Yufu-in and Mt. Yufudake 由布院

About an hour after crossing the bridge from Shimonoseki to Kitakyushu — from Honshu Island to Kyushu — we approached Beppu, a coastal town with nearly 3,000 onsen and sento. If you are at all onsen-aware and are heading to Kyushu, you will hear about Beppu. A LOT.

But I haven’t read much about the smell of Beppu — which comes at you hard as you crest the range of small hills to the north of town. You’ll see pipes belching steam, and the powerful smell of sulpher and eggs will have you rolling up your car windows fast!

But our first destination on Kyushu wasn’t Beppu. Instead, we were aiming for a campground about 30 minutes west of town.

True, the VOXY was our wheels-kitchen-tent-and-campground all rolled into one, so we didn’t really NEED to stay in a physical campground. The impulse to “check out a campground in Japan” was nothing more than an experiment, a curiosity.

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Shidakako Campground, as it turned out, was sort of a dud. Not bad. Not painful. The bathrooms were acceptably clean. Ditto the long trough provided for washing dishes. And there was a peaceful and pastoral vibe, with a small lake on one end of the campground and distant views of Yufu-dake. But the experience was a bit anti-climactic, with campers that leaned toward the reclusive — quietly tending small campfires or holed up in their mini-RVs.

Still, we were out under the stars, and as the evening turned to night, with nothing but quiet coming from our fellow campers, we also turned in early and got one of the best nights of sleep ever.

Ultimately, the whim proved informative. We survived our first campground in Japan! And we had fun cooking and eating food outside — using a tarp as our picnic table and our plastic containers as chairs.

We set off the next morning and arrived at the trailhead to Yufu-dake around 11. After the usual chit chat with some fellow hikers, we headed toward what looked like a smooth and gradual hike.

The early part of the trail puts you on a gradual and straight walk through dark dirt and grasses. Then it zig-zags and starts to climb through an eerie and primeval forest, through increasingly drier and drier terrain. The closer to the twin peaks of Yufudake you get, the more exposed and open the trail becomes.

Pretty soon even the brown grasses wane and you are left hiking among volcanic rock. Interesting to note that the trail was just recently reopened, after some volcanic activity closed the trail for a few years (which actually “rearranged” the upper peak of Higashi-mine, the eastern-most summit of the twin-peaked volcano).

You might read some harrowing accounts of climbing Yufu-dake, but really, all you need is time and a modicum of will to do this hike. It’s hardly a challenging peak. But it is exceptionally beautiful — especially the views toward Yufuin City as you get closer and closer to the summit.

Our travels in Kyushu were cut short by a quick return to Osaka, but before we turned around and followed our tracks north, we spent an amazing hour or so in one of Yufuin’s public onsen, Shimonda. This onsen, in a thatch-roofed hut, was out by the town’s lake. A small metal box in front was the extent of the ceremony surrounding this public onsen (the box was where you left your 200 yen…just two bucks to soak in piping hot onsen water!).

The tiny bath was a mixed onsen, meaning men and women bathed there. While Meg and I swooned over the hot water, congratulating ourselves for making the 15-minute drive from town, two local men arrived to wash up and soak. The first was a smiling, laughing, gregarious type who filled us in on the customs of the small bathhouse. His big, toothless smile a reminder of how so much of modern life in Japan mimics the old. The second was a less wordy sort who did his washing and soaking in record time.

The onsen was simple (just two soaking pools), clean and we could tell, much loved by the locals. Interestingly, a sister onsen was located across the street from this one, but by the signage and on the advice offered by said toothless guy who saw me eying the front door, said it was off limits to tourists — exclusively for the use by locals, the sign read.

What a place, Kyushu. Although we were there for just a single day (oh, maybe 36 hours), we definitely want to go back. More time in Yufuin and a few days, at least, in smelly old Beppu.

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