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Image: Vicki L Beyer

Beppu: A century as a sightseeing destination

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By Vicki L Beyer

Last month, part 1 of this article used Beppu’s centennial as a modern hot springs resort town to take a closer look at Beppu’s distinctive onsen baths and other health resort options in the area.

In addition to Beppu’s health and beauty options, however, there is also sightseeing fun. This, too, has roots about a century old.

Modern tourism in Beppu is credited to Kurahachi Aburaya (1863-1935), an entrepreneur who, in 1924, converted a traditional Japanese inn to a Western-style hotel that still exists today: the Kamenoi Hotel. Aburaya, regarded as the father of Beppu tourism, is honored with a statue in front of Beppu Station.

Aburaya felt that Beppu’s onsens and modern hotel facilities such as his were not enough to attract tourists to book longer holidays in the area. So, he began to develop sightseeing options. By the late 1920s he had a sightseeing bus operation with young women as tour guides. This is said to be the start of the female bus tour guide in Japan.

Aburaya knew that Beppu’s distinctive geology produced not only hot springs suitable for bathing, but also a number of other geo-thermal phenomena, spread across the city. These include geysers, mudpots and even very hot pools of distinctively colored water. Under Aburaya’s guidance, some of these were developed as tourist attractions. He then established a meguri course of these “hells” for tourists.

Nearly a century later, completing the hell meguri remains a popular tourist activity, as well as a fun way to learn more about the geo-thermal forces in this area.

These days, most tourists are self-guided on their quest to hell(s). Of Beppu’s original eight hells, seven participate in the current meguri. At the first one visited, the tourist can buy a combination ticket (2,200 yen — use this coupon for a further 200 yen discount) providing admission to all seven. The ticket comes with a map and explanatory brochure.

Tatsumaki Jigoku (tornado hell) is a geyser that erupts every 30 to 40 minutes — one of the most frequently erupting geysers in the world. Unfortunately, allowing the geyser to spout freely for 6-10 minutes more than 40 times a day would require visitors to remain at a substantial distance, necessitating more space than is available. Instead, a 5-meter stone barrier has been erected around three sides of the geyser’s spout zone topped with a stone plate to keep the water from flying into the air as high as it might otherwise. (Uncontrolled, it is estimated the geyser would spout as high as 50 meters, nearly twice the height of the American geyser Old Faithful.)

Tornado Hell has a geyser that could soar much higher if it wasn’t capped. Image: Vicki L Beyer

Before and during eruptions, there is a curious gurgling sound from the mouth of the geyser as water and steam compete to escape.

Chinoike Jigoku (pool of blood hell) is a 1,300-square-meter pool of pinkish-red water. Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup comes to mind. The muddy pool, which got its name more than 13 centuries ago, takes its color from the oxidized minerals and silicic acid the mud has picked up on its way into the pool. The red water is opaque, making it difficult to appreciate the fact that the pool is about 30 meters deep.

A deep steaming pool of reddish water gives this hell its name: Pool of Blood. Image: Vicki L Beyer

Those who want to test out the mineral-laden water can try the foot bath of water from the pool that has been cooled from its usual 78C to a more tolerable temperature. A popular souvenir of a visit to this hell is a skin cream made with the iron-laden mud of the pool.

Kamado Jigoku (cooking pot hell) gets its name from an ancient legend that the steam emitting from these vents was once used to cook rice to be offered to the gods during a festival at the nearby Hachiman shrine, and possibly also from mudpots on the site with thick mud walls making them look a bit like cooking pots. There are several pools and mudpots in this one location, each with its own distinctive features.

Mud pots at cooking pot hell Image: Vicki L Beyer

Visitors usually first encounter a small steaming pool of brown slurry and then a steam vent guarded by a towering statue of a red oni (demon) standing on a tradition pot lid. Next is a pond of brilliant cobalt blue water, with white silica deposits crusting around its edges. There is a small collection of brownish-gray mudpots with thick mud walls that bubble from time to time, not because they're boiling but rather because water or air forced into them from below has found its way to the surface.

The site also contains a mystery pond that changes color suddenly and unpredictably several times a year. Even geologists cannot explain why. Its color can be anything from dark blue to light green. The final pool most visitors see is reddish in color, similar to the Chinoike Jigoku. Apparently, the water used to be gray, but over many years changed to its current color, an example of mineral oxidization in action.

Many visitors enjoy the three footbath opportunities here, each one containing water from a different source. The most popular footbath has a soft, sandy bottom.

Oniyama Jigoku (demon mountain hell) may be hell for humans, but apparently it’s heaven for crocodiles. Geo-thermal heat has created a year-round tropical environment perfect for croc procreation, which has been going on here for a century already.

Crocodiles bred on-site are the major attraction of the demon mountain hell. Image: Vicki L Beyer

There are several dozen crocodiles on site, with public feedings at 10:00 am on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. A sign at the entrance explains how the pressure of the steam coming out of the vent on site is enough to pull one and a half train cars. The crocodiles on site probably have about that much power, too.

Shiraike Jigoku (white pond hell) doesn't feel like hell at all. It feels like a pretty Japanese garden which, like many traditional gardens, as a pond as its central feature. But this pond contains 95C steaming bluish-white water. Although the water appears clear when flowing, when it pools, the chloral natrium, silicic acid and calcium bicarbonate it contains give it a milky appearance. There is a small tropical fish aquarium here containing piranha and other unusual tropical fish. Geo-thermal energy is used to keep the water temperature just where those tropical fish like it.

Oniishi Bozu Jigoku (Oniishi monk’s shaved head hell) looks, at first glance, like a garden situated on a gently sloping block. But further inside, visitors will find pools of pale gray mud. Now and then, bubbles form on the mud’s surface. Often the bubbles grow so large that, to the imagination of someone in the past, they looked like the shaved pate of a Buddhist monk. Hence the name.

Air from underground form bubbles in mud puddles, looking a lot like a Buddhist monk’s head. Image: Vicki L Beyer

It can be mesmerizing to watch the bubbles emerge from the mud, grow, and then burst, forming concentric rings in the mud. There is also a footbath at this hell, especially popular among those who are doing this meguri on foot.

Umi Jigoku (sea hell) - A steaming pool of aquamarine water is the most striking feature of this hell. The vivid color is caused by iron sulfate in the water, which almost looks like it should be inside a volcanic caldera. One fun feature here is that a wicker basket of eggs is regularly lowered into the nearly boiling water to be cooked. After all, an egg boiled in mineral water will absorb many of the nutrients in the water, making it a healthy snack.

A wicker basket of eggs is regularly lowered into the waters of the sea hell to be cooked. Image: Vicki L Beyer

This hell is also home to a couple of small reddish mudpots and a large lake known for the tropical lily pads that grow on it in summer. This variety of lily pad can grow to about 1.5 meters in diameter thanks to the geothermally-warmed water.

Visitors who have had enough of hell might want to get closer to heaven with a visit to Mount Tsurumi, the mountain behind Beppu. A ropeway whisks visitors to 1,300 meters above sea level in 10 minutes, providing the chance to enjoy breathtaking views of the city and the sea beyond.

The ropeway at Mount Tsurumi provides a bird’s eye view of Beppu and the surrounding scenery. Image: Vicki L Beyer

Even after a century of modern tourism, Beppu continues to offer a wide variety of traditional and modern ways to enjoy its distinctive geological phenomena.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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I like Beppu and I suggest they focus on pedestrian safety more and make the waterfront area more appealing.

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