At the end of Japanese territory, an imposing and unique island rises. It draws the southern contours of the Archipelago and is home to a thousand and one natural and human forces: its name is Kyushu. If, in a first ticket, we had approached the shores of this prefecture through its marked reliefs, its numerous preserved thermal cures and its mysterious forests, we had not yet revealed the deep secret of its magic. What makes the region forgotten by visitors; its so overwhelming and magnetic? Perhaps, beyond the harmony that reigns between humans and landscapes, is it this peaceful cohabitation that we observe between heaven and earth, celestial energy and restless depths, paradise and hell. A spectacle not to be missed. Discovery and contemplation.
Considered as the cradle of Japan, of its history and culture, Kyushu (九州) is the third largest island in the Archipelago. It has a rare peculiarity: that of being both erected as a symbol of its country, and of being the most composite of its regions, structurally influenced by neighboring traditions. Indeed, Korean and Chinese ships had made its coast their favorite stopover with a view to exchanges with the island territory. Without counting the political and religious history of the country which saw arriving by its southern coasts Portuguese and Western Christian missionaries. Like these permanent mixtures, the Chinese quarters, Christian churches and cosmopolitan ports that still make up Nagasaki.
These hybridizations, between nature and modernity, Shintoism and Buddhism, neighboring and local traditions, isn’t that one of the characteristics of Japan? This property, this is what the mainland island of Kyushu carries, and which finds its paroxysm in the presence within it from heavenly gardens to infernal springs. So, go down or up, where to start …?
Entrance to Hell: the Seven Gates of Beppu
Apart from its traditional bamboo craft center which commemorates the two thousandth anniversary of this local know-how, the hells of Beppu or Jigoku Meguri are the most famous activity of the eponymous town, located east of Oita. They form a set ofonsen varied, these Hot thermal springs which are the geothermal result of the island’s powerful volcanic activity. But in these baths, there is hardly any question of wading. The pools can reach up to 100 degrees! Real aquatic tunnels to underground lairs.
Through the city, so gush seven different smoke doors, whence rumbles, according to beliefs, either the Buddhist Naraka and his Eight Great Hells (Hachi Dai Jigoku, 八大 地獄) in which legions of torturers are active Oni, is the Yomi of Shinto rottenness (Yomo tsu kuni says “darkness” 黄泉国). These places of passage between Japan and the obscure abysses which hide under its grounds are in any case inhabited by stories and colors, as frightening as each other.
Umi-Jigoku is the Hell of the Sea. Shades of cobalt blue that exceed 98 degrees, burning smoke and cavernous sound projections: there is eel under the rock. The natural reaction leaves imagine a terrible world under the seas around the world, bubbling and dark, far from the paradisiacal blue waters to which this kind of colors accustoms us. Something to be wary of during our next swims … Direction the second door to hell. The hot spring garden is crossed by small footbridges, but when going through them, be careful of the projections of steam! Oniishibozu-Jigoku, meaning “Monk’s head”, presents large circles emerging from a sort of greyish mud close to the Shinto aesthetic of post-mortem sacrilegious decay.
Kamado-Jigoku, aka the “Cauldron”, so called because a legend tells that a guardian god made rice leather there, as in a large natural kitchen. Appetizing allegory. Oni Yama-Jigoku, the “mountain of the demon”, is darker water and takes on the appearance of a swamp. Nothing is darker than these murky waters plunged into thick fog.
Shiraike-Jigoku is translated as “white lake”. But beware of its pretty name: its weirdly milky water doesn’t make its wispy eruptions any less disturbing. Tatsumaki-Jigoku is a Geyser. Staged in a sort of stone fireplace, the source periodically transforms into a jet of hot smoke. A message from beyond the grave? That of Chinoike-Jigoku, explicitly called “the blood pond”, is in any case very clear. The oldest of the baths and, above all, the one that proudly displays the glowing colors of the fiery prisons. An effect of clay, but perhaps also Machiavellian Yokai ? These evil and sometimes tormented spirits who seem to be scattered all over Kyushu, Beppu and elsewhere …
Stuck in hell forever? Tasukete! (助 け て!)
If the vaporous gushes of Beppu form a famous course, the infrastructures which allow a comfortable visit sometimes seem a little superficial. The painting remains striking and the demon statues that overlook some entrances are welcome, but the island conceals other treasures coming straight from the depths of hell which benefit from less notoriety and deserve our curiosity just as much.
The Devil’s Washboard (鬼 の 洗濯 板), as she was baptized, stretches eight kilometers from Miyazaki province. It takes the form of a jagged jagged rock bed. The brown ridges are the result of erosion, but give this plain at low tide an air of old washboard. Could she be the immense cutting carpet on which the Kami of the Underworld tirelessly rubs his bloody armor? Or worse, his fallen prisoners? Failing to even grate his laundry or the souls he tortures there, keen observers will be able to spot some stealthy or, perhaps, simply frightened crabs. By moving in this way, haven’t they actually understood everything about how to scare away these spectral fears?
Indeed, in the face of the roaring of a boiling earth, why not appeal to the shamanic forces of ancestral arts? Kagura is a sacred dance that celebrates the gods of Shinto. His steps are taken through Kyushu, particularly in Miyazaki, where the gods are said to have descended from the sky for the first time. Kagura has been played in Takachiho for 800 years : at Takachiho shrine, every night, or during the performance of the Takachiho Night Kagura (yokagura) festival two nights in winter. To send the mischievous shadows that torment the island back to their cave, you will have to use good doses of sake, impressive masks and a lot of energy. Once the mission is accomplished, everyone will have deserved their entry into paradise. Its gates also dot the island of Kyushu. Change of scenery.
Light on the venerable Japanese paradise
After having faced the roar of the devil, return to calm thanks to the Ikoma Garden (生 駒 高原) in Miyazaki Prefecture. This colorful and bright set that looks like it came straight out of an animated film offers visitors a sea of pansies and poppies in the spring or myrtles and bursts in summer. But by far the most propitious moment for our dazzling is autumn, when 100,000 cosmos flowers are in full bloom. Could it be the Takama-ga-hara (高 天 原, literally “the high plain of paradise”) which, in Shintoism, serves as the residence of the immortal gods? The other activities in the region allow you to recover from such emotions around a small tea, in a lounge located in the park, or in one of the many restaurants that suggest local specialties made from regional ingredients. An earthly paradise, we said. And it doesn’t stop there.
Hidden away in Oguni Kumamoto Prefecture Town is a spectacular 10 meter high and 20 meter wide waterfall that offers some of the most breathtaking views in Japan: Nabegataki Falls (鍋 ヶ 滝). One of the few sites where travelers can access the large cave behind the falls: an invaluable privilege of access to natural depths, but this time leading to the fullness and harmony of the senses. An emotion that can be completed endlessly with stopovers on the paradisiacal and little-known beaches of Japan. Turquoise water and fine sand? One cannot imagine that the land of temples and mountains is also adorned with such islets. However Yurigahama Beach (百合 ヶ 浜) has white sand made up of tiny corals and is surrounded by clear emerald water. But beware, due to the tides, the beach only appears for a few hours, with a different shape and location. These divine appearances also earned him the nickname “Phantasmal Beach”, which lends itself strongly to reverie.
From heavenly gardens and beaches to heavenly peaks, there are 513 m above sea level. Kunimigaoka Observation Deck (国 見 ヶ 丘 の 海) in Miyazaki Prefecture opens up spectacular views over the region, but above all over its splendid panoramic landscape Unkai (sea of clouds). Early in the morning in autumn, when the weather is cold and the day is windless, the rivers of the sky dance for the mountains. From the viewing platform, souls so high can also see the five peaks of the Sobo Range. The happiness of the dawn that dawns on the world, the welcoming sky and the fresh air, these are the echoes of paradise that cross Kyushu.
In Kyushu, as in Japanese beliefs, the balance holds in this coexistence of two forces: darkness and light. The cohabitation between these two dimensions is to the island what the co-presence of misfortunes and happiness is to our soul. The best way to feel all the intensity of the two worlds is to have access to both, between earth and sky, between disturbing vapor and reassuring clouds. In Japan, more than elsewhere, and in Kyushu in particular, it is even cooperation between these natural and spiritual elements, which are all equivalent means of evacuating the enigmas of our curious lives and of grasping, at best, the grandeur of this unpredictable and incomparable nature which serves as our home.