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Friday, June 4, 2010

Trip to Kyūshū, Day 6 - Things start to get hellish 九州の旅5月27日

WARNING: The following blog entry contains images that may not be safe for work, or may offend those who get no enjoyment out of life and, as a result, try to inflict their miseries on others.

Thursday began with another surprisingly good Japanese-style breakfast, compliments of the New Hotel Tamaya ニューホテル玉屋 in Usuki 臼杵. The proprietress of the first-floor restaurant was surprised that I could eat the raw egg with rice – I was too! After breakfast, it was time to bid farewell to Usuki, and embark on the hour-long train ride on the JR Nippō Main Line 日豊本線 to my next destination, the hot-springs Mecca of Beppu 別府.

Upon arrival at Beppu Station 別府駅, I stashed my bag in a coin locker, and then visited the tourist information office to get some information on getting around the city. However, when I asked about the best way to get to the ropeway going up to the top of Tsurumi-dake 鶴見岳, which my “Rough Guide to Japan” said provided an all-around panorama reaching all the way to the island of Shikoku 四国 on clear days, I was informed the summit was shrouded in fog (a fact which was easily and continually confirmed throughout the day, as the mountain can be seen from many points around Beppu). If fantastic mountain vistas were out, then the Hells were in, and after buying an all-day bus pass, off I went.

Beppu is a small city in terms of population (122,000), but it’s very spread out. Fortunately, the Kamenoi Bus Company 亀の井バス runs an accessible and extensive network for getting around to the various sights. Underneath Beppu there is a lot of geothermal activity is going on, and millions visit every year to soak in the various hot springs located about the city. For sightseeing, Beppu’s premier attraction is the “jigoku” 地獄, or “hells”, which basically are hot springs that are far too hot for bathing. There are nine hells in all, clustered in three areas, and after consulting my Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, I decided that three of them were worth a visit. A twenty-minute bus ride from the station to the Umijikoku-mae 海地獄前 bus stop in the Kannawa 鉄輪 hot spring area brought me to the first of these, Umi Jigoku 海地獄. Of the three hells I saw this day, Umi Jigoku was the most attractive, set in a large garden-style park. As you can see from the photos and video below, the water is sea-blue in color, with a depth of 120 meters (394 feet) and a temperature of 90C (194F). The bamboo pole in front of the super-hot pond is holding a basket of eggs that are being cooked in the hot water:

Next to Umi Jigoku was Oniishi-Bōzu Jigoku 鬼石坊主地獄, so called because supposedly the hiccuping pools of mud resemble the bald head of a Buddhist monk, or “Bōzu” 坊主. While certainly not as striking in appearance as Umi Jigoku, this muddy hell was oddly fascinating in its own boiling, odoriferous way:

There was no mistaking the entrance to Beppu Hihōkan 別府秘宝館…:

…an odd museum devoted to sex. The exhibits ranged from serious topics such as phallic Shintō 神道 statuary (fertility cults were quite common in Japan until the arrival into the country of Victorian prudes in the latter half of the 19th century) and shunga (erotic ukiyoe woodblock prints) 春画, to more proletarian displays like selected scenes (i.e. “the good bits”) from ロマンポルノ films and strange tableaux like the one of Snow White and the seven dwarfs:

The souvenirs for sale at the museum for also, um…”interesting”.

After a morning of such stimuli, it was time for lunch, which on this day was okonomiyaki お好み焼き and a bottle of beer 瓶ビール. Then I caught a bus to Shibaseki Onsen 柴石温泉, and the final hell of the day, Chi-no-ike Jigoku 血の池温泉. “Blood Pond” was a large red pool, the color apparently due to its high iron-oxide content:

Having had my fill of jigokus, I caught the bus back to Beppu Station, and pondered my next move. The cloud cover over Tsurumi-dake had lifted by this point, but it was getting late in the afternoon, and a large cloudbank was still looming in the background. So instead I opted for a closer (and cheaper) lookout, taking the bus the short distance to B-Con Plaza ビーコンプラザ and the Global Tower グローバルタワー. For ¥100 ($1.10/NT35), I got a 100-meter (328 feet) high view over the whole city. The observation deck lacked a roof, meaning it was getting gusty at times up there, but the views were excellent (the mountain in the photo on the right is Tsurumi-dake, with the white buildings in the foreground part of the Suginoi Hotel 杉乃井ホテル complex, Beppu’s most famous onsen site):

With a day of sightseeing pretty much taken care of, it was time to retrieve my bag, and check into my accommodation. And what lodgings they turned out to be! I’ve stayed at countless business hotels ビジネスホテル, ryokans 旅館, minshukus 民宿 and youth hostels ユースホステル all over Japan, but the Nogami Honkan Ryokan 野上本館 was without a doubt the best value for money I’ve ever encountered in Japan. Close to the station, friendly staff (some of whom spoke English) and spacious rooms. Even though my room had a shower, the ryokan had no less than five onsen baths, three of which could be booked for private use (and I reserved one of those for that evening). And all of this for just ¥5000 ($54/NT1730) a night:

If the Nogami Honkan had any drawbacks, it was that it was located right in the heart of Beppu’s red-light district, but in Japan this isn’t the concern it would be in other countries. Just around the corner was the Takegawara Onsen 竹瓦温泉, dating back to the Meiji 明治 period, and noted for its sand baths (which I would’ve tried had the weather turned bad):

For dinner, I returned to the station building. Earlier, I had noticed a poster on the wall outside of one dining establishment there promoting four of Beppu’s microbrews 地ビール, and so I decided I had to try some of them. Below are the two I had with my tempura set meal 天ぷら定食:

After an extremely hot but relaxing bath at the ryokan, it was off to bed early, for tomorrow, weather permitting, I was going to go hiking.

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