I am woken at 4:47 am to an alarm coming from the direction of the ocean. I look out of the window, it is raining hard. I dart out of bed to check a computer. No active tsunami warnings. I have a look outside, the alarm is constant, the rain is heavy, but everywhere else is quiet. No one rushing around. No lights on in houses. No one else in the hostel awake, it is mostly calmness.
I calm down from my initial panic and decide to take advantage of the onsen (hot spring) in the hostel; which opens 24 hours a day except during cleaning time. Thanks to the volcanic activity in Japan, there are lots of onsens all across the county. Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content. I get out of the onsen and the alarms finally stop. I go for a nap.
In the hostel lobby, I ask a few people what the sirens were all about this morning. Only one other person heard them. “If it was a tsunami warning you would know about it. Those things go on for ages,” he says. I tell him this morning’s sirens went on for at least an hour. He repeats, “Nah, if it was a tsunami warning you would know about it.” Not very helpful at all.
My original plan for today was a two-hour bus trip to the top of Mount Aso; Japan’s most active volcano. It turns out though that due to heavy fog, the gate is closed, and I wouldn’t have been able to ascend the crater. I decide to skip the volcano and head to Beppu Station. Outside the station, there is even an onsen for hands. Beppu is part of Ōita Prefecture. Today I take a train to Ōita, the capital of the Prefecture.
¥280 later and I get off the train and go inside an indoor shopping arcade to shelter from the rain. This huge arcade is packed full of people. There are so many restaurants, so much choice. Usually, I spend a long time wandering around trying to find a decent looking restaurant, but here there are plenty I would eat at. I wander down Smile Smile Street, with its restaurants sandwiched between wedding boutiques and pachinko parlours. There is also a random boat in the middle of Smile Smile Street.
As I wander back through the arcade in search of breakfast, I am drawn to a restaurant called ‘Vegetbar’. It is not that the restaurant is vegetarian that draws me to it, but the incredible menu. I have developed something of a sweet tooth since arriving in Japan, yesterday I discovered that supermarkets sell strawberry and cream sandwiches. I notice a big sign in the window of Vegetbar that says, “Pancakes Meet Vegetables.” I go inside and order them not really knowing what to expect.
Waiting for my food, if the anticipation doesn’t kill me then the food just might. A plate comes out and I like what I see. Vegetables have been blended up and added to the pancake mix. The green one was my favourite. Served with the pancakes are raspberry sorbet, whipped cream, and a pile of fresh fruit. After I while I forget that I am eating vegetable pancakes. Meal and a drink, ¥1280.
As I head out of the arcade, I watch a Japanese woman running to give another woman her change. In Japan, it is customary not to leave a tip. The service is almost always exceptional; the service cost included in the price. Boarding the train, I realise that today is the first time since Sunday that I have really seen lots of people in one place. I also notice how good my skin feels; the healing power of onsen having the promised effect.
Back at Beppu, the rain has stopped. I decide to see what the indoor shopping arcade here looks like during the peak lunchtime rush. As you can see in the photograph above, the arcade is full of closed shutter doors and an absence of people. The most interesting thing about the Beppu indoor shopping arcade is probably the Boss Coffee vending machine at the entrance. “The boss of them all since 1992.”
I head back to Beppu Station and hop on a bus bound for Kintetsu Beppu Ropeway. The Ropeway starts at 503 meters above sea level and is a cable car that takes you to the top of Mount Tsurumi, 1300 meters high with excellent views. On a clear day, you can see Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. The bus twists and turns as it climbs up the mountain and eventually arrives at the Ropeway some twenty minutes later.
Closed. The driver of the bus apologises and tells me where to stand for the return bus. I try to pay him the ¥420 for the fare but he refuses to take any money. Even the bus drivers are nice in Japan. I have to wait 25 minutes for a bus back to Beppu. The vending machine outside the closed Ropeway sells ‘Boss Ice Creamy Latte’ in a big can for ¥130. Every cloud. Speaking of clouds, it starts to rain again.
While I sit in the rain waiting for my bus, the café across the road is blaring out Japanese pop music. A few cars drive up to the entrance of the Ropeway, the passengers peek at the ‘closed’ sign before turning around and leaving. A wasted journey if not for the view. I take a bus back down the mountain and take in the beautiful scenery.
At the hostel I am surprised to see that working on the reception desk is my old friend Yojiro; a Japanese guy I met a few times in Tokyo. He arrived back here late yesterday evening and is having a party tonight at the Hot Bepper bar. I still haven’t been to this bar yet; it only opens on Friday and Saturday nights. He gives me a token for one free drink. I think about boiled eggs and wonder how real this ‘free’ drink will actually be.
I eat supermarket bought prawn tempura for dinner. Prawn on the Fourth of July. Brilliant. It gets to 6 pm and feeling that I’ve already done enough on what has been a very long day, I now have to get ready for a party.
Read the next part of my Journey in Japan, where I decide to visit a monkey park by clicking here.