Destinations

On the onsen trail in Japan

A world away from bullet trains and the subway crush, seeing the country on foot reveals a different Japan. And dipping a toe into the hot springs of Oita, as Pat Nourse discovers, proves more revealing still.

By Pat Nourse
The self-cook and self-serve Jigoku Mushi Kobo "hell kitchen."

There are many good reasons to come to Oita. Architecture. Bamboo. Kabosu. Fried chicken. Most people, though, come for the hot springs. This prefecture, which occupies the north-east corner of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's main islands, is famed for its geothermal activity. Ryokans, Japan's traditional inns, dot the countryside, a great many of them offering hot-spring bathing in onsens. The city of Beppu, on the east coast, is alone home not just to 2000 onsens but eight jigokus, or hells, which gush boiling waters of cobalt and grey and oxide-red.

The historic neighbourhood of Kannawa in Beppu.

At Beppu Kaihin Sunayu you can be buried in hot sand for a quarter of an hour before you "wash the sand off in a gender appropriate tub". Hot mud is the attraction at Beppu Onsen Hoyo Land, and at Kannawa Steam Bath it's a steamy stone chamber lined with rushes. Kankaiji is a sort of infinity onsen, its open-air baths looking over Beppu Bay from the hills, while the enterprising folk at Oniyama-Jigoku, Demon Mountain Hell, harness the power of steam to farm 100 crocodiles. The take-home here: the people of Kyushu are really into hot springs.

Steam rises from the Beppu cityscape.

So it was that I found myself hiking a trail of sorts between hot springs in Oita, asking "where the hell do I keep my modesty towel?"

As a newcomer to Japanese hot-spring bathing, you're faced with not a few questions of this nature. Daily life in Japan is fraught with etiquette traps for the unwary, and hot springs are no exception. Here's the deal: it's all single-sex, and it's all nude all the time. To make things a little more interesting, the baths often swap gender designation from day to day - today the one to the left is for men, while tomorrow that same room might be for women. The doors to the men's baths are marked with blue signs, and the women's are red. Except when they aren't. It pays to read them closely. ("We've had some incidents," says our guide, Miwa.)

Sign at Lamune onsen

As a ryokan guest you change out of your street clothes and into your yukata first, folding the gown left over right (right over left is a move reserved for wrapping corpses). You make your way to your inn's onsen baths and, having passed the first hurdle and made it safely to the bath designated that day for your gender, you disrobe, put your effects into a basket, grab the handkerchief of a modesty cloth and enter the baths. But not the hot pools themselves. Not so fast. According to Japanese custom, the pools are reserved for very clean naked people. Banish any thought of swimmers or undergarments of any kind, and prepare to scrub down with your cloth for a good 15 minutes at a row of low shower stools that stands between you and the pools. Behind your ears, between your toes, everywhere.

A room at Hachimen-zan Kogane ryokan.

Naked and squeaky clean? You're good to go. Just watch where you put your modesty towel. Letting it touch the water is a faux pas taken as lightly as relieving yourself in the fountain at a garden party at Sandringham. Don't let it touch the water. Old Japanese guys in the movies like to wear theirs rolled and tied around their heads, karate-style, but it can be tricky to get right (see "Don't let it touch the water"). Leaving it on a scenic rock or the edge of the pool is the safer bet.

You're also not supposed to let your hair touch the water, use soap in the water, eat in the water, drink in the water, be drunk in the water, swim in the water, splash the water, or go in the water more than three times in a day. Sauna-goers in Finland say that you ought to think of the sauna like a church (albeit one with a flock that prizes steaminess and nudity alongside piety and good works) and conduct yourself accordingly. That goes double in Japan.

An onsen at Daimaru

Tattoos are also verboten. The semantics of tattoos have shifted in the West. Today they might signal a variety of messages ("I am a successful locavore chef with a line of wellness products", say, or "I was born after 1985"), but in rural Japan their meaning is perceived rather more narrowly ("I am a member of an organised crime syndicate; I intend to bathe without showering first, wet my hair, and commit other such heinous felonies"). It's not completely impossible for a person with tattoos to visit an onsen in Japan, but it's still a long way from being easy.

Truth be told, non-Japanese visitors to onsens aren't always made to feel especially welcome, especially in the countryside. If you happen to be a Caucasian person, especially a blond or hairy (or, god help you, blond and hairy) person you can expect a fair bit of eyeballing in a rural onsen.

Kanairo onsen

But the rewards for running this gauntlet are substantial. Immersing yourself in a bath of very hot volcanic spring water is supremely soothing. And while the rules are universal (except when they're not) and the relaxation profound, the onsens themselves are fascinating in their variety. Some are tucked in basements, others on balconies. Some feel like overgrown saunas, others tiny, strange alcoves. They vary in their heat, colour, scent and mineral composition. Many of the nicer ones offer views of streams and ponds. One outlying example I stumbled across was set on a river, right in the open in the middle of town, an unscreened challenge to only the most daring of bathers.

There are public onsens and onsens for the private use of ryokan guests. Kanairo, the first onsen on our trail, at Nakatsu, is attached to a ryokan, Hachimen-zan Kogane, and open to the public as well. It has a souvenir shop that sells nuts, beer, ice-cream, whale soap, puffed rice, pumpkins, burdock root and kabosu. It has one of those ponds full of fish that nibble the dead skin off your feet ("NOT GOOD FOR HAND"). Inside the changing rooms are posters advertising beer, a fried chicken special, and gravestones. There's a televised baseball game on in the sauna, but the landscaped outdoor area is more classically tranquil, outfitted with a variety of pools and waterfalls that the intrepid bather can explore like some sort of nude Thoreau, meandering through rhododendrons and maple.

A stream in Oita

After a session alternating between cold water and the hot baths, you float back to your room - typically an elegantly spare arrangement of a low table, bare but for the essentials for making tea, and a futon unrolled onto the tatami-mat flooring. Whatever your preconceptions of traditional Japanese bedding arrangements, post-onsen slumber is deep.

Walk, bathe, eat, sleep. The days assume a pleasant rhythm. The trail, on the other hand, is full of surprises. I call it a trail but it's really a series of walks linked by some driving, a greatest-hits package of the Oita countryside. The business of carrying anything more than a day-pack is taken care of by our tour company, Walk Japan, which has our luggage waiting for us each evening at the other end. Active, yes; strenuous, no.

Walking the trail

Our first walk takes us up a few hundred steps to Rakan-ji temple. Cut into the side of a cliff in the 14th century, the temple is home to nearly 4000 small stone Buddhas, all carved by the one monk. These are in turn fenced in by rows of flat wooden spoons inked with prayers from pilgrims new and old: "peace on earth"; "I would like to have a child"; "I hope I don't get dementia". The vantage of the temple offers a panorama of the densely forested ranges of Oita, the pines shot through with cypress, cedar and cherry. Back at the foot of the mountain we take to bikes, on a path levelled for a now-defunct former railway track. It's a blissful ride that follows the river past rice paddies and small farm plots thick with tomatoes, green beans and spring onions. Occasional blasts of cool from tunnels through the rock here and there contrast with the warmth outside, the air bright with the scent of fig leaf and chamomile. Jazz burbles from a worker's Daihatsu. Cabbage moths and dragonflies do their thing.

The gate to Rakan-ji temple

We ditch the bikes to walk down the mossy steps of a pass paved in stone for the ease of litter-bearers and porters in the Edo period, the cypress giving way to thick-stemmed madake bamboo. The late afternoon is given over to an exploration of Hita, a small town where the traditional architecture and artisan population have earned the right to join the scores of places in Japan that call themselves Little Kyoto.

On other days the trail is overhung with wisteria, or winds around stands of maple, or through baking fields of hay. We trek past a smouldering volcano in the Kuji Mountains. We walk the hills to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. The ruin of Oka Castle, toppled by imperial edict, provides the setting for a discussion of feudal politics, while a coppice of sawtooth oaks illustrates the essentials of cultivating Oita's celebrated shiitake mushrooms. (You bore holes in your oak logs, stick in the shiitake spores, stand the logs in the shade for a couple of years, then harvest mushrooms for five. Easy money.)

Shiitake dumplings at Jigoku Mushi Kobo

For anyone inured to the long stretches of unrelieved sameness that walking in Australia often involves, this trail is almost dizzying in its variety of terrain and the richness of its encounters. One morning we get chatting to Takimoto Hosui, the vigorous abbot of the temple at Fukoji, who says he loves that the trail brings more people to his temple and to the soaring 800-year-old Buddhist carving inscribed in the cliff it faces. Another bend in the road brings us to Mrs Okajima and the farm that has been her home for the past 57 years. She sells ice-cream from her farm-shop, Milk Land Farm. Inexplicably, shiitake and kabosu don't feature on the list of ice-creams she makes, but the blueberry pops with flavour, and she singles out the milk ice-cream as a personal favourite.

Mrs Okajima from Milk Land Farm

There seems to be a pattern in the food: the sublime and the ridiculous, with an extra helping of fried chicken. The ryokans provide elaborate dinners and breakfasts, the best of the inns working in tune with nature with a closeness that makes the fealt chefs in other countries pledge to local and seasonal cooking seem almost laughable. The centrepiece of the meal at Kanairo, for instance, is a DIY hotpot of daggertooth pike conger, intricately boned so that when it's poached at the table, along with slippery potato-starch noodles, shiitake and sharp leaves of mitsuna, it fluffs up like an eel pompom. The finest of the inns, Daimaru Ryokan, in the town of Taketa, takes things to the next level with sweetfish from the river just outside the dining room, captured in a lacy tempura, with a sliver of bitter melon and a dusting of green tea salt. Tender bamboo shoots - takenoko - make a delicious textural contrast to the meat of wild duck, while pea shoots and fern sprigs plucked from the woods garnish baniku, a tataki of horsemeat.

If you don't eat animals or aren't crazy about raw seafood (let alone horse), ryokan dining has its challenges. Japanese country inns provide for the dietary restrictions of foreign travellers about as well as deep space caters for people who like to breathe oxygen. And then there's the sheer scope of the meals, every one of them a feast, morning and night, with a profusion of soups and tiny side-dishes, each containing snares for the uninitiated. Do I eat the gluten, miso and mugwort straight from the pineneedle skewer? Does the grated daikon stained maple-red with chilli go with the simmered octopus and kabocha squash or the sashimi of bream, tuna belly and bonito?

Baniku, a horsemeat tataki, at Daimaru Ryokan.

Lunches, by contrast, are a more rough-and-ready affair - hearty, basic and cheap noodle and rice dishes for the most part, often taken at the Japanese equivalent of a roadhouse. Coffee, other than the stuff in cans dispensed from vending machines, is a distant dream.

And the fried chicken? Oita prides itself as the fried chicken capital of Japan. Fried chicken is given as a gift for birthdays and at Christmas, and things on the theme of fried-chicken (chips, wings, plush toys, cologne) compete with the mighty kabosu citrus, Oita's answer to yuzu, for pride of place in the prefecture's gift shops. Taketa city is home to one of the region's best-liked chicken fryers, the 50-year-old Marufuku. The birds that the restaurant rears on its farm have dark meat and sweet fat. If you've ever wanted to try to understand the differences between toriten, karaage and namban (aka 50 shades of JFC), this is the place to do it. It's particularly good with a squeeze of kabosu.

Fried chicken at Marufuku

Bathing completely naked in the company of friends and strangers might seem on some level an odd pursuit for a place so enamoured of fried chicken, but the appeal of the onsens in Taketa cannot be denied. Daimaru distinguishes itself with its outstanding food and tranquil lodgings, but its baths remain the real draw. Placed artfully on a bend of the Serikawa River, they open to views of the pine-forested hills on the other side of the water without sacrificing privacy. Given that hot-spring bathing is all about quiet reflection, getting the details right counts for a lot. Here the buckets are attractively worn timber, the water clouded with minerals that bloom into crystals on the fringes of the pools.

But this is nothing on its sister onsen, a short walk through the village. Not for nothing is it named after the Japanese word for lemonade: Lamune is the only place in Japan where you can bathe in sparkling water. Where most onsens are all about volcanic warmth, Lamune's hot pools inside are complemented by cool springs set in gardens, and it's here that the bubbles happen. Submerge yourself in their Schweppervescence and surrender to the gentle prickling of the formation of galaxies of bubbles on your skin. "Come quickly! I am drinking the stars," Dom Pérignon is supposed to have said upon first tasting Champagne, and some of that same silvery magic is at work here. (If you happen to be a hairy gaijin the effect is especially impressive.)

Lamune onsen

Lamune would be a magical place even without the sparkling water. Built in 2005, it was designed by Terunobu Fujimori, an architect whose work makes Gehry and Hadid's imaginings seem timid, if not positively square. Striped with boards of charred cedar, the spring houses are adorned with chimneys of rippling folded copper. The towers are topped by live pine trees, and the overall picture is of something like Tudor barns on an outing in a Miyazaki movie. It's not an impression diminished in any way by the suited, man-sized dog-headed statue peering out across the hedges. Call it Howl's Moving Onsen.

It seems more than fitting to end the trail at Beppu. Cresting the hill, the view past the city, home to some hundred thousand souls, is streaked with what first appears to be smoke spewing from stacks, like some hellish vision of Victorian London. But closer inspection reveals it to be steam pouring from vents, big and small, dotted all over the cityscape. The mad profusion of pipes, hot water and weird formations of mineral deposits everywhere might tempt one to think of it as steampunk, but steam society is probably a more accurate reading.

Kannawa district in Beppu

A walk through its Kannawa district reveals the many ways Beppu has harnessed its steam. There's the mud baths, and the crocodile farms, of course (and did I mention the piranha park?), but it's the little touches that are really endearing: the very hot public foot spa, say, or the fountains where one may (gingerly) catch a cup of the very hot water to test its purported health benefits. Steam wafts from between even the stones of the streets themselves, finding its way into every aspect of Beppu life.

Stalls sell steamed crèmes caramels, or baskets laden with steamy chiffon cakes. At Kannawa Butaman Honpo, the steam cooks its namesake pork, shiitake and onion buns. Yanagiya, our inn for the night, has an outdoor cooking area with steam vents for its guests to use. Breakfast is a bamboo basket crammed with goodies: sausage, dumplings, asparagus, broccoli, lotus root and a sweet little rabbit-shaped bun, all cooked beautifully in steam.

A breakfast steamer basket at Yanagiya Inn.

Best of all is Jigoku Mushi Kobo: Hell Steam Cuisine. "This facilities isn't a restaurant," reads the handout. "You can cook the food using the boiling steam outside by yourself here." Buy a ticket from a vending machine in the kiosk next to the open-walled steam kitchen, and trade it for uncooked but steamer-ready dishes - gyoza, chicken sausage, baskets of corn, eggs, mushrooms and yams or crab, prawns and mussels, pork and rice balls - and a timer. Proceed to the kitchen, don enormous, thick rubber gloves and long gingham safety sleeves, lift the heavy wooden lid on your allotted steaming station, slot in your basket, step back and let the power of the earth's molten core do its work. "The mineral-rich steam boosts their deliciousness." Cheap and tasty, it's even better than it sounds, and twice as kooky.

And so the hot springs trail draws to a close. A true holiday, its balance of nature and art, fresh air and hot water, woodsy goodness and robust country fare proving restorative and inspiring in equal measure. Its pilgrims leave loose of limb and lightened of care - and chasing one last bite of fried chicken.

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  • Author: Pat Nourse