Onsen 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. We were in touch with them through my brother’s girlfriend Ziggy, who had lived and studied in Japan with them a few years ago. Just as Ziggy had assured us, they instantly welcomed us as part of the family too.

From afar, Beppu appeared to be a very sleepy place, squashed between the sea and the mountains, 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 something dramatic was happening under the earth. Dozens of steam clouds were billowing from the earth, and it looked like the city was evaporating. The heart of Beppu is its geothermal activity, affecting everything from power generation, to tourism, bathing, and relaxation.

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 some sakes. 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.

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. Inevitably, we were taken to an onsen, a public hot spring. This onsen was a foot spa; a stream of burning hot water was channelled past a row of little wooden seats, and we sat down to put our feet in the little river. 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.

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.

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. 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).

Sand bathOver 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. 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!

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. 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.

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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