Looking out from the green-clad mountainside, the city drifts in and out of view as clouds flow over the landscape. When the city does reveal itself, steam in soft white columns rises from streets and buildings, adding to the otherworldly feel of the scene.
This is Beppu, a hot spring resort on the west coast of Kyushu's Oita Prefecture, and it is a city powered by steam. With more hot water coming out of the ground here than in any other "onsen" hot spring hotspot in Japan, the springs have become deeply intertwined in local life. Having a soak in one of the onsen ringing the downtown is a given, but there's a lot more to the city than that.
Headlining most tourist itineraries are the "jigoku," or "hells" -- seven hot springs around Beppu, each with its own charm (or gimmick, in some cases). Five are in the urban Kannawa area, while two are in the slightly more remote Shibaseki district. You can't take a dip in these springs, but they still stand out as natural wonders.
"Umi Jigoku," or "sea hell" is one of the "hells" where the management has accentuated the natural beauty of the spring, setting it in a manicured park with a small lake. Beyond the lake is the wide, pastel blue spring, with steam rising in a thick column obscuring the hillsides around it. Sometimes, a pitter-patter of water droplets falls on tourists as they take in the sights at the pond's edges -- actually onsen steam that has condensed in the cooler air above.
The best of the hells glory in their natural splendor, like the sea hell and its neighbor "Oniishibozu Jigoku." Others rely on additional -- some would say questionable -- attractions like crocodiles, exotic fish, or a miniature zoo. Admission is 400 yen per hell, or 2,000 yen for an all-hells pass.
All that steam and hot water bubbling to the surface in such variety, aren't just pretty. They aren't just for melting away stress, either. In Beppu, the springs are also the backbone of a major local cuisine: "jigoku mushi," or "hell steaming."
Many restaurants and hotels offer these dishes, though perhaps the most accessible option is the supremely casual Jigoku Mushi Kobo in the heart of Kannawa. Though according to manager Yasuhiro Wakabayashi, "this is not a restaurant; it's an experience facility."
A conventional dining establishment it is not, even ignoring the free foot baths. After choosing items from a large menu, the food is passed to you just minutes later --still uncooked.
According to Mr. Wakabayashi, the spring some 250 meters below the restaurant pumps water to the surface at around 98 degrees Celsius. The steam from that water is what cooks your food. With your chosen delectables in baskets or Chinese steamers, you head out to the open-air cooking area. A smiling staff member greets you and makes sure you're properly installed in thick rubber gloves and apron, ready to put your dishes in the steamer. It's an intense experience, the heat billowing up as you carefully lower in your food.
Your reporter chose some Chinese-style dim sum delights, and a dish of veggies and layers of marbled pork. While utterly simple, unadorned and unseasoned, it returned from the kitchen a lovely combination of natural vegetable sweetness and voluptuous richness -- the cabbage and bean sprouts still crunchy and coated with a thin glaze of pork fat.
Hunger sated, there's another reminder this isn't your average restaurant -- you have to wash your dishes in a long sink with fellow customers from both Beppu and beyond -- often foreign tourists.
Indeed, Wakabayashi notes Beppu has attracted swelling numbers of foreign guests, as well as thousands of foreign students to the hyper-multicultural Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. "They can have a lot of good experiences here," he said. And to help ensure that, Jigoku Mushi Kobo and in fact most public locales in Beppu feature signage in three or four languages.
"I really like that we can be welcoming," Wakabayashi continued. "Beppu is becoming a very international city, and I love that."
Being so far from major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, it is Beppu's geothermal delights that attract people to its winding stone streets. The onsens' role in this community's culture is not lost on the locals.
"We have a feeling of thanks to the onsen for the integral role they play in local life," said Wakabayashi.
Indeed, a walk around the onsen neighborhoods reveals how entwined the springs are with daily life. Sprinkled across town are curative hot spring inns called "kashima." Charmingly ramshackle community baths dot the backstreets. Historical plaques mark demure stone and wooden buildings as onetime hot spring laundry spots or steam rooms. Eateries, no more than a sliding window opening onto the street, purvey "jigoku mushi" pork buns the size of softballs. Corner shops sell snacks ready for geothermal cooking. And on virtually every block there are the boxy steamers.
According to the Beppu Municipal Government, the hot springs are first mentioned in an eighth century story about a pair of Japanese gods who visit the area. One falls gravely ill, and is only revived when the second puts him in a spring water bath. The hot springs are the city's lifeblood, and have been for centuries, shaping its culture and drawing people in from near and far to partake in the joy of the baths. And the city welcomes them all, enchanting with steam-powered wonders. (By Robert Sakai-Irvine, Staff Writer)