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Go to Hell (in Japan)

PHOTO: Molinscat | Dreamstime.com

Infernal geothermal activity in Japan’s hot spring capital gives visitors a close look at hell.

The boiling, hissing, and sizzling hot springs in the Japanese resort town of Beppu once terrified locals who gave the pools their demonic name, “Hells.” But now, these tempestuous springs enchant visitors from all over the country. The Jigoku Onsen Meguri, or Hot Spring Hell Tour, is a mixture of the kitschy charm of a roadside attraction with the genuine beauty of naturally-occurring geothermal phenomena. Take a break from the non-stop luxury soaking offered elsewhere in the city and visit seven of these “hells” in a day trip that Dante would envy.

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Umi Jigoku (Ocean Hell)

Situated in an expansive park, jewel-toned blue depths and a backdrop of palm trees give this spot a tropical feel more heaven than hell. The hot spring pool is deep and vivid, with sheets of steam so thick a strong breeze can momentarily obscure the view. In summer, the nearby pond is filled with lily pads so large and sturdy that they can support the weight of a toddler, a fact advertised alongside a yearly event inviting parents to test this claim with their own youngsters.

Insider Tip: Onsen tamago are the staple offering at every hot spring. You can purchase a bag of five soft-boiled eggs fresh from the 98°C water of Ocean Hell—you might notice the long bamboo pole and submerged woven basket while snapping pictures of the cobalt water.

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Oniishibozu Jigoku (Monk’s Head Hell)

Just a few minutes’ walk from Ocean Hell, odorous mud pots pop and belch at languid intervals, the grayscale mud a seemingly solid surface disturbed only by slow bubbles. These appear as if the shaven heads of monks are surfacing from the superheated depths, giving this hell its name.

Insider Tip: An onsite, human-friendly hot spring offers a chance to for visitors to bathe in indoor and outdoor pools that boast healing properties for skin and whole body ailments. Visit the website for ticket information, or pack a towel and soak your feet in the free footbath.

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Kamado Jigoku (Steam Oven Hell)

The culinary side of the underworld is celebrated at Steam Oven Hell, memorialized in a brightly-colored statue of an oversized traditional steaming pot (beset, of course, by demons.) This technique is put to use at a small snack bar that also offers red pepper ice cream. A scattering of pools, ranging from aqua blue to primeval, bubbling brown, display the widest variety of formations among the hells, complete with handy info placards regarding mineral content and temperature. For outer and inner beauty, visitors are urged to inhale steam and swig spring water.

Insider Tip: Steam-it-yourself at a hands-on kitchen, Jigokumushi Kobo, just down the road from this hell. You can bring your own or purchase meat and vegetables to steam cook in a natural vent. The portions are hearty and healthy, though you may find yourself wanting a little more than salt to flavor the potatoes.

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Oniyama Jigoku (Demon Mountain Hell)

Honestly, the spring itself falls by the wayside in favor of the crocodiles teeming in a series of enclosures that wouldn’t be amiss on a Jurassic Park backlot. Crocodiles were first brought to Beppu in the early 1900s. Thanks to the perfect steamy conditions for breeding, this hell now boasts at least three types and over 70 animals. Smaller animals are kept in separate containers from the main scrum, where scarred and sloe-eyed crocodiles of a remarkable size leisurely drift in warm water and clamber over each other at the twice-daily feeding time.

Insider Tip:
If feeling peckish after watching a crocodile rip a raw chicken in half, more fare can be found down the nearby alley, where a variety of steamed buns and local gourmet snacks can be bought from stands or small shops.

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Shiraike Jigoku (White Lake Hell)

Enclosed in the oversize garden of a building styled like a traditional Japanese house, White Lake Hell provides visitors with space to relax and contemplate its milky jade water. Intimate and subdued, the atmosphere is one of rest and contemplation. The side attractions match the overall tone; no fluorescent mascots, but instead a meandering hallway of tanks of tropical fish in muted colors. Outstanding are two Amazonian Pirarucu, whose genteel float mirrors the unhurried style of White Lake Hell.

Insider Tip: The huge red doors directly across from White Lake Hell are the entrance to the now-closed Golden Dragon Hell. The impressive steam output of this hot spring was used to grow greenhouse bananas, which could be eaten for a princely $5 USD a pop.

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Chinoike Jigoku (Blood Lake Hell)

The wide, rusty pool of Blood Lake Hell could be straight from a medieval illustration of the wages of sin, complete with sinister coils of steam. This is the largest hell, and arguably the most stunning because of the titular color, which is indeed the burnt red of drying blood. Though all the hells are excellent spots for eerie and remarkable photographs, something about the shade and stillness makes this hell a place you would not want to linger after dark.

Geyser Hell and Blood Lake Hell are about a 30-minute walk or 5-minute Kamenoi (亀の井) bus or taxi ride away from the main hell area of Kannawa. The bus is cheap, but finding the stop and the subsequent wait may be taxing after a full day of Hell touring, so starting with these hells is recommended.

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Tatsumaki Jigoku (Geyser Hell)

The geyser, a truly impressive force that, unchecked, can reach a height of about 30 meters and speaks to the power and pressure roiling below the earth’s crust, is capped off at a more modest height by a structure that could function as a mini-golf waterfall feature. The only geyser on Kyushu Island, it boasts a surface temperature of 105°C.

Insider Tip: The geyser blows once every 30–40 minutes, so we recommend checking the timing at the gate and visit Blood Hell first if time allows.