When planning my itinerary for Japan, I knew I had to prioritize a hot spring experience: this was non-negotiable. Bathing culture is such an important part of the Japanese way of life, so I searched for top hot spring destinations in Japan and decided to visit Beppu, in Oita prefecture on the island of Kyushu. (Why was this so important to me? To make up for my hot spring fail in the Czech Republic). Even though I spent less than 48 hours in Beppu, it was definitely a highlight from the whole trip. If you are traveling in the south part of Japan, it should be on your itinerary any time of the year.
Enjoy Onsen, a website specifically for foreigners visiting Beppu, has a very extensive guide on how to get to Beppu by all modes of transportation.
Why is Beppu Famous?
Beppu is famous for its thousands of naturally occurring hot springs, the most in any city in Japan. The hot springs drive a bustling tourist economy, not only for the unique technicolored “hells” (jigoku) which people do not soak in, but especially for the many inns and hotels that feature hot springs at the center of their hospitality. When you climb a narrow street and turn to look down at the city, you will see countless plumes of steam punctuating the skyline. This goes to show how naturally-occurring hot water is truly the heartbeat of the city.
We spent one day relaxing in our inn and one day exploring a few of the famous “Seven Hells (jigoku) of Beppu.” Pictured above is the chinoike-jigoku named for its red color caused by high iron content. The other most famous hot spring is the umi-jigoku, named for its light blue color, pictured at the top of this post. These pools are so hot they appear to be boiling; they are much too hot for human touch.
To visit all seven jigoku, there is a tourist bus that completes the circuit in three to four hours. You can buy this pass at the tourist office located near the Beppu train station. (Read more about this method of touring at FromJapan.com). This pass costs roughly $20US. However, we chose to only visit a few of the hells because we were short on time. Since we were only going to a little cluster of them, we took the city bus which cost much less. (After two weeks in Japan we had become confident with public transportation). We saw the chinoike-jigoku and umi-jikoku, plus another which was an alligator farm! We passed by one of the most famous spots, the kamado-jigoku where you can cook a meal in the steam from the boiling hot spring. If you have time, you should check that one out.
Aside from the colorful and interesting hot springs you cannot bathe in, there are lots of hot springs (onsen) you can get into– and should. Above pictured is Takegawara Onsen, the oldest in Beppu, founded in 1879. You can read more about this notable (and affordable) onsen here. I’ll add that we asked the front desk attendant if tattoos were allowed, and she said it was fine. This spot, popular with locals; is also is friendly and welcoming, so don’t be intimidated.
If you want a more upscale experience, make a reservation at Hyotan Onsen, a spa with an extensive variety of bath options and lauded restaurant. At least, check out their website with charming English translations – I guarantee you will want to visit after that. If you’ve been researching Beppu you may have seen advertisements or pictures of beachfront hot sand baths. In this treatment, you are buried up to your neck (while wearing a robe) in steam-heated sand. It is my understanding that the beachfront sand baths are closed indefinitely, but if you want a hot sand bath, some onsen such as Hyotan Onsen have them available.
Note that onsen are public baths divided by gender, and that it is customary (required) to be nude in front of others. If you aren’t familiar with onsen culture, check out a detailed guide linked below.
A Special Surprise in Beppu
When we got off the train at Beppu Station, we could tell there was something special happening in town. A cute parade was taking place in the main street with children wearing matching school uniforms. Much to our surprise, a massive parade formed made up of dozens of groups (school, clubs, municipal groups) in matching outfits. Each group had a traveling palanquin with a nominee from the group sitting atop the human-borne platform. Think of it like a float, but carried on the shoulders of folks instead of built onto a car.
The group got more and more excited, until there was a short presentation. After a couple of speeches, music began to blare and everyone turned on hoses and bamboo tubes attached to fire hydrants and sprayed the parade with warm water before turning and spraying all the spectators with warm water! Before long everybody was drenched and partying like crazy! We later found out that this was the Beppu Hatto Onsen Festival. This happens every year during the last week of March or first week of April. It was surreal to get off the train and suddenly be amidst this unique celebration that we didn’t know was happening. It will be a really special memory for sure.
Bonus: Yufuin No Mori
Just a quick note here to mention that there are lots of cute, picturesque, local trains covered by the JR Pass that are not high-speed Shinkansen. I found out about Yufuin No Mori from a Youtube video and immediately added it to my list of must-dos. This beetle-green train with vintage details traverses the woods of Kyushu at a much slower pace than the bullet train. The interior is so quaint with green fabric and wooden details. I recommend taking a sightseeing train at least once during your travel in Japan. They are in all regions and you can find a wealth of knowledge about them online; there is a massive train subculture especially on Youtube.
Book Your Stay in Beppu
There are a number of hotels near Beppu Station, however I would encourage you, if you’re heading all the way to Kyushu for hot springs, to splurge on an upscale hotel or ryokan. On my Japan bucket list was booking at least one hotel with an in-room onsen tub, and this was where I made it happen. My next blog post is about our relaxing spa-like stay at Nagomitsuki. Look for smaller, ryokan or boutique style lodgings to complete the hot spring town experience.
On the interactive map below, make sure to move it around and check the north part of the city. For reference, our inn was closer to the Beppudaigaku JR Station and Hyotan Onsen.
Have you ever traveled specifically for hot springs? Where in the world is your favorite hot spring or spa town? You know I’m highly interested, so please leave your recommendation in the comments!
Photos by Doug and Staci Jackson for The Voyageer.