Sunday, November 15, 2009

The town of onsens

I caught a ferry to Kyushu at sunrise the next morning. By noon I was in Beppu, the infamous town of onsens (hot springs). I was staying with a 27 year old Mexican-American woman who was receiving her Masters Degree in Asia Pacific University. Unfortunately, Colleen was in the middle of a very difficult semester and had several papers and presentations due so she couldn’t spend time with me. Luckily, a few days prior to arriving to Beppu, I came across a very interesting profile on couchsurfing and contacted the person, setting up time to meet. Bahti was a 23 year old young Uzbek man studying International Management at APU. He spoke Russian, Uzbek, English and Japanese! We decided to spend a day together to show me around town.

Beppu is considered Japan’s onsen capital due to the amount of hot springs, geysers and jikoku (hells). Here’s what a local brochure written by a Buddhist priest, Kon Toukou in winter of 1957, said about hells:

“Heaven, as depicted by Dante, John Milton and William Blake seems neither beautiful nor interesting to me. However, I find the visions of hell conjured by these artists to be tremendously interesting. The cruelty of beings is so vividly expressed in them that I almost feel that I would prefer to go to hell rather than heaven. In this day and age, however, the heavens and hells described by these great poets and writers no longer evoke yearning of fear amongst many people. However, if you visit Beppu you will be confronted by a vision of eight great hells appearing before you. And these are certainly terrifying hells. Hot water gushes forth from the ground, roaring and rumbling fiercely, as numerous enormous crocodiles jostle violently with each other. Though you cannot see deamons, it is clear that one false step, one slip, will bring you to a rapid destruction. When I consider that these hells must be hotter than the reported cauldrons of hell, all my longing for hell fades swiftly away. Human beings need to experience hell in this life at least once, to empty themselves of their superfluous accumulations, to reflect on their past conduct, and to contemplate the path ahead. For this important purpose, I highly recommend a visit to Beppu, to witness the many aspects of hell. Only those who have been through hell and lived to recount the experience, are worthy to be called real human beings”.

I couldn’t have said it better. Hells were a sight to see. Spewing steam from the underground, boiling water produced such force strong enough to pull one and a half of train cars. The temperature nearby was hot enough to produce most exotic flora and fauna. One hell was breeding crocodiles due to climate conditions, another produced healing masks from red clay. One hell emerged 1200 years ago after a volcanic explosion, another was the oldest natural jigoku in Japan. They were fascinating to watch.

Foot Onsen

 In the evening Bahti took me to an onsen in a hotel where he worked and we finished the evening sitting on a pier and talking about life and travels. 
Hotel Onsen

View of the city from the onsen

The following day I decided to visit a secret onsen tucked away on a mountain.

The bus dropped me off in a very remote area. Far away from town’s center, I was standing in front of a mountain. Following directions on the map, I pursued a narrow road up the mountain. The street was so steep, at moments I barely held my balance. By the time I got to the onsen, I was out of breath, my legs were aching and I was yearning for the healing bath. I didn’t wait long. The owner quickly showed me around the main house and gave me directions to the bath house. I walked up a narrow trail through the woods and soon stood in front of a small clearing. The onsen was situated between a mountain waterfall and a high cliff overlooking the whole city of Beppu. It looked magical. Milky blue water of the pool beckoned the weary with its tranquil calm. Beautiful clear waterfall pacified the stressed with its soft thud on the stones. Pine scent of the forest soothed the senses of the tired with its earthly essence. The perfect balance of nature brought the needed peace and relaxation. I soaked in the onsen until I felt my limbs, body and soul fully rejuvenated.
 Road to the onsen

Path through the woods



Feeling completely revived, I went back to the main house for lunch. Sitting on tatami in seiza and enjoying Japanese cuisine I watched the city far below. The onsen did its job, my mind was at ease. I had no thoughts of stress or worry. Taking long, deep and steady breaths, I closed my eyes. Shutting out the sight sense, I immediately felt the other four senses sharpen. Hashi’s (chopsticks) smooth wood felt a bit rougher now; I felt tiny ridges and loose strings of timber. Soup emerged a new smell of miso, sweet potato and a hint of soy sauce. Minor buzz of fans in the kitchen and faint chatter of cooks surfaced in the background. Miso flavor tasted slightly more salty on my lips allowing me to appreciate its distinct savor.

I remembered a special restaurant in New York which held “Dark Dinning” events once a month. The guests wore black masks before entering the restaurant and the whole dinner course was served in complete dark. It was amazing to find out how a simple soup changed its taste when the sight sense was not helping the mind to recognize it.


In the evening, I received a call from Bahti inviting me to go to Beppu Park for a special festival. Over 450 volunteers have transformed an ordinary park into an enchanted fairytale. 20,000 bamboo and paper candles adorned the narrow paths of the park. Beautiful paper tents were dimly lit by colorful projectors. Fire torches lined the main entrance. Tiny lanterns, hanging in mid air, ornamented bamboo forest. Every path revealed a wondrous beauty of light. The paper for the candles was made and decorated by kindergarten and pre-school kids and they walked around looking for their masterpieces.

Young couples walked around holding hands; kids ran around in circles around parents; love, happiness and joy seemed to infect everyone. Including me. After the most extraordinary onsen, the festival was a perfect finish to an incredible day.


1 comment:

  1. I never thought I'd say this, but I think I need to go to least once. Otherwise, I'll never be a true human being, eh? Seiously, though, the place looks amazing. Thanks for the pictures, both visual and with words.