Local Japan: At Home in Japan’s Onsen Town Beppu
Busy roads, noisy streets. Dust, honks and people – lots of people. That’s India.
Now replace that with a small town in Japan known for a small population consisting of retired Nihon jins and international students. That’s Beppu, Oita.
I have completed a revolution and a half around the sun while living in this city and it has been one of the most culturally shocking experiences of my life.
I was not used to taking precisely scheduled buses every day. 7:27am to be exact. I was also not used to segregating waste into five or more categories. Might I add, toilets in India do NOT have fancy buttons.
I entered the beautiful city of Beppu in the Spring of 2016. I was welcomed by the gorgeous ‘Sakuras’ or cherry blossoms and with time, things only got better. My life as a student of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University completely changed the way I view the world. The university is located on top of a mountain, but that’s not the only view I’m talking about. You see, I have classmates from over 80 countries who just like me, experienced Japan for the very first time in their lives. Every single year, the residents of Beppu welcome international students with open arms and emerge them into their rich culture and tradition.
Beppu is known as the city of ‘Onsens’ or ‘Hot Springs’. You can find warm vapours of steam emerging from beneath – almost everywhere! It’s breathtaking and beautiful. Some places are ideal for viewing purposes only, due to the extremely hot temperature of the water. They are called geothermal hotspots or ‘the 8 hells of Beppu’. While others are relaxing public bath locations attracting tourists on a daily basis. Sand baths are particularly popular at resorts located near the beach. Beppu is about 200 kilometres away from Fukuoka so it is also a common vacation destination for frequent travellers. Aquariums, pachinkos, African safary and theme parks are also go-to locations for tourists. My experience at the aquarium especially, was an unforgettable one. I was enthralled to see the dolphins and watch the marine show.
The idea of a ‘public bath’ or ‘Ofuro’ could be horrifying to most Indians. Especially if they’ve grown up in a conservative environment where even changing in front of people is avoided. For other foreigners, the only thing that could stop them from experiencing an Onsen is insecurity…Be it their body weight, shape or stretch marks. However, Onsens and Ofuros in Beppu are extremely global- friendly. What I mean is, most signs are in both English and Japanese – and the staff is also very comforting. Hot spring baths have health benefits too, such as weight loss, stress reduction and optimizing body temperature.
Despite all this, I decided to go to a wild onsen instead. Which means, I didn’t have to take off all my clothes. ‘Wild Onsens’ are actually located in forest-like areas and are hence, not run by anyone. They are open at all times and most excitingly – they are 100% natural. My first experience was phenomenal. Me and my friends could see the stars above as we enjoyed the silence of the forest along with the thermal waters that encapsulated us. It is recommended that you visit wild onsens with a group of people for safety reasons. As university students, it was a perfect escape from the daily stress of books and assignments.
Speaking of university, I mentioned that I get to travel up a mountain every day right? Indeed, I have witnessed the most spectacular sceneries during my daily commute. Clouds in exemplary fashion and hills in perfect sway. Rushed trees and youthful winds. Another thing I absolutely love about Beppu is the weather. This is debatable because there are many foreign students who have told me that they are not very fond of it. Me, on the other hand, feel truly astonished to see the seasons change so gracefully. The sakura filled trees of spring are replaced by copper red leaves in fall. The rain turns to snow in winter. It is magical.
This experience amidst nature inspired me to start the ‘Sunrise Challenge’ on social media. I decided to never miss a sunrise for an year. I began counting the days that I am able to get up early and watch the sunrise by the beach.
Beppu is a town that not only made me grateful for Mother Earth’s beauty but also motivated me to wake up early everyday and be productive. Productivity is something that really stood out to me about Japan. Whenever I needed to get something done – at the bank, city hall or post office – I could count on the fact that no matter what, I will be able to get my work done in the fastest and most efficient way. In India, I was accustomed to frequent visits to complete official work. However, in Beppu, I hardly ever have to worry about any incomplete procedures. Despite being bad at Japanese in my first year, there was always an English speaking assistant hired specifically for APU students in Beppu. What a relief! I could call right now and book a ferry to Osaka or a highway bus to Fukuoka – speaking only in English. This is not common in other places in Japan where it is close to impossible to survive without being able to speak the language.
To top it all, the Mayor of Oita recently stated that he would like to make Oita the ‘silicon valley’ of Japan. There have been an increase in the number of startups in the region and opportunities for students are also at its peak. Pitch events, networking events and intensive workshops or seminars are common here at Beppu. There are also tons of festivals every month. Performers from all over Japan travel to Beppu to showcase their talents. Often, there are stalls or two filled with handicrafts as well. ‘Hanabi’ or Fireworks take the spotlight mainly twice a year – for new year’s and for the spring festival.
At Beppu, pollution is not a concern and nor is language. The only concern is, food for vegetarians. I have been a pure vegetarian all my life and a vegan since 2015. After coming to Beppu, the only thing I have struggled with most – is food without meat or eggs or fish or meat extract. (You get the picture!) Even at my university, where foreigners constitute 51% of all students – there are very limited options. Most places are Muslim friendly though, with halal food available on every street. Fruits and vegetables being expensive, and the demand for vegetarian food almost negligible – it has been a challenge to survive. I found organic sales once a month in Oita where I have found a haven of fresh harvests. Additionally, I order most of my grocery online. I have also gotten into the habit of cooking all my meals. As a student, it is not the most time saving option but one that I have gotten used to – with time. As you can guess, I am not very good at eating with chop sticks even after an year and a half of living in this country. For non vegetarians, the choices of food are varied and mouth watering. From sushi to karaage. From Korean food to Chinese. I have seen my friends try it all. My favourite kind of restaurants have been the ‘homely’ restaurants usually owned by a couple. They are very personalized and cosy. The restaurant is usually small and is not open for 24 hours like popular chains such as ‘Joyful’. However, these places are an amazing place to interact with locals and build a close relationship with the owners as well. They almost become like family even if it is a first visit. One of the couples that owned a private restaurant in Oita (Closest posh city from Beppu) still sends me postcards on special occasions. Another couple once took me shopping for a Yukata.
I have grown to like the country and especially, its people. I have never before met classmates that give origami ‘swans’ to bus drivers. Or teachers that remember my name after the first class. Or bank assistants that give away chocolates. Or retired elders who randomly start a conversation at a park. Restaurant owners that send me postcards. Strangers that return a wallet full of money – untouched. I hope to improve my Japanese to be able to meet even more such interesting people during this phase of my life in Beppu. As I learn more about the culture, systems and norms here, I am inspired to take back the good habits to India and begin implementing it there as well. My experiences in Beppu have made me cherish life a lot more. I am blessed to have a fulfilling student life in a time and age where everything moves so fast. Beppu has changed me and I hope to contribute in some way, too.
Written by Shivangi Dharne