Late last week we decided to take a one-night trip out of Fukuoka on the weekend. We were tossing up between Oita and Kumamoto prefectures, but in the end Oita won because we both liked the idea of climbing into an onsen whilst it was rainy outside. Beppu city in Oita is well-known for its onsen, so we booked some accommodation in an affordable ryokan and set off on the Sonic Express train, early Saturday morning.
For those of you who have ridden special JR trains or shinkansen in Japan, you will know that the train journey in itself qualifies as a holiday. Amazing scenery whizzes by as you sit in extreme comfort, often with a delicious bento box for lunch. The trip from Hakata, Fukuoka to Beppu takes just under two hours.
We arrived in Beppu with very little idea of what we wanted to do before check-in time at our hotel (3pm). Comparing suggestions from co-workers at both of our jobs, along with some tourist pamphlets we read on the train, we decided on a bus trip to a few of the jigoku (hells) of Beppu, followed by a dip in a natural outdoor communal mud bath. The rain was really heavy, making steam rise from the mountains that surround the city and giving the whole place a wonderfully creepy feel. As we rode the bus to the umi jigoku (sea hell), I felt as if we were on the set of Jurassic Park or something. Steam rises from the many onsen, resembling a bunch of smokestacks, and rows of tall palm trees line some of the uphill climbs. We later commented how lucky we were that it was raining pretty heavily for the whole first day we were in Beppu– it felt like more of an adventure for it.
After getting dropped off a small walk from the umi jigoku, we took in the view. Needing to refer to the map, we looked for shelter from the rain, and easily spotted a free hot foot bath that we could stand in whilst figuring out which way to go. We then walked a steamy, rainy pathway through a small temple to our destination. We were completely soaked and the back of my dress ripped pretty badly by the time we got there. Both of us were grinning the whole time.
The bright blue, steamy lagoon umi jigoku was really, really pretty. I took a video on my phone which I'll add to this post soon. The colour was unreal.
After enjoying some more free foot baths, we hopped on another bus to the mud baths at Onsen Hoyo Land. This public bath may be past its heyday, but its full of character and charm. Walking around inside the facilities felt almost like visiting a commune in the mountains. I was a little bit torn about the mud baths before arriving, due to the fact that they were gender mixed and you have to go naked. Since coming to Japan I have partially come to terms with the all female onsen experience, but I was a little nervous about adding men into the mix.
BUT- I remember really clearly loving playing in mud as a child, so there was no way I was going to sit this one out. In the end, it wasn't too scary at all. Men and women's changing/washing areas were separate as usual, and I walked outdoors to the mixed mud-baths with as much as possible of my body covered with the little towels we bought at the station (yeah, we forgot to bring our own towels. Lesson learnt!) Once you were in the mud, nobody could see anything anyway, and there was a divide down the middle of the bath so you couldn't cross into the opposite gender's side anyway. Plus- nobody cares! Everyone is just there to enjoy the amazing hot mud bath. It was way less seedy than was expecting (I don't know what I was expecting!) and it was really awesome to be able to share the experience with Kam, rather than being separated.
And the mud was so AWESOME! It was thick and warm, and covered the bottom of the onsen completely. You can slide around in the shallower parts, and cover your arms and back with it. Some ladies were even putting it on their faces, but I didn't go that far. If you ever get a chance to have a mud bath, I recommend it wholeheartedly. Again, the experience was heightened by our surroundings– as light rain fell and steamy mountains surrounded us. What a dream.
After that, it was time to head back to the city and check in to our ryokan. The room rate was reasonably cheap, and we were pleased to find such a spacious and nice room. Too tired to go out in the rain to find dinner again, we treated ourselves to having dinner served in our room- an amazing meal of sashimi, tempura and sukiyaki. Ryokan food is the best. After dinner we donned the hotel yukatas and enjoyed a 50-minute dip in the private onsen. I think by that stage I was the most relaxed a person can be.
The next morning we woke up early to find that the rain had cleared, so we decided to spend the morning at Takasakiyama, or Monkey Mountain (that's not a translation of the Japanese name, just a literal description of the place!) On our way to the bus stop, we made friends with a great dog who was taking himself on a Sunday morning stroll.
Takasakiyama was crazy. There are around 1,200 monkeys living there, and we saw over 700 of them in one place at feeding time. Seriously- that's a whole lot of monkeys. It's a "natural zoo" which means there are no gates or cages. The monkeys spend lots of their time out in the mountains, and find all of their main food for themselves (receiving only snacks from the guides). The best part was that we visited in baby season, and recently over 100 new baby monkeys have been born. Baby monkeys are really, really cute. Again, I have a video and heaps of iPhone photos of the monkeys, but for now I will just share this one that I took at the end of my film roll.
To say we enjoyed our brief trip to Beppu is a big understatement. We came back completely relaxed and (as always) asking ourselves how we got so lucky to be in this situation.
There are more exciting times ahead, especially as we have just booked flights home to Perth for a few weeks at Christmas.
Until next time.
+ a few bonus iPhone snaps...