Beppu is the only city in the world that officially certifies worthy bathers as onsen (hot spring) masters. From free neighborhood bathhouses to first-class hotel spas, from muddy thermal water on a mountain to mid-town springs, from jacuzzi baths to ones in the sand, Beppu has a plethora of training locations.
You read that right. Black towel! The Japanese phrase Onsen Meijin is sewn with gold letters on my towel. I immediately framed it, and now I display it on my living room wall. Only bathers who have traveled a path called the Beppu Hatto Onsendo deserve black towels. By September 17, 2019, just 8,072 people in the entire world had achieved black towel status. Two proud holders of black towels display their golden-lettered-cloth trophies.
|Proud Masters of Bathing in Beppu|
Bernie Goldman, a visitor from the UK, spoke about his bathing experiences in Beppu: "With my passport in hand, I was determined to acquire a set of towels and a prized certificate to say I had visited onsens. I have to say it’s was properly the most varied baths I’ve come across in Japan. We managed about 4 onsens a day, so I was well on the way to receiving my certificates and towels which I treasure to this day."
|Proudly Receiving His First White Towel and Certificate from Beppu City Officials|
What is the Beppu Hatto Onsendo?Eight different hot spring areas are within Beppu city limits. A long time ago, they were separate entities. Each hot spring area has distinguishing characteristics: mineral content, temperature, location, color, and more. These different areas are collectively referred to as Beppu Hatto. Onsendo is the way or the path of the hot spring. Traveling and bathing in the eight bathing areas cultivates health and happiness.
The First Steps on the OnsendoFirst, get your body to Beppu Train Station, Oita prefecture, Kyushu. Then buy a Beppu Hatto Spaport and a hot spring guidebook. Choose either the Beppu Hatto Onsen Book, which is in Japanese only, or the Be Beppu, a guidebook written in English, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. They are not the same, but the content is similar. The books explain about bathing customs and local springs and include discount coupons. The money that you save with the coupons will be more than the costs of a spaport and guidebook. Plus they come with useful maps and photographs of the hot springs, so you can easily plan your bathing route.
Get wet, sweaty, and pleasantly immersed in Beppu! Beppu has hundreds of hot springs. Bring your spaport. At each bath that participates in the program get a stamp pressed into your spaport, which is similar to a passport. Stamps are proof that you have entered the baths. Some free or almost free neighborhood bathing facilities are unstaffed. Look for a stamp and ink pad and stamp your spaport yourself after putting coins into a box for coins.
Beginners can earn a Beppu Hatto Onsendo handkerchief after receiving stamps from 2 qualifying facilities, which is ridiculously easy. But you need 8 to qualify for a white towel, 24 to for a green towel, 40 for a red towel, 56 for a blue towel, and 88 for the towel that shows the world that you have the discipline and the motivation to reach meijin status.
Explore Beppu and the BathsBeppu is unique. No other Japanese city that has such a wide variety of baths close together. In one afternoon, you can have yourself buried in steaming sand along a beach, walk uphill and soak in sulfur-rich water, and after that soak in a hot spring that is within the grounds of a temple, and ascending higher, find a bath where you can smear warm healing mud on your body.
The author Ursula Le Guin wrote, "It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end." This pithy quote applies to the path toward becoming an onsen meijin. This road led me into conversations with strangers from Korea, Japan, Australia, Thailand, and other locations. I saw three generations of one family scrubbing each other's backs. I walked along tiny alleys and into bars and restaurants that I would never have entered without my hot spring map.
Cooking with Hot SpringsFortify your body with delicious local dishes prepared with steam. The people in Beppu have perfected the art of cooking with steam. You'll encounter people cooking crab, shrimp, potatoes, greens, and more in various locations, and some Japanese ryokan and hotels specialize in this way of cooking. They call it Jigokumushi, which roughly means cooking with the hell steam. You can rent steam cooking facilities and purchase ingredients cheaply at Jigokumushi Kōbō Kannawa, or you can choose dishes from a menu. The most popular dish is named Treasure Box Steamed from Hell.
|Most Popular Item on the Menu|
|Cooking with Steam|
How Much Time Does the Path to Meijin Status Take?I recommend taking your time and going at your pace. If your itinerary prevents your entering 88 baths, set your goals toward another towel, and remember, you can always come back. Beppu will not run out of hot water this century. Bathe slowly, sense your body, appreciate your surroundings. Enjoy your life and the path known as Onsendo.
|A Simple, Clean Bath|
|Contemplating the View from a Hotel Bath|
|Hot Sand Bath|
|Steam Vents Near Holy Monument|
Concluding ThoughtsSome who might say that the pursuit of certificates for bathing is a trivial pursuit. They might add that the world has too much suffering because of social injustice, environmental problems, and terrible politics. I agree with them, but bathing in hot springs refreshes my mind, my heart, and my soul. Invigorated and recharged after bathing in hot springs, I am stronger and more able to be an active citizen who tries to make the world a better place for all bathers.