Beppu – an Illustrated Visit to Japan’s Onsen Spa City

Beppu is the perfect destination in Japan for bathing. This city on Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island, is famous for its geothermal activity and range of hot spring bathing options.

Clouds of steam rise from dozens of vents in the earth, creating a very unusual cityscape. There are large public bathing houses built of wood, private hot spring baths in people’s homes, geothermal power plants stinking of sulfur, even bathers buried in hot sand!

Sketch of the Japanese city of Beppu showing steam clouds rising between the buildings
View of Beppu, and its geothermal activity

The city of Beppu

From afar, Beppu looked sleepy. Sandwiched between the sea and the mountains, with a curtain of mist behind, this place was a low-rise city of drab, blockish apartment buildings, sagging telephone wires strung over quiet streets, traditional wooden houses, and a black sand harbour protected from the sea by rows of huge concrete tetrapods.

But clearly, something dramatic was happening under the earth. Dozens of steam clouds were billowing from the earth, and it looked like the city was evaporating.

Indeed, Beppu’s lifeline is its geothermal activity, affecting everything from power generation, tourism, bathing, and relaxation.

The different kind of onsen in Beppu

An onsen is a public bath, usually fed by natural hot springs, with a particular bathing etiquette attached.

Foot spa onsen (Asiyu)

The first onsen we visite was an asiyu, a foot spa, which is a very relaxing way to spend an hour or so. We removed our shoes and socks, and placed rhem in the stream of burning hot water that channelled past a row of little wooden seats.

Close to the source, where the water poured from a fissure in the rocks, the water was scolding, and before long our skin was bright red. We also tried a foot steam, placing our feet into a big wooden box, and closing the lid.

Takegawara Onsen – a public bathing house

The next day, we visited a big onsen for bath time. Takegawara onsen was a gorgeous old wooden building with a grand, imposing exterior; it was also the oldest onsen in the city. The group split up into the male and female baths. Aware of the nude custom, (but never having done one) I followed the lead of Shin and Motohide, stripping down for a pre-bath shower. After a few buckets of cold water went over my head, I stepped in.

The room was large and cavernous, with a central onsen bath fed by a pouring tap in the wall. The walls and floors were caked in decades of mineral deposits and deeply discoloured tiles. The steam was suffocating, and the water was very hot, not bearable for more than about 10 minutes at a time. Tiny plastic stools and buckets were littered around the room, and a handful of men were soaking in the bath, towels on their heads for convenience.

Drawing of a japanese bathing house in an old traditional building
No pencils/cameras allowed! This onsen sketch was done using a stock photo

He replied that the rules say no tattoos are allowed, but few people would try and challenge a person such as this. After the bath, we all bought cold chocolate milks and iced coffees from the vending machines, and measured our blood pressure with a nearby sphygmomanometer (mine ran a bit high, unsurprisingly, considering the heat).

An old man walked in, thin and stooped and grey, and surprised me when he turned around to reveal a back, butt and legs heavily tattooed in intricate Yakuza designs. I had heard that tattoos were usually forbidden in onsens, and I asked Motohide what he thought.

Sand bathing

Over the next few days, we wandered around Beppu to explore our surroundings. Munching on some 7/11 onigiri, we wandered down to the seafront, where we found a curious variation on the traditional bath. It was ‘sand bathing‘, where customers lay down in the steaming hot, black volcanic sand with just their faces visible, protected from the sun by an umbrella.

Drawing of beppu sand bathers buried in volcanic sand
Sand bathers in Beppu

We observed with curiosity, but didn’t feel in the mood to get sandy. One of our biggest regrets from our journey to Beppu was not getting buried at the beach!

Private onsen

The hot spring water doesn’t stop at public places; individual houses are plumbed directly into the hot springs too. At our hosts’ home, they showed us their own private onsen. It was in a separate room by the garage, with a changing area and shower.

It was constantly flowing, the hot water unlimited from the underwater springs, and the tub was crusted with mineral deposits. It was used daily by the family. But for Cindy and I, the heat of the onsen took getting used to, and after a few minutes too long, we began feeling light headed and weird.

Japanese hospitality

We had the pleasure of staying with a host family for our stay in Onsen, which was a very special way to meet the locals, and connect with the city.

As we stepped out of the ticket gates at Beppu station, a family was waving enthusiastically at us. We had never met our hosts, but they seemed to recognise us straight away. Japanese hospitality was already impressing us – they instantly welcomed us as part of the family.

We dropped off our bags at the house, and sat cross-legged at the main dining table in the lounge for tea and snacks, whilst we got to know our hosts. There was Miyoko, and her teenage children Shin and Kaya. Shin had a buddy staying for the weekend, and we also met Motohide, a family friend, who was also in town and was always keen to pour us glasses of sake.

Our visit to Beppu coincided with a revolving door of guests at the house, and many convivial communal dinners were in store for us. Everybody spoke at least a little English, and language wasn’t a barrier.

Drawing of a Japanese girl playing a Japanese musical instrument

Japanese BBQ

A barbeque was planned for the first night, and we went out shopping. Whilst Miyoko picked up the supplies, Motohide took us through for some ‘supermarket tourism’, showing us with pride pre-wrapped packages of fugu (pufferfish, notoriously poisonous if incorrectly prepared), vegetables we couldn’t identify, ready-to-drink glasses of wine with a sealed lid, and strong alcoholic drinks with sweet plums lolling at the bottom. 

The barbeque was set up in the open-air garbage. Bottles of sake and plum liquor were opened, and marinated steaks sizzled on the barbeque, smoking fragrantly in the cold winter night. Marinated chicken skewers followed, and miso-brushed onigiri (rice balls), which caramelised and turned the rice crunchy and sweet.

We ate off heart-shaped paper plates and chatted with the people who had made us feel so welcome. Our visit to Beppu was great for two reasons; the onsens, and of course, the hospitality.

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