The hells of Beppu (and the hell of riding there)

Waking at the campsite in Takachiho, I find my tent soaked and a small puddle pooling on the groundsheet. It rained through the night and continues to drizzle throughout the morning. Rather than lie in the wet and try to get a little more sleep, I start to pack up early and use a nearby gazebo to dry out my things. The mountains are covered in a wispy mist, making for a very pretty sight. My initial plan was to head west for Kumamoto, but storms are coming and there aren’t many hotels or AirBNBs due to Golden Week, the busiest time of year in Japan. Matt the Aussie suggests joining him on the way to Beppu to stay ahead of the stormier weather. It’s quite a distance away, over 100 kilometres, but downhill and out of the mountains. There are also hotels available. I make the decision to go, and see the famed onsen town on the east coast.

Drying off the camping gear
Misty mountains

Before departing Takachiho, we head north a few kilometres to visit the Amanoiwato shrine. This is considered one of the holiest sites in Shintoism, purportedly the cave where Amaterasu-no-omikami (the sun goddess) hid herself away along with the light of the world. The other gods tried various ways to get her to come out, but failed. It was only after one god performed a ribald dance, and caused such laughter and commotion, that the sun goddess emerged, restoring light to the world. The cave is only visible from a viewing platform you can access on a guided tour, no photos allowed. Further downstream is the cave where the other gods made their plans to lure out the sun goddess. There’s a small shrine here and tourists are free to wander.

A cave shrine
Lovely natural rivers

After this detour, we don’t actually leave Takachiho until early afternoon. There’s a lot of cycling to fit in, a lot of it uphill. At various points we both struggle and it seems almost endless. But the landscape does begin to change as we come down from the mountains, and we soon hit a descent that lasts for several kilometres. We make it to Taketa, the halfway point, close to dusk and grab a konbini dinner. The last half of this ride is going to be in the dark, so we attach lights and set off. At first there’s a few kilometres of uphill climbing, and there’s that sinking feeling again. What if this is it all the way to the coast? Eventually though, we hit a descent and it lasts for over 20km into Oita city. We build up so much speed going downhill, sometimes we’re breaking the speed limit (doing 57kmh in a 50kmh). It’s cold and a lot of focus is needed to brake and twist and turn in the dark. But it’s also pretty exhilirating. After making it to Oita, there’s a lot of city roads, weaving through traffic, before we find ourselves on a coastal expressway, trundling along the verge. It’s a dangerous ride, but at this point we’re desperate to make it to Beppu and the comfy hotel that awaits. At 9pm we finally arrive, after 120km of cycling, ready to collapse into bed.

So many hills
Leaving the mountains behind
Late and in the dark, but finally made it

The steaming hells of Beppu

Despite a promise to myself to do nothing all day, I get up the next morning and wander about near to the hotel. My legs are a bit stiff, but surprisingly I seem okay. I did vomit a bit the night before, possibly dehydration or heat exhaustion. Beppu seems a relaxed place, although it is built up in the way that many Japanese resort towns are. I eat a bit at the local mall, walk along the waterfront and stop off at a Don Quixote megastore to find some bargains. A lot of cheap sake and snacks on sale. I have to resist the urge to buy whatever I pick up.

Beppu tower
Don Quixote
Lovely sake
That is one extravagant melonpan

In the afternoon, I catch a bus to the other side of the city to visit the main sightseeing spots – the hells of Beppu. These are hot spring pools purely intended for viewing, not bathing. There are several hells, from oozing red pools to bubbling mud baths and aqua blue ponds. One hell includes a crocodile zoo – the crocs love bathing in the hot waters and are raised in them. After sightseeing, we go out to try a local specialty, vegetables and meat steamed in the local spring water. There’s a restaurant quite near to the hells where you can steam the food yourself as part of the experience. Also on the menu are dango noodles, wet and much thicker than regular noodles. That evening we go to a local craft beer bar and have some relaxed conversations with other patrons. One is a consultant from Tokyo with a deep love for German beer, claiming that drinking pilsner is his one true hobby.

Steaming red baths
And the blue baths
An oni guarding the springs
Onsen-loving crocodiles
Steamed vegetables, meat and dango noodles

An old bathhouse and an ancient coronation

After trying out the hotel onsen, I head out for a more authentic experience in the old local bathhouse, Takegawara Onsen. Built in 1879, the baths themselves are somewhat lacking but it’s more about the historical experience than the bathing. Afterwards, sweaty and overheating in the humidity, we head out to try some reimen, a cold ramen dish that is local to Beppu, followed by some unique ice cream (Earl Grey flavour anyone?). That evening (Japan-time) it’s the coronation of King Charles III back in the UK, so I buy some cakes and tea and livestream the event on my phone in the hotel room. At the same time, the Japanese TV is showing a special on the ceremony, complete with reactions from tarento. It makes me a little homesick, but there’s plenty more I want to do here first.

19th century bathhouse
Beppu Reimen
Fulfilling my patriotic duty
They kept cutting between this and a man that can fit a lot of cigarettes in his mouth

The next day, the stormy weather really picks up and it rains heavily most of the day. I make some time to run errands but don’t manage to visit any other onsen in town as planned. The hotel onsen is nice enough all the same. I do some laundry and plan a route for the next day. That evening, Matt and I visit a few bars and see a rather empty Beppu, now that Golden Week is over. We’ll be splitting off again soon, but it was cool to hang out and see some of the city nightlife.

Beppu in the rain
Showa-themed bar

After this, it’s back into the mountains on the way to Kumamoto.

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A Japan-enthusiast from the UK, with a particular interest in history and the language, as well as cycling, writing and rock climbing.