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Bringing back the Tourists

Aki Shibuya

Oct. 13, 2016

Six months ago, a series of massive earthquakes struck the island of Kyushu in southwestern Japan. The city of Beppu, a travel destination famous for its hot springs, was affected but tourists have since returned.

It was the first time since records have been kept that an earthquake with an intensity of close to 6 on the Japanese scale of 0 to 7 had shaken Oita prefecture.

Tourism is big business in the area and the tremor, as well as rumors after the quake, saw the number of visitors plunge. Now their numbers are at about the same level as a usual year.

With more than 2,200 sources, Beppu has the highest concentration of hot springs in Japan. It's not surprising that it's one of the most popular hot spring destinations in the country.

For the residents of Beppu, life has long been closely connected to the hot springs. Some of the water is more than 90 degrees Celsius -- perfect for preparing dinner.

"This is our way of life," says one local resident, "to boil food using the hot spring water."

There are more than 100 public baths in the city, and at a cost of only about 1 dollar per person, getting in isn't expensive. Locals like to gather in such facilities to relax and enjoy a long, hot soak.

An estimated 8 million tourists visit Beppu every year in search of a premium hot spring experience.

Many hotels have a traditional Japanese ambiance and style. At some you can soak in an open-air bath while enjoying a sweeping view of the city. It's easy to understand why these inns are a favorite with foreigners.

"Foreigners come to our inn because they want to experience authentic Japanese atmosphere,” says Yuriko Nakao, the proprietress of Sansuikan.

One facility makes hot spring mineral bath salts, also known as “yunohana,” that are popular with beauty-conscious Asian tourists.

Yunohana bath salts, made from the minerals in the hot springs, can be added to bathwater. The bath salts are made from crystals that form when steam from the ground reaches the blue clay that covers the inside of a hut. It's a method that has been handed down over the past 300 years.

Yunohana bath salts are known to be highly moisturizing, and are used in a variety of products, including skin care creams.

"In Korea, a lot of people are very interested in beauty products, so anything related to skin care and health is popular," says Kuniaki Mieno of Myoban Yunosato.

One of the most popular spots is the jigoku-meguri, or “tour of hell,” which includes umi-jigoku, or "sea hell," so named because of its cobalt-blue water that looks like the sea. The tour follows a course around 7 different ponds.

The color of the ponds is different in each pool because of the contents of the gas and the water gushing up from beneath the ground. The name “hell” comes from the volcanic openings, which visitors are not allowed to go near.

"I love a color," says one American tourist there. "This is an amazing place."

At umi-jigoku, images of an oni, a Japanese demon, were being projected onto the rising steam, creating a wild image.

The city of Beppu has long attracted visitors who come to rest and recuperate in the hot spring waters. Whether they're Japanese or foreigners, people will continue to be lured by the city's natural charms.

At another facility, you can experience something that's unique to hot spring areas. The clouds of steam come from a spring owned by a local restaurant.

Steam from the boiling water is collected by a device and the steam is used in many aspects of daily life in the city.

For example, it's used to heat homes and cook food. At this restaurant, customers can enjoy the taste of jigoku mushi cooking or "hell steaming" themselves.

You first put the food that you want to cook into a woven metal net, which you then lower into a kiln and voila, that's it. The time it takes to cook the food varies depending on what's being cooked. For some types of food, it's only a matter of seconds.

While waiting, you can enjoy another spa-related experience. Underneath the table, there's a pool of hot onsen water where you can soak your feet. Steam is used for cooking and the water to sooth one's feet. Weary tourists can rest their feet while eating a meal.


Reaching out to Foreigners
Haruka Nouchi

There were thousands of foreigners in around Beppu when the tremor hit. For many, their biggest complaint afterwards was getting information, so people have begun looking at safety measures for foreigners in the event of another disaster.

When the earthquake struck, many foreign tourists and students studying in Beppu took refuge in shelters. There are about 3,000 foreigners enrolled at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, or APU. For most of them, it was the first time they had ever experienced such a powerful quake.

"That was my first experience. So it was very scary," says one student from Indonesia.

After the earthquake, APU surveyed all of its students, both Japanese and foreigners. It asked them how they felt and what they did when the quake struck. About 1,000 students responded.

The results show that Japanese students had little problem getting information from the internet, television or social networking sites. But it was a different story for the foreign students. Almost 80 percent of them answered that the internet was "of use" but only about 45 percent felt that television was of use.

"When foreign students hear the Japanese language spoken on TV, they may not understand the content," says Akiko Honda, an associate professor at the university.

The survey revealed that many foreign students were unable to understand why they were being instructed to take shelter inside a building during an earthquake. They were also confused about the "shelter" system which Japanese people rely on.

"We didn't have anything. We didn't drink because we didn't know where we can find any food stuff," says one student from Nepal.

APU officials want to have the results of the survey reflected in the way they teach the Japanese language.

"Instead of just teaching the language, we'd like to include the kind of content that will allow foreign students to understand Japanese society and culture," Honda says.

Since the earthquake, there have also been efforts to review how assistance is provided to foreign tourists in times of disaster. Officials at the South Korean Consulate General in the city of Fukuoka say they received up to several hundred inquiries a day from tourists in the region after the quakes.

"We received calls from people who went to the shelters but were unable to communicate. Some needed transportation. Others needed help," says Ki-Jun Park, a local consular official with the Republic of Korea.

The Consulate General chartered 12 buses to transport about 400 tourists from the cities of Oita and Kumamoto to Fukuoka Airport for evacuation. In the event of future disasters, the Consulate General has decided to use volunteers as interpreters at shelters.

The volunteers will report to the Consulate General on damages inflicted and traffic conditions at each location. So far 21 people have registered in Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Oita Prefectures.

"South Koreans have little experience with earthquakes," Park says. "We understand the importance of ensuring the safety and livelihoods of our nationals abroad."

The April earthquake caused much destruction throughout the region. But the people of Kyushu are working to ensure that the lessons learned will not be forgotten and that everyone, including foreign guests, will be well taken care of in any future disaster.