The Korea Herald


A spell in Japan’s ‘Hells’

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 17, 2014 - 20:08

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Smoke rises from a vent at the White Pond Hot Spring in the Kannawa area of Beppu, Japan.(Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald) Smoke rises from a vent at the White Pond Hot Spring in the Kannawa area of Beppu, Japan.(Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald)
At its best, travel involves stepping out of one’s comfort zone, and one way to do this in Japan is to step into a comfort zone ― a hot spring facility, or as they’re known locally, onsen. My previous visits to Japan were lacking in cultural immersion, so this time I decided to concentrate my short stay in the city of Beppu, arguably the world’s first hot spring tourist town.

Attracting sore and stressed-out visitors since the Edo Period, the Beppu-Oita area has the highest volume of outflowing hot spring water anywhere save for the U.S.’ Yellowstone National Park. As the Japan National Tourism Organization puts it, “Beppu ranks first in gush volume in Japan.”

A long-time resident of South Korea, I was interested in comparing the two countries’ hot spring experiences, and my first impression of Beppu, when I rolled in on JR Kyushu’s Limited Express Sonic, was that it looked a bit like Busan, a port city with hot springs of its own.

The low-rise buildings were circled by cauldron-shaped hills, and the ocean was barely visible through the sullen, massy clouds, with touches of gold where the sun burned through like a welding torch.

Right outside the east entrance of the station, a bubbling hot spring fountain offered free soakings for the hands. There was also a statue of a man named Kumahachi Aburaya. The sculptor portrayed this bald, bespectacled oldster leaping off the ground with a joyous expression, both arms raised. The captions read: “The man called ‘Shiny Uncle’ who loved children” and “Father of tourism in Beppu.”

Tourists like to pose next to this demon statue at the Crocodile Hell, Beppu, Japan.(Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald) Tourists like to pose next to this demon statue at the Crocodile Hell, Beppu, Japan.(Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald)
From Aburaya’s back hangs a hot spring cape with what appears to be two naked infants clinging from it. In fact, these are “oni,” demon-like creatures that reside in hell ― a reference to Beppu’s hot spring “Hells,” which the “Shiny Uncle” promoted with tour buses and guides to create the first modern Japanese tourism experience in 1927. Later, when I visited the Jigoku ― the Hells ― I would curse Aburaya’s ghost under my breath.

For the time being, though, I walked around and took in the streetscape. The city seemed to be composed solely of “business hotels,” pachinko-slot parlors and vintage red phone booths. Beppu citizens deliberately cultivate a sense of nostalgia, decorating eateries and drinking dens with antique movie posters and knickknacks. But in some respects the town simply looks old and dated. The diminutive Beppu tower, with its neon Asahi logo, is impressive only as a 1980s masterpiece, while the Hell circuit relies on tired, cringe-worthy gimmicks.

Authentic traditions, though, are not hard to find. When I visited, kadomatsu were hung above almost every entrance. These New Year’s decorations, the Nipponese versions of wreaths, are assembled from pine, bamboo and woven straw. Meanwhile the big-nosed Shinto god Tengu (“heavenly dog”) has a shrine in the Yagoi Shopping District and a role in an annual parade.

And of course, there are the onsen. The first that I visited was Takegawa (“bamboo tile”), which opened in 1878, and has an entry charge of 100 yen ($0.95). Inside, the floors have been buffed to a glistening shine by generations of socks and soles. A glass display case shows sections of ancient clay and bamboo pipes clogged with mineral sediments like atherosclerotic veins.

When I entered the men’s section, I was surprised to find only one pool. Unlike Korean hot spring facilities, there were no showers, and yellow-green pomelos bobbed about in the bubbling hot water. Though I could only handle 10 minutes of the heat, spending time in Takegawa’s spring was like returning to a lost age of simplicity, free of distractions and gimmicks. On the way out I noticed that the windows next to the locker area were half ajar, offering a generous view for people walking past.

Hamawaki, a second hot spring facility I visited that day, was more akin to its Korean counterparts. Though older than Takegawa ― according to Oita prefecture’s tourism website, Hamawaki was a top onsen in 1817 ― the site has been brought into the modern age with a huge beige-tiled building. Five pools of varying temperature and aeration are rounded out with a wood sauna and waterfall jets. It still seemed bare bones, though, lacking amenities like towels and water dispensers. A carp tattoo covering one man’s entire back reminded me that I wasn’t in Yuseong or Onyang, South Chungcheong Province.

After my hot-water detox, I opted to avoid the city’s dubious-looking, questionably named alcohol retox venues. I also shied away from the local specialty of fugu (puffer fish), but not so much from fear of the deadly toxins as of the price. Instead, I dined on ramen in pork bone broth, a Kyushu specialty.

To hell and back

Two days later I was ready for the Hells. According to the Tourism Division of Beppu City Hall, we know from 1,200-year-old historical texts that the Hell area was created through an explosion of Mount Tsurumi, the highest in the area.

To get to the Kannawa area of Beppu, where the eight Hells are situated, one can take a bus from in front of the train station. An otherworldly view unfolds on the approach to the zone, with thick white plumes spewing endlessly from dozens of pipes and smokestacks throughout the neighborhood. Four of the Hells were designated a Place of Scenic Beauty by the government in 2009, though the landscape has inspired admiration and disquietude for centuries.

Mainly scattered along a winding, uphill lane, the eight Hells can be visited individually for 400 yen per Hell, or en masse with a 2,000-yen ticket book. There are also two extra Hells not included in the ticket pack.

The first one I stumbled into was White Pond Hell. I was greeted by a sulfurous stench and white smoke rising from a shallow, milky-blue pool, like the backdrop in an Akira Kurosawa film. The Crocodile Hell (a crocodile farm) and the Oven Hell, with a statue of a red demon perched on a cooking pot, were less impressive. Not in the mood for flamingos, I began rushing through the next one, the Mountain Hell.

Even more of a hell was the Sea Hell, colored an artificial blue and reachable only after passing through a long gift shop. Though the plopping gray mud and steaming rock pile at the Monks’ Heads Hell were actually worth seeing, by this point I was suffering from Hell overkill.

To hell with the Blood and Geyser Hells, I decided. My muscles were sore from the previous day’s hike through knee-deep snow at Aso-Kuju National Park, and I was finding it difficult to tour hot springs that can be looked at but are too hot to be touched.

A statue of Beppu’s Kumahachi Aburaya, one of the founders of Japanese tourism (Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald) A statue of Beppu’s Kumahachi Aburaya, one of the founders of Japanese tourism (Matthew Crawford/The Korea Herald)
Turning my thoughts away from my stamp collecting sheet and its two remaining empty spaces, I bought a bento box and pack of doughnuts at a grocery store, lunched on the side of the street and ventured into the Hyotan Hot Springs. I had realized that the value of Beppu lies not in the tourist spectacle pioneered by Kumahachi Aburaya, but in its chthonic waters. Though far out of my comfort zone in Hyotan, I slipped on a yukata and stumbled toward the sand bath in a pair of wooden sandals that were rather on the small side.

By Matthew C. Crawford