Oita, on the eastern coast of Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, has taken to billing itself as Onsen-ken. And while that title loses a bit of its rhyming appeal once it’s translated into English, it’s hard to deny that it really is the Hot Spring Prefecture, as Oita boasts more hot springs than anywhere else in Japan.
As a matter of fact, Oita has so much geothermal water that it can get creative with its most attractive and relaxing natural resource, as shown by these unique ways locals and tourists can enjoy the prefecture’s hot springs.
Recently, Japan has been going through a bit of an ashiyu boom, in which hot spring towns set up open air foot baths. Oita’s Kannawa Mushiyu hot spring complex puts its unique spin on this by offering little steam compartments for your feet.
After sitting down, guests place their feet inside a wooden compartment filled with steam produced by the hot spring below. Close the lid, sit back, and let the steam do its work. Repeat visitors recommend using a hand towel to cover up any empty space between your calves and the lid, and say the experience reduces swelling and fatigue.
Going from the feet to the hands, in various spots around Beppu’s Yufu City, you can find finger bath stations, called yubiyu. While they obviously won’t warm your whole body up, soaking your fingertips should stimulate the nerve endings, which in turn is said to relieve stiffness in the shoulders and lower back pain.
Meanwhile, stroll around the neighborhood of Kurokawa Onsen, and you’ll find kaoyu, which funnel hot spring steam into beautifying face misting setups like this.
Of course, you can’t stick your face into a box of hot spring steam without inhaling some of the vapors. Some say that’s a good thing for you, though. Hyotan Onsen, Oita’s three-Michelin Star hot spring, sets up pipes for guests who want to breathe in not only the relaxing atmosphere, but the steam as well, which some claim relieves sore throats and helps ward off colds.
We mentioned Kannawa Mushiyu’s foot-sized steam compartments above, but the facility also offers the even more extensive mushiyu service.
It’s essentially an herbal onsen steam room. A bedding of acorus gramineus, a medicinal herb also called Japanese sweet flag, is spread over the floor, then heated by hot spring steam. Along with producing a relaxing aroma, the combination of heat and herbal effects are said to aid the body in sweating out toxins.
Much like a good sweat leaves the body feeling refreshed, getting a little dirty is often part of a proper cleansing. The contribution of Beppu City’s Hoyo Land to this philosophy is its doroyu mud bath.
This is still technically a hot spring, but it’s a very thick, cloudy one. The visibility only extends about five centimeters (two inches), and there’s a few centimeters of accumulated mud on the bottom of the bath. Still, it is good for the skin, and many visitors scoop up a bit of the cloudy liquid in their hands to make their own facial packs out of.
Hot spring culture even affects cooking in Oita, where one of the local delicacies is jigoku mushi, or “hell steaming.” Despite the scary name, this is another service at Kannawa Mushiyu, in which sweet potatoes, kabocha squash, shrimp, and other tasty items are cooked using hot spring steam.
And of course, what better way to follow up a hot spring dinner than with a hot spring dessert?
While restaurant Okamotoya serves noodles and rice bowls, it’s most famous for its jigoku purin (“hell pudding”), in which the custardy treat is cooked with hot spring steam. Covered with a slightly bitter caramel sauce, fans say it’s the perfect treat to reward yourself after a long, hard day of checking out all of the unique onsen that Beppu has to offer.