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Taking The Waters

Beppu is divided into eight hot-spring areas, each with its own mineral content and natural characteristics. Although any hot-spring bath can help stimulate metabolism and blood circulation and create a general feeling of well-being, there are specific springs with various mineral contents that Japanese believe help relieve ailments ranging from rheumatism and diabetes to skin disease. The tourist office has a pamphlet so you can select the baths that will benefit you the most. And whatever you do, don't rinse off with plain water after taking your bath because this will wash away all those helpful minerals. You should bring your own towel and, for some places, a yukata (cotton kimono), though the latter is also available for sale or for rent.

Hot-Spring Baths

Suginoi Palace -- A 15-minute bus ride from Beppu Station, Suginoi Palace (tel. 0977/24-1141; www.suginoi-hotel.com; daily 9am-11pm) is an amusement center with one of the best-known baths in all of Japan. Called Tanayu and built of natural woods and glass, it's refined and spacious, with different kinds of baths both inside and out that take advantage of its hillside perch with great views out over the town toward the sea. In addition to an indoor bath, Jacuzzi, and sauna with panoramic views, there are outdoor cypress tubs, waterfall massages (great for shoulders and backs), and even shallow pools with headrests so you can recline to gaze upon the view. Admission costs ¥1,000 for adults and ¥600 for children on weekdays, ¥1,500 and ¥900 respectively on weekends, and ¥2,000 and ¥1,200 respectively on holidays. If, however, you're staying at the Suginoi Hotel, you can use the baths for free.

If you're shy about disrobing in front of strangers or have kids in tow, you might want to visit Suginoi's Aqua-Beat. It's a water park with water slides (great fun!), children's pools, a simulated wave pool, an artificial beach, outdoor hot springs, and a Jacuzzi. A bar-coded locker key on a wristband allows you to lock up your valuables, wear your bathing suit (rental suits available), and dine without having to worry about carrying money; upon exiting, you'll simply feed it into a machine to get your bill. Admission is ¥2,800 for adults, ¥1,600 for junior-high and high-school students, and 1,000 for children 4 to 12. In the off season (Sept-June), it costs only ¥1,500, ¥1,000, and ¥500 respectively. Guests staying at the Suginoi Hotel can go for free. It's open Monday to Friday 10am to 6pm and Saturday, Sunday, and holidays from 10am to 8pm, with extended hours during major holidays (closed for maintenance early May to June and Nov 24-Dec 4). To reach Suginoi Palace, take the hotel's free shuttle from Beppu Station (daily 10am-4pm). By the way, much of the energy to run the vast complex, including the hotel, is steam generated.

Termas Spa (Kitahama Onsen) -- A hot-spring public spa beside the sea, Termas Spa, 11-1 Kyomachi (tel. 0977/24-4126; Fri-Wed 10am-10pm), offers indoor baths and a sauna, as well as a large outdoor hot-spring pool and Jacuzzi for both sexes overlooking the sea (you wear your swimsuit here). Admission is ¥500 for adults, half-price for children. It's a 20-minute walk from Beppu Station (take the east exit and turn left when you reach the sea; it will be on the right); or take bus no. 20, 21, 23, 25, or 26 to Matogahama Koen stop.

Hot-Sand Baths

One of the unique things you can do in Beppu is take a bath in hot sand, considered useful for treating muscle pain, arthritis, and indigestion. Although several public baths offer hot-sand baths, one of the most atmospheric places is the Takegawara Bathhouse, 16-23 Motomachi, Beppu 874 (tel. 0977/23-1585; daily 8am-10:30pm, closed third Wed of each month). Built in 1879 in traditional, Meiji-Era architecture, this beautiful wooden structure is one of the oldest public baths in the city and has an interior that resembles an ancient gymnasium, dominated by a pit filled with black sand. The attendants are used to foreigners here; they'll instruct you to change into the provided yukata and lie down in a hollow they've dug in the sand. An attendant will then shovel sand on top of you and pack you in until only your head and feet are sticking out. I personally didn't find the sand all that hot, but it is relaxing as the heat soaks into your body. You stay buried for 10 minutes, contemplating the wooden ceiling high above and hoping you don't get an itch somewhere. When the time is up, the attendant will tell you to stand up, shower off the sand, and then jump into a bath of hot water. The cost is ¥1,000. To reach the bathhouse, take the main (east) exit from Beppu Station and walk toward the sea, turning right at the street just before the big intersection (across from Tokiwa). The bathhouse is a couple of blocks down this street on the right, with its entrance around the corner.

More To See & Do

The Hells (Jigoku) -- You might as well join everyone else and go to the Hells, boiling ponds created by volcanic activity. Their Japanese name, Jigoku, refers to the burning hell of Buddhist sutras. Seven of the nine Hells are clustered close together in the Kannawa hot-spring area, within walking distance of each other, and they can be toured in about 90 minutes or so. Each hell has its own attraction, but because a few are kind of hokey, you might just want to visit a couple. Umi Jigoku, or Sea Hell, has a nice garden setting (spectacular in spring when azaleas are in bloom), a cobalt-blue pond, a greenhouse with giant lotus plants, and a foot bath where you can soak your feet in hot springs. Oniishibozu Jigoku features bubbling mud, a foot bath, and its own hot-spring baths (extra admission charged for the baths); Kamado Jigoku, the Oven Hell, was used for cooking and has a statue of a red devil (read: photo op); Chinoike Jigoku, the Blood-Pond Hell, is blood red in color because of the red clay dissolved in the hot water; Tatsumaki Jigoku, or Waterspout Hell, has one of the largest geysers in Japan. Skip Yama Jigoku, featuring animals living in deplorable conditions, and Oniyama Jigoku, featuring much of the same for crocodiles. To reach Kannawa, take bus no. 2 from Beppu Station's west exit 25 minutes to Umijigoku-mae bus stop. After walking to the seven Hells, you can then take bus no. 16 from the Kannawa bus stop onward to the other two Hells.

The Hells are open daily 8am to 5pm. A combination ticket, costing ¥2,000 for adults, ¥1,300 for high-school students, ¥1,000 for junior-high students, and ¥900 for children, allows entrance to eight Hells. Separate entrance fee to each one is ¥400. A ninth Hell, the Kinryu Golden Dragon Jigoku costs ¥200; I like its sign, which announces matter-of-factly, IF YOU FALL IN THE POND, YOU WILL BE BOILED. For more information, contact the Beppu Tourist Information Office.

Beppu City Traditional Bamboo Crafts Center -- Beppu is famous for its bamboo crafts, and the best place to shop for bambooware and to learn more about this amazingly durable material is this museum, the Beppu-shi Takezaiku Dento Sangyo Kaikan, 8-3 Higashisoen (tel. 0977/23-1072; Tues-Sun 8:30am-5pm). Exhibits explain how bamboo grows, the different varieties of bamboo (620 kinds are found in Japan; 1,250 grow worldwide), and the role bamboo has played in daily Japanese life, with displays that include palanquins, fish traps, lunch boxes, toys, fans, hats, bows, and arrows, and a beautiful 1920s stationery box by National Living Treasure Sato Chiyota. Even Edison's electric light bulb used a bamboo filament. You can see it in 15 minutes, but with your new appreciation for bamboo, you'll easily spend an additional 15 minutes in its shop. Admission is ¥300 for adults and high-school students, ¥100 for children. To reach it, take bus no. 1 from Beppu Station's east exit to the Minabaru stop (fare: ¥230), backtrack to the traffic light, and walk 3 minutes on the downhill street on the right.

Monkeys & An Aquarium -- On Beppu's southern border rises Mount Takasaki, home to some 1,200 wild monkeys and one of Japan's largest monkey habitats (tel. 097/532-5010; daily 8:30am-5pm). At the base of the mountain where they're fed, however (to keep them from raiding farmers' fields), it's nothing but concrete and they don't seem particularly wild or concerned about the humans walking among them. Admission is ¥500 for adults (half-price for children). Come here only if you have children, combining it with a trip to Umitamago, Kaigan, Takasakiyama-shita (tel. 097/534-1010; daily 9am-6pm), across the highway via pedestrian bridge. This aquarium, opened in 2004, features an 8m-high (26-ft.) circular tank with 3,000 fish and sea creatures, as well as seals, sea lions, dolphins, sea otters, sea turtles, a touch pool with harmless sharks and rays, a discovery room for small children, and shows. Admission is ¥1,890 for adults, ¥950 for junior-high and elementary students, and ¥630 for children (free for children 3 and younger). To reach Mount Takasaki and the aquarium, take an Oita Kotsu bus that departs from Beppu Station four times an hour (there is no bus number) for 10 minutes to Takasakiyama stop; unfortunately, your My Beppu Free pass isn't accepted on this bus, so you'll have to pay ¥230.

On the Road to Hell -- Smack-dab in the midst of the Hells, across from Oniyama Jigoku, is the Beppu Utamaro Gallery (Minzoku Shiryokan), 338-3 Kannawa Shibuya (tel. 0977/66-8790; daily 9:30am-5pm), a museum devoted to sex. Fertility gods, erotic statues, pictures of zebras and lions in the act, replicas of penises from the animal kingdom ranging from tiny to humongous, Edo-Era erotic woodblock prints by Utamaro, kinky dioramas (including an adult version of Snow White and her seven little men), and a small theater with porn films are just some of the things on display here. Think of those unsuspecting visitors hoping to see a gallery devoted to famed Ukiyo-e artist Utamaro's work! Admission is ¥700.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.