It’s about 6:30 in the morning as we wearily board the ferry that will transport us from Yawatahama Port on the island of Shikoku to Beppu on the island of Kyushu. Three hours to contemplate the walking journey we are leaving behind. Three hours to plan for our upcoming city tours: Beppu, Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Hiroshima and nearby Miyajima and finally Tokyo.
The conditions could not be better for our crossing. The waters of the Bungo Channel are glassy smooth. The sun rises over the hills of Shikoku, revealing a cloudless, deep blue sky. Small islands, tiny fishing boats, large cargo freighters come and go. Eventually, the Beppu skyline appears on the horizon.
Today’s journey has one goal: to get us to Nagasaki on the other side of Kyushu. Happily and conveniently, Beppu lies along that path. Beppu is most notable for its geothermal hot spots. Eight of them to be exact, colloquially known as the eight hells of Beppu. Far from hellish, the town is very resort-oriented, sporting many hot baths, sand baths and onsens.
After a good walk to the train station, to purchase our onward tickets to Nagasaki for later this afternoon, we take a shuttle bus to the posh, hilltop Tanayu resort. It has a definite theme-park vibe as we wind our way down the corridors of this massive resort complex, passing gift shops and arcades. Gail and I pick up our towels and head off to our gender-specific baths. It’s a wonderful relaxing experience, as expected. Two hours of naked bliss overlooking Beppu Bay far below.
Back down the hill (and dressed again!), we head for one of Beppu’s hells and the Jigokumushi Kobo Steam Cooking Centre. You could call it a tourist attraction and the patrons are predominantly Western. But it is hard not to be drawn in by the novelty of the experience. Gail and I start by purchasing food vouchers for a variety of uncooked fish and vegetables. Then, under the guidance of a local volunteer, Gail dons thick insulating mitts, carefully loads the food onto a tray and then lowers the tray into a steam chamber directly fed by the geothermal hell lying deep below us. Each food item – corn on the cob, shrimp, what have you – is steamed for a specific time. Gail is drawn back to the steam chamber several times to retrieve our corn, then our dumplings, then our shellfish, returning to our picnic table each time with another course on this progressive lunch experience.
This is a deservedly popular attraction and there is a good hour’s wait between purchasing our food and having an available steam chamber for cooking it. Enough time, though, for a quick tour around the surrounding streets, lined with traditional Japanese structures. Steam is everywhere, pouring out of vents in the road, channeled to a bakery for steaming sponge cakes and feeding the neighbourhood’s many small bathing facilities.
It’s been a rushed visit, but well worth it. By mid-afternoon, we have boarded our Limited Express train to Hakata. Then, with only an 8-minute layover, we transfer to the another Limited Express train to Nagasaki. Thankfully, Japanese train schedules are deadly accurate. Departure and arrival times are reliable to within seconds.
It’s early evening by the time we arrive in Nagasaki. Bright signs illuminate the blue-black sky. High-rises line the streets, bustling with after-work revellers. This is a different, bigger world than the Shikoku we left behind.
We make our way to the Dormy Inn, just outside of the city’s Chinatown. The hotel’s restaurant offers guests a complimentary bowl of ramen or udon in the late evening. A quirky perk to be sure. But, after a long travel day, it’s a welcome snack before heading off to bed.