Becoming Japanese in Beppu

Sunday 6th – Wednesday 9thOctober

Beppu is the first of our two Japanese Ryokan stays.

Lonely Planet describes Beppu as the gaudy, glitzy hot springs area of Japan.  Beppu actually owes its fame to Kumahachi Aburaya, born in 1863, made his fortune speculating on the rice market, then lost it, by the age of 34.  After spending some time in North America, he returned to Japan and started an advertising campaign to promote Beppu. By the time he died in 1935 Beppu was a world renowned resort town.

We arrived to dull, grey wet weather, then realised that no matter how clear or damp the weather is, Beppu will always be warm and steamy because it is the home to hundreds of hot springs.

We visited one of the hot springs.  We could have seen more, but we figured they are all much the same.  Each has a special feature, such as cooking eggs in the boiling water or cooking cakes or steaming creme caramels or showing off crocodiles.

The weather turned wet as Typhoon Danas headed our way and we realised how limited you are in a small town when it is wet.  There are no outstanding museums to visit, no indoor arenas or venues.

To keep dry we visited the aquarium and enjoyed seeing a variety of creatures that live in the northern seas.  Everything appeared very cramped, except for the garden eels who seemed to have a luxuriously long tank to waddle in.  A group of school children were watching the walrus and dolphin performances.  I think we were more entertained by the school children.

The rain eased so we extended our visit to the adjoining monkey park.  Makes you think how far we have come, when you see these primates screeching and chasing and picking fleas off each other.

The next day was threatening more heavy rain and winds from the typhoon.  We opted for a one hour bus ride to Yufuin, a mountain town of hot springs, also made famous by Kumahachi Aburaya.  Its outstanding feature is a quaint street to walk on that finishes at a lake – not much fun in the teeming rain, but we enjoyed the ride into the countryside with views through the steamed up bus windows.

We also explored downtown Beppu and found a lot of very noisy slot machine places and a number of bars.  I am sure this place is alive in summer.  We visited the Beppu Tower, built in the 1950s as a tourist attraction, but not as glamorous as the Blackpool Tower.

As it happened, the typhoon didn’t affect us, as it moved further north between Japan and the Korea peninsula.  There was a massive torrential down pour, which cleared up quickly and presented clear skies for the morning we were leaving.

To our surprise the Ryokan was a large hotel. It isn’t until you are shown to your room that you realise how different it is. There was no bed, a low mattress was put out for each of us while we had dinner. There was a low table and cushions. The toilet, wash room and shower/bath room were all separate. We were instructed to wear the Japanese robes and socks/slippers that were provided to dinner & breakfast, in the private dining room allocated for our stay.

We tried the Japanese bath house which was fun, although I think I broke protocol more than once. I didn’t bring the peg from my room to identify my slippers, I wore my slippers into the bath house (and got reprimanded), I sat on the bucket instead of the stool to soap up, I am not sure I scrubbed my body enough, I had no idea which part of which pool to bath in.  And when I had finished – did I dry myself in the right room? I just wish I had a Japanese angel sitting on my shoulder telling me what to do next.

In true Japanese style, an amazing selection of complex food was presented for each of the six meals we had.

Yuki, who was our hostess, is teaching herself English with CDs, books and an electronic translator. She went to the trouble of translating the numerous dishes in each meal, so we had some idea of what we were eating.

Dinner ran into five or six courses, starting with an apéritif and 3 or 4 appetizers. Next was sushimi with a miso soup, some small hot dish followed by the main course – shabu shabu, sukiyaki and steamed fish and vegetables. This was followed by a cooling down dish such as sushi and then the dessert.

We were the foreigners who insisted on a beer and a bottle of wine. We didn’t think it spoiled the meal, but it was a less than usual request.

Breakfast was just as complicated with a huge variety of hot and cold dishes, including steamed and dried fish, fermented vegetables and eggs cooked differently each day.

I don’t think we have experienced such an intense immersion in any culture as we did in Beppu.  It was fantastic!

So here are photos from Beppu, and then photos of some of our Japanese Ryokan experience.


The Ryokan in Beppu