Giant Pachinko Palace

Casinos and Love Hotels: Fantastic Architecture in Beppu

Las Vegas Casino

Las Vegas, in Japan.

While strolling Beppu’s streets (looking for cats or onsen), sometimes a building would catch my eye that had such bizarre architecture that I figured it could be one of two things: either a casino or a love hotel. I laughed when I saw a casino named “Las Vegas”. Admittedly, when I think of Las Vegas all I think of is gambling, too. The Las Vegas building was decorated with red-white-and-blue American colors for that authentic atmosphere, and specialized in pachinko and slot machines.

For more traditional pachinko gambling, a ginormous, flashy yellow building shouts itself into being noticed along the main road. Palaces like that one are testament to the popularity of pachinko and the lucrativeness of owning a gambling business. In the evenings, through the windows I could see rows of what looked like salarymen (guys in businesswear) staring into the machines.

Hotel Swing

This is the hotel I caught sight of in the distance at night before finding the locals’ bathhouse. It doesn’t look quite so threatening during day, when you can see the colors and not just the slit windows. (From Google Images)

Because of space restrictions, many Japanese families live in small apartments. Consequently, couples don’t have many opportunities to have time away from the kids. Married couples are one demographic that takes advantage of love hotel services. These short-stay hotels allow visitors to choose a room for a “rest” (1-3 hours) or an overnight stay. They are not brothels, although unfortunately the total privacy they offer doesn’t discriminate legal from illegal activities. According to Wikipedia, the name originates from Osaka’s 1968 “Hotel Love”, and

has since taken alternate guises by operators trying to make their place sound more fashionable than competition: “romance hotel”, “fashion hotel”, “leisure hotel”, “amusement hotel”, “couples hotel”, and “boutique hotel”. Often you can identify love hotels from their gaudy exteriors (castles, boats, UFOs, neon lighting). Another give-away is when signs outside are decorated with hearts. I remember staring at an eight-story building, wondering why its windows were tiny slits (balistraria?). If it weren’t for the colorfully patterned walls, I might think it was a prison.

Beppu's red light district entrance

I don’t know if this is really a “red light district”, but there are a lot of bars and clubs in the alleyways back there.

The weirdest, kinkiest hotels are what get blogged about (dungeons, fantasy scenes, Hello Kitty S&M). While it’s scary to think about the safety issues of these venues, the creative architecture designs are amusing to see as a casual tourist on the outside. For the sake of couples who don’t want anything fancy, just some quality time, there are ordinary looking buildings whose main feature is guaranteeing privacy. I can’t imagine love hotels being successful in puritan America, especially since laws require renters to give their information for safety and liability reasons. Considering America’s crime rate compared to Japan’s, I don’t think America is mature enough to handle couples hotels.

The most interesting love hotels in Beppu are lined up by the docks. They give off a quiet, respectable vibe just like any hotel. Beppu’s host and hostess clubs occupy the hidden alleyways farther inland, a completely different scene. While we searched for cats, my friend and I were amused by fancily dressed men standing outside clubs.

As my high school English professor used to proclaim, life and Shakespeare run on drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll. Every culture dresses them differently.


YouMe Mall

CatGirl Poster

Catgirls sell eyeliner in Japan

The first thing I noticed coming into Beppu’s YouMe mall was a cardboard catgirl advertising makeup. It was probably eyeliner; her wingtipped eyeliner played into the cat theme, along with her ears and leopard print dress.

I never get bored in a mall in Japan. Even the most mundane items are made interesting because of cute or strange packaging (e.g. cat litter showing a cat pinching its nose, Sailor Moon feminine pads). I love Japanese fashion, so every shop was filled with a motherlode of Awesome. Because I can’t buy every shirt with a cat on it, I settled for taking pictures of stuff that caught my eye instead.

The toy stores were nostalgic; I didn’t expect to recognize so many familiar characters. They had everything from those little bunny dolls to the plastic Go Fish game. Browsing the aisles made me realize how international the toy market is.

No Japanese mall is complete without an arcade center. I don’t like arcade games myself, because I’m convinced they are all rigged against me (I especially fail at crane machines). My APU classmates really enjoyed them, particularly Namco’s Taiko game. I tried it once. Although I was clearly an amateur from my poor score, hitting the drums in tune with cute characters’ instructions on a screen was fun. The game was like Guitar Hero with drums.

Arcade games

Arcade games at Youme mall

A prime feature of the arcade center is purikkura, picture booths. Schoolgirls love them, as I often saw uniformed groups hanging around the booths. Entering purikkura was a bit awkward for me, but my APU group wanted to take pictures every time we went by a machine. A cheery female voice tells you which poses to make, and afterwards you can draw or put stickers on the digital images. The photos then print out of the side of the machine. Each machine has a different theme, and all of them have auto-enhancing features that make your skin look smooth. I wish school photos were automatically surface-blurred for the yearbook.

Japanese schoolgirls

Schoolgirls check out one of the purikkura stations

I thought it was strange that outside one purikkura center there was a sign forbidding two boys from entering without a girl (escort?). There were male/female cutout shapes like those you see on bathroom doors. Girls? Ok! A girl and a guy? Ok! Guys and a girl? Fine! Just boys? Not allowed! At first I was put off by thinking it might be gay discrimination. I asked one of my teachers, and she supposed it was to deter rough boys who might mess around and break the machine. Perhaps, she said, the center had had trouble with groups of boys damaging their property. Apparently they assumed that as long as there was a girl in a group, guys would be calmer and less likely to abuse the machines.

As I mentioned a couple posts back, I love Japan’s creative use of English in their marketing. You-Me has a friendly connotation of “a mall for You and Me”. It also looks similiar to youmei, ‘famous’. A famous mall for you and me!

Malicious Mushroom

shiitake mushroom photo from wikipedia

Shiitake mushroom growing on wood. By frankenstoen from Portland, Oregon

Watch out for allergies when studying abroad. Make sure to bring all necessary medications, with a Yakkan Shoumei if need be (certificate that allows you to bring more than one month’s supply of prescription medication into Japan). Finding information on how to acquire a medicine certificate was difficult, and in the end, no one ever checked it at customs. Still, I felt safer being prepared. Note that stimulants, such as those containing Methamphetamine or Amphetamine (found in ADHD medications) are banned in Japan. Narcotics are also banned.

A Q&A pdf can be found here:

More information on importing medications here:

Studying abroad is not the best time to discover you have an allergy you never knew existed. Early in the program, our group went out to eat at a Korean barbeque place in downtown Beppu. It was a big, fancy restaurant with long tables and zabuton pillows to sit on. I’ve been to yakiniku (BBQ) places in Sacramento where you fry your own food at the table, so I had an idea of what to expect. These places fill up with steam and smoke, so if you are sensitive to stuffy air, you probably want to avoid yakiniku. With this many people, it was difficult to share the table grill. The main point was to provide a comfortable setting to be social and get to know the group. To be honest, my experience in Sacramento was by far more pleasant and delicious.

grill at yakiniku restaurant

The grill placed onto our table at the yakiniku restaurant.

I love mushrooms. My favorite is Portabella, ever since having a Portabella sandwich at UC Davis in California. I would never gather and eat wild mushrooms, because I’m afraid I’d pick poisonous ones by mistake. Death caps look an awful lot like other, edible mushrooms. I’d had mushroom dishes of various varieties before my trip to Japan, and enjoyed them all.

I had no idea why I had a rash a day or so after eating out. It quickly grew worse, until I had itchy bumps all over my body. Alarmed, I went to the health clinic to get answers. The nurses there referred me to a skin doctor. I was very glad that I had a Japanese friend escort me (thanks Anri!). The clinic was tiny, with only two or three examination rooms. None of the staff spoke any English. Not the women at the front desk, nor the doctor. If you visit a health clinic off-campus, be prepared for a language barrier or take someone with you to interpret.

The doctor only had to look once at the rash before recognizing it as shiitake mushroom poisoning. The rash appears in distinct lines, as though the skin has been clawed by an animal. I found out later that shiitake allergy is rare. A reaction can happen when the mushroom is not thoroughly cooked. That mushroom I had taken off the grill at the yakiniku place hadn’t been cooked free of all its toxins. In fact, it had probably been mostly raw.

For the following week I was a miserable, red and itchy mess. The salve and medicine the doctor gave me helped clear it up, but wearing clothing and doing anything that chafed skin still hurt for quite a while.

Yakiniku Restaurant

Yakiniku Restaurant – Korean barbecue.

Wikipedia only has a brief mention of the allergy: “Rarely, consumption of raw or slightly cooked shiitake mushrooms may evoke signs of allergy, including “an erythematous, micro-papular, streaky, extremely pruriginous rash” that occurs all over the body including face and scalp, appearing about 48 hours after consumption and disappearing after several days. This effect, presumably caused by the polysaccharide lentinan, is known in Asia but is unfamiliar to Europeans. Although it may occur in roughly 2% of the population, thorough cooking may eliminate allergenicity.”[1]

Now that I know I’m allergic to shiitake, I try to avoid it. Since coming back from Japan I’ve only had one light reaction after eating at a Chinese restaurant. Fortunately, the rash’s “claw marks” were faint because the mushrooms had been cooked better.

I’m happy and grateful that I had support when I got sick. I can’t imagine how frightening it would be to break out in an unknown rash when alone in a foreign country. When you travel anywhere, always have a plan for sudden sickness or injury, because the unexpected will happen.

[1] Wikipedia contributors. “Shiitake.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 26 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Boar warning sign close-up

Boar Warning!!

Boar warning sign

Inoshishi shutsubotsu chuui!! Boar Warning!! We don’t usually have signs with double exclamation marks in America, do we?

When studying abroad, unfamiliar sounds, sights and smells make you hyper-aware that you are in a foreign ecosystem. Like an itchy clothes tag, it takes a while to stop thinking, “Oh yeah, I’m really in Japan,” every time you hear the uguisu Japanese bush warbler, gawk at weird bugs on your dorm window screen, and catch whiffs of sulfur from natural hot springs. The uguisu was my number one alarm that I wasn’t in California anymore. I’ve heard it many times in anime paired with the sound of bamboo fountains (Shishi-odoshi or souzu, “scare the deer” fountains). Next to Japanese cicadas, it is my favorite iconic sound of Japan. Asking the names of unfamiliar animals and sources of sounds you hear is a nice conversation starter.

For some reason the “Boar Warning” signs posted near the woods struck me as bizarre and funny, mostly because I didn’t expect them. Wild boars seem like a very exotic type of pest. Ever since I saw the sign, I was very excited about seeing a real boar. Unfortunately, they never made an appearance around the campus. I was hoping one would suddenly burst from the bamboo (so long as I was at a safe distance), but no such luck. I suppose they were burrowed deep inside the surrounding forests. In Japanese they are called inoshishi, as you can see written on the sign in katakana.

Japanese bugs—at least in Kyuushuu—are much more colorful than what I normally see in California. My friend Rose Clement took most of these photos. If anyone can tell me what the unnamed critters are, I’d be grateful. The praying mantis and walking stick are the only ones I can recognize.

Japanese Cicadas (Semi)

Tanna japonensis

I love Japanese cicada. Next to cats and onsen, hearing the cicada in real life as opposed to in an anime made my Japan experience extraordinary. Their summer sound is as iconic as that “ker-thunk” of a Japanese bamboo fountain. I heard at least two types of cicada—the Kumazemi (Cryptotympana facialis), and my absolute favorite, Higurashi (also known as Kanakana, Tanna japonensis). Is it possible to fangirl over cicada? Because I was definitely in kya! kya! mode when I first heard real higurashi outside the dorms. A certain horror anime (Wikipedia link) made me fall in love with them as eerie foreshadowing of horrible events (kind of like crows calling at dusk). Sure, we have cicada in California, but none of ours sound so singsong-awesome. I was so excited that I took my MP3-player to record their sound, and crept around the side of the dorm buildings to where they sang the loudest. Behind the motorcycle parking lot there was an edge of bamboo forest. I felt odd standing back there, because it was also next to dorm windows. I imagined people peering out and wondering what the heck that girl was doing sneaking about with a recording device. It was especially disconcerting when, coming back, I noticed a police car parked in front of the dorm, but apparently that was a total coincidence because I never saw any officers.

My higurashi recording night 1:

My higurashi recording night 2:

Japanese police car

Japanese police (keisatsu) car parked in front of my dorm. I don’t know why it was there.


The higurashi didn’t start calling until halfway through my trip, after rainy season had passed and the dead heat of late summer kicked in. They sang every evening for about an hour from then on. Higurashi only sing at sunset, which is part of what makes them great heralds of nightfall and scary events in anime. In my opinion, their song is the most beautiful of all the cicada. It is a melancholy, sad chorus. Because I was recording from an old MP3 player I didn’t get the best quality; you’d have to hear them in real life for the full effect. The more insects there are singing at once, the more magical their chorus.

I thought it was strange that when I talked about the higurashi to a Japanese woman who lives on campus, she said she had never really noticed the cicada’s unique call before. I guess if you live there, they become background noise that you tune out.

bamboo behind the dorms

Poor quality picture of where I recorded the higurashi

I was able to hear what I think may have been kumazemi during our homestay in Bungotakeda, as we were walking through temples. They sang in a loud collective hiss from the bushes.

Here is a great article I always refer to when looking up types of Japanese cicada: . It includes sound recordings of Kumazemi, minminzemi, higurashi, and tsukutsukuboshi.


Dear You -Cry- (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni) vocal by Yuduki (Yuzuki) [Youtube video below]: A very nice use of higurashi calls inside a song

Obaasan enjoying bath

Onsen in Beppu—Discovering the Locals’ Hangout

On another warm night, my friend Mari and I were feeling adventurous, and we decided to search on foot for some of the lesser advertised, non-touristy bathhouses. We had a vague map, but weren’t at all sure what to expect as we squeezed through dark, narrow alleyways and around unmarked buildings. At first glance it was hard to tell if the nested complex we came to was the right place, or even a bathhouse at all. However, when we entered one of the ground floor buildings there was the familiar window for an entrance fee and male and female bath curtains. Only an hour remained until closing time, so we hurried to the middle-aged lady at the counter to pay.

“The water is hot; is that ok?” she asked us in Japanese, eyeing our white foreigner complexions.

“It’s fine,” I answered. I wondered for a moment what she meant by that; of course the bath water would be hot.

The only other patrons were a few elderly ladies washing themselves at the facets. I felt intensely out of place; a young, white American foreigner getting naked in front of older Japanese women, in what was clearly a local hangout. I’d been to regular bathhouses before and didn’t mind undressing with strangers. As long as everyone else was doing the same thing and minding their own business getting clean, it felt entirely natural. But when I already felt singled out, being naked had a way of doubling the vulnerability. I was very glad I had a friend with me in the same situation. We feigned confidence, put our clothes in their cubbies and washed at the facets.

The surprise came when we dipped our toes into the bath. It burned. I was sure that just a few degrees more, and the water would start bubbling steam hot enough to boil ramen in.

We made vain attempts to hold our feet underwater for longer than ten seconds, pulling back up with reddened skin and a gasp. While we hovered at the bath edge, one of the women stepped in, plopping down to settle herself up to her chin and shut her eyes. We stared as she made no indication of the slightest bit of discomfort. Another woman followed her example at the other side of the room. Mari and I looked at each other, poked at the water, and backed away in defeat. For the next ten minutes we sat on the stools, waiting a reasonable amount of time such that the lady at the entrance counter wouldn’t suspect that her warning had been valid.

It was all we could do to leave in awe and respect for those tough elderly ladies.

cat in bath sketch

Onsen in Beppu—Kitahama Hot Springs, Termas

onsen symbol

The symbol for onsen

Onsen are hot springs, also used to refer to the bathing facilities around the hot springs. In contrast, sentou are indoor public bath houses where the baths are filled with gas-heated tap water[1]. Beppu has eight major hot springs known as “Beppu Hatto” (Beppu Eight)[2]. Beppu has the second-largest amount of hot spring water discharge in the world, with 2,909 vents[2].

My study abroad program was in the summer, through the tsuyu rainy season and on into the sweltering humidity of June-July. Some days, even fresh from a shower, it only took thirty seconds to be dripping with sweat again. It was the worst season for hot baths. Regardless, I had come across the Pacific Ocean to Japan’s most famous onsen locale; I wasn’t going to leave without trying a few.

One of my favorite onsen experiences was at Kitahama Hot Spings, Termas[3]. Termas has an outdoor bath the size of a small swimming pool. Because it was co-ed, we wore swimsuits; a good thing, because the multistory hotel between the bathhouse and the bay had lots of overlooking windows. I would definitely have raised an objection to traveling businessmen surveying a women’s bath from their hotel suites.

It was hard to resist floating around despite the no-swimming rule. There are several standard onsen rules, such as no swimming, splashing or noisiness (don’t disturb the other patrons), don’t drop your towel in, and (this might disappoint a lot of foreign visitors) anyone with a tattoo cannot enter the bath. I suppose this is to deter yakuza (mafia) from hanging out and scaring customers.

With the breeze from the bay, warm water to soak in and surrounding city lights, visiting Termas was one of the most surreal and wonderful nights I spent in Beppu. I’m sad that, because I didn’t want to get my camera wet, I couldn’t take any pictures.

To make up for it, here’s a very cute illustrated article on onsen rules:

[1] Wikipedia contributors. “Onsen.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.

[2] Wikipedia contributors. “Beppu Onsen.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Oct. 2014.


row of lucky cats

Stray Cat Photo Collection (Last) – Behind-scene Shots

These first three images were taken from my friend Marisa’s phone. She kindly and patiently agreed to come along on my cat finding adventure. We also explored the docks and back-alley shops. There are a few host/hostess type bars in the area with interesting people milling about the fronts, especially later in the evening. We still felt perfectly safe (I don’t think I could say the same if I were in America). Marisa is street-savvy and tough, and an all-around cool person, so I could relax and talk to cats with her at my back.

White Alley Cat


Here is a sampling of the cats and kittens I came across hanging out in alleyways, at temples, and in storefronts. At least a couple of them, I was pleased to see, did have collars, but were allowed to mingle with the real strays.

Stray cat family

Another family occupying the streets

cat outside restaurant

This cat seemed to have adopted this restaurant as a prime panhandling location

another alleycat

One of innumerable cats haunting Beppu’s alleyways

scruffy calico

A scruffy calico tries to sleep on a sidewalk

Cat hiding under car close-up

Close-up of cat hiding under car

Cat hiding under car

A cat hides under a car wheel

Alley cat buddies

Alley cat buddies

White alleycat

White alleycat

Alley Cats close-up

Alley cat gang watching me warily

Hair salon cat

This cat wasn’t a stray judging by his/her collar. A resident of the hair salon?

Hair Salon Cat

Hair Salon Cat guards the entrance

Hair Salon Cat

Close up of the hair salon cat

Close-up of temple yard cat

Close-up of temple yard cat

temple cat

Another temple resident

Temple porch cat

This cat has found a home at this temple

cat offering belly

A friendly non-stray rolls about on the street

Cat scratching post

A collared cat files down her claws on a temple post

Stray Cat Photo Collection – Kitahama Park

Because of WordPress’s horrific layout controls, I’m going to put all the images that would have been included in “Noraneko: Stray Cats in Beppu and Nagasaki” in separate collections. Enjoy!

Friendly cat at Kitahama Park

Super friendly cat likes scritchies.

Orange cat at Kitahama Park

Orange Cat at Kitahama Park

Sleeping Kitahama Cats

Cats sleeping at Kitahama Park. Growing up together as strays seemed to have given them good bonds.

lovemaking cats

A public display of foreplay and lovemaking, ensuring future generations of Kitahama Park kittens. (Actually they separated after a few moments so they didn’t actually mate; practicing?) In any case, it proved that these cats aren’t spayed/neutered, and thus lies the problem. 

Grey Tabby at Kitahama Park

A grey tabby eyes the camera from the bushes

Feeding crab treats to a hungry black cat

My friend Anri offers some crab treats to a very hungry black cat.

Friendly cat at Kitahama Park

The friendliest cat I met approaches me for some love. Unfortunately I never saw him again at the park.

Cat gang at Kitahama Park

Cat gang at Kitahama Park.

Cats at Kitahama Park

Cats hanging out at Kitahama Park

Hungry black cat looks for crab treats

This cat smelled crab treats, and was very assertive about hunting them down. He was able to bite a hole in the plastic treat bag and nearly made off with the whole thing.

Orange and white cat in the bushes

One of Kitahama’s resident cats rests in the bushes