The next morning the weather was so cold and overcast that I seriously thought about spending the day indoors. There’s no doubt in my mind: traveling in the Summer is far superior. Sure, it can be uncomfortably hot and humid, but the skies are blue and the days are long. Going outside might make you stink, but at least it doesn’t make you freeze, shiver, and get pneumonia 😛
In the end I forced myself to go out, and it paid off wonderfully. Beppu is a city lying in a valley right on the coast – green mountains to one side and the blue ocean to the other. Today I hopped on a bus up a mountain to an area where I heard there are a few secluded 露天風呂. I followed the directions precisely: exit at Tsurumi Rei-En bus stop, turn left by the small flower shop and hike uphill till you come to the cemetery. Walk up the small road that hugs the right side of the graveyard until the road ends. Dive into the bushes to your left, and there’s the bath.
What I found was a small babbling creek with steam coming off it, concluding at a wooden shack and outdoors pool with little a old man soaking in it. “The water isn’t so hot today,” he said in oji-san Japanese. “That’s okay, I’ll still give it a try.”
The water was scalding.
As I sat looking up at the steam rising around me, mountains to either side, and ocean below, the clouds began to part – and it turned into a beautiful sunny day. The man left and another came. This one told me of another, more secluded onsen even higher up in the mountains. Go back to the round-about where the paved road ends, and to the left you’ll see an area where the shrubbery has been burned away. Climb up there and follow the path uphill until you reach a stone gate. Keep walking until you get to an area where the rocks are steaming. Turn right, climb up, and you’ll be right there.
I did what he told me, but apparently took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up walking in the exact wrong direction. I did, however, end up finding a stone gate, which confused me quite a bit – so I stopped and stared at it scratching my head for a couple of minutes while pondering where I’d gone wrong. Then another little old man in a minivan drove by. He apparently detected my confusion, as he stopped a few paces up the road and popped his head out the window. “Where you headed? Need a lift?”
He just happened to be on his way up the mountain to chop a christmas tree for his family. I’ve found that out here in the 田舎, people are much more interested in talking with foreigners – I guess it’s because Kyoto has become so completely overrun by them that they’re no longer a rarity at all.
We drove back up the way I came, munched on a couple of mandarin oranges he had with him, and soon I was back on my own, climbing higher and higher.
The further I went the louder the trickling water became, the yellower the earth, and the more steaming vents appeared. It reminded me of the top of the volcano I climbed with my dad in Thailand; if I had a raw egg, I could’ve buried it and it would’ve been hard-boiled in minutes.
Soon I was soaking in front of yet another beautiful outdoors backdrop. My third onsen in one day (I also took one at the hotel where I stayed). This last week I’ve more than quadrupled the number of onsen that I’d been to over the previous 2 years in Japan.
But I wasn’t done. Because right at the base of this mountain lie Hoyo Onsen Land, home of some of the best mud baths in the country. And they’re all 混浴 – something I’d never yet experienced. They were very interesting, although the mud was a bit thinner than I’d hoped (as Peder, who came here several weeks earlier, warned).
Then, after leaving, as I started walking down the hill, a man whom I’d talked briefly with in one of the mudbaths pulled over in his car. “Are you planning to walk all the way back into town?? That’ll take forever! Hop in, I’ll give you a ride.”
So friendly in the 田舎!
He transported me down the hill, mentioning another spot he thought I might like – a mountain just one stop away on the JR line that’s completely overrun by monkeys.
I checked my Lonely Planet.
Dinner was at a local Korean restaurant. The chef, like almost everyone I’ve met here on Kyushu, was very friendly and talkative. We chatted about how he came from Seoul to make money, dreaming of one day studying business in the US.
Then I returned to my little onsen-ryokan, was greeted by a new but equally peppy little old lady, checked into the room next to the one from the previous night, and passed out.