Kyushu is the third largest island in Japan and the most south-westerly. At its centre is Mount Aso, one of the largest active in the world. The seismic activity means that there are hot springs everywhere, greatly prized for their properties by the Japanese. I’m here to immerse my body in onsens, natural hot spring baths, hoping for a therapeutic experience rather than any kind of healing.
I start in Oita Prefecture, east of Kumamoto, home to more than 4300 hot springs, and arrive in the town of Beppu. It’s by the sea, on the east coast and backed by steep forested mountains. Every day around 130 million litres of hot water gushes from 2,909 vents, creating dense plumes of steam that makes you think the town is on. For the Japanese, this is the centre of onsen culture, with eight different springs serving hundreds of baths.
The suburb of Kannawa, in the centre of the resort, is where most of the onsens are clustered, and there’s a choice ranging from basic public spaces to luxury pools in upmarket Ryokan, traditional Japanese. There’s a definite holiday atmosphere here and bursts of steam emerging from mineral encrusted pipes add a surreal quality. The hot water is not only for bathing but also used for cooking. A local delicacy is eggs steamed for 20 hours, which emerge blackened with a distinctive flavour.
I try a restaurant where you buy your raw ingredients ready-packed then take them over to the natural steam ovens. You’re given a timer so you don’t overcook them and I feast on steamed sweetcorn, sweet potato, cabbage and pumpkin. Particularly delicious are the chicken and pork belly, but I’m not partial to pizza done this way – dripping soggy cheese topped with prawns seems bizarre.
Another attraction around town is the steaming hot ponds where the water is too hot to bathe. They’re known as Jigoku or Hells, and come complete with coachloads of Korean tourists led by guides with show-stopping patter. You take your pick from the boiling blue Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell), Kamado Jigoku (Oven Hell) with demons overlooking a lake and Tatsumaki Jigoku (Waterspout Hell), where a geyser performs regularly.
The ultimate spin on the onsen experience is a traditional sand bath. You lie in a pit by the sea and the staff cover you in sand warmed by the hot spring water. You’re buried right up to your neck, unable to move, but after 15 minutes sweating it out, they dig you out and shower off the sand. It certainly beats British bucket and spade holidays.
I’m keen to get out into the countryside so I head upward towards Mt Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture. I make a stop at Yufuin, around 10km inland, really just one main street, on the side of the river, overlooked by the distinctive twin peaks of Mount Yufu. This is another onsen town with foot baths on the station platform to soak your feet while waiting for the train and Ryokans dotted among the paddy fields.
I climb up into the mountains and enter the Aso Kujū, leaving the trees behind to reach the extensive grasslands of Kusasenri plateau. They’re a brilliant autumn yellow, dotted with grazing cattle and horses.
Chocolate orange cake
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Hairy Bikers’ Black Forest gateau
Rich with fruit, chocolate, and cream, this 70s classic still has a place on our tables. This recipe uses dried sour cherries, but you can substitute good-quality bottled ones. Ingredients225g/8oz butter, softened, plus extra for greasing225g/8oz caster sugar160g/5½oz self-raising flour65g/2¼oz cocoa powder½ tsp baking powder4…