When Japan decides to pay attention to something, it does it with an obsessive attention to detail that is – frankly – terrifying. Sushi is something that a European would reckon they knew how to do after maybe a few hours training. Rice, raw fish, maybe a bit of seaweed and wasabi: there’s only so much you can do. But – as mentioned – a good sushi chef (itamae – in front of the chopping board) will spend a decade training, with years passing before he’s allowed to the ‘close to the chopping board’ stage (again, an actual word: wakiita).
Or you can take cherry blossom. Pretty, right? I love it myself, and drive V half mad pointing out a new one every few metres here. However, Japan takes it to the next level with many words dedicated to the act of worshipping the blossom. Sakura, of course, is core – the cherry blossom itself, and its all-to-brief season. Picnicking under cherry trees during the season with colleagues or family is hanami. Admiring cherry blossoms by night, preferably with a barbecue, is yozakura – and you have to love a people who need a word for this. Interestingly, all this flowery pretty stuff is not seen as a girly thing: it reflects the brevity of life, and is part of honourable samurai – and kamikaze – tradition (they used to paint cherry blossoms on their aircraft, apparently).
So, while I hadn’t even known that spas were a Thing in Japan, it turns out that they, too, are the subject of intense, obsessive attention. Hot springs – onsen – are abundant, and they have, again, taken it to the next level. And Beppu is one of the most important onsen towns in Japan, with 8 huge hot spring areas, and uncountable hundreds of onsen baths for private and public use.
It also has a bunch of springs that are too hot to bathe in, the seven ‘hells’ – jigoku – which are a curious tourist attraction, each with its own unique attraction – we went to the vivid red and the bright blue ones which were lovely, but skipped the rest, being busy with the ones you can bathe in.
And, on a more mellow front, a very lovely park – Lake Shidaka – outside the town, filled with (of course) cherry blossom, and carp big enough to eat a small child.
So, bathing time. One slight problem was that V has a tattoo, and most onsens don’t accept tattoos (because: gangsters have tattoos and they don’t allow gangsters). And, while her tattoo should be hide-able under normal circumstances, there’s no hiding in the onsen – everyone’s naked. (Which took us by surprise, as we’d always thought of the Japanese as being relatively prudish, and while most onsens are single sex, some are mixed – though, unsurprisingly, it’s mostly men who go to those). Anyway, while we’d found a list of onsens which accept tattoos, the first ones on the list that we tried were a fail – not open to public, or didn’t accept. So we wound up going for the more expensive option, hiring a private onsen where no-one could see the tattoo (typically costing over 1000 yen instead of 1-200, £7ish instead of £1 – hardly bank breaking). And they were fab.
There is (of course) a whole ritual around onsens, what you can and cannot do. You must shower *thoroughly* at the side of the bath – sitting down, not splashing water, not getting any soap into the bath. No conversation (in public ones), other than a polite greeting – which is odd: I’d have expected it to be a more convival occasion, but the focus is on relaxation, which means silence here. No sitting on the side of the bath – etc, etc. But yes, they are lovely. I’m realising now how much I miss having a bath in London – showers are great, but deep long immersion in scalding hot water is what you really need to turn you into a jelly. Top Beppu moments:
- Myoban onsen – strange, straw roofed huts which were (and still are) used to harvest alum. A few of these have been converted into tiny private onsens. Heaven!
- Beppu Sand Bath – where you’re buried in hot volcanic sand for about 15 minutes, next to the ocean. Interesting experience, rather like being buried alive as shovelful after shovelful descend. (Though, TBH, Hot Water Beach in New Zealand beats it hollow: digging your own pond straight on the beach is much more fun than having it dug for you in a dedicated area – and the sand was not nearly as hot)
- Jigoku mushi (hell steaming) – cooking our own food in the boiling steam from the hot springs. We selected dumplings and corn; added to bamboo basket; lowered into the steaming pit, and all ready just 15 minutes later. Tasted normal, rather than eggy – or maybe we were just used to the sulphur in the air by then.
Have I mentioned how lovely Japanese people are? They really go out of their way to help, more than any other nation. In Nagasaki, we’d decided to send one bag on to Tokyo (another stroke of Japanese ingenuity: takuhaibin why don’t we have this ridiculously convenient luggage delivery service in rest of world? £10 to be rid of 10k backpack for 3 weeks, and pick it up in Tokyo hotel at the end). The lady there didn’t speak English, so went and reappeared with someone from the Tourist Information office – who was wonderful. She basically filled in the forms for us, rang the hotel in Tokyo to ensure they’d hold the luggage, reminded us to remove anything fragile – and sorted out a bunch of other stuff. Just lovely.
Anyway, in Beppu, we’d gone into a random restaurant and realised after a few minutes that they didn’t have sushi, which we wanted. So the little old lady behind the counter rang a nearby sushi place, checked they had space, and practically held our hands walking us over to the place. There was no English menu so we told the chef to just do whatever he wanted (again, there’s a word for this: omokase. Delightfully, it’s traditional, rather than a crazy thing to do). And (of course) the food was delicious. We were the only people there, at the counter with the chef and his wife: it was like having a private sushi performance. They were lovely – had marginally more English than our Japanese, but were constantly chatting and helping us (yeah, that means correcting even more mistakes). And, when we left, the lady insisted on walking us down the road till we were in sight of the station. I can only assume we look permanently lost and bewildered.