Monday, October 11, 2010

Beppu "hells" tour

Hello, I just got back from a three-day Christian conference in Fukushima! But before I get into that, I want to write my final blog about Kyushu.

So Saturday September 25th, after packing up all my stuff and saying our goodbyes, I left Diana`s apartment for Beppu! That was probably the longest trek from Ueki station, about three and a half hours. I got there about 11:30. Once again I immediately hit up the visitors information center, and armed with discount coupons and English brochures, I set out to do the famous Beppu “Jigoku meguri” or “Hell tour.” You see, jigoku is the Japanese word for the Buddhist version of hell. It’s not exactly the same as the Christian understanding. They think it’s a place where bad souls go while they wait to be reincarnated. They are tormented in all kinds of awful ways, but if I understand correctly, many Buddhists believe that actually, such tortures are just a figment of the soul’s imagination. To reach enlightenment, one has to realize that these things are false and break free of the cycle of rebirth to become a Buddha. But the exact teachings are pretty wishy-washy, as there are so many different sects of Buddhism and only priests have access to the holy sutras, so common people don’t really know much about the afterlife and how it works (or from my experience with Buddhists, they don’t really care). But to put it in the simplest terms, for most Buddhists hell is a place with lots of fire and oni (demons) where bad people go (thre is no grace) and it’s pretty bad.

So Beppu has eight or nine (depending on who you ask)“hells” that can be reached by bus and walking. They cost 400 yen each, or you can pay a flat 2,000 yen to see eight of them. The first is called “Umi-jigoku,” umi meaning “sea.” I asked a young couple for directions in Japanese, not realizing they were Korean, and they answered me in English. (That seems to happen a lot at common tourist places. For some reason, I always unconsciously gravitate toward other foreigners.) I ended up tagging along with them for a few minutes to take pictures for them and them for me. In addition to Chinese people, I am always amazed at how well Koreans speak English compared to the Japanese, but again, I`m meeting the ones who like to travel internationally, so maybe they have above average foreign language skills, having a natural interest in foreign things and studying more in preparation for other adventures abroad.

Here is what umi-jigoku looks like:



Notice the hanging basket? They are using it to boil eggs over the steam! It takes about ten minutes, and you can buy them for lunch.

Here is a picture the Korean couple took of me at the Umi-jigoku:



I`m cringing because the steam is so hot! It was hard to stand there for any length of time.

There were a number of smaller boiling pools there and steaming rocks, as well as a red shrine and a “leg bath.” Here`s what that looks like:



But besides the jigoku, they are most famous for the giant lotus pads that float in a non-steaming pond. They are so large that small children (under fifty pounds) can stand on them and get their picture taken. They are able to grow so big due to the year-round warm water. This is what they look like:



I walked around the tropical gardens and then had lunch at a stand, which consisted of an Oita (the name of a nearby town) specialty soup and custard cooked in the jigoku steam, made of only egg, sugar and milk.

Next, I headed to Oniishibozu Jigoku, named so because the bubbling mud looks like the top of a monk`s shaven head. I didn`t really see a resemblance, but it`s an interesting connection. What do you think?



After that, I visited Yama Jigoku, or "the mountain hell." There were lots of steaming vents under piles of rocks, like this:



It also had a small zoo, where, as is usual for Japan, you could pay to feed the animals. Here is the hippo with its great mouth wide to receive the gifts:



Other than that, the zoo wasn`t too interesting, except that I`ve never been so close to an elephant without glass, less than ten feet. You could toss it a cookie and it would take it with its trunk. There were a lot of little kids doing that when I went, so I didn`t do it myself, but had fun watching them squeal and giggle.

The next one I visited was Kamado Jigoku, or “cooking pot hell.” This features a number of smaller boiling pools of all shapes, colors, and sizes. Here`s the “oni” or demon to greet you at the entrance, cooking a dragon:



Here`s some more bubbling mud there:



And one of my favorites, a bright cobalt-blue pool:



You might be wondering what causes the pools to be various colors. That`s from minerals that are dissolved in the boiling or close to boiling water. The red comes from copper, the blue, as I said, from cobalt, green from copper, etc. These minerals exist naturally in the soil, and frequently you will find colored pools of unpurified water in areas around the world even without hot springs, (reddish water, brown water, gray water etc), but the Beppu pools are much brighter and more colorful because the heat helps to dissolve the minerals better, so there`s more of them in the water. The white stuff on the rocks around the pool is calcium carbonate, I think, also dissolved from the heat.

I sat in the foot bath there for awhile to rest my feet, then walked on to Shiraike Jigoku, or “white pond hell.” They say it looks like milk, but I don`t really think so. Judge for yourself:



There were some tropical fish in tanks, like piranha, but nothing too interesting.

On the way to Oniyama (demon mountain) jigoku, I passed the Hinoki Sex Museum of erotic art. After spotting the giant brass relief of nude Hindu figures at the entrance, I quickly decided to pass that up. Ironic enough for a place so obsessed with “hell,” Beppu is the only city I have ever been to that has open public hot springs for men and women to share. I can understand private ones for married couples, or even families with small children, but in mass, where anyone can…ug. I`m pretty sure that`s illegal in the U.S.?

Anyway, Oniyama was interesting. First of all, it`s the hottest of all the jigoku, producing enough steam to power one and a half trains. (Most of Beppu is run on thermal energy, by the way, and much of the rest of Kyushu on wind power. At least it’s a very “green” place.) Here`s a picture of the roiling, frothing water:




Second of all, they breed giant crocodiles in the not-so-hot adjacent spring. I got there just as one of the staff members was feeding them chicken, dangling it over the cage with his whole arm exposed! The crocodiles jumped up, over ten feet, and grabbed it right out of his hand! I kept fearing they would take off his fingers! Here`s a picture:



I don`t really like how they have all those crocodiles crammed in that cage. They had to swim and climb over each other to get anywhere, and were constantly fighting, clawing and biting each other. Here`s a picture so you can see how many they stuffed into one small corner:



But, as I`ve said before, the Japanese don`t care much about animal rights.

That was the last jigoku I could walk to in the Kannawa district. For those of you familiar with Beppu, you may be wondering what happened to Kinryu Jigoku, or “the golden dragon hell.” Well, it wasn`t on my map and a lot of people don`t count it because it doesn`t have water like the others, just a dragon statue and green houses heated by steam. I`m pretty sure I passed it on my way to the bus stop, but it was connected to a ryokan (Japanese style inn) and cost extra beyond my eight jigoku pass. Oh, well.

So next I took a bus to the Shibaseki district, where I saw Chinoike Jigoku or “blood pond hell.” There was a pretty waterfall there, and, as the name suggests, a large pond filled with dissolved red iron that looked like a giant red blood cell, complete with a depressed, clearer center. Here`s a picture:



You could buy “blood pudding” there, and many other souvenirs. I bought some lime cookies for the other teachers, since it`s traditional to bring your co-workers back some “omiyage” from the place you visited if you take off some time to travel.

The last jigoku was a geyser very similar to Old Faithful in Yellowstone, but smaller and more frequent. I waited five minutes to see it spout, and a giggling high school girl took a picture for me:



Some people say Beppu is overly cheesy and touristy. I didn`t think so, though I did think it was a good example of how unseriously the Japanese take the issue of heaven and hell. Even though the brochure holds a quote from a famous Japanese author about how it will “put the true fear of hell into the unbeliever,” the corny statues of demons and atmosphere of pure pleasure and indulgence, (what with all the spas, some explicitly sinful), nobody really believes that. It`s kind of sad, but I don`t think it spoils the enjoyment of getting to see the beauty of God`s creation there. If you get a chance to go, the thermal activity is something to see that you can`t find anywhere in the states (I think), or hardly anywhere else for that matter.

So I finished with the “hell” tour around 4:15, just in time to visit the famous sand baths at 4:45. What`s that? It`s a place where you put on nothing but a yukata (cotton robe) and they bury you in hot black sand! It`s pretty rare, even in Japan, so I wanted to try it. The sand isn`t actually steaming; they scoop it up on a platform to cool it. As you lay there, you can look out over the beach. The sun was just beginning to set. Here`s a picture of the beautiful beach, and if you look closely in the dark foreground, you can see three people having their sand bath.



Here`s a picture of me having mine!



After they unburied me, I showered nice and good, then took a short bath in the big public (but ladies only) tub. Then they kicked me out at 5:20 because they were closing. I was just in time to catch the bus to the International Sightseeing Port for my boat back to Osaka. I waited in a long line with my reservation, paid, and took a bus to the boarding area. What a huge ship! They call it an “over night ferry” but it felt like a cruise to me!

As we came on board, we were greeted by a lady jazz duo of sax and bass in the lobby and I climbed the red carpeted and gold-gilded staircase to the upper deck where I watched us shove off at 6:35. What fun! The wind felt so good in my hair and the sea breeze smelled so fresh. I watched the sun finish setting over the wide blue and silver ocean, then had dinner down in the dining hall. It wasn`t included in the cost, but the prices were fairly reasonable and the food varied and good. I enjoyed some ice cream while the jazz duo finished the second half of their concert, then explored the ship with its many amusements and beautiful views, and soaked in the free bath. In the locker room, an old Japanese woman couldn`t figure out how to use her key, and I showed her, explaining in Japanese how she had to find the right lock, put it in the correct way, and twist it in the right direction. When the locker popped open, she turned to her friend just coming out of the bath and said,

“Yasashi gaijinchan des ne?” (What a nice little foreign person.)

“Neh! Soshite, cho kawai desho?” (Yes, and isn`t she just so cute?)

“Neh! Nihongo mo josu des ne?” (Yeah, and isn`t she skilled at Japanese?)

Suppressing a laugh, I finished dressing and left. I`m more than a little used to this sort of strange dialogue about me while I`m standing right there, as if, despite their words, they forgot that I can understand Japanese. But it became all the more hilarious since the women were both stalk raw naked as they continued discussing just how cute and helpful foreigners are in general. Something about the whole scene just felt so…Japanese. You couldn`t hear or see it anywhere else in the world.

Anyway, I went outside to let the wind dry my hair. We were moving so fast that if I stood into the wind, I had to hold the handrails to keep from flying away! I stood at the top of the stairs clutching the banister and let it beat against me, feeling almost as if I were soaring. I watched the city lights pass out of view, then headed for bed early around 9:30. I slept like a baby in a bunk bed with a curtain. Boy am I glad I paid an extra thousand yen ($10) for that! I saw some other people sleeping on the floor in the huge rooms, with only an inch-thick pad under them on the hard metal floor, no pillow, people stepping over them to get to the bathroom, and the lights on all night! I would have been so miserable in the morning, but as it was, I could get up early at 5:30 to watch the sunrise over the ocean and the giant Kobe bridge.

Then I packed up my stuff and had breakfast, skipping the more expensive cafeteria food for some yakisoba (fried soba noodles with a bit of meat and cabbage) from the vending machine. That was probably the only bad part of the whole trip; I learned that Japanese vending machine food, while cheap, is pretty gross. I guess you get what you pay for.

I watched us pull into port about 7:35am on Sunday, so the total trip took about thirteen hours. It was my first overnight stay on a ship. In fact, I`d never been on a boat for more than two hours before that. I was afraid I would get seasick, and while I did a little in the bath and when I first went to bed, when I closed my eyes it went away. Plus, the overnight ferry is a LOT cheaper than the shinkansen (bullet train), and only a little bit more expensive than the night bus, but apart from transportation, you also get a free concert, a beautiful, fun ride, and a good place to sleep for the night! I read about it in a guide book and have one of the English teachers at my school to thank for helping me book the tickets. Overnight ferries, when they`re available, are now my preferred way to travel long distances! They even have one from Osaka to Korea! Of course, that one takes about twenty hours and departs in the early afternoon, so it`s not practical if you only have a three-day weekend.

I knew I should probably head back to Nabari right away so I could make it in time for church, but I was feeling pretty dreamy and a tad lost, so I wandered around Osaka pier for awhile. I stumbled upon some pretty gardens, and this rather interesting spot:



The entire railing overlooking the ocean was covered in locks! After examining them for awhile, I dubbed them “love locks,” for they bore the names of boys and girls connected together, decorated with hearts and other symbols of love and fidelity. I guessed that couples must come to this place with their locks and link them together through the rail as a testimony to their love. What a great idea! It symbolizes how true love is binding and permanent, not fickle. Some of the locks were very old and rusty, the letters rubbed away by the waves. I wonder how long people have been doing that and if there is something special about that place? It`s where all the international ships come in, and many of the locks were covered in Romaji (Roman letters) and names from many different countries. I wonder if couples come to Japan on their honeymoon or maybe even to start a new life together and that`s why they clamp their locks to that particular harbor rail. I wonder if anything like that exists in America? Huh, what a great story idea…

I finally caught the train about 8:30 (unfortunately a very slow one) and made it back to Nabari about 11:00, too late for church. But I called Pastor Toshi thinking I could come for fellowship in the afternoon, especially since it was Miwa`s (one of my students who recently joined the church) birthday. But after lying down for an hour, I got up and felt really sick to my stomach and tired all over, so I called and canceled my ride there. But I went the following week to give Miwa her present and enjoyed hearing all about the party. They watched the movie Hachi and said it was very moving. I discovered that there`s a video rental place on my way home from school, so I rented it (in English with Japanese subtitles), and it is now probably one of my favorite movies. I cried so hard! I`ve never cried so much during a movie. I only cry at dog movies, which is strange because I don`t really like dogs, at least not as much as cats. I don`t want to ruin the plot for you, but if you get a chance to see it, watch it! The best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) part is, it`s based on a true story! I didn`t know that before I started watching it, and at the end when it said that, I started bawling all over again. I am such a girl…

Anyway, next time I will write about the Christian conference I went to this weekend in Fukushima!

Prayer Requests for this week: Please continue to pray for the International Thanksgiving night on November 27th at my church, and the December 5th revival service featuring guest speaker Arthur Hollins. I also have a Chinese friend who is really going through a tough time right now; please pray for her. For me, prayers for health as the weather is changing would be nice. I have a lot more, but as they`re connected to the conference, I`ll wait to list them until later!

Until next time, keep loving and praying,
Laura Jane Popp (L. J. Popp)

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