Welcome to Hell: Relaxing in Oita’s heavenly ‘Hell Ponds’

June 27th, 2019

The Hell Ponds (Jigoku Meguri) of Oita Prefecture in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu make for the kind of place that genuinely looks and sounds like hell at first. And with the vision of ponds filled with large crocodiles and piranha fish swimming about, who could blame them? Fortunately, there's more to these “Hells” than meets the eye at first blush. Aptly named the “Onsen (hot spring) Capital of Japan,” Beppu City in Oita is home to this natural phenomenon that’s become a favorite among travelers from around the world. Despite their hellish names, the ponds are surrounded by dreamy Japanese gardens featuring tropical flowers, like lotus and giant Victoria amazonica lilies. It is a scene straight out of paradise, save for the fiery-looking, bright red “oni” (demon) statue towering above visitors at the entrance. There are seven of these natural ponds bubbling and emitting sulfurous fumes around Beppu, but a few of them are especially unique. Chi no Ike is a hot water pool with stark, crimson red color, hence the name “Blood Pond Hell.” Its name and red likeness come from both the high temperature and the presence of iron oxide and magnesium in the pond waters. Oniishi Bouzu, also known as “Mud Hell,” spurts gray thermal mud bubbles that resemble the clean-shaven head of a monk, with temperatures reaching 99 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, Umi Jigoku, or the “Sea Hell,” is a hot spring featuring soothing cobalt blue waters due to its high iron sulfate content. Finally, the Tatsumaki Jigoku (“Spout Hell”) is known to give visitors a show, as the boiling geyser erupts every 30-40 minutes — and has likely done so for millions of years. Despite their storied history in Japan, no one knows exactly how these geothermal wonders were formed. The Sea Hell, for example, is believed to have been created by the explosion of Mount Tsurumi some 1,200 years ago. Due to the acidic environment and high temperatures, visitors are not allowed to bathe in these ponds. This doesn’t stop many Japanese, however, from making use of the fiery waters for a completely different treat: steam-boiled eggs and pudding cooked at the edge of the ponds. Japan has some of the most renowned hot springs in the world. To soak like a local Japanese in one of the more than 2,500 onsens dotting the volcanic landscape of Oita, start by stopping by Myoban Yu (“Yu” means hot water in Japanese). This celadon-colored outdoor hot spring is located just a stone’s throw away from the view-only Hell Ponds. It is also attached to a 145-year-old traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) called Okamotoya, so an overnight stay is possible. Oita is blessed with many other natural curiosities besides bubbling ponds of hell. If being buried up to your neck in warm, volcanic sand as you take in the beauty of the Pacific Ocean is your thing, “sand bathing” in Beppu Beach is an indulgence enjoyed even among Japanese tourists. The pressure from the sand shoveled onto you by a friendly staff member is believed to improve blood circulation, resulting in a detoxifying effect. The prefecture is also famous for its 1,400-year-old Usuki Stone Buddhas, carved directly into exposed rock off the cliffs. Locals at Kitsuki Castle town overlooking the Seto Inland Sea will tell you where to find the best views of the azalea-covered hills, madake bamboo forest and Mount Yufu — Oita’s answer to Tokyo’s Mount Fuji. Hiking this 1,584-meter mountain and the lush green plains at its foot is an experience all its own, and even has — you guessed it — a natural onsen for you to soak in while gazing at its twin peaks. Also within reach by an hour’s drive from Beppu is a town called Hita, where every year in July, the townspeople celebrate the Hita Gion Festival — a 300-year tradition and UNESCO-designated national treasure. Toward the evening, elaborate floats take over the streets of Hita, as people chant to ward off evil spirits. This year, Hita Gion takes place July 27-28, but visitors are able to take the evening river cruise in a “yakatabune” houseboat at any time during summer. If you come to Oita in the autumn, there’s the added bonus of seeing the world’s best rugby players beat the “hell” out of each other. The city will also soon share hosting duties for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with the first matchup scheduled for Oct. 2 between New Zealand and Canada at Oita Sports Park, followed by another two elimination round matches on Oct. 5 and 9, and two quarterfinals on Oct 19-20. Interested in taking a tour of Hell? Here’s how to get there: Beppu is a two-hour train ride from Fukuoka's Hakata station on the limited express. A special ticket gives access to all seven hells. For more information about the Hell Ponds of Beppu and more, please visit https://www.pref.oita.jp/soshiki/1040.... For more information on Oita Prefecture, please visit www.discover-oita.com. #Japan #Oita #hellponds