It wasn’t always this way. Taking a dip in an onsen should be the most natural thing in the world – add human bodies to hot water – but Beppu has seen most of its hot springs appropriated for commercial gain, whether it be heating a home on the cheap, boiling eggs for sale, or pointing guests towards their omiyage (souvenir gifts) at a five-star hotel. However, a few “hidden” baths lurking in the western hills allow some unsullied enjoyment of Beppu’s raison d’être – not exactly holes in the ground, but close enough.
The first step is to get to Myoban (明礬), an onsen area accessible from Beppu Station by bus. From here directions are a little tough; it’s best to arm yourself with a suitably rough map from the tourist office, or one of the two hostels. A twenty-minute walk on a road heading up and left from Myoban bus stop will bring you to a fork. Take a right, then scramble up the rock path at the second gate to get to Nabeyama-no-yu (鍋山の湯), a pair of onsen sitting in a forest-like setting. The first is a black-water pool, the second filled with clay that you can use for a free mud bath. Beppu is visible below, yet all one can hear are the sounds of nature – there isn’t even a place to put your clothes. Turning left instead at the aforementioned fork will eventually bring you to Hebin-yu (へびん湯), a valley-based cascade of pools attended by a ramshackle hut. To hit the third spring, Tsuru-no-yu (鶴の湯), you’ll have to get off the bus just before it passes under the highway, and head up the dirt track alongside a graveyard. Not easy – but it’s Beppu at its purest.