NIPPONIA No. 40 March 15, 2007


Joel Dechant at the Hyotan Springs in Kannawa Onsen Spa.

Living in Japan

English-speaking Tour Guide in a Historic Hot Spring District

Joel Dechant

Written by Takahashi Hidemine
Photos by Akagi Koichi


The bath at Jigoku-baru Onsen (Hell Meadow Hot Spring) is open to everyone. Fee: just 100 yen.

Steam rises into the air from many places in the city of Beppu, which has more steaming water bubbling up from the ground than any other spa in Japan. Beppu is located in Oita Prefecture, northeastern Kyushu, tucked between scenic mountains and the sea. Here you can enjoy different types of mineral waters — the Beppu Hatto (Eight Hot Spring Areas of Beppu) have been a popular destination for the Japanese for centuries. More people come from other countries as well, and Joel Dechant offers them his services as a volunteer English-speaking guide. This is a big help for the owners of local Japanese inns and souvenir shops.

"I like the idea of working with others in the community to improve the local economy," he says in fluent Japanese. He was born in the American state of Pennsylvania 28 years ago, and developed an interest in Japan after he happened to choose a Japanese course while studying at the University of Pittsburgh. "The Japanese language is really interesting. Especially the yoji jukugo sayings, which have a lot of meaning crammed into just four kanji characters. The more I study them, the more fascinating they become."

He first came to Japan as an exchange student during his third year of university studies. He spent a year studying in Kyoto, then returned to the United States where he finished his studies and graduated. "But then I wanted to live in Japan again, so I came back. I taught English conversation in Osaka, then the next year I joined the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, which invites young university graduates from abroad to perform international activities such as language instruction. I was sent as Coordinator for International Relations (CIR) to Makizono-cho, Kagoshima Prefecture. I taught English at elementary schools there and performed activities like organizing flea markets. That's when I discovered the feeling of accomplishment you can get from helping to reinvigorate a local community. I worked with the JET Programme for three years, then got a job at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, here in Beppu."

The university is quite unusual — about 40% of the students and about half the teaching staff (including the president) are from overseas.

"The university happens to be located in a hot spring resort. The owner of a local hotel asked me to give guests tours in English. He said he hadn't been able to find anybody else able to do it, and it sounded fun so I jumped at the opportunity."

To prepare, he toured the city with the hotel owner to learn what visitors might want to know, such as the different types of mineral water, the history of the local temples, and the origin of place names. He translated this information into English, recorded it on a CD, and listened to it while commuting to work, until he had memorized it all.

"Here's a bit of trivia for you: they say that demons used to live here long ago. One devil had a club he could use as a weapon, but he buried it, leaving only the handle's iron ring sticking out of the ground. When the club was pulled out, hot water came bubbling up after it, and this was the origin of Kannawa Onsen ('Iron Ring Spa'). I found all this fascinating because we don't have many old legends or myths in the United States. There's so much to learn here, and it's worthwhile remembering it all and sharing it with tourists, because the local economy depends on the hot springs."

Dechant and his Japanese wife live with their two sons in an apartment near the spas. A fair amount of his time and energy are spent at the hot springs — he invites international students from the university where he works on spa tours. On his days off, you may find him with his sons participating in a locally organized "stamp rally." During the "rally," tourists bathe in one spa after another, and have a logo stamped in their passbook at each place.

His guided tours last about two and a half hours. The highlight for tourists is jigoku mushi, literally a "meal steamed in hell." The "hell" is steam jetting from the ground into a cooking oven filled with meat and vegetables. The hot steam lets the ingredients keep their flavor and enhances the taste.

"I like to joke to people taking my tour that any ingredient can be used, except sashimi! " (Fish sliced into sashimi is always eaten raw.)

Incidentally, his favorite yoji jukugo saying is "Ichi go ichi e" ("treasure every encounter with another person, because it may never happen again").

Left: In a store selling a Beppu specialty, manju buns with meat inside. The buns are cooked by steaming them in vapor from a hot spring.
Right: Dechant at Kannawa Onsen Spa, guiding tourists from a number of different countries.