Wherever I look from the train window, I see a Japanese landscape. In the foreground are workers hunched over in rice paddies, and in the background is the snow-capped peak of Mt, Fuji. It’s a sunny, diamond-bright day in May, and I am on the final leg of a six-hour shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) journey from Tokyo to Beppu, the hot springs resort nestled at the base of the Tsurami Mountains on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu.
According to 8th century legend, Beppu’s onsens were created when two gods visited the country and one got sick, which made the other god sad. So the sad god pulled out a long pipe from the seabed of Bungo and created an onsen where the other god could bathe. And the sick god got well. Today some four million visitors each year make the pilgrimage to this seaside resort to get well by steaming, boiling or poaching vitality into their travel-weary bodies.
Beppu has nine geothermal hot spots, producing the second largest volume of hot water in the world after Yellowstone National Park in the United States. It has the largest number of hot springs in Japan (some 3,000), ranging from traditional hot spring ofuros to steamy gray-mud doroyus to hot sand beach sunaysa. My first destination is the oldest spa, which also happens to be the closest to the train station; the black sand bath at Takegawara.
Dating to 1879, Takegawara means “bamboo-roof” and was named because the roof was originally made with bamboo slats. Though the monstrous building has been rebuilt, it still retains an old world feel with such traditional Japanese elements as upturned eaves, hanging red lanterns and wooden flower planters.
This is a community as well as visitors’ bath, and I walk past bikes and scooters leaning against the wall before entering sliding doors (or shoji) into the bath where a woman behind a window takes my yen. As is the custom, I slip off my street shoes into plastic slippers to flip-flop across the wood floor to shoji hiding steamy mounds of black sand. The inside is reminiscent of an old gymnasium with high wooden ceilings and brick walls. The men’s area is separated by a rice paper partition and the attendants scurry from one room to the next.
I’m led to a cozy furrow with a wrapped towel at one end to serve as my pillow, and after crawling into the hollow, I’m quickly immersed in hot black sand. Like the other bathers, I savor the warmth as it coaxes away tension and frustration and flushes impurities from my body. The waters are said to contain a healing substance used in treating rheumatism, neuralgia and other diseases.
After ten minutes, the attendant gives me the signal to emerge and rinse in a canal of water rimming the wall before taking a warm shower and slipping into a hot lemon-scented pool for a long luxurious soak. I’ve brought a small towel to protect sensitive body parts and that same little towel has been rinsed by the attendant and lies nearby. It services as a chamois, and after drying once, I wring it out and dry again. I dress slowly, enjoying the revitalizing effect of the hot sand.
Energized, my next stop is a doroyu or mud bath at the Myoban Hot Springs rucked in the hills above town. The baths are in an old spa, where you pay to soak in several different pools. I start with the traditional hot springs bath.
The procedure for all is the same. Disrobe in the dressing room and store your clothes in a locker or basket. Hold a small towel or washcloth in front of your body and walk to the bath area. There you’ll find a plastic basin, a plastic stool and faucets along the wall. Sit with the other bathers facing the faucet and fill the bucket with water, repeatedly dousing yourself and then soaping down completely, careful to remove all traces of soap before heading for the bath. There are two cardinal sins in Japan. One is not removing your shoes when entering a Japanese home, inn or temple and the other is bringing soap into a Japanese bath.
Sometimes the ofuros are too hot for comfort (hot springs are heated to a minimum of 107F), so it helps to ease in gently and then sit perfectly still until your body grows accustomed to the warmth. I bask in the hot bath for several minutes, before heading down a flight of slippery, mud-stained stairs into what looks like a converted basement with cement walls, exposed pipes and a murky pool of pale gray mud freshly pumped form the center of the earth.
The hot mud doesn’t circulate well, so bathers move carefully until they find a comfortable spot. Move one direction and the mud is tepid, move in the other direction and you’re in mire so hot it burns.
A sign on the wall tells me to scrape the mud from my body and shower before heading upstairs to a series of coed roten buro, or open-air baths sprinkled throughout a courtyard lightly landscaped with potted palm trees.
Coed baths are not for the modest, though etiquette dictates carrying a small cloth to cover private parts when moving from one pool to the next.
I linger in the outdoor bath, until it is time to dress and head to yet another Myoban spa, where whole oranges, lemons and grapefruit float in outdoor baths. The tradition here is to visit the spas but also to visit the shops and huts where yunohana (sulfuric powder) is extracted from the water and sold for home use as dried bath minerals and sulfur flakes.
Of the many onsens in Beppu, the Suginoi Hotel (or Palace), sprawled on a hill above town, is probably the most impressive. At one time an enormous gilt-covered Oyakushi-sama (Buddha who gives medicine to the ill) loomed atop a giant fish bowl of carpe in one bath and a red torii gate, similar to the ones found at Shinto shrines, was the focus of another. Today the hotel boasts five levels of rooftop pools, ranging from large wooden barrel baths to family baths, with breathtaking views of the bay.
For the most peaceful setting, there are the sunayu seaside baths at Beppu Bay. These steamy beds of sand near the harbor cove overlook the blue water of the inlet. Umbrellas provide protection from the sun, and picnic tables nearby offer a place for a relaxing lunch after bathing.
The rule is no more than three baths a day so I will save the sand baths for tomorrow. Today, I have been poached, boiled and steamed enough and am ready to crawl into the comfort of my ryokan bed.
–Kristine M. Carber