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.