The 5 Most Historic Sites of Beppu

Where is Beppu? It is a hot spring resort in Oita prefecture on the island of Kyushu. Before the nation-wide boom in drilling hot spring wells that started in the 1980s, it was said that the city of Beppu produced a quarter of all naturally erupting boiling ground water in Japan. Even today, Beppu accounts for at least one tenths of Japan’s onsen production by volume. But although the place is a famous among the Japanese, and an increasingly popular destination for Korean and Chinese tourists, it is still relatively unknown to Western tourists in spite of its long history. Here we list some of the most historically relevant sites in the hot spring resort town of Beppu.

1. The Jigoku

Tour of Hell.
Tour of Hell.

The earliest record of the hot springs of Beppu appear in Nihonshoki, which records Japan’s oral history believed to be transcribed around the year 733 AD. There are records of boiling water and steam erupting from the ground in a horrifying manner and ponds of boiling mud the color of blood. This description matched the Japanese notion of hell where sinners are tortured for eternity in lakes of boiling blood. Hence the hottest springs were denoted “jigoku”, which means “hell”. Today, jigoku meguri, literally “tour of hell”, is a popular activity for tourists. “Chinoike jigoku”, the “pond of blood” gets its reddish orange color from the iron in the mud. There are a total of seven “jigokus” in Beppu, four of which are registered national landmarks, each differently colored by a different mixture of minerals. One of the more popular souvenirs is a T-shirt that says “I’ve been to hell and back!”

“I’ve been to hell and back!”

2. The Kannawa District

Geothermally Steamed foods.

Most of Beppu’s Jigokus are located in the Kannawa District, which contain a cluster of inns, restaurants, cafes, theaters, and of course baths. The area was reputedly developed by the 13th century Buddhist sage Ippen, a.k.a. The Traveling Saint. The founder of Jishu (Time sect), a branch of Pure Land Buddhism, he started odori nenbutsu in which the ecstatic believers dance as they pray, but he was also a believer in the medicinal properties of the steam bath which he is said to have established. There are several steam baths in the Kannawa area, and many foot baths, and also foot steam baths. These are wooden box-like structures where you open the lid and stick your feet in. The area also has a number of steam cookeries where you buy the ingredients from local stores and put them into steamers powered by natural geothermal steam. Bring your own dressings. The steamed veggies and fish are rather flat without seasonings.

Steam bath Kannawa.
Ippen the Saint.
Steam rising over Kannawa District.

3. The Taisho Era Buildings

Fujiya Gallery.

After the American sailor Commodore Matthew Perry opened shogun’s Japan to the outside world in the mid-19th century, Japan underwent a crash modernization period. Coal mines were developed to power modern steel mills which in turn supplied steel for railroads and battleships. By the early 20th century, coal barons became millionaires and not a few of them built lavish vacation homes in Beppu. Sadly most of those houses were lost to time and have been torn down to make shopping centers or diced up into housing developments. A few examples can still be seen today, such as Kintaro Kokubu’s seaside villa which survives as a wing of the Gahama Terrace Hotel. Another piece of architecture from this era is the Beppu Community Center, an auditorium completed in 1928. But just a step away from the tourist bustle of the Kannawa district is the Fujiya Gallery and Cafe. This little building is formerly the Fujiya Hotel of Beppu where dashing and reckless business titans like Denemon Ito, Takichi Aso, and Keitaro Sato (coal barons with the character of Tony Stark, Donald Trump, and Elon Musk, respectively) are said to have entertained each other. The place holds small concerts and art expositions on an irregular basis.

4. The Golden Era Onsen

Eki-mae Koutou Onsen

By 1926, flying boats connected Beppu to Osaka in one of the first commercial airline routes in Japan. Canadian Pacific Steamships Co. sent their world cruising luxury liners, with names like Empress of Scotland, Empress of Australia, and Empress of Britain to Beppu on almost yearly basis'. Beppu was also visited by the German luxury liner Reliance on multiple occasions. Luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin, Bernard Shaw, and Hellen Keller visited the hot spring resort. Public hot spring buildings from this era still remain. Such as the Ekimae Koutou Onsen and Takegawara Onsen. Takegawara Onsen was first founded in 1879 and rebuilt in 1938. Takegawara Onsen remains one of the most iconic buildings in Beppu. Beware. The water in this bath is extremely hot. The bathers often seem to be in competition with each other to see who can withstand the hottest bath.

Takegawara Onsen

5. The Showa Era Boom Town

Showa era Boom Town

Beppu was never bombed during WWII and escaped the destruction that befell most other cities. The rumor was that the Americans had already planned on converting Beppu into a fun house for the occupying GIs, which it was between 1946 and 1956 during which the US Army maintained Camp Chicamauga in what is now Beppu Park. American culture and music that came with the soldiers, along with the sex industry that sprung up around the camp, defined Beppu for the better part of three decades. A tough public morality law issued in 1984 finally clamped down on the sex industry and Beppu went back to being a family friendly resort. But the Showa era fervor can still be enjoyed in places like the Hit Parade Club, where a live band still plays 1950s American hits and you can be an Elvis impersonator for a night. Sadly, the historic theater building was destroyed in a fire, but a new club opened in a smaller venue closer to the station.

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