Steam literally rises from the ground in Beppu, a town known for its wonderful hot springs. I was eager to give the onsen (hot spring) experience a go after having heard about it from a colleague from work whose wife is Japanese.
The train ride from Shimonoseki to Beppu wasn’t very long but did involve a few changes. I’m very happy to have purchased the JR Rail Pass as making my way around would’ve been much more difficult without it.
When I arrived at the Beppu station, I managed to catch the right bus and found my hostel pretty easily. The owner was very nice and explained all the amenities about the place. I had an entire unit to myself, which included a tv, toilet, small kitchen, washing machine and anything I might need.
I suppose people who come to Beppu stay for more than one night so these things would come in handy. The only thing the room didn’t have was a shower or tub. For this you had to use the public bath or go to a more expensive bath/hot spring.
Since I’d been traveling a lot, my first action was to do two loads of laundry and hang them up to dry. Then I set off to explore the town. I had a map but mainly used the tried-and-true technique of letting the paths take me where they may. I brought my onsen supplies, which included soap, shampoo and a towel, for when I found one.
Not too far away, I found a public bath housed in a not-so-special looking building. There were separate entrances for men and women and no fee to enter. I decided to try it because it was probably used by locals instead of tourists. I went in and there were a bunch of grannies having their afternoon bath. Like everything else I’ve done in Japan, I managed to figure out the protocol by watching and mimicking those around me. Usually, it’s a good way to go.
Near the entrance, there’s a wall full of cubby holes for you to store your things, which is like lockers at a gym. I left most of my things there, stripped and took my toiletries with me. Upon entering the bath area, you pick up a small bucket or dish that you use to scoop up the hot bath water and wet yourself. Then, you scrub up and get all clean, making sure none of that “dirty” stuff gets into the bath. Once you rinse off, you can come into the main bath and relax in the hot water.
I must have looked out-of-place because one of the grannies mimed instructions to me and smiled encouragingly when I did something right. It’s not that I didn’t know what to do but that I was just uncomfortable doing it. There is no situation at home in which I would get naked and wash myself in front of half a dozen strangers, and I simply felt bizarre doing it. But, I quickly got over it and got on with the experience. Feeling a bit awkward and out of your comfort zone is the essence of traveling to foreign places.
Before long the baths were just too hot to withstand and I decided to continue exploring the town. I stumbled upon a tourist information center and was happy that they spoke English there. After chatting for a bit about Hawaii and why I was visiting Japan, I inquired about a place where I could eat some lunch (it was already about 2 p.m.). They recommended a place that sold toriten teishoku, a dish of battered chicken pieces that is famous in this area. It was really delicious!
Before heading back to the hostel and escaping the heat of the day, I stopped in on a grocery store and picked up some snacks. I spent a lot of time going through the aisles just looking at all the different things they had. I went back to relax at the hostel in air-conditioning while trying my snacks, folding my clothes and watching Japanese tv. Two of the three were very interesting experiences.
Around 8 p.m. I decided to head out to Hyotan, a more upscale and touristy onsen. When I arrived, I had to put my shoes in a locker and buy a ticket from a machine for entrance into the onsen. I gave the ticket and the locker key to the attendant, and in return she gave me a second locker key. This key belonged to a locker inside the women’s locker room (Hyotan has men-only, women-only and family sections) where you could leave all your things.
Hyotan was much more developed than the public bath I tried earlier. The atmosphere and decor reminded me of being in a rain forest. There was a special area in which you were to get cleaned up before entering the baths. It was interesting how there were stations with stools and mirrors. I skipped using the stool though as I couldn’t get past the fact that so many other butts had sat on it before me.
Once you’re clean, there is a selection of pools to try. The water in the pools differed in heat level and some had massaging waterfalls or were enclosed outdoor spaces where you could see the stars. The setting was very relaxing, and I can see why so many people enjoy visiting onsen. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get comfortable. Floating around naked with no one to talk to was just a bit weird. However, I suppose the opposite, floating around naked talking to a friend, would be considerably weirder.
In the end, I’m happy that I tried the different types of onsen. It’s an experience that is truly Japanese. But I can’t say I’d give it another go in the future.