An Insider’s Guide to the Best Things To Do in Beppu

Make sure to see the ‘hells’ of Beppu on your trip to the city
Make sure to see the ‘hells’ of Beppu on your trip to the city | © Picture Partners / Alamy Stock Photo
Matthew Wilcox

There may be more hot springs in Beppu than anywhere else in Japan, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing to do in the area. Explore the city’s unique culinary scene, join in with one of the wild festivals or sample the famous hell-steamed pudding. Here’s what to do in Beppu.

Hot springs – or onsen as they are known in Japan – are central to Japanese culture, and Beppu has more of them than any other place on Earth. So naturally, a visit to at least one onsen is practically mandatory here. But once you’ve immersed yourself in hot spring culture, there is still plenty more to explore. Whether you take in the majestic sea views, learn about the history of crafts in the area or just soak up the atmosphere of the city’s historic neighbourhoods, there is always something new in Beppu.

1. Take a break at Takegawara Onsen

Natural Feature, Spa

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The enormous Takegawara Onsen should be a stop on anyone’s Beppu itinerary. This bathhouse was founded in 1879 and its iconic karahafuroof (a curve-shaped roof) makes it unmistakable. After a day of exploring, indulge in a spot of suna-yu, a treatment in which customers are wrapped in a yukata (summer kimono) and buried in hot sand heated by nearby thermal springs. This will soothe any stiff joints and muscles before you shower off and immerse yourself in the extraordinarily hot waters of the baths. Be warned: this is not the glamorous spa experience that you might expect from Takegawara’s magnificent exterior, and modern conveniences are non-existent. Nevertheless, this is the real thing.

2. Look out over the city from Beppu Tower

Architectural Landmark

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Completed in 1957, Beppu Tower is a monument to the optimism of Japan’s post-war era. Along with Tokyo Tower and those of Osaka, Sapporo, Fukuoka and Nagoya, this mammoth construction is one of the ‘six brothers’ designed by architect Chuta Naito, better known as Dr Tower. For a nation literally flattened by war, the construction of these towers was a powerful symbol of revival. Today, hundreds of thousands still come each year to take in the views of Beppu from the 360-degree deck, which encompass the steam rising against Mount Ogiyama and Mount Tsurumi, the city and Beppu’s glittering bay below. At the tower, located on the waterfront 10 minutes from Beppu station, there are well-put-together displays about the tower’s history, as well as on its bizarre Beppu Santaro mascot, and a variety of souvenirs for sale.

3. Lure the gods back to Beppu at the Ogiyama Fire Festival

Natural Feature

In winter, the gods of the Beppu onsen hole up in Mount Ogiyama, an enormous volcanic peak that looms over the city. At the end of the cold season each year, the Ogiyama Fire Festival is held to lure the gods back into the city by warning them of the coming of spring. To do this, the fields of the mountain are set on fire. Seen from the city below as the bright flames leap into the dark night sky and rising above the mountain tops, the event is one of the most incredible spectacles in Japan. Following the fires, masses of wild flowers spring forth from the blackened hillsides.

4. Learn about traditional basket making at Beppu Bamboo Crafts Center

Museum

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Beppu has been a centre for bamboo crafts since ancient times and was first mentioned in the Nihon Shoki, the eighth-century chronicle of Japan. The book credits the origin of the industry to a chef in the palace of the Emperor Keiko, who upon a visit to Kyushu, discovered the wonderful suppleness of Beppu’s bamboo and declared it the ideal material for basket making. As Beppu boomed as a hot spring resort in later years, the city’s craftsmen began producing high-quality baskets for tourists to use in the area’s traditional steam cooking, and to take home as souvenirs – helping Beppu establish an important local industry. Opened in 1948, the recently renovated Beppu Bamboo Crafts Center gives context to the history of this beautiful craft as well as offering some stunning examples by master craftsmen. To get to this rewarding museum, take bus no. 22 from outside Beppu station and get off at Takezaiku Densankaikan Mae.

5. Book a room at Amane Resort Seikai

Resort

As a hot spring resort town, Beppu, of course, boasts countless traditional ryokan in which to stay, but for sheer glamour consider booking a room at the Amane Resort Seikai, situated on the coast and just a 15-minute taxi ride from Beppu station. This idyllic modern resort affords spectacular views of Beppu Bay, with each room featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and a private open-air bath, as well as access to the hotel’s superlative spa facilities.

6. Marvel at Chinoike Jigoku’s Blood Pond Hell

Natural Feature

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The famous ‘hells’ of Beppu are hot springs for viewing rather than bathing. While these are undoubtedly tourist traps, there is a certain attraction to their unusual displays – and can you really say you have been to Beppu if you haven’t been to at least one? The oldest and most photogenic of these attractions is the Blood Pond Hell – a revolting pit of boiling hot, red sludge that has been bubbling away for at least 1,300 years. It’s said to evoke the Buddhist vision of hell, in which the unworthy are boiled in pools of steaming blood for eternity. Located in Shibaseki District, Chinoike Jigoku is Japan’s oldest natural hot spring and has an appropriately large gift shop attached. Hundreds of years ago the pond was used to torture miscreants, but today the water is used in a range of beauty products that are said to be particularly effective at treating spots, causing visitors to flock from all over the country – expect queues.

7. Discover Myoban Onsen’s restorative waters

Natural Feature

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North of Beppu, on the mist-covered green hills that surround the city and a 25-minute bus ride from the centre, is Myoban – home to the area’s more traditional bathhouses. This magnificent location offers views out over Beppu and the sea beyond. The remotest of the town’s eight bathing areas, Myoban Onsen is renowned for its great health benefits. It is here that you will see the picturesque thatched huts used to collect the myoban (alum) that gives the area its name. This mineral is believed to convey a number of health benefits, and its production method has been designated an important intangible folk culture asset by the Japanese government. In the picturesque thatched huts that dot the hillside, steam erupting from underground is allowed to permeate the clay floor. The special salts separate at the surface and form crystal blooms resembling flowers. These minerals are harvested and sold for their restorative properties.

8. Feast on jigokumushi purin at Okamotoya

Pub, Japanese, Dessert

If you do make it Myoban, make sure to make a visit to Okamotoya, one of the oldest inns in the city. The eclectic collection of buildings that form this historic ryokan are a pleasing mix of styles from the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras, and lend the bathhouse a distinctive atmosphere. Architecture aside, for anyone with a sweet tooth, the real reason for visiting Okamotoya is the jigokumushi purin (hell-steamed pudding) made on the premises. This mix of smooth, delicately sweet custard and bitter caramel is cooked fresh every day in the hot spring steam and has (rightly) attracted national acclaim.

9. Try Italian food with a Japanese twist at Otto e Sette

Restaurant, Italian

Chef Tetsuya Kakehashi grew up in Kyushu but found his culinary calling after immersing himself in the world of Italian food. His totally unique restaurant – Otto e Sette – is located in Beppu’s Kannawa District, and combines Italian cooking techniques with Oita Prefecture’s superlative produce and Beppu’s distinctive hot spring steam cooking tradition to create a cuisine that could not be replicated anywhere else on Earth. Reservations are essential.

10. Party all night in Motomachi

Architectural Landmark

© Malcolm Fairman / Alamy Stock Photo

You would be forgiven for thinking that Beppu, a sleepy spa town, might not offer much in the way of nightlife. But fear not – for some visitors, the accompanying entertainment has always been one of the major draws of Japan’s hot spring towns. While there are a lot of hostess and snack bars, both of which are better avoided, there are also a surprising number of other choices. Motomachi, the area around Beppu station, hosts scores of bars and izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) – stick to these and you can hardly go wrong. To kick-start the evening and meet some of the local characters, head to the Big Eye Sports Bar next to Beppu station, where there is a ¥2,000 (£15) nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) menu.

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