Onsen and Hells in Oita

Me and the Sea Hell
Me at the Sea Hell

The Omatas welcomed us into their home as guests and showed us the most amazing hospitality. Having known Jun and Rika for years in China, and also tutored their kids, I had always promised I would visit their neck of the woods in South-Western Japan. Since this was an opportunity to do that I made sure that our itinerary included a visit to Oita and Beppu, the hot springs capital of Japan.

Across Beppu you’ll find white plumes of steam rising from cracks in the Earth. On our only full day together, Jun and Rika brought us to various jigoku or “hells” in Japanese. These hells were far too hot to swim in but we’re beautiful occurrences in nature. The sea hell was blue and the bloody hell was red. Other hells were different colors, including a white one.

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72 KM on a Ma Ma Chai in 2 Days in Japan

Shimanami Kaido Bike Path
Shimanami Kaido Bike Path

72 kilometers by bike, in 10 hours. This was the middle point of our journey through Japan. Actually, Jake and I had planned on more hiking and biking than we actually did, but this ride was almost more than we had bargained for!

The bike path starts in Hiroshima prefecture, spanning 6 tiny islands and massive suspension bridges, ending in Imabari city on the island of Shikoku. In order to do it all, we rented 2 bikes for 2 days and stayed at a hot spring beach hostel. Covered by orange and lemon groves, Innoshima was probably the most remote of our entire trip. And we sampled the oranges too as we rode through the little towns nestled in these islands. (See a pic below for the entire route.)

With heavy packs on our backs, we still managed to locate the hostel on day one and get a well-deserved hot spring bath to soothe our aching muscles. I honestly don’t know if we could have finished cycling the other 3 islands the next day if we didn’t have that chance for some deep relaxation.

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That Guilty Feeling in Hiroshima

A-Bomb Dome in Spring
A-Bomb Dome in Spring

We all have learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki at some point in History class. But nothing prepares you for what we were about to experience in this city. As I got off the train in downtown Hiroshima I was a little overcome with sorrow. I had never felt a sense of national guilt before. It must be similar to how Germans recall World War II. And you only know what that’s like when you ’round the corner….. and see it – the Atomic Bomb Dome.

This singular structure, with rubble and bricks left in tact, is a visceral reminder of the devastation the Japanese people suffered at the end of World War II. It represents how hundreds of thousands of lives were changed in an instant. The museum, which was packed on a Tuesday, is raw and very emotional. Tattered clothes, melted skin, fused panes of glass, and stories from survivors made the experience all the more heartbreaking.

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The White Heron of Himeji

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Himeji Castle and Jake

Himeji Castle, or the white heron, was first built in the 1500s. It has survived 48 transfers of power (both peaceful and not) as well as a bombing by America. Somehow this amazing structure managed to survive after two duds hit it in World War II. (A footnote a British couple made sure to bring to my attention…)

The morning after we arrived from Yamazaki, we lined up to get tickets to visit the white heron. Since we were there early we were given a special ticket. We would be 2 of the first thousand people to visit the main keep that day! This made the visit so much more worth it and I suggest all who go to Himeji to line up by 8am to seize this rare opportunity. To be honest, the main keep alone was worth the price of admission. 

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Nara’s History and Yamazaki’s Whisky

Deer and biscuits
Yummm, biscuits!

You could be forgiven if you thought that we had had enough history lessons after 4 days in Tokyo and Kyoto. But on day 5 we visited Nara, and this was really historical Japan. Only Japan can claim that their first “permanent” national capital was set up in 710 AD. Prior to setting up this ancient capital, says the Lonely Planet guide, Shintoism brought with it the belief that when a new emperor reigned, the capital must also be moved. (Continuing to rule where a past regent died was a bad omen, to say the least.)

In Nara, a park encapsulates the ancient sites of where this first capital was born. The largest Buddha sculpture I have ever seen was on display at the Todai-ji temple. Surrounding it was multiple holy buildings, gates, and pagodas. It was truly a magnificent slice of history that is being proudly preserved for the coming generations to enjoy.

I would be remissed to leave out the most playful and people-friendly wild deer which greet visitors around these historical sites. For $1.50 I got to share “biscuits” with these awesome animals. And when I wasn’t looking, my map got bitten twice! The 1200 deer that romp around the area are a major highlight of this park. I should actually say “town” because they would occasionally walk around the bus stops, enter shops, and pose for photos along the paths. 

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