Wel­come to HELL WEL­COME TO PAR­ADISE

DINE and Destinations - - JAPAN - By Adam Wax­man

Im­mers­ing in hot springs that bub­ble up from the depths, across Ja­pan’s vol­canic archipeligo.

Iam on a tour of hell in the city of Beppu, Oita, on the beau­ti­ful south­ern is­land of Kyushu, Ja­pan. Serene and invit­ing, the cobalt blue wa­ter of Ume Jigoku—lit­er­ally, sea hell—emerged dur­ing a vol­canic ex­plo­sion a mil­len­nium ago. Its bil­low­ing bursts of steam from 200 me­tres deep are blis­ter­ing. I con­tinue past my sec­ond hell, Oni­ishi­bozu Jigoku, where boil­ing mud slowly bub­bles up to ap­pear like a monk’s shaven head; and Shi­raike Jigoku, named for its pip­ing-hot milky wa­ter. At the murky Ka­mado Jigoku, a de­mon statue over­sees boil­ing ponds. Drink­ing the fil­tered wa­ter here is like sip­ping hot tea from a Sprite can. While hand and foot baths are tempt­ing, the al­lure of Oniyama Jigoku, Mon­ster Moun­tain Hell, beck­ons. This lugubri­ous pond is kept watch by croc­o­diles writhing and slith­er­ing as they snap their jaws for food. The in­tense force of its steam can pull one and a half train cars. At Chi­noike Jigoku, the Blood Hell, hot wa­ter from deep within the earth melts clay and seethes a bloody red. Its mer­cu­rial glow is hyp­notic.

Heal­ing pow­ers are dis­charged as ther­mal wa­ters well up across Ja­pan’s vol­canic is­land arc. Beppu is like a fur­nace of 2,900 steam­ing spouts vent­ing 130,000 tons of wa­ter each day. While the hells are too hot to touch, im­mers­ing in hot springs is a Ja­panese way of life— their min­eral com­po­si­tions are ther­a­peu­tic.

Ly­ing in warm dark sand by the seashore, I’m ap­proached by two el­derly women in uni­form car­ry­ing shov­els they’ll use to bury me. Packed in ther­mal heat, the sand bath at Kai­hin Su­nayu is pur­ported to af­fect mus­cle aches, cuts and burns, and re­lieve tired­ness. I feel a to­tal vi­brancy through­out my body. A small yel­low um­brella is planted to cover my head from the sun as I bake. Hoyo Land is a multi-level mud bath in which I wade into thick warm mud while wear­ing only a teensy cloth to cover my­self. It’s a lit­tle dis­con­cert­ing at first, but the re­sult? My skin is so soft! Pa­trons come here for healthy skin, and to ease rheuma­tism, her­nias and di­a­betes. My last hot spring of the day be­fore I com­pletely turn to mush is the Kannnawa Mushi-yu aroma bath. Crawl­ing through a one-square-me­tre wooden door, I en­ter a small hot stone room, lie on a bed of herbs heated by ther­mal steam, and in­hale. More pow­er­ful than a sauna, it’s the ul­ti­mate re­lax­ation for nerves, mus­cles and stiff­ness.

Lo­cals read the news­pa­per while en­joy­ing out­door neigh­bour­hood foot baths. Scold­ing hot steam is also used for cook­ing at hell’s kitchen, Jigoku Mushi Kobo, where I’m handed a bas­ket of three colan­ders to lower into a pit of sul­fu­ric steam. The first con­tains eggs that I soon re­move to find the soft­est, most glo­ri­ous fiery or­ange yolk I’ve ever tasted. The sec­ond con­tains veg­eta­bles, like pump­kin, that cook to divine tex­ture and sweet­ness. The third is a seafood med­ley of shrimp, scal­lops, squid and oys­ters that are steamed to their op­ti­mum in­tegrity and flavour. It’s the sul­fu­ric steam that elic­its soft­ness and sweet­ness. Temp­ta­tions abound as Oita’s spe­cial­ties in­clude de­lec­ta­ble blow­fish, the largest cul­ti­va­tion of shi­take mush­rooms, and the an­cient vil­lage of Kit­suki (where one can dress as a sa­mu­rai for a day), but my jour­ney con­tin­ues north. In the Ja­pan Alps of Nagano lies an­other hell, Jigoku­dani. Mon­keys rule this hell—snow Mon­keys. De­scend­ing from moun­tain tree­tops, these mon­keys—the only kind of the species that live this far north—plunge into the steam­ing hot springs be­low. Much to the cha­grin of the lo­cals, they have staked their claim.

Walk­ing through the for­est, the crisp moun­tain air is rein­vig­o­rat­ing. Be­fore long, I spot one mon­key perched on a stone, then two in an em­brace. As I reach nearer, mon­keys are frol­ick­ing all around me. They are to­tally pre­oc­cu­pied with them­selves, and prob­a­bly the most re­laxed mon­keys I’ve ever seen. It’s their own spa, and they pam­per and groom each other while laz­ing the day away. It doesn’t take a mon­key to fig­ure out that when it’s cold out­side, you hop into a warm bath.

Float­ing lanterns are lit as the sun goes down. Sip­ping green tea on the deck of my villa over­look­ing the wa­ter, I breathe in the si­lence. Karuizawa is a moun­tain re­sort town where the Im­pe­rial fam­ily va­ca­tions, and Toky­oites es­cape their swel­ter­ing sum­mers. The premier re­sort is Hoshi­noya, a ryokan built into the moun­tain land­scape. Here, lux­ury is not de­fined by op­u­lence, but by re­fined aus­ter­ity. The aim is to em­brace sim­plic­ity, and to fo­cus on re­lax­ing the body, the breath and the mind with­out clut­ter.

Omote­nashi is Ja­panese hos­pi­tal­ity that an­tic­i­pates the needs of a guest and then pro­vides for them. At Hoshi­noya, like an episode of Fan­tasy Is­land, my hosts have an­tic­i­pated that I need to be re­minded to breathe, to un­wind and cen­tre. An early morn­ing break­fast of tofu soup made with wa­ter from lo­cal hot springs, chicken, mush­rooms and soba is warm, whole­some good­ness. I set out on a bird-watch­ing for­est walk and am shown the mi­gra­tory paths of bears and frogs. Reach­ing a tea­house, I am guided through re­lax­ation ex­er­cises.

The spa is renowned for jade and vol­canic stone treat­ments, ther­mal mud masks, saké body wraps, acupunc­ture, and deep-tis­sue mes­sages. Fol­low­ing a con­sul­ta­tion, I am treated to a lux­u­ri­ous mas­sage with a cus­tom­ized blend of es­sen­tial oils. Kneaded into a cozy slum­ber, I could com­fort­ably lay here the rest of the day.

Lanterns hang­ing from trees light the way to din­ner at Ble­ston Court Yukawatan where I’m greeted with cham­pagne. From sim­plic­ity comes bril­liance. Bo­cuse d’or medal win­ner, chef Noriyuki Hamada, is about to amaze me with his culi­nary wiz­ardry. An amuse bouche of in­tri­cate morsels is like dec­o­ra­tive parcels of jew­ellery bal­anced on a row of mar­ble plan­ets. Beet con­sommé within a jelly­bean sprin­kled with gold, a sphere of pork in wasabi cro­quette, a choco­late truf­fle of del­i­cate chicken liver, and more! I marvel at Hamada’s fi­nesse. River carp tar­tar with cit­ric yuzu in del­i­cate daikon ravi­oli, and suc­cu­lent Shin­shu beef with moun­tain veg­eta­bles in an emer­ald chrysan­the­mum con­sommé, dis­plays the qual­ity of the lo­cal bounty and Hamada’s artis­tic deft­ness. Dessert is a play­ful and im­pec­ca­ble pal­ette of colour pre­sented as an art­ful col­lec­tion of flavour tro­phies on a pedestal.

It seems that ev­ery star in the uni­verse is out tonight as I fol­low a lit path through the woods to­ward the Med­i­ta­tion Bath—a hot spa with chutzpa. Here, I am told, I must unite with the dark­ness and face my­self. Step­ping into the bath be­neath a wa­ter­fall gush­ing from the wall in front of me, I glide into a large, bright white, ster­ile-look­ing, high-ceilinged room. I sit alone in si­lence and ac­cli­ma­tize to the heat, all the while fix­at­ing on a black cor­ri­dor in the cor­ner. A deep breath, and I wade to­ward it, and slowly through it. Im­mersed in wa­ter I fol­low into the dark­ness as the pas­sage turns into a pitch-black room. My med­i­ta­tion is solely on my fear—and ev­ery hor­ror movie I’ve ever seen. Per­haps this spa con­cept has been lost on me, as I court ev­ery one of my ir­ra­tional thoughts. Then I no­tice the sim­ple and sweet aes­thetic of Ja­panese shamisen gui­tar and am­bi­ent spa mu­sic, and be­gin to lis­ten and fo­cus on it. As my eyes ad­just, I grad­u­ally be­gin to breathe easy, and re­al­ize my at­ten­tion has shifted from de­pend­ing on the light to trust­ing the dark. Stretch­ing out I float into a won­der­fully lib­er­at­ing calm­ness.

Wis­dom comes from ex­pe­ri­ence. I’ve been to hell and back, and loved ev­ery minute of it.

“The path to par­adise be­gins in hell” —Dante Alighieri

“And then she turned her gaze up to­ward the heav­ens” —Dante Alighieri Clock­wise from top: Float­ing lat­erns in front of pri­vate vil­las at the premier re­sort of Adam dressed as a sa­mu­rai in for­mal dress; Moun­tain trail in Oita where Bud­dhas are carved into the moutain­side. Op­po­site page from top: The Blood Hell in Chin­ioke; Jigoku Snow Mon­key in Jigoku­dani.

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