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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2000

Heaven in Beppu's hot spring hells


By STEPHANIE GARTELMANN

The Lonely Planet's Japan edition pans it, but the onsen (hot spring) town of Beppu in Oita Prefecture provides a fun glimpse of somewhat dated Japanese sightseeing rituals -- and of course, with perhaps the most diverse array of hot springs in Kyushu, it has some great places to take a dip.

Beppu has a colorful history as a resort town. To writers who described it in early Edo Period travel pieces, it seemed an apocalyptic landscape. Pools of savage, boiling mud lie just 10 minutes' walk away from the still depths of a blood-red pool. These jigoku (hell) pools, as they are known, have been the scenes of torture by boiling, yet they have also been loved for their medicinal, beautifying and utterly relaxing powers.

So: on to the delights of Beppu's hot springs. Sea-level hot springs line the city's shoreline, while historic Meiji Era bathing establishments offer a step back in time. Steam erupts from every imaginable fissure, as though Beppu was the teetering lid of a furiously boiling pot.

Beppu sprawls along a curved bay, and steep, verdant hills rise steeply behind it. The best way to enjoy the town is by walking, then bathing. Start with the obligatory "Jigoku-meguri" (onsen hell trail). Admission is 400 yen to each jigoku, or buy a combined pass. Some visitors only bother with a few of Beppu's jigoku, several of which have hideous gimmicks: Kamado Jigoku's concrete dragon, or the sorry-looking live crocodiles at Oni-yama Jigoku. Either take it all with a grain of salt, or be very selective.

Don't miss Chi no Ike (Pool of Blood) Jigoku, so named for waters that seem bright red because of the ferrous mineral deposits on the pool bed. Then there's Shiraike (White Pool) Jigoku, a vision of frothing white steam and water. Further up is Umi (Sea) Jigoku, whose boiling waters look as blue and inviting as those of a coral reef, surrounded by a large, beautiful garden. Nearby is the incredible Bozu (Monk) Jigoku, where burps of volcanic mud really do look like the tops of seven tonsured heads.

Other attractions in Beppu include the silly, totally out-of-date Hinoki Sex Museum (mostly erotic art and some decrepit-looking plastic dolls), the enjoyable Takasaki-yama Monkey Park in southern Beppu and a walk or cable-car ride up Mount Tsurumi-dake -- take a bus to the entrance from Beppu Station.

When it all gets too much, unwind in Beppu's huge range of hot springs, which range from the rustic to the radical. About 500-700 yen admission is standard. Recommended is the Myoban district, near Jigoku-meguri. Bask in the individual thatched onsen huts at Myoban Yu no Sato. Nearby, Okamotoya Yamanoyu Inn is one of the area's oldest establishments and has a traditional Japanese garden. Further out of town is the wild, hillside Tsurunoyu. It's mixed bathing and has a spectacular view of Beppu Bay.

In town, choose from among seaside onsen or those in Beppu's quaint back streets. Seikai Inn has a wonderful outdoor spa virtually at sea level. Suginoi Palace has an over-the-top selection of jungle baths. Don't miss the charming, wooden Takegawara Onsen, built in 1880, Beppu's first public bath. Its Suna-yu (Sand Bath) is a good winter alternative to similar beachside services, run by eight smiling old ladies.

Nearly 2,800 springs gush out unparalleled amounts of hot water in Beppu daily, and it is hard to say exactly when onsen became so important to the local culture. Beppu has several legends describing animals and birds seen soothing their wounds in the hot waters or sands.

The city's real boom in popularity began in the late 19th century, and Beppu is where tour buses with flag-waving guides (still de rigueur for much tourism in Japan) were first operated. There was a time when Beppu's Kannawa district resounded with shamisen chords after sunset, and geisha flocked nightly to the top establishments in Hamawaki.

Beppu catered mostly to men, yet today's onsen patrons are mostly young women. Many establishments didn't keep up with the times, and compared to more fashionable onsen towns, Beppu still has few places to dine, shop or just hang out.

Still, good eats and drinks can be found in the narrow back streets around the station. On Kitahama-dori, Ureshiya serves excellent Japanese set meals until 2 a.m. Nearby is Watanabe Sozai, a tiny takeaway outlet recommended for its tenpura and croquettes. Just off Ekimae-dori is Kogetsu Gyoza, a seven-seat-only spot serving gyoza and beer until late. Away from the downtown area in Ishigaki is Haifa, one of Kyushu's few authentic Arab-Israeli eateries.

At night, look out for Beppu's jazz clubs or join the locals (and their grandparents and dogs) for enthusiastic '50s-style boogying you'd thought was extinct. If this isn't your scene, have an extra beer and an early night. There aren't too many other options!

Fortunately though, thanks to the old-fashioned hospitality of Beppu's accommodations, you might be too mellow by nightfall to even think of hitting town. The friendly tourist center at the station will help you find what you're after, from French-inspired hotels, to historical ryokan and inexpensive, friendly minshuku. While cynics may rubbish Beppu's datedness, some of these qualities are precisely why you should visit this town.

By car, take Kyushu Expressway to Kusu Interchange, then follow Route 210 to Beppu. Toyokuni Highway Bus and JR Kyushu both have regular services to Beppu. Also ask about JR overnight "Ekicho O-Susume no Yu" packages. Beppu Foreign Tourist Information Center (0977) 23-1119. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. English-speaking staff available.


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