Travel

Oita: Where the water rises

The Japanese region of Oita on the island of Kyushu is renowned for its hot springs. Far more than just natural baths, however, they’re places of healing and of community, linking the generations, from old to young.Tuesday, 30 July 2019

By Charlotte Wigram-Evans
Steam rising off Lake Kinrin, Yufuin

It’s 5am and I’m naked on a mountainside. Night still holds sway over the sky, the air is thick with steam, and a single bead of sweat runs slowly down the back of my neck.

The onsen (hot spring) I’m sitting in is the highest in all of Kyushu, perched on a hillside overlooking the Tadewara Marshland 1,000ft below. It belongs to the Hokkein Onsen Sanso mountain lodge, a creaky wooden structure full of mismatched furniture, well-thumbed novels and people united in quiet camaraderie at having made it this far.

This secluded spot is reachable by a three-hour walk up Mount Mimata; a hike that will have you scrambling over granite rocks the size of boulders, and across scree that threatens to pull your feet from under you. Almost nothing can grow on this volcanic landscape, and sulphuric steam pouring from the mountaintop at 500C stains the slopes a vivid matcha green. It’s silent, desolate and completely spellbinding.

“Every time I take an onsen, I’m reminded of the sheer power of the mountains — the power of Mother Nature,” my guide Kazuya says rather poetically later that morning as we leave the lodge behind us and head for the marsh. “The water we all take for granted here fell as rain more than 50 years ago,” he goes on to explain, “heated by magma at the Earth’s core before rising to the surface.”

Oita sits between two fault lines, beside a string of active volcanoes, and is widely known as the world’s hot spring capital; there are thousands in the region, where the red-hot water that bursts through the mountainside has been harnessed to form everything from large public bathing houses and steam rooms to private pools you can hire for family outings.

Being naked in the hot springs is obligatory, but what begins as slightly disconcerting quickly becomes liberating, and by the time I reach Yufuin I don’t think twice about stripping off and slipping into the lakeside Shitan-yu onsen. A bucolic, rural town less than an hour’s drive from the marshland, Yufuin moves slowly. Little old ladies pedal by on bicycles, people tend to their rice paddies, and the streams that crisscross the valley gurgle their merry lullaby to passers-by.

Striking up a conversation with a serene, gently spoken woman, she tells me she’s been coming to this bathhouse every day for almost 80 years: “The minerals in the water keep me young,” she says. Agreeing wholeheartedly, I inquire as to whether this nationwide love of hot springs contributes to Japan’s long life expectancy.

“Perhaps,” she replies. “The water has amazing health benefits. A close friend of mine from Tokyo struggled with diabetes for years and was getting increasingly poorly. I told him to come to Yufuin and we took an onsen every day together for a month. He’s now lived here for 10 years and, I’m pleased to say, is healthier than ever.”

Looking out across Kinrin Lake, I think back to my conversation with Kazuya about the power of Mother Nature. It’s evident too in the beauty of my surroundings; both boiling and spring water feed the lake, and steam eddies and swirls off the surface of the water. Giant koi carp skulk in the shallows, a heron silently picks his way through the reeds and behind, the deep green of the cypress trees that blanket the hillside is interspersed with bursts of bubblegum-pink. The cherries are in blossom.

Hiking up Mount Mimata

City of steam

Just how intrinsic onsen are to life in Oita becomes apparent the following day when I reach Beppu, a small city of around 120,000 people sitting in the shadow of Mount Tsurumi. I’m greeted by my guide, Masahiro, who leads me through a maze of wisteria walkways to a square with what I’m certain is a circle of 15 wooden toilets, all facing each other.

“It’s a steam onsen for your feet,” he laughs, having noticed my dumbfounded expression: “I often come here on my own to sit quietly and read a book. It’s so peaceful. Plus, it’s the only one in the world.” Taking a seat, I slip my feet beneath wooden slats in the floor, and I feel heat wrap around my toes, imagining how odd it must look when every stool is taken.

As if reading my mind, Masahiro continues: “It’s almost always busy. Onsen are meeting places; every area has at least one public bathhouse, most with a community hall on the second floor.”We stroll on, past cats snoozing on steam vents and traditional Japanese houses with their sloping roofs and panelled rice paper screens (“I was always punching holes through those as a child,” laughs Masahiro, “it drove my parents mad!”), pausing to sample some banana cake from a street-side steam oven.

Hot springs are used to cook with as much as to bathe in Oita, and we’re soon tucking into steamed pizza (a bit soggy, but surprisingly good), our feet submerged in a foot bath hidden beneath the restaurant table. Pizza is followed by purin, a silky Japanese dessert not unlike creme caramel, and we’re joined by Nobuko, who owns Okamotoya Ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel, where I’m staying.

“No one here leaves the house without their towel and yukata (robe),” she tells me. “My boy is 14 and meets his friends at various onsen almost every day after school.” It seems this shared love of hot springs permeates every generation, bringing people together, from the 85-year-old lady in Yufuin to Nobuko’s teenage son.

As night draws a veil over Beppu, I head back up the hill to my hotel. Built in 1875, it’s one of the oldest in the city, an exquisite dark-wood building smelling faintly of the fresh straw used to make the tatami mats that carpet the floors. My final onsen is a milky, emerald-green lagoon in the hotel gardens, the ground pinked with azalea petals and studded with bonsai trees.

Stars appear, sweat beads my forehead and I end my trip as I began — naked, surrounded by boiling water and
billowing steam.

The Red Pond, Chinoike Jigoku

Three more onsen to see in Oita

Waterfall onsen, Kokonoe-machi
One of only two such onsen, the Utase-yu public bathhouse pumps water through pipes in the wall to produce a waterfall effect. Stand directly underneath and the pressure is perfect for a back massage.

Rooftop onsen, Oita City
In the region’s capital, the 21-floor JR Kyushu Hotel Blossom Oita has a rooftop onsen that throws up amazing views. Take a dip at dusk and watch as lights flair across the city.

The red pond, Beppu City
While not strictly an onsen (the water temperature reaches 78C) this rust-red pool is a must-visit. The mud is used for skin ointments and is particularly good for rashes and burns.

Essentials

Getting there & around
ANA flies from Heathrow to Tokyo every day, also offering daily flights between Tokyo and Oita.
Driving around the region is easy to organise as distances between places are small. Alternatively, buses are reliable.

When to go
Oita has a climate similar to the UK, with mild winters and warm summers reaching 30C. In April, the cherry trees are in blossom, while in Autumn the hillsides glow red.

More information
To find out which of Oita’s onsen are tattoo friendly, open air or private click here.

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