Highway to hell
Bathe in hell (in a good way) in onsen-filled Oita.
For a serious onsen (hot spring bath) experience there’s no place like Oita, made up of town after town of steaming pools giving the impression that much of the prefecture is constantly on fire. Despite its hellish properties, Oita’s volcanic landscape is extremely beautiful to look at. It’s also fun to explore, offering great hiking, ancient monuments, shrines, temples and more for some rewarding entertainment in between baths.
Beppu is the onsen capital of Kyushu, if not the whole of Japan, boasting the highest number of hot spring sources and hundreds of baths across a dedicated spa town that is something between a rural haven and an onsen theme park. There are hot spring baths, mud baths, sand baths, milky baths, blood baths and steam baths spread out across the area. Some are said to cure ailments from backache to gastroenteritis, while others increase beauty or restore youth. Tattoos in onsen are a traditional taboo, but ahead of the 2020 Olympics and 2019 Rugby World Cup Games, Beppu is one of the leading charges for things to change and to start accepting tattooed foreigners in onsen.
Most are for bathing but there are eight that are definitely not – these are the jigoku or ‘hells’, touted as Beppu’s tourist highlight. You can take a tour of the eight spots including ‘sea hell’, ‘blood pond’ and ‘tornado hell’, and try the various steamed foods made with the hot water there.
Leave the onsen gimmicks behind by heading to Yufuin, another hot spring resort town along the foot of Mount Yufu-dake, which has a slightly more refined, traditional atmosphere. Traditional inns, boutique restaurants, cafes and stores line the main streets leading towards picturesque Lake Kinrin-ko. There’s some fantastic hiking in the area around the Aso-Kuju National Park which extends all the way from Mount Aso in Kumamoto.
It’s worth heading back over towards the southeastern side of the prefecture to visit the coastal Oita city and try some of the fugu (pufferfish) or ‘fuku’ (luck) as it’s called locally – the notoriously poisonous delicacy that only trained chefs are allowed to prepare. Further on is Usuki, a quaint castle town known for its awe-inspiring cliffside Buddha carvings.