Walking around the relaxed, coastal city of BEPPU (別府), it is at times tempting to think that the place was built atop the den of some giant dragon – spirals of steam billow skywards from a thousand holes, lending certain streets a magical, otherworldly air. However, this is no myth or fairytale, simply one of the world’s most geothermically active regions. Over one hundred million litres of near-boiling water gush out of more than three thousand springs each day, harnessed for use by local homes and swimming pools, for heating and medicinal purposes, or to fill the dozens of public and private baths that make this one of Japan’s most popular onsen resorts. The place is unashamedly commercial in nature, yet despite receiving over ten million visitors per year, it manages to feel like a town in decline – largely built during the domestic tourism boom of the 1970s, it seems half-forgotten by modern Japan. Still, the humble, throwback air that this creates enhances the city’s pleasure, and it’s easy to escape from the crowds.
There’s not a lot more to do in Beppu than soak in a tub or be buried in hot sand. The most popular attractions are the nine jigoku, which spew out steaming, sulphurous mud and form simmering lakes in lurid hues. Despite the hype, only two or three are of any real interest; you’d do better to head for a clutch of secret onsen hiding away in the western hills (see The sand baths). However, recent years have seen a burst in artistic creativity thanks to the Beppu Project (wbeppuproject.com), a venture which has roped in all sorts of locals – from painters to former prostitutes – in a noble effort to vent some of the city’s character. Projects have varied from art exhibitions to the remodelling of traditional buildings, but these come and go, so pick up a pamphlet at the tourist office, or go straight to their tiny base in the alley behind Takeya.
There are eight distinct hot-spring “towns” dotted about Beppu, each characterized by the varying proportions of iron, sulphur and other minerals in the water. Most activity, however, is concentrated in Kannawa (鉄輪). Not only is this northern district home to seven of the ten jigoku, but it’s also a spa in its own right with a beautiful garden rotemburo, as well as an outrageously tacky museum of erotica. Dedicated bathers might want to try one of Beppu’s sand baths or take a dip in one of the many on offer at the Suginoi Palace. Alternatively, you can ride the ropeway to the top of Tsurumi-dake for superb views over Beppu bay and inland to the Kujū mountains.