The final leg of my adventure around southern Japan with the Japan Airlines Japan Explorer Pass saw me leave the bright lights of Fukuoka for the lantern-lit hot springs of Beppu, known for its eight scorching “Hells”, and nearby Yufuin, a town that’s prettier than a picture (and I mean a really, reeeally pretty one).
Check out my weekend diary of what went down when I visited this gorgeous gem of a destination in Oita prefecture – and never wanted to leave.
Friday: Fukuoka to Beppu to Yufuin
11:30 a.m. Did I just stumble into a Ghibli movie?
Arriving at Beppu station after a sleepy two-hour train journey from Hakata, I can already smell the sea air. Taking out my phone, I quickly google where my ryokan (Japanese inn) is. I’ve never stayed in one before, so I’m not sure what to look for. After navigating around the charmingly narrow streets taking too many photos I finally find it nestled in an alley of wooden houses and small shops selling candy and crackers. It looks like a bigger version of the house in My Neighbour Totoro. Eek!
I’m thankful for the English-speaking staff who show me around whilst supplying me with refreshing lime water. My room smells of the sweet tatami flooring. As much as I’m itching to put on my yukata and get closer to the columns of hot spring steam I can see puffing out between the many ryokan across town, I have plans further afield today.
1:30 p.m. Fully-loaded on the bus to Yufuin
After consulting the Beppu Tourism Information Office in the train station, I’m supplied with enough bus timetables and information pamphlets to keep even a klutz like me out of trouble. I hop onto a bus to Yufuin, an idyllic countryside town famous for its historic buildings and stunning lake views. Buses to Yufuin run from Beppu Station every 20 minutes and the scenic journey takes less than an hour.
2:10 p.m. The land of owls and honey
This charming little hamlet is surrounded by mountains. I’m actually amazed by the amount of quirky little side attractions I find wandering off the picturesque main Yunotsubo Street. Take Floral Village, a very Japanese version of a typical British village that was already decorated for Halloween. As soon as I saw a shop dedicated solely to to owl-related products, I was sold.
I sample some fresh ice cream made with sweet honey straight from the hive at a cafe called Bee Honey. After lunch, I walk another five minutes to the end of the street to stumble right into a real-life postcard; the landscape had opened up onto Lake Kinrin with a distant torii gate floating on its clear surface.
6:00 p.m. Last bus to Beppu
Hungry from my exploration of the lake, I checked out what food was recommended in Yufuin. Expecting something like seafood or Japanese mountain cuisine, the Yufuin Burger took me a little off-guard. Even more so when I ate it and discovered it might be the one of the best burgers I ever tasted.
The region specialises in dairy products, especially cheese, so the burger has locally made cream cheese on it. Sink your teeth into one of these messy but satisfying babies at the aptly named Yufuin Burger.
Things close early in the countryside and that applies to public transport too. The last bus from Yufuin back to Beppu is at six in the evening, so I head back, my head and camera filled with images of the beautiful scenery.
8:00 p.m. It’s bath time
Back in Beppu I could at last put on my yukata and do what this place is famous for: soak in the private onsen. Guests sign up on a board in half-hour slots to let staff know when you want to stake your claim. For that half-hour, the outside bath is all yours. Thoroughly relaxed and restored, I return to my room to read my book, drifting off before I get to finish my hot cup of green tea.
Saturday: Beppu and a tour of Hell(s)
8:00 a.m. BIG breakfast
Wake up at 7 a.m. to get my backpack and suitcase packed before today’s tour of the Hells of Beppu. The ryokan gave us two options: a traditional Japanese breakfast at 8.00 or 8.30 a.m.. Apparently I was the only one who chose the earlier option so I have the dining room to myself and the breakfast is HUGE: rice, fish, vegetables, soup. I’m all set for the day ahead.
9:30 a.m. Drag me to hell (actually, I’ll just take the bus)
Beppu is located in a particularly volcanically active part of Japan which is why it has so many hot springs. Some of these are exclusively meant for viewing rather than bathing. Take Oniyama Jigoku or Monster Mountain Hell where a whole load of crocodiles are bred in a hot spring – you definitely don’t want to take a bath here!
Others like Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell) and Chinoike Jigoku (Blood Pond Hell) are more relaxing, offering stunning views of the incredibly blue and red waters. The most exciting for me is the very last one we visit, Tatsumaki Jigoku (Spout Hell), a boiling hot geyser, which erupts every 30-40 minutes.
You can take your own personal tour of the onsen by hopping on one of the frequent buses to Kanawa terminal (bus number 5, 7 and 9 are the fastest). From here, all eight of the hells are within walking distance. A full tour takes between 2.5 and 3 hours so make sure you give yourself enough time.
I also highly recommend paying a trip to the shrine next to Umi Jigoku which is completely devoid of tourists – the monk was so happy to see someone foreign take an interest (I get my trusty goshuin (temple stamp) book signed) that he gave me a free monkey decoration!
1:00 p.m. Hell comes to bite me on the butt
Before I leave the Hells, I try one of the puddings that they make with the steam from the hot springs. Feeling content, I head back into the city – where, whilst trying to organise my bag and put my camera away, I manage to lose my phone. Even back in the UK, I have never ever lost my phone before and was at a total loss. Cue being saved by the lovely ladies at the Foreign Tourist Information Centre who called around everywhere they could think of until my phone turned up in a department store. Beautiful place, beautiful people.
2:30 p.m. Glimpse of Heaven
Reunited with my phone, I dash to the station to take a bus up to the Beppu ropeway so I can enjoy the view from the top of Mt. Tsurumi. On a clear day, you can see all the way over to the Shikoku and Chugoku coastlines. The ropeway is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., with regular buses shepherding visitors to the mountain and back every 15 minutes. Since I didn’t have enough time to hike up it myself I purchased a round trip ticket for 1,600 yen (1000 yen one-way).
5.30 p.m. My final mission
All good things come to an end and it was time for me to head back to Oita airport. My last mission was to track down tasty souvenirs to take back to my colleagues and friends. I settled for some sweet kabosu biscuits, a citrus fruit that is almost exclusively grown in Oita. After a night in a nearby hotel, it was up at six sharp for the early-bird flight back to Tokyo. Thankfully, the Japan Airlines staff whisked me through to departures with enough time spare to grab a much-needed coffee. Settling down with my book, I started to plan my next adventure.
The end of my journey (but the beginning of yours!) with the Japan Explorer Pass
I’d had a fantastic week jetting around Shikoku and Kyushu with the Japan Explorer Pass. Without it, I would have missed out on experiences that you simply can’t have in Tokyo.
So, what’s holding you back from enjoying Kagawa, the Udon capital of Japan? Dropping into Fukui to visit one of the best dinosaur museums in the world? Gazing across at Russia in Japan’s northernmost city of Wakkanai in Hokkaido? There’s enough pictures on Instagram of Shibuya crossing. Do something truly memorable when you visit Japan.