Volcanic in origin, Japan is literally soaking in hot-spring spas (onsen), but no place in the country gushes more thermal waters than Beppu, on Kyushu's eastern coast. Spewing enough water to fill 3,600 swimming pools daily and comprising the world's second-largest hot springs (after Yellowstone), Beppu has long been one of Japan's best-known spa resorts, with some 11 million people visiting the city's 80 public bathhouses annually. They sit in mud baths, soak in waters of various mineral contents, are buried in hot sand, drink thermal waters, and even eat food cooked in thermal steam. Indeed, going to Beppu without partaking of its waters would be like going to a famous restaurant with your own TV dinner.
Like many onsen destinations in Japan, Beppu has witnessed a spa revolution the past few years that has replaced outdated, hangar-like bathhouses with new, sophisticated spas, many constructed of soothing natural woods and surrounded by greenery. Suginoi Palace, Beppu's most well-known spa, recently tore down its aging bathhouse and replaced it with a refined, airy, wood-and-glass structure affording great views of town from its indoor and outdoor baths. But while Beppu has reinvented itself in a bid to attract Japan's younger generation, it still remains wildly popular with older vacationers, and many of its attractions are so endearingly old-fashioned - if not downright hokey. With a population of 123,000, Beppu is bounded on one side by the sea and the other by steep hills and mountains. On cold days, white billowing clouds of steam escape from open springs and pipes, giving Beppu an otherworldly appearance.
Indeed, nine of the hot springs look so much like hell that that's what they're called: Jigoku, the Hells (jigoku refers to the burning hell of Buddhist sutras). But rather than a place most people try to avoid, the Hells are Beppu's major tourist attraction. Their fame goes back to the 1930s, when Hell pilgrimage tours were first introduced, complete with Japan's first female guides. Seven of the nine Hells, each with its own theme, are clustered within walking distance of each other. There's Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell), which sports cobalt-blue thermal ponds along with a nice garden and footbath where visitors can soak tired appendages, while Chinoike Jigoku (Blood Pond Hell) features waters with dissolved red clay. Kamado Jigoku (Oven Hell) is most memorable for its statue of a red demon inexplicably straddling a cooking pot, while Oniishibozu Jigoku gets its name from boiling mud, the bubbles of which are said to resemble the shaven heads of monks.
But it's the Oniyama Jigoku, home of crocodiles and alligators, that takes the cake. And what about the Beppu Utamaro Gallery across the street, which undoubtedly lures unsuspecting tourists hoping to catch Utamaro's famous woodblock prints but instead find themselves - you gotta love this - in a museum unabashedly devoted to sex? But my favorite relic in Beppu is the Takagawara Bathhouse, built in 1879 in traditional, Meiji-Era architecture. Resembling an ancient gymnasium, it seems woefully outdated compared to spiffier spas, and there were only a handful of older visitors there on my last visit. But as I lay there, buried up to my neck in steaming sand, feeling the warmth seek into my bones, and hoping I didn't get an itch somewhere, I decided I wouldn't give up this experience for any of Beppu's more modern diversions. Takagawara Bathhouse has been attracting visitors hell-bent on having a good time for more than 120 years. I hope it attracts hell-seekers for many generations to come.