with a typical beef udon noodle bowl and a Kirin beer – I wanted a small one, but the owner insisted I had a large one – I wasn’t sure in the end whether what I got was the small or the larger version, but it certainly hit the spot. After paying and saying my goodbyes, I returned to my guesthouse and called it a night.
This morning, after the afore-mentioned very local onsen experience, the bath house making up the basement floor of the owner’s own house, I continued
with my tour of the hells. First up, the Shira-ike Jigoku (White Pond Hell), named due to the white-like colour of the pool; then the Oni-yama Jigoku (Devil’s Mountain Hell), not quite sure why this got its name, but walking around, a cartoon devil seemed to be the main theme here, along with a huge pool of at least 20 crocodiles, bred here apparently due to the warm environment created by the springs; finally, in this area at least, the Kamado Hell (Oven Hell), named due to its prior use for cooking. Indeed, walking around the Kannawa area, many houses and buildings seem to make much use of the hot steaming water, from heating systems in the winter it seems, to heating large greenhouses, also seemingly more in the winter (the whole place is currently a greenhouse at the moment!).
The final two hells involved a short bus ride just over two kilometres north of there (there is no way I’m walking that in this heat!), to firstly the amazing Tatsumake Jigoku (Tornado Hell), named for its 30-metre high geyser which shoots off about every 35 minutes. I was so fortunate that it was actually going off just as
Happy Neko Guesthouse
My room, after I put my futon down and let my luggage out...!
I arrived, rather than having to wait 35 minutes or so for the next one. They had in fact enclosed the geyser with a 10-metre high wall and roof, so that presumably it doesn’t shoot so high up that it splashes and scalds the visitors! It was a wonderful sight to behold, and in actual fact in all my travels, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a geyser! I found it very special, and perhaps my favourite of all the hells. And finally, the Chi-no-ike Jigoku (Blood Pool Hell), so-called due to its very red waters. What a very interesting tour of the amazing hells which make Beppu famous, and although I have sweated bucketloads these last two days due to the intense heat of the springs working in conjunction with the furious local heat, I have enjoyed it very much. The other tourists have been so friendly, and I have spoken with many, sometimes in Japanese, sometimes in English, always very gracious and welcoming – if I haven’t said so already in previous blogs, such lovely people are the Japanese!
I hadn’t finished for the day however, as from here I caught a bus all the
One of the many volcanic peaks surrounding the city
way to the centre of town, and felt the desire to at last try the world-renowned, famous, and altogether hugely expensive, Japanese beef, “wagyu”. It has been on my mind a couple of times during my travels here, but the price has been a little off-putting. In the end, having read so many amazing things about Japanese beef, I thought just go for it, no matter the cost. I asked in a souvenir shop whether there is a restaurant in Beppu serving Japanese beef, and this has happened on a number of occasions since I’ve been here, the lady got out her own mobile phone and searched the Internet and Google Maps for me to find one just two blocks away, the Somuri Steakhouse - such wonderful people! I fortunately arrived bang on the dot of 1.30pm, the last order time for lunch before the restaurant closed at 2pm. I was faced with the decision of going for an Australian beef steak lunch for around £18, or the far superior Japanese beef steak lunch for around £46. Since it was pretty much going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I opted for the latter. I was not disappointed. Whilst watching the
Steam rises from all over the city
Japanese chef cook it up in front of me, it went through my head that this lunch was going to set me back the cost of a one-night stay in a hotel in Tokyo, or both my two nights’ stay here in Beppu, or even around 11 fast-food noodle joint meals, but I thought it would be worth it. I was not wrong, and it was by far the most amazing steak I have ever had, and perhaps one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve ever had. After a delicious ham salad followed by a cheesy onion gratin soup, came the main course. Japanese beef, or wagyu, mostly comes from a breed called the Japanese Black, who have been bred here over the centuries so that fatty, marbled streaks run through the whole course of their flesh. I know this sounds quite gruesome, but it means that the steaks that come from them are so succulent that they actually melt in the mouth – I had no idea, until today, that it would be possible for a beef steak to melt in your mouth, but indeed I can assure you it can. The cows are also apparently very well-looked after,
often hand-fed and drinking mountain spring water. The Lonely Planet quite humorously writes on wagyu: “all mention of premium Japanese beef comes with the following disclaimer: eat this, and you’ll be spoiled for life”. I can well believe it, and will always remember this day each and every time I fight my way through a chewy t-bone back home.
Following the delicious lunch, and the slight blow to my bank account, I finished off the day with another very local experience, a sand-bath at the highly-atmospheric Meiji-era Takegawa Onsen, built in 1879. I can very much appreciate what a hot sand-bath must be like deep in the coldest and darkest depths of winter, so warm and cosy, but it felt rather foolhardy to do this when it was already baking hot outside. Nevertheless, I very much wanted to experience the very Japanese activity of sand-bathing, and was also very glad that I did. It involved lying down on hot, volcanically-heated sand, and having local ladies shovel up the hot sand all over every part of you except the head. Although I must have only been covered in a depth of around 10cm of sand all over, it felt very
Does this industrial contraption power the building behind...?
heavy, and rather unnatural to allow onself to be nearly buried alive! Despite being absolutely sweltering, it was also really rather soothing to have such warmth envelop every inch of your body (except your head), and whilst I was trying to avoid counting down the minutes of the ten-minute session, as it was so hot and sweaty, I was also trying to sit back, relax and enjoy it – at times I was. The ladies came round every couple of minutes to wipe the sweat dripping off my face and head, it was indeed pouring off. After ten minutes, a lady came and showed me how to get up again slowly, starting with lifting the arms, then the body, then the legs – it was rather an effort, but possible. Following this, a very very welcome cold shower and a dip in the onsen waters of the bath house. What a wonderful, and unusual, experience – I can now tick another quite famous Japanese experience, the sandbath, off the list!
From here, a short bus ride took me back to Kannawa, and back to my futon and tatami-floored guesthouse room, where the air-conditioning is once more on full-blast, and
the fridge is stocked up with milk, orange juice and yoghurt, as well as a microwave meal I bought at a local convenience store, in order to avoid yesterday’s palaver again of trying to find somewhere to eat!
I have very much enjoyed my couple of days in this very Japanese tourist town – both off-the-beaten track, but also full of wonderful Japanese experiences. Tomorrow I head to my final destination (oh no…!) on my tour of Japan: the urban centre of Fukuoka. Whilst it is my final destination in Japan on this trip, I’m actually planning from there both a day-trip to nearby Nagasaki, and also a night, my second out of the three nights I’m spending there, in a Japanese capsule hotel! I am booked into a business hotel for three nights, but have additionally booked this second night in the capsule hotel. I thought this rather cunning, as while I can still have the experience of a capsule hotel, I can also leave most of my belongings in the same place for three days, still enjoy the breakfast included in the hotel (capsule hotels don’t provide breakfast), and even return to the hotel if need be
in the middle of the night if I find that claustrophobia overcomes my ability to get a good night’s sleep. I am still excited about the prospect of having another, oh-so-Japanese, experience!!
Until my final one from Japan, which I plan to write from Fukuoka in a few days’ time, sayonara for now! Thanks for reading, and all the best.
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