5. Harajiri Falls
The rain had cleared up by the time I got back from the cave into Bungoono proper, so I took myself off to see the Harajiri Falls, nicknamed the “Niagara of the Orient”.
I’ve discovered that Japan is sometimes guilty of exaggerating its attractions in write ups, though, and the falls are no exception. They are indeed beautiful, and earn the 91st spot on Japan’s Top 100 Waterfalls list, but at only 20 m (66 ft) high and 120 m (410 ft) wide, they don’t live up to the comparison. Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said I didn’t marvel at them just a bit.
I followed the path from the parking lot to a clearing in the rock face, and took in the bird’s eye view. Here, you can see the columnar joints in the ignimbrite rock that contain the horsetail waterfalls.
The joints were created during a major eruption of Mt. Aso some 90,000 years ago. A pyroclastic flow from the volcano, containing hot gas, ash, lava and pumice stone, completely covered the watershed areas of the Ono River, which, after cooling, caused the vertical cracks.
From the viewpoint, a staircase leads down to the riverbank where you can experience the full force of the plummeting water. The wind carried over some of the spray and I could have sworn I smelled salt in the air.
There’s also a (very rickety) suspension bridge that crosses to the other side of the river. Once you reach it, you can join up with a path that circles all the way around the top of the falls and back to the clearing.
At the top of the falls, you can see the endless amount of potholes that were formed by eddying currents, carrying rocks and pebbles and rolling them over the riverbed. The potholes eventually connected, creating grooves on the rock.
By the time I had completed the walking course, the hunger monster was rumbling, and so I popped into the road stop next door to fill up on some more kabosu treats.
I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in Taketa, a part of me resenting the drive to Beppu the next morning. I don’t know what it is about me and small towns, but I grow attached easily. I’d just have to come back, I thought, as I willed myself to ignore the sound of snoring travelling through the hotel wall and drifted off to sleep.
6. Beppu’s Fiery Hells
Visiting Beppu during Golden Week was not one of my best ideas, especially after spending two peaceful days in the countryside. Traffic going into the seaside town was a mess, and came to a standstill outside it’s most famous attraction, Beppu Jigoku, or the Hells of Beppu.
Featuring approximately 2,800 hot springs, Beppu is the world’s second-largest source of thermal spring water after Yellowstone National Park in the US. The Hells are 8 geothermal hot spots, scattered around the Kannawa and Shibaseki districts, named for their high temperatures and famed for the bright colours that peak out from under their billowing clouds of steam.
After a good half hour sitting in a line of cars, I just couldn’t hold my pee in anymore. I pulled off the road into a random gravel parking lot and hurried to the first group of Hells, making a beeline for the toilet. But something was nagging me about my car, and after my bladder had calmed down, I realised that I had just left it in someone’s backyard.
I’d have to go back and move it. On the way, I noticed a shrine adjacent to the Hells with an empty parking lot. None of the cars stuck in traffic were using it though, because Japan. But there are times when being polite gets you nowhere (in this case, literally). I pulled in, parked, slipped past the security rope and hopped across the road, back to the Hells.
For 2,000 円, you can purchase a combination ticket that grants you access to all 8 hells, but you can also pick and choose which ones to visit, paying a 400 円 admission fee at each instead. I went for the latter option; after reading about animals being kept in disturbing conditions at Yama-Jigoku (Mountain Hell) and Oniyama-Jigoku (Demon Mountain Hell) I decided I wouldn’t be going to either of those. I gave Shiraike-Jigoku (White Pond Hell) a miss too.
My first stop on my little own, tailor-made tour was Oniishibozu-Jigoku (Shaven Monk’s Head Hell). The Hell has several different pools of bubbling mud, reaching temperatures as high as 99°C (210°F). The bubbles that rise to the surface are said to resemble the heads of shaven monks.
Next was Umi-Jigoku (Sea Hell). Named for it’s cobalt blue color, the 200 m-deep, 98°C (208°F) pool was formed 1, 200 years ago after a volcanic eruption.
There is also a smaller orange pool, a greenhouse, a shrine and a lily pond with leaves big enough to support small children on the grounds.
By this point, I was starving; breakfast was supposed to have been a konbini stop on the drive from Taketa, but the traffic had gotten in the way. I had heard good things about the Hells’ famed eggs, freshly boiled from the hot spring, and the Jigoku pudding, also cooked in the steam. It was the weirdest lunch I’d had in a while, but it was indeed delicious.
The next stop was Kamado-jigoku (The Cooking Pot Hell) which features six different boiling pools, and several hand and foot baths. The Hell was used for cooking foods long ago. A giant demon statue, called Aka-Oni, greets visitors over a pile of rocks that release 100°C (212°F) bursts of steam.
There is also another blue pool with amorphous silica, and an orange-coloured mud pool, where a guide demonstrated how blowing something that burns and smokes, like a cigarette, into the pool doubles the amount of steam.
I went by car to the last two hells, which are a few kilometres away. The first, Chinoike-jigoku (Blood Pond Hell) is a 78°C (172°F) red mud pool rich in iron and magnesium oxide. It is used to dye goods and make skin products, which you can purchase at the adjacent gift shop.
I had to wait around a bit at the second, Tatsumaki-jigoku (Spout Hell), for the geyser to erupt again, which occurs every 30-40 min for about 6 min at a time. It was simultaneously exciting and disappointing; there is a giant stone slab that prevents the geyser from reaching its maximum height of 50 m (164 ft). But it’s still worth sticking around for – it’s one of the shortest-interval spouts of its kind.
I now understand why the Hells get such mixed reviews – on the one hand, they are interesting to look at and fun to photograph, but on the other, they are over commercialized to the point where you forget that they are natural wonders. In the end, though, I was glad I went – they Hells are nothing like I’ve ever seen before.
7. Usuki Stone Buddhas
After spending the night in Beppu, my road trip was almost over. I still had a whole day to make the 3-hour drive home, though, and decided to make a few stops on the way. After browsing the Golden Week sales at Oita City’s Park Place mall, I headed to Usuki. The former castle town is known for its stone paved alleyways and old samurai residences, and also a group of mysterious statues carved into its cliff side.
The Usuki Stone Buddhas are thought to have been created in the Heian and Kamakura periods, but by whom and for what purpose is unknown. Buddha statues in Japan are usually made from metal or wood, so the 56 statues at Usuki, carved out of volcanic rock, are a rarity. Designated as a national treasure in 1995, they were the first of their kind in the country to receive the distinction.
In the late 1980s, extensive repairs were undertaken to preserve the statues, with roof-like structures being built over them to ensure that they continued to withstand the elements. For 540円, visitors can see all 8 clusters today.
“Kippu uriba wa doko desu ka?” I asked a man hanging around the parking lot. “Oh, you want ticket?” He replied gleefully and showed me a card. “You are English? I cannot speak English,” he continued. “710 yen for museum and Buddhas! Nana hyaku juu en, yes? Or, just museum yon hyaku en. 400, yes?”
“Um…what about just the statues?” I asked. “Yes! Nana hyaku juu en for statues and museum!” He pointed at a picture of vases. “Berry beautiful, you can see here!” The Yamako Usuki Art and Historical Museum exhibits relics that belonged to a local feudal lord and various artefacts recovered in excavations around the area.
“Just the statues, please” I replied. His face fell as he lifted an arm and pointed me in the opposite direction. I wasn’t sure how to explain that museums are not all that fun when your kanji reading skills extend to only 10 characters.
I found the right ticket booth and started along the path to the statues. The first six clusters are in two groups along the main path. Although fenced off, you can get quite close and see the detail that went into the statues’ carving. Some of the features were even stenciled in with ink.
Next to the second group is a steep walkway that takes you off the main path into the trees where a group of stone pagoda towers sit. From here, you can go back down to the main loop or wander through the surrounding bamboo forest, like I did.
It was nice and peaceful walking through the trees, and quiet enough to hear that popping sound bamboo makes when it grows. I came to a shrine, where a narrow staircase led me down to the 7th cluster. There is a giant Nyorai statue there, with two attendants by his sides. It is known as the “Hidden Jizo”.
Further down the path and around a bend is the final cluster. According to the site’s brochure, the center statue, Dainichi Nyorai, is regarded as the finest stone Buddha statue in Japan and is famous worldwide.
The last cluster also provides a nice view of the fields below, which you can walk through to visit the Mangatsuji Temple. There is also a lotus flower field in bloom from mid-July to mid-August. I took a slow walk back and popped into one of the gift shops for some browsing, and then it was time to hit the road again.
When I finally got home, I greeted my bed like an old friend, and collapsed into it with a smile; my little solo road trip around Oita was complete and, somehow, so was I.