Hell and flowers

Here’s the thing about Japan. This country is so densely packed with sights and scenery that it usually doesn’t matter if your plans change: there’s so much to see! Instead of going northwards on to the main island, as had been my original intent we went in the other direction, to the southwest and further across Kyushu. And it was wonderful!

I think Alex must have been dreaming about ice cream because that’s what he demanded as soon as he woke up. He had to wait a while longer, and when he got it his choice was… unusual.

The hotel breakfast was rather uninspiring, except for the beautiful soft, thick Japanese toast. Then we lugged our bags across to the station for the quick ride up to Beppu.

Beppu has a reputation as an overblown tourist town, but in truth I rather like it. The ride up was scenic, alongside a placid seascape. Mountains loom over the city and you can see the high bridges of a motorway threading through them. It is most famous not for its scenery, but its hot water. Beppu is a big onsen town and you can see white clouds of steam rising across the suburbs.

It is also famous for its jigoku, or “Hells”. These are natural spring outflows that emerge out of the ground too hot for direct use in an onsen.They describe a Buddhist (and Christian) version of Hell.

We bought an all day bus pass from the tourist office and dumped our luggage in coin lockers,. Walking around the station we observed an effect of the Japanese economy’s deflationary cycle: instead of a 100 Yen Shop there was a 98 Yen Shop.

We began with the Bus Hell, which involved waiting for a late bus and then taking forever to reach our first destination. Oh, it wasn’t that bad but I hate buses.

At the Tatsumaki Jigoku we bought a combination set of entry tickets.Tatsumaki’s only item of note is the geyser, which frequently sprays up out of a pond of hot water surrounded by an auditorium for the observers. We offered to buy Alex an ice cream while we waited for the geyser to shoot up and he insisted on the purple “Sweet Potato” flavour. It was fairly tasteless actually, not as bad as it sounded.

The Chinoike Jigoku was a big red pool of hot water. Then another bus ride up to a steep slope where steam seemed to rise from every second building.

Oniyama Jigoku had hot water gushing out at 99 degrees centigrade, then cooled to warm pools of crocodiles from around the world. Their pools looked pretty scummy.

In contrast, Shiraike Onsen was in the middle of a pleasant garden setting. Once you got past the grimy tanks of pirahnas and other fish the milky blue lake was positively serene to gaze at, white steam drifting over the little island in the middle.

Kamado Jigoku was a lot of fun. Named for previously being a kitchen where food was cooked in the hot mud pools it has a food bath, hot pools red, blue and muddy, and displays of the silicon dioxide deposits from the springs. We ate some spring boiled eggs, with salt and soy sauce, and they were good.

Yama Jigoku was disturbing, not a human hell but an animal one. Inside a small African elephant banged its head against the concrete wall of its stark enclosure, a huge hippopotamus sat crunching on carrots in a tiny pool and other animals similarly had small cages devoid of anything  to entertain them.

Adjacent Umi Jigoku had a beautiful natural setting, with cherry blossoms and camelias, a foot bath and a big pond. Then you hear the roar of the scalding spring water shooting up vertically from the ground and falling down milky blue into the main hot pool. The power is awe inspiring.

The final Jigoku was Oniishibouzu was quieter, bubbles forming ring patterns in the grey mud.

We gave up on taking the bus back to the station and caught a taxi instead. Even then it was quite a distance. Still, we made it in time to catch the Trans Kyushu Limited Express from Beppo to Kumamoto. We had run out of time to do those interesting itineraries around the San-in coast of Honshu or around Shikoku. I had also read that the cherry blossoms should be at their peak around Kumamoto castle, so that settled it for me.

The Oden Kyushu Express also had the benefit of running through the great volcanic caldera of Mt Aso, supposedly a very scenic route.

We were welcomed aboard by Ms Kawaguchi, a wonderfully helpful member of the train crew. Soon after the train pulled out of Beppu she came through the cabin with her trolley of goodies. I’d only had time to buy a single bento box for B and Alex, so I tried to make do with sandwiches. Except Alex wanted to eat them instead! We also rediscovered a flaw in many of the Kyushu trains. Their wooden tray tables have no rim and so anything placed upon them is liable to fly off at the smallest jerk.

This train couldn’t compare in looks or speed with the other premier Kyushu trains, but it certainly made up for them with scenery and service. As we chugged up into mountainous country we all fell asleep. I don’t think I slept for too long as I awoke to see rice paddies and tea plantations squeezed into narrow gaps of pine and bamboo forest.

Passengers were handed stamped commemorative pamphlets of this and some other of JR Kyushu’s trains. They love their railways here and it shows. I can’t bear to read the glimpsed headline of Sydney’s latest train woes in comparison.

As the train goes up the steep incline into Mt Aso’s caldera you see glimpses of magnificent mountain scenery. Then through a tunnel and suddenly it is making a rapid descent.

Many of the craggy mountains that ring the caldera obviously have fairly recent surfaces, bare of vegetation. We could see steam erupting from the top of one, near a chairlift and a big white stupa that looks like it belongs in another land.

It’s awesome scenery and incredible to think how large this caldera is, considering that there is still ongoing volcanic activity in the area. It contains towns and farms and there are even windmills generating electricity along one ridge.

Kawaguchi-san came back through to tell us that we were going to use a switchback to quickly return down the mountains. This involves the train running down a zig zag line and needing to reverse direction. It’s the second time for me in Japan, including last year’s Bingo-Ochiai run.

At the base of the switchback there was a station into which had pulled a train colourfully decorated with cartoon characters for the Amakusa Kaido Expo. Kawaguchi-san kindly offered to let us off the train and take a photo of Alex and I in front of it.

We were still descending down a ridge when I saw a jet airliner curve around the mountains and descend in front of us. It felt like we were above it from that distance.

As we arrived into Kumamoto’s station we felt that we had taken yet another astonishing Japanese rail journey.

The Toyoko Inn was very close to the recently modernised station grounds. We had a panoramic floor up on the 21st level, but unfortunately another new building blocked most of the castle view, although the views elsewhere were interesting enough.

I had asked at the station tourist office if there was any night cherry blossom festivals planned. They pointed me towards Kumamoto’s castle area. So we piled on the tram and puttered up the streets of Kumamoto.

Indeed there was a lot of celebration going on around the castle. We walked under gas lamps along the moat and bought toffee grapes and chicken skewers from the stalls setup outside the gate.

We purchased entry tickets to the castle, only intending to wander through the grounds. Lanterns were strung up underneath the great pink and white cherry trees growing around the castle area. Other trees formed dark shadows. The massive walls and the castle keep were illuminated by big floodlights.

By the time we had climbed up those big stone steps and were standing in front of the main castle keep we couldn’t resist going all the way. It’s a very impressive castle from the outside. Unfortunately, its relatively recent rebuilding shows on the inside, which houses a museum. The interior does not compare to wooden originals like Himeji-jo and Matsuyama-jo. Still, Alex climbed up all six floors and the views from the top were impressive.

They were closing up the park by the time we returned to the ground. We walked down the lantern lit road, enjoying the amazing views of the cherry blossoms.

It was now way past dinner time. We wandered through what seemed to be the entertainment district, eventually settling on a “meat grilling” restaurant. A stone burner was placed at our table and we grilled slices of beef and chicken upon it. It was okay, but did not compare with our previous experiences in Takayama, where the beef was tender and juicy, unlike what we got. And the bill…

We made the mistake of catching the wrong tram back, with this one taking us on a different route. We had to wait at a quiet, utterly dead stop until a tram returned the other direction and we could go back and transfer to  the correct route.

Alex (and we!) was so tired after being a wonderful boy all day. We had been all the way from Hell to Hanami paradise in one day.

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