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Finding Heaven in the Hells of Beppu, Oita

「地獄は極楽だ!」 大分県別府市地獄巡り

semi-overcast 6 °C

BGM: In the House of Stone and Light by Martin Page

You know what it's like when you see a photo of a certain place and realize you need to go there before you die. It's hard to explain that magnetic force that pulls one in towards their destiny. Perhaps I'm being a little deep about it, but that's the way I've always felt about the Hells of Beppu in Oita Prefecture (Kyushu). They called me to them at the tender age of ten, when I first saw a picture of Blood Pond Hell in a travel book of Japan and I felt the pang of wanderlust inside me. Weird but true.

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I'm not a goth, nor do I have a love for things macabre. But just wrapping my mind around the concept of such an eerie place as this occurring in nature was enough to trigger a pyroclastic flow of inspiration and a sense of adventure. I just had to come here! My host family didn't tell me we were actually going to Beppu until the night before we drove out. As you can probably guess, I was too hyper to sleep.

The term jigoku ("hell") in Japanese refers to both the "resting place" of evil spirits and thermal springs too hot for people to bathe in. The Hell Tour covers the most famous nine of the many "hot spots" in Beppu -seven of them located in the Kannawa district and the other two up the mountain near Shibaseki Hot Springs. Any guidebook you pick up will groan on about the cheesy, touristy aspects of Beppu Jigoku Meguri (Beppu Hell Tour). But despite the tacky statues and gimmicks, the star of the show here is still mother nature in all her steamy splendor. I was overjoyed to learn that there were more than just the nine hells mentioned in the guidebooks. Each hell has its own features: steaming fumaroles, geysers and pools, various sculptures (some goofy, some serious), gardens, plants or animals and my favorite: different colored sediments. Almost every color of the rainbow is represented in the boiling ponds and puddles -the color dependent upon various combinations of algae and minerals like iron, calcium and colloidal sulfur.

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(Above: My favorite "Pepto-Bismol"-pink hell at Yama Jigoku)

1. 山地獄 (Yama Jigoku, "Mountain Hell")

Mountain Hell got its name from the "mountain" of mud that was thrown up over the years from the hell's activity.

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There's a small collection of caged animals and birds here, too -some of them healthy, some of them in questionable condition. For a few hundred yen you can buy potatoes to pitch to the resident hippo.

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2. かまど地獄 (Kamado Jigoku, "Cooking-Pot Hell")

The people of Japan have a long, proud history of using geothermal energy for cooking. The oven-shaped fumaroles of Kamado Jigoku were apparently used centuries ago for steaming everything from rice to seafood.

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This is one of several hells featuring hard-boiled eggs cooked on-site. There's also a guy that likes to do magic tricks with a lighter and smoke.

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3. 海地獄 (Umi Jigoku, "Ocean Hell")

Though an emerald-green lake first greets you when you approach this particular hell, a walk through the main gate leads to a hissing, showering marine-blue hot spring that sprays up so much water it could damage your camera if you're not careful. (I've ruined two perfectly good cameras, here). This jaw-dropping powerful hell was formed 1200 years ago by a dramatic volcanic eruption. Yet the force of the steam constantly shooting out of the earth like a fire hydrant gone haywire gives one the impression that the eruption is ongoing.

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Umi Jigoku
sports a small red shrine, a pretty red moon bridge over a koi pond and a walkway that climbs up around the back of the hot spring so you can get a good dousing of sulfur-smelling spray. Up a small hill from Umi Jigoku is a geothermal-heated greenhouse with a nice collection of giant pond lilies, as well as an active brick-red colored smaller hell.

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This area is a good place to stop for a quick bite of something steamed to eat, like hard-boiled eggs, steamed custard pudding (recommended), corn and sweet potato. A few of the restaurants in this area also feature dango jiru, a savory local vegetable soup with hand-rolled flour noodles.

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4. 鬼山地獄 (Oniyama Jigoku, "Devil Mountain Hell")

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I found this hell to be a bit too hot for my taste and I didn't think that was possible. It's gated up high so nobody can climb in and good thing! The steam shooting out of this hell is apparently strong enough to pull "one and a half steam engine cars!" I could feel the earth trembling beneath my feet as I approached. Okay, maybe that was only nervousness.

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Devil Mountain Hell is also known as "Alligator Hell." There are a hundred of them here! Though they seem friendly with each other all hugging in muddy, lifeless concrete vats, my mind kept repeating that one scene from Romancing the Stone with a gator and a dude with no hand. There are several noisy, raging generators here too and a collection of old, eerie carvings of angry guardian spirits and emaciated fasting Buddhas that made me feel, well, appropriately freaked out. I found myself hurrying to put lots of distance between myself and the scalding steam drenching me from this cauldron of Hades. (Truthfully, I loved every minute of it!)

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5. 白池地獄 (Shiraike Jigoku, "White Pond Hell")

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This quiet pond is a fresh little oasis of white and green, far away from the overwhelming hissing and churning of the other hells. It's also tastefully decorated with a traditional Japanese garden complete with statues, trees and lush shrubbery.

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The water of Shiraike Jigoku is colorless, but changes to milky white over time as the sediments settle at the bottom. The effect of this peaceful white against a green, tropical background is quite soothing to the senses.

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6. 鬼石坊主地獄 (Oniishi Bozu Jigoku, "Devil-Stone Shaven Head Hell")

The newest of the hells, this is somewhat of a knock-off of the famous yet unrelated Bozu Jigoku hell up the mountain towards Myouban Hot Springs. (The word bozu is synonymous for both a Buddhist monk in training and a shaved head. The round, shiny bubbles coming up from the mud in these raised vats apparently resemble the bald heads of monks and so this hell was named accordingly). I saw this hell before it went under construction -just a big gray pit of boiling mud roped off from the main walkway and had no monk-like bubbles at the time. When I saw it completed, I could easily guess what effect they were going for.

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Though the hells look seriously artificial, the designers built up a very nice foot bath with a stone walkway, inlaid with pebbles of different texture so that when you walk over them in the hot water, your body can benefit from the acupressure. The on-site spa Oniishi no Yu is also pretty classy with the tubs in a loft up in the trees. Sometimes they float huge pomelo fruit in the water to add fragrance and softness.

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7. 金龍地獄 (Kinryu Jigoku, "Golden Dragon Hell")

The first time I came here, this hell was included in the ticket book with the other hells. But several years later, apparently things had changed and I was surprised when I had to pay an extra few hundred yen to get in. At times, parts of Kinryu Jigoku were roped off and fountains that once flowed had no trace of water. But when I returned in 2004, everything was up and running again, much to my relief. I have no idea what the politics are surrounding this place, but it still has a lot of charm.

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This hell features a steam oven where people can cook their own eggs, a fountain of potable piping-hot sulfuric water (good for imbibing) and a steam bath used for beautifying necks and clearing up sore throats.

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Likenesses of Amida Buddha and Kukai (a.k.a. Kobo Daishi, the founder of Buddhism's Shingon school) also reside here, giving the hell a very solemn, temple-like feel. I often saw many adults paying their respects in front of the various statues at this hell.

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The final two hells are just up the mountain towards Shibaseki Hot Springs. I usually took a taxi since the cabbies in Beppu are always fun to chat with.

8. 血の池地獄 (Chinoike Jigoku, "Blood Pond Hell")

My host family from Fukuoka thought I'd cry when they first brought me here- the place that called me over space and time. But I didn't. My camera was too busy to let me get all emotional. To me, paradise looks like this.

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What impressed me most about Chinoike Jigoku was the ambiance. Instead of sinister, this hell is actually quite relaxing, especially now with the brand new foot bath! This is my absolute favorite place in all of Beppu to relish a peaceful, calming foot-soak under the scarlet red maple leaves on a cool autumn morning.

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The iron and sulfur-rich clay of Blood Pond Hell is used for an all-purpose skin ointment, said to cure everything from athlete's foot to sore muscles. I bought a little tin of the stuff and tried it. I can't say anything was cured, but I got a slight buzz from the sulfuric reek.

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9. 竜巻地獄 (Tatsumaki Jigoku, "Waterspout Hell")

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This geyser, completely encased in stone and concrete, was shaped to create a "waterspout effect" when it shoots up against the roof. The "twister" shape always looked upside-down to me. But having never seen a geyser before, I still thought it was pretty cool. I always made this my first stop on the Hell Tours since timing here is important. If your bus gets here while the geyser is "sleeping" you might have to wait a bit (20-30 minutes) before the show begins.

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I've completed the Beppu hell tour circuit a total of six times over the years. At one point, even the gentleman selling the famous high-quality Magma Onsen bath salts at Umi Jigoku could remember me by name! I hope to come by here again and savor this amazing, naturally dynamic place with all of my senses. To me, this geothermal hotbed is my idea of heaven, and all the cultural expressions on the premises only add a measure of fun to the whole package. I seriously hope the essence of Beppu Jigoku Meguri never changes. And if it does, I hope the owners of this little enterprise continue to follow Nature's lead- whose instincts are usually right.

Posted by GenkiLee 03:37 Archived in Japan Tagged japan hot_springs beppu fumarole umi_jigoku beppu_hell_tour chinoike_jigoku oita_prefecture

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