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JAPAN


Oita Boiling water, billowing steam


Onsens are woven into the fabric of society in Oita, a Japanese region where the red-hot water bursting from the ground is harnessed into pools of all shapes and sizes, and the mountains that provide it are revered and respected. Words: Charlotte Wigram-Evans


Steam rises slowly from Mount Garan, billowing from holes in its side as if a seething, fire-breathing beast lurks just beneath the earth. It’s early, and our only company on this weathered path has been a couple of Japanese nightingales, their plumage grey, the colour of rain. “They herald the coming of spring,” my


guide, Yume, explains. “Listen to their call, it’s iconic.” I train my ear for the sound, and as if aware of an audience, a cacophony of birdsong bursts from a nearby cedar. Yume laughs, clapping her hands together: “The sound fills everyone here with joy,” she says. “But come, we’re not here for the birds.” In fact, we’re heading to Tsukahara Onsen,


one of the most famous in Oita (for a region known as Japan’s hot spring capital, that’s saying something). Located in the north east of Kyushu island, Oita is dotted with active volcanoes. Fault lines running beneath these mountains form channels of boiling magma that heat subterranean water to over 1,000C, before pushing it upwards to explode from the Earth’s surface. “We have the highest number of hot spring


sources in all of Japan,” Yume reveals proudly, “and this one has the thickest mineral content of them all.” We smell the pool before we reach it — a pungent odour of gone-off eggs, but one that, I’m assured, only proves the healing powers of the water. The minerals in onsens, it’s said, can alleviate health problems as varied as asthma and arthritis; they’re


68 nationalgeographic.co.uk/travel


so concentrated in this particular spring that bathing for more than 20 minutes is forbidden. Aſter just a few minutes, my skin starts to tingle. I towel myself dry, admiring the simple stone pool and wondering aloud when man learnt to harness these red-hot eruptions of water and steam. “No one knows exactly,” Yume tells me, “but


records show the idea of bathing may have been introduced by Buddhist monks from China in the 17th century, and it didn’t take long before it became a huge part of local life.” Sitting at the base of the mountain, Beppu


is an excellent example of the extent to which hot springs have been woven into the very seams of society. A small city of sloping roofs and billowing steam, there are onsen everywhere, from foot baths hidden beneath restaurant tables to private pools in hotel gardens. Wastewater running through underground pipes here is so warm that tropical fish have made a home in them — unwanted pets that thrived aſter being freed, so the story goes. In the city’s leafy Kannawa district, Asako


greets us at the entrance of her traditional Japanese lodge, Futabaso, where guests occupying the 10 rooms oſten stay for many months, taking daily onsens to help with various ailments and enjoying her excellent cooking. An enormous well dominates a central courtyard, pumping mineral-rich water to several small pools, and an elderly man wearing a perfectly pressed yukata


(robe) nods to us as he passes by, heading for his aſternoon bathe. Asako has worked here for 50 years, and


the lodge is twice as old again, the worn furniture and cracked walls only adding to its charm. Between boiling eggs (in onsen water, naturally) and stripping bananas for her evening dessert (“the water makes them sweeter”), she tells us a bit about herself. “I believe in the power of mountains,” she says. “It’s why my work has always revolved around onsens; they’re a constant reminder what Mother Nature can provide.” Asako practises Shugendo, a blend of


Shintoism and Buddhism; it’s a faith in which mountain worship is fundamental. Whether religious or otherwise, this power is tangible in Oita, a pulsing energy rising from deep below the Earth’s surface evident in the hot springs scattered across the region. “They’re an ancient force far beyond any of


us and must be respected,” Asako continues, gesturing towards the row of peaks just visible through her rice-paper screens. Among them, high above the scurryings of human existence, Mount Garan steams broodily, just as it’s done for centuries, oblivious to the people on its paths, to the seasons’ change or to the nightingale singing for spring.


Trailfinders offers a self-guided seven-day tour of Kyushu, including onsen visits and the ‘Hells of Beppu’ in the Oita region, from £1,353 per person, based on two sharing. trailfinders.com discover-oita.com


IMAGES: GETTY; OITA TOURISM; CHARLOTTE WIGRAM-EVANS


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