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Takegawara Onsen at night evokes Beppu of a century ago. Image: Vicki L Beyer

Beppu celebrates a century as modern hot springs resort town

By Vicki L Beyer

The Oita Prefecture city of Beppu, well known as an onsen (hot springs) resort, turns 100 this year. While a century is an admirable milestone, in the case of Beppu, one has to do a double take. After all, the hot springs for which Beppu is so well known have been enjoyed for much longer.

Beppu’s onsen feature in ancient legends and the area became known as a health resort at the beginning of the Kamakura period (1192-1333) when a sanatorium for wounded Heike warriors was established in the Kannawa area of Beppu.

But why not use modern Beppu’s centenary as your excuse to take another look at all the great reasons to spend a bit of time in this onsen capital of Japan. This two-part article looks at various ways to enjoy Beppu’s famed hot springs. This article will examine bathing and other uses of the water. Come back next month for Beppu’s sightseeing options.

So many water sources

Beppu’s mineral hot springs are attributed to its location on an east-west fault line that has resulted in the nearby volcanoes of Mt Tsurumi and Mt Garan. These geological phenomena are said to power all the hot water that lies under the city.

Steam rises across Beppu escaping from natural and man-made vents. Image: Vicki L Beyer

How much water, you ask?

Eight different primary hot springs, known as the Beppu Hatto, have been identified in Beppu. They are accessed from nearly 3,000 different sources and produce more than 100,000 kiloliters of onsen water every day. That’s the largest volume of hot springs water in all of Japan.

Nearly every form of accommodation available in Beppu — from inexpensive minshuku and business hotels to international luxury resort hotels — have onsen baths for their guests. There are plenty of other stand-alone public onsen baths as well. No matter the location, there will be a sign detailing the mineral content of the water and the types of ailments those waters will treat.

It is useful to note that at Beppu’s public baths bathers with tattoos are welcome. Hotels and other private establishments may, of course, have different rules.

One of the most famous of Beppu’s public baths is Takegawara Onsen, just a 10-minute walk from Beppu Station. Takegawara Onsen was established as a public bath in 1879 and now sits in a 1938 classic Japanese-styled building. Open from 6:30 to 22:30 (closed third Wednesday of the month), a single bath costs 300 yen.

An expansive high-ceilinged entryway greets visitors. It contains the reception desk and comfortable seating where bathers can relax before or after their bath. A large staircase leads to the upper level, where there is an auditorium originally designed to host various sorts of public events.

Nearly all baths are segregated by gender. Image: Vicki L Beyer

To the right from the entrance are the baths — segregated by gender. As with all baths, there are changing facilities in anterooms leading to the baths themselves. The baths are most remarkable for their tiled vintage appearance. A sign in the anteroom extolls the virtues of the water, which cures various aches and pains and is even thought to be efficacious in lowering cholesterol and treating mild depression.

How about a hot sand bath?

To the left of the entry at Takegawara Onsen are the sand baths, where bathers clad in cotton yukata are covered with steaming hot sand to enjoy a steam treatment. The sand has been heated in a nearby pool of onsen water. After the hot sand “soak”, bathers have a refreshing dip in another pool of onsen water and emerge cleansed and refreshed. Sand baths are available from 8:00 to 21:30 and cost 1,500 yen.

Sand bathers lie back and let themselves be covered with steaming hot sand. Image: Vicki L Beyer

A similar hot sand bath on the beach is available at Beppu Kaihin Sunayu, less than a five-minute walk from Beppudaigaku Station. The hours are more limited: 9:00 to 17:00 during the winter months and 8:30 to 18:00 the rest of the year (closed the fourth Wednesday of the month). As an added bonus, on a clear day, the island of Shikoku can be seen from this beach.

Health benefits of onsen

As mentioned, Beppu Onsen has been known as a health spa for centuries. Even today, people seeking the health benefits of onsen bathing to cure ailments like neuralgia and rheumatism often visit Beppu for extended periods, staying in inexpensive self-catered inns. Besides regular baths in the therapeutic waters, such visitors often spend time in steam baths, another popular curative.

One well-known steam bath is the venerable Kannawa Mushiyu. It was begun in 1276 by a Buddhist monk known as Ippen Shonin, who is well known for promoting the health benefits of hot springs. Bathers wear cotton yukata while they spend about 20 minutes lying in a steam room where the floor has been covered with sekisho, an aromatic medicinal herb, sweating out toxins and being healed.

Kannawa Mushiyu steam bath Image: Enjoyonsen website

Harnessing Beppu’s Steam

Needless to say, with so much piping hot onsen water, there is also a lot of steam. Some of it has been harnessed for steam baths, but it is also a popular heat source for cooking.

There are a number of restaurants featuring dishes steam cooked from this natural heat source. One popular spot in the Kannawa area is Sato no Eki, where diners select their ingredients — vegetables, seafood, thin-sliced meats and even steam buns — which are placed in steaming baskets and prepared on the spot, to be retrieved by the diners (kitted out with masks and thermal gloves to prevent burns) as the baskets are removed from the steamers. It is a fun, healthy and surprisingly inexpensive dining experience.

Selected ingredients about to steamed Image: Vicki L Beyer

Spa-port (aka Spa Passport)

Serious onsen bathing enthusiasts (and maybe even the not-so-serious ones) may want to pick up a “Spa-port” and onsen guidebook (available in several languages) from the information counter at the east entrance of Beppu Station. Bathers can have their Spa-port stamped after bathing at any of 88 designated Beppu onsens, eventually collecting enough stamps to earn recognition as a bathing master. Stamps from all 88 entitles one to a black towel and the title "Onsen Meijin," while stamps from 8, 24, 40 or 56 earn the bather white, green, red or blue towels, respectively. For those with little time or in need of “instant” gratification, just two stamps earns the beginner bather a special Beppu Hatto handkerchief.

Spa Passport Image: Yunoka.com

This article has introduced the various uses and delights of Beppu’s abundant hot springs water. The onsen guidebook that is available at Beppu Station, as well as at convenience stores and book stores around Beppu, is a good guide to finding just the right kind of hot spring bathing experience to suit.

Next month, we will introduce the sightseeing options in Beppu that also take advantage of its hot springs water.

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 don't want to go there. I want to move there.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

In Mushiyu you can only stay for 10mins inside the steam bath, not 20. They will check on you on the 8th minute if you want to extend 2mins more. I couldnt stay longer than 8mins.

I also go often to Takegawara. For the sand bath, its always crowded. Make sure to get your number early in the day if you want to try the sand bath. Otherwise, its 300yen for bathing only. Theres no showers there.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Beppu is the best. It is far better than Yufuin which is basically fake and overpriced as it is geared towards couples. People who understand the intricacies of onsen, such as myself, understand why Beppu is the best in the world. It is a dynamic city, as well. Boasting a rich culinary culture and an art loving population, Beppu is a great place to showcase one's art and music when not bathing. I like it so much, I wrote and recorded an entire double album about it in just one night while staying at a quaint little Ryokan. Definitely worth a week long trip.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

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