Tom has been to Beppu as well, and spent it visiting onsen. I went more touristy and visited some of the famous Hells (very hot springs for looking at, not bathing). This was probably a poor choice. I visited three of the eight and they were quite run-down and small; 400 yen entrance fee isn’t actually that much, but when you consider that entrance fees in Japan are generally quite low and you look at what’s in there, it feels like a rip-off. You can buy a combined ticket for all eight Hells for 2,100 yen but to avoid Hell fatigue I’d suggest picking the most interesting sounding and focusing on those. Especially considering that several keep live animals; I dread to think of the conditions.
The Hells are in two separate parts of town, all a significant distance from the train station. The Information Centre at Beppu station is fantastic and will load you up with leaflets, maps and timetables. If you’re going to visit both Hell districts, pick up a “1 Day Mini Free Passport” for the bus from the Information Centre for 900 yen; it’s a 10 yen saving on paying for each bus separately and is just easier than rootling out exact change. For the six Hells in Kannawa, you want either the 5, 9 or 41 buses from the West exit of the station and get off at Umi-jigoku mae. This is the stop after Kannawa bus station (a parking area with a small green bus shelter); I’m giving you this advice because although bus announcements in Beppu are given in English, they’re so quiet they’re almost impossible to hear.
Because I couldn’t hear the damn announcements I leapt off the bus at Kannawa and after trailing up the hill could only be bothered to visit Cooking Pot Hell (Kamado Jigoku). It’s on the tacky side of kitschy and the most interesting thing is probably the food cooked in the springs – steamed dumplings, boiled eggs and a rather tasty suet pudding. I gather Umi Jigoku has a lovely garden but it’s further up the hill and the weather was hot, so I went back to Kannawa bus station again to wait for a 16 or 16A bus to Chinoike-jigoku bus stop and the two Hells in the Shibaseki district. Chinioke Jigoku (Blood Pond Hell) has red water, sells beauty and medical treatments made from the spring’s clay and not much else. Tatsumaki Jigoku next door has an actual geyser that erupts every 30-40 minutes for 5-10 minutes.
You can see the geyser’s been enclosed; if it wasn’t, apparently it would reach up to 30m in height. The more cynical part of me thinks they walled it off so people wouldn’t be able to get a free show from outside. There are nice gardens to wander in while you wait for the geyser to go off and they sell excellent ice cream. When you’re done, catch the 16 or 16A back to Beppu station. It also stops at Kamegawa and Beppu Daigaku stations.
A far, far better tourist attraction in Beppu is Takasakiyama Monkey Park. This is also out of town, on a mountainside, but it’s also next to the Aquarium (which I was too late to visit but is apparently modern and very nice). To get to both, catch buses AS60 or AS61 from the East side of Beppu station, but there aren’t many of them and they stop at 2.39pm on weekdays and 4.20pm on weekends (warning: last entry to Takasakiyama is 4.30pm). There are more and later buses running from Beppu Kitahama, about 15-20 minutes walk from Beppu’s East exit. Buses AS54, AS60, AS61, AS70, AS71, AS72 and AS73 all leave from stop number 4, which is beyond Kitahama train station, on a crossroads and with a big 4 painted in a red circle. (It’s obvious once you see it but you’re walking for so long there’s a paranoia you’ve gone in the wrong direction or passed it.) The journey takes about 10 minutes to Takasakiyama-Umitamago stop – look out for the big aquarium on the left because the announcements are inaudible – and costs (IIRC) about 300 yen.
The monkey park costs 610 yen for entry with a ride up the hill on the monorail, 510 yen without. And the park is brilliant. It’s not a zoo: the monkeys were enticed there 60 years ago after causing havoc on farmland, and now stay voluntarily because they get fed. The monkeys are technically wild but not at all afraid of humans, and scamper around the visitors like we’re barely there. There are signs everywhere not to touch, stare or shout at the monkeys, which made the moment when one of them started gently tugging on my bag a little awkward (no food in there, little guy)…
Handily, the buses from Takasakiyama run on to Oita, where I was staying, so in theory you could catch the bus straight from Oita if your itinerary works better that way.