In Japan, you’d be hard-pressed to find a city or town that doesn’t have at least one onsen (温泉). Thanks to abundant geothermal activity on the archipelago, there are thousands of these natural hot springs scattered throughout each of the prefectures. Not to be confused with bathhouses, or sentō, in which heated tap water is used, onsen must contain at least one of 19 specified minerals and have a natural temperature higher than 25 ºC (77 ºF) to be officially designated as such. For hundreds of years, people have enjoyed soaking in their healing waters to relax, unwind, and cure stress-related ailments.
Onsen don’t only differ in their mineral content; there are outdoor and indoor baths, public and private baths, and baths for mixed and gender-separate bathing. A popular way to enjoy different kinds of baths is to visit an onsen resort, a hot spring area or town with its own hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops and amusement facilities.
One of Japan’s top onsen resorts is located in Oita prefecture, which also boasts the highest number of hot spring locations and the highest annual yield of hot spring water in the country. Yufuin (由布院) is located just a 35 min drive from its popular neighbour Beppu, in a small valley beneath the impressive Mount Yufu.
The tears came hard and fast. I had just reached the sign marking the last 800 meters of the Yufudake trail but instead of feeling elated that I was almost to the top of the mountain, I felt an overwhelming urge to give up and turn around. Switchback after switchback had made the terrain seem like an endless ascent and I knew that “almost” stretched ahead in another long series of back and forth that would only grow steeper and rockier.
As surprised as I was at my sudden outburst of emotion on the side of the mountain, I also felt relief. Finally, my body was allowing me to acknowledge just how exhausted I was. My legs were butter and my chest a furnace, but it was starting to feel good in the way exercise does when the endorphins show up to the party. It was my mind that was worn out; hiking is a mental sport and I was losing to the voice in my head.
In the final months of my last year at university, I took a trip to Hogsback, a small village in the Eastern Cape, to meet a potter named Anton. He agreed to be the subject of a soundslide I was producing for my portfolio and was kind enough to let me shadow him for a day. Tucked away in the forests of the Amatole Mountains, his studio overlooked a carpet of tree tops and was filled with the chirping of the forest’s louder residents.
There must be something about potters and the woods, I thought to myself as I watched the road disappear from the back of Conor’s car. He, Mark and I had spent the morning exploring Hita’s historic merchant district and were on our way to a nearby village in the Kyushu Mountains dedicated entirely to the pottery craft.
Much like Hogsback, Onta is surrounded be dense woodland and far removed from the bustle of the modern world. The soundtrack is different, though. Churns and splashes and thumps echo throughout the small settlement – the distinct song of the karausu that line the river and powder the clay.
“Simone! There’s even more back here! Come look,” Conor yelled from the other room. We were in the Mamedamachi district (豆田町商店街) of Hita City, browsing through what I thought was your average soy sauce shop, when we discovered a secret museum with (literally) thousands of dolls on display.
These hidden gems are part of the charm of Hita’s oldest merchant town; you never know what you might find walking in to one of its many shops, or at the end of its many alleyways and side streets.
Mark and I had finally made the trip up to see our favourite Irishman, which we had been promising ever since Conor was transferred from Miyazaki to Kumamoto, and after spending the night in his new town, Yamaga, we were off exploring in the neighbouring prefecture of Oita.
After spending the night in Beppu, my road trip was almost over. I still had a whole day to make the 3-hour drive home, though, and decided to make a few stops on the way. After browsing the Golden Week sales at Oita City’s Park Place mall, I headed to Usuki. The former castle town is known for its stone paved alleyways and old samurai residences, and also a group of mysterious statues carved into its cliff side.
Visiting Beppu during Golden Week was not one of my best ideas, especially after spending two peaceful days in the countryside. Traffic going into the seaside town was a mess, and came to a standstill outside it’s most famous attraction, Beppu Jigoku, or the Hells of Beppu.
The rain had cleared up by the time I got back from the cave into Bungoono proper, so I took myself off to see the Harajiri Falls, nicknamed the “Niagara of the Orient”.
I’ve discovered that Japan is sometimes guilty of exaggerating its attractions in write ups, though, and the falls are no exception. They are indeed beautiful, and earn the 91st spot on Japan’s Top 100 Waterfalls list, but at only 20 m (66 ft) high and 120 m (410 ft) wide, they don’t live up to the comparison. Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said I didn’t marvel at them just a bit.
Nature in Japan seems to manifest itself completely at odds with the order and structure of its society; vegetation swallows everything that stands still for too long, bugs and insects grow into caricatures of themselves, and the earth erupts and quakes at its will. But of all the islands’ natural wonders, it is the forests that fascinate me the most.
It is where the Gods are believed to have lived, where priests sought refuge from persecution, where people stillgo for spiritual guidance (and, rumour has it, where they grow spiritual guidance), where they abandon their belongings, and sometimes their lives. The forests are full of secrets, and in the mountains of Bunganoo, they keep one more: the Inazumi Underwater Cave.
Afternoons would be my favourite time of day, I thought as I weaved in and out of the streets of Taketa town, if they weren’t so melancholic. The roads had been painted gold by the last of the day’s sun, and the afterglow was just enough to lose my mind in. Then suddenly – BUM! BADUM-BUM-BUM! – the sound of drumming yanked me sharply out of my daydream. What on earth could be causing such a commotion this late in the day? Curiosity piqued, I decided to follow it.
As I walked up the giant steps to the site of the old Oka Castle, a haunting melody, blasting out from hidden speakers, followed me. The song, called Kojo no Tsuki (or, Moon over the Castle’s Scattered Ruins), was composed by one of Japan’s most renowned pianists. Rentaro Taki (滝廉太郎) spent many of his childhood years in Taketa, and the castle is said to have inspired his famed composition.
Two years ago, I would have never considered disappearing into the countryside for 4 days by myself. Growing up in a city where danger is perceived to be lurking around every corner, having backup was always essential for when the shit inevitably hit the fan. But in Japan, I feel safer, and while I still lock my doors and check them at least once before bedtime, being alone doesn’t really make me jump any more.
So when “Golden Week” – a cluster of public holidays in the same week – began to approach, I decided to do something I’ve never done: road trip solo.