Journey in Japan Part 5: Going to Hell

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Outside it is 32°C with 0% precipitation. The weather here goes from one extreme to another. The morning fog is long gone. I take a bike to the supermarket to buy a late breakfast. I buy egg sandwiches, yoghurt, a fruit drink made of bananas, and some grapes. A normal size plastic container of grapes costs ¥1298. I opt for a small box costing me ¥198. it contains 11 grapes.

After breakfast,  I cycle along the coastline. I see a bright red building called, ‘Las Vegas’, so I decide to check it out. I discover why everywhere in Beppu is deserted. Everyone is here in Las Vegas, the place is packed. The noise of metal balls and the stench of cigarette smoke pours out of the door. Las Vegas is a nine-story Pachinko parlour. Pachinko is a recreational arcade game where players pay for balls, then fire them through a vertical pinball machine with no flippers. The balls bounce off pins and have a chance to activate in-game bonuses that produce more balls.

Gambling in Japan is illegal; although there are controversial plans to legalise it ready for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. At a Pachinko parlour, players can ‘cash in’ their balls for novelty prizes. These prizes can then be taken off the premises and to a nearby ‘exchange centre’, where they are sold to the buyer for cash. The exchange centre then sells the prizes back to the Pachinko parlour. This is a loophole in the law that the police know about but turn a blind eye to. Very strange. Beppu probably has more Pachinko machines than people.

Leaving Las Vegas I see a sign for Kannawa, the area where six of the eight Hell themed hot springs are located. Having only visited Crocodile Hell, I decide to take the thirty-minute uphill bicycle ride, instantly regretting it the moment my feet hit the pedals. At Kannawa I find a sign that says, “Put your good memories of Kannawa into a haiku. The selection is held four times a year; on each season, spring, summer, autumn and winter. A stone monument will be erected for the very best haiku of the year.” I scribble down a haiku and place it into the box:

Steam, one with the clouds,
my mind, drifts like the stream,
into the ocean.

I head to Kamado Jigoku, or Oven Hell. I pay my ¥400 entry fee. Inside, there is a statue of a great red demon standing on an enormous cooking pot. A long time ago they would cook using the 100°C steam. This is what the statue represents.

Also at Oven Hell, there are many different stoves heating very old metal kettles. There is also a pond that, “Changes colour a couple of times a year.” There are loads of pools of bubbling mud. If you blow something that burns and smokes into the mud, it causes the amount of steam to intensify. This is demonstrated by a staff member with an unnecessary megaphone and a cigarette. After touring the many pools I am given the opportunity to eat an egg boiled in the steam of Oven Hell.

After Oven Hell, I head for Umi Jigoku, Sea Hell. An explosion from a volcano 1,200 years ago created a pond of boiling water. For some unexplained reason, the pond is cobalt blue. This place shouldn’t really be described as a Hell. The area is full of natural beauty. There are no gimmicks here. No eggs here. No crocodiles. Just wildlife and scenery.

Sea Hell is massive. In random ponds float tropical water lilies, bananas grow inside a building labelled, “Hell emitting gas use greenhouse,” and random waterfalls and hot springs are surrounded by nature. Inside the gift shop, the air conditioning is so cold. I stay here pretending to look at tacky souvenirs, while I secretly cool off from the heat of a hot summers day.

I decide to save the other five Hells for a rainy day. I quite enjoyed cycling here, but I enjoy the downhill cycling a lot more. On the way back to the hostel I see a sign for Beppu City Traditional Bamboo Crafts Center. I take what I think is the correct road, but somehow end up at a baseball stadium. There are people outside hitting drums and baseball players in full kit chanting. A very interesting warm-up exercise indeed. I don’t find the museum.

Back at the hostel, Yojiro is on reception, meaning the music is good. ‘Round Here’ by Counting Crows blasts from the stereo. I work out that I have cycled 23.2 Kilometres today. After a few hours relaxing and talking to other guests at the hostel, I head out to do my laundry. While I wait I buy a can of Suntory Highball from Seven Eleven. The staff member asks me to put my hand in a box and pull out a token. I have no idea why. I speculate that it’s because I used exact change for once. My ticket doesn’t win anything.

I switch my laundry from washer to dryer then walk around the middle of Beppu; on the way I count four random cats. The cats here look healthy and lurk around the backstreets of Beppu at night. The lampposts are playing the Beatles, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. Back at the launderette, someone has taken out my dry laundry and folded it neatly and placed it into a basket. Thanks!

I head back out to an international bar called ’68’; the owner was the person that recommended the festival in Ōita a few days ago. I chat to random people, mostly students from the nearby Asia Pacific University. They are Japanese but speak very good English. It’s actually a pretty nice bar, although quite small, and it does get a little smoky after a while. In Japan, it is still okay to smoke in buildings. At some point in the night, Yojiro randomly shows up at the bar and buys me a drink. Thanks, Yojiro!

The night washes over me and eventually, it is time to go. I leave the bar at around 3 am. In the distance, Beppu Tower is illuminated with signs advertising Asahi. More beer is the last thing I need right now, so instead, I choose sleep.

Read the next part of my Journey in Japan, where I continue my Hells tour following a massive storm by clicking here.

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