Beppu - The Story of Two

"How modern life in Japan has found harmonious ways of dancing with traditions."

One of the main aspects that resound most clearly to be about Japan is how it is full of so many wonderful and intriguing contradictions. It is a place that holds its history in high esteem, with practices and ideas still interwoven today as they were hundreds of years ago. Japan is a nurturer, a mother, with important principles of preservation. Inversely, Japan is a warrior, with an immense need for efficiency and utilities that can carry them far through the global market through remarkable advancements in technology. Japan has mastered the art of utilizing these two concepts to work together in creating some of the most technologically efficient forms of preservation in the world. Like fuel efficient cars, efficient recycling systems, the Shinkansen bullet train, and light switches that are interlinked with the insertion of your hotel key to preserve electricity, just to mention a few.

It was July 9, 2007 and we had arrived in the city of Beppu, which is located in Oita Prefecture on the southwestern island of Kyushu Japan. Our main objective in visiting Beppu was because of its thousands of sacred natural hot springs (referred to as onsen in Japanese). Beppu possesses the largest number of onsen in all of Japan. Because Beppu's natural hot springs are sacred and are traditionally experienced in the nude, I was unable to participate. It is not acceptable to get into a traditional hot springs with tattoos. I was a little disappointed, but it was an experience worth missing, in honor of Japanese culture. After all, that is the true meaning in respecting a foreign culture.

Instead, a friend and I decided to go on a walk that evening and explore the city of Beppu. The particular area we stayed at was fairly developed, a stark contrast to many of the other places we stayed at. Here we were in the heart of it all. Not surrounded by one shopping center after the next, we were in a functional, working city filled with the normal everyday services: gas stations, repair shops, and other similar businesses suitable for sustaining the local population.

Our intentions that night were to escape the steam and humidity around the hotel and venture to the beach. Our lapse in directional judgment took us down an entirely different path though; someplace even better I think.

We escaped the rush of the busy highway, stepping off the noisy, neon sidewalk, and took a right down a narrow pathway that lead through a low-ceiling tunnel. It reminded me of something you would see in a city in Europe, where two romantic lovers would be found, wooing each other there, camera ready, for that perfect black and white photograph.

We started our way up the mountain, pants already soaked. After all, it was the rainy season in Japan. The street was paved and narrow. We'd later discover that it continues to wind up and around the mountainside, speckled with small residences on either side, along the way. The neighborhood was silent. Silent that is, until we came upon the beautiful piano strings of what was reminiscently sounding of Mozart, or renditions re-mastered by Mitsuko Uchida, a renowned interpreter of classical composers, born in Atami, Japan. Who sat at the piano bench that night, on stage for the mountainside neighborhood to hear? A studious young student, applying the Suzuki method, practicing hard, late into the evening? Or perhaps a middle-aged mother, unwinding in front of the ivory keys after a long day, reliving childhood memory through melody. Standing there listening, it was one of the most memorable moments I had in all my experiences in Japan. Knowing that I would not have been fortunate enough to hear such a beautiful sound if I hadn't ventured up that mountain. I knew that I could witness a piano being played anywhere, but there was something really special about getting to hear it in a small and otherwise quiet neighborhood, streaming from the intimacy of someone's own home. There were steps there that led up to a small and neatly kept pond, and private garden, but further through was a small sanctuary and here I learned that almost anything that has unobstructed steps leading up to it, is often welcoming of the public. We listened for a short time more, where we then carried on, further through the neighbor, and further up the mountain.

Our next stop was at a railing that looked down upon a courtyard, a laundry line full of clothes, and a small humble building we discovered was a Catholic boarding school. A private place, where either children lived and learned about Jesus, or merely where they had their daily studies. The Japanese majority is Buddhist.

Further up the mountain we trekked, coming across a wooden pagoda—its majestic silhouette in sharp contrast to the neon and concrete below, and a crumbling stone staircase leading up a steep, wooded incline as it disappeared into the darkness. Marking the entrance to a Shinto shrine somewhere in the blackness above, a tall red torii gate with fading paint and dying wood still stood proudly over the first step. We considered going up, but concluded that because there were no signs of welcome or lights of warmth, that it wasn't a place for us this time. Japan doesn't need signs warning people to 'keep out' or not to trespass like in other places. Japan has many invisible rules, most of which are based on the law of respect and common sense. I think anyone with a lack of self-control, ultimately does not belong in a place like Japan.

Across the narrow pathway, stretching back down the mountainside was a strange wooden chute-like contraption that appeared to be for managing some sort of disposal or collection of material that might accumulate where vehicles became inconvenient. We discussed the possibility that it might be something similar to a gutter that we were used to seeing in the states and that maybe it was used for rainwater collection, though we also considered its use for trash or dirt disposal. A forfeited yen coin echoed back that the chute at least emptied onto the pavement, far below.

At this point, we'd been gone for a couple hours and we decided to make our way back down the mountain. Even on the journey back, we discovered things that had not been noticed on the way up. We came to a place where the thick tree line gave way to the most beautiful view overlooking the lit up, hustling and bustling Beppu. We were silent for several moments as our gaze followed the path of a train progressing from an open field, then through the city, and carrying on. One thing I really love about many cities in Japan is that you can have the best of both worlds. You can have the loud and busy city life, and relinquish it to nature--just a stones throw away. You can live a modern life, utilizing some of the most advanced and efficient technology in the world, or you can stumble upon an old "jinjya" (shrine) hidden and lost along a winding path. Japan lives in the present, but it takes great pride in incorporating its past right along its side.

As we continued our way down, we came across one last hidden treasure. More stone steps, slippery from recent rain, were partially grown over in some areas with grass and moss, as they led up to a tiny shrine that showed evidence that it still was being paid tribute. To the side rested a massive rock, hollowed out and filled with different sized statues where offerings of herbs, spent candles, and stained teacups lay. We discussed the possibility of it being a shrine for deceased children, but the absence of these statues dressed in red attire made it unlikely. I later learned that dressing statues was a way of personifying them; giving them the impression of having feelings.

On our way home, we reflected on our special journey and the discoveries we had made along the way. How Japan has this majestic prominence that demands respect and honor in the kindest and most apologetic way. One final stop before reaching the hotel--the brightly lit, refrigerated, and prepackaged convenience of a 7/11, where we bought sour gummies and canned coffee. After everything prior, it was the perfect modern Japanese ending to a traditional Japanese night.


Dagbert said…
I've got another round of gummies waiting for when you get back.

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