The city of Beppu is “smoking” with hot springs. On a clear day, Beppu (my current residence in Japan) reminds me of a quaint Indian village sending up hot steam messages to their neighbors across the city. The volume of natural hot spring water is second in the world behind Yellowstone National Park’s massive “hot-spring-ness” in Wyoming, USA. Beppu has 2,909 natural hot spring vents across the city, which in turn produces 130,000 tons of hot water to gush out of the earth in this small city everyday. Needless to say, every spa/hot tub company has been put out of business!
This night was like an oil painting. A full moon and clear skies highlighted the expansive mountain range while the city lights sparkled below. It was as if the painting was hung on a wall next to the freezer, waiting for its chilly breeze every time the door cracks open. Not much could ruin this view – at least that is what I thought!
I’m near the top of a mountain and pull up to my first Japanese hot spring experience. I have no clue what to expect. White smoke is blazing up from behind the entrance building. I quickly slip off my shoes, which is the custom here, and tip-toe to the lady at the desk in my new, stylish, size 6 (!) wooden flip flops that were provided. The shoes would have definitely been a hit item in New York’s fashion week.
With my backpack strapped on and my swim trunks in hand, I was ready to make the plunge.
Yet, before I could even laugh about my new miniature kimono and hand towel I was just given, the “hot springtress” takes my backpack and swim trunks to place in a locker behind me. I stare wide-eyed and confused back at her as she then informs me of the inevitable:
all garments are prohibited in the natural hot springs of Japan.
What?! I am sure you can imagine my barely audible gasp for breath and dumb-founded look as I stand frozen in the awkwardness!
In the end, my translator friend persuaded me to go along with the adventure, so I entered the hot springs.
There were beautiful pools of hot steamy water covering the ground. Waterfalls flowed from one pool to the next. It was a tranquil paradise of hot water bubbling out of the earth.
The water was crystal clear, yet felt silky as if you were immersed into a tub of melted butter. The world seemed to suddenly move into slow motion, and I felt like I was sitting miles high, perched in the fluffiness of a cloud.
My mind moved at the same speed as a slow-shuttered camera, capturing every moment through a fogged lens. The warmth of the waterfall ran through my hair like fingers on a fresh cut lawn. The smell of fresh mint leaves mixed with hints of sulfur engulfed me. My bamboo bucket and 5 inch hand towel was all that hid me from the outside world.
This was definitely a new experience for me.
My picture perfect, city view with the full moon took on a new meaning when a saggy bum got out of a pool in front of me, blocking the twinkling lights and rising mountain peaks with more than I wanted to see. I kept my eyes peeled upward for obvious reasons, determined not to ruin the beauty of the landscape.
I have decided I can never get used to going to a natural hot spring naked, but I did come out refreshed, squeaky clean, and smelling like a stuffed eucalyptus tree!
For my next hot spring quest, I’ll venture to a natural hot sand bath on the beach in Beppu…but, this one has no full moons and clothes are provided!
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