I am back from my vacation a day earlier than expected. I would say things did not go according to plan, but since I don’t make plans I would say things went great. And they did. I had a wonderful time despite it being so short. The reason it was short is because, in a startling moment of forethought, I decided, I should call the hotel I want to stay at in Hiroshima and make sure they are not full. They were. So I called another, they were full too. So I just came home. Beppu was awesome but very expensive (it didn’t help that I had to condense a lot of vacation into two days so I had to be a bit more aggressive with transpiration). The hotel I stayed at was equally awesome, but they only had a twin room available so I also had to shell out a bit more money then expected there. But man was the hotel worth it. The island of Kyushu seems to be more geologically active than Honshu. Kyushu is really mountainous and gorgeous. Beppu is on the eastern edge of Kyushu. Like so many Japanese cities, Beppu is in the cradle of a mountain range. It is surrounded by mountains. My hotel was on the outer edge of town on the peak of a foothill. The view of the city and the sea was amazing. And other view was a sharp wooded assent of a mountain. Seeing the view made me want to stay there because of the two Onsen (Japanese baths) at the hotel. But before I get to that let me explain more about geology. Beppu is really geologically active. There are hot springs everywhere. Walking around you see steam coming from the ground. A lot of steam is tunneled through the city and used to heat/cook/power things. It was really cool to see boilers and steam stacks everywhere I went. It reminded me of those science fiction novels were it is the future but technology is all centered around steam. Fleur told me the name of that genre “Victorian something or other,” but alas I have forgotten. Anyways, lots of steam wicked cool. The hot spring temperatures range from slightly above ambient all the way up to above boiling. Onsen take advantage of this and pump the hot water into baths were it is mixed with cool water if needed.
The first onsen in my hotel was in the basement. After taking a shower (the actual bathing part of Japanese Bathing takes place outside of the bath) I was greeted by a huge room in dark marble and stone. In the center was a pit overflowing with spring water being pumped through a central obelisk of solid black marble. After stepping in I found when sitting it came up to above my chest. The water was warmer than normal bath water and very relaxing. A minor smell of sulfur hung in the air. Normally sulfur is not a pleasant thing, but somehow it was mildly intoxicating while soaking in the main tub. After soaking there for a while, I went to a side area where water fell from the ceiling and I had it massage my back. It was heavenly. I went to this onsen pretty late at night (by Japanese bathing standards) so I pretty much had the place to myself. Which was a big help for me, given this was my first time and I wasn’t in the mood to be “on display.” You have a little towel for privacy, but I have heard nightmare stories about onsen. Then I discovered a treat, there was an outside area to this onsen. Now it was in the basement of the building, but the building – as you may recall – is on a mountain, so the basement is still pretty high in the air. I went out and found a large cedar tub that you controlled how much hot/cold went in. I turned it up pretty warm and relaxed. There was also a smallish pond next to it. You could sit in it and look across the Japanese style garden out across the city. I was so pleased with it all. But the best was next.
The second onsen at this hotel was on the roof of one of the three buildings. This was really why I decided to stay at this hotel even though the price was high due to the twin bed problem. I went at around 10:30 at night. After showering I went out into the open air roof. The different pools cascade downward, and are meant to remind you of rice patties on a mountain or hill. Each pool is slightly cooler. There were four levels to the pools. From atop the building on the mountain all of Beppu shimmered like fresh snow. The lights from buildings danced and twinkled as intermittent steam from the earth drifted in the wind. To the right of the city was the great darkness of the sea stretching to infinity and seeming to double back on itself as it merged with the sky above. It was not very crowded this late at night and I was able to just relax and let the water surround me. Eventually the sky cleared up and I could make out the Milky Way. For a few tantalizing moments, I was suspended between the glittering works of men and the glittering works of the gods. It was a kind of poignant beauty and grace that cannot be put into words. The sound of the water, its warm embrace, the minor tang of sulfur, the darkness of the sea, the lights of Beppu, the shadowy incandescence of own galaxy, and me all flowed together for a time. Yes, Beppu is the Los Vegas of hot springs. Yes, Beppu is needlessly commercial, expensive, and has annoying public transpiration, but from atop the mountain, floating in the water warmed by earth itself, under a sky of stars none of the other things matter. None of the other things even exist. Every yen I spent was worth it for those precious few moments.
Stay tuned I will put up pictures of the jigoku (“The Hells.”) on Flickr and also give some explanation of them in a future blog.