The Dirty Old Town of Beppu: Japan’s Heteropia

Beppu, the chimney of Japan’s Southern Island Kyushu, is a famous onsen town with a lot of personality. There was something special about this seedy, soggy town that tripped me up and gave my head a wobble.

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Walking around the town all I could think of was a specific scene from Ghibli’s Spirited Away that caught my attention the very first time I watched it. The point I’m talking in about is very small, and not central to the overall plot, where Chihiro is trying to find the Boiler Man. She finds herself around the side of the bathhouse, away from the bright lights of the entrance, sneaking unnoticed past a cook who opens the window to exhale a long drag of his cig.

It’s this image of the chef (who in the film is like a fish/guy… thing) leaning out of the window, facing away from the clammy chaos of a busy kitchen, that really stuck with me. Anyone who’s worked with food, or even tried to cook a Sunday Dinner in summer, will probably know the feeling.

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Image from ladygeekgirl

I could feel everything so vividly. First, the cold fresh air of the outside hits your face, the heat of the cigarette coils around at the back of you throat while you settle into that moment of calm, your eyes looking out at nothing in particular. All while the clattering of the kitchen fades into a muffled blur.

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From the bright lights of the conbini, apartment blocks and escort towers to the dark and dingy alleyways, everywhere I walked I kept remembering this scene.

One of my friends told me, before I visited, that Beppu was completely different to other places in Japan, and in a sense it didn’t feel very ‘Japanese’.  I have to say I agree about that one-of-a-kind vibe, Beppu definitely wasn’t like anywhere else I’ve been so far. I have to say though, I disagree with the latter point.

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True, the town didn’t have that servicing charm of Beppu’s bigger city cousins, like Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka, the absolute cleanliness and strict order about it. Then again, that’s what made it special. It felt genuine to me, nothing was concealed or hidden, which makes sense in a town famous for public bathing.

Trying to debate the word I could use to describe Beppu was difficult, but in trying I found a common theme… first there was wet, then steamy and then finally- saturated.

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Beppu is a watery town, ‘125,000 liter[s] of hot spring water daily’ to be exact! This is made even more apparent by the hot spring steam rising out of the gutters in the street, and the steam drifting upwards from the town’s many onsens, giving that famous landscape view. With steamy, you also tie in the sexual connotations, the escort services and snack bars lining the main street, and peppered around the back alleys of the town. Safe to say sex isn’t a secret here.

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I’ve found this more common in the bigger cities where sex is on billboards, posters in business hotels and leaflets handed out on your wander for a restaurant. But for a rural onsen town… not what I expected. While I’m up and down about the morality and general vibe from these kinds of places, you’ve gotta admire the brass.

Then comes the saturation, the town itself is saturated, everything is in explicit excess, from the escort bars, to the sheer number of onsens even to the personality; the town was dripping with it.

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Being in Beppu had me walking around with this constant fiery buzz of inspiration. I was seeing metaphors everywhere and had a burning desire to write everything down. After getting home, back to my quiet little mountain, I had some time to think it over. When I did, I started to think of Beppu as a heterotopia.

It was ‘real place’ yet also ‘something like [a] counter-site, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, […] found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality’.

This raffish cousin isn’t as… sterile as the big cities. It’s rough around the edges from restaurants spiking veggie food with chicken to a strange stalker in the park.  Yet, even with these things happening I’m still in Beppu’s corner, arguing that it has a lot to offer anyone. At base level, it’s a must-visit for anyone looking for a good onsen, but there’s so much more to gain. After making a big decision I decided to visit to relax and clear my head and instead ended up with my mind whizzing, in a good way.

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I’ve linked Foucault’s article to Heterotopias; it’s one of my favourite essays and really changed how I view the impact and meaning of different spaces. I’d love to hear your thoughts, about this article, Foucault’s or anything in between or related! Also have a quick read of Charles Landy’s post about city personalities! Get those cogs turning!

Jess x

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