Our Man in Japan: James Bond in Kyushu

Article by Graham M. Thomas

It was 1999 when I last visited the island of Kyushu in southwest Japan. Literary007 was then just but a faint twinkle in an eye. Now in 2017, I decided to make a return visit in an attempt to retrace Fleming’s and Bond’s own journeys across the island.

©Ian Fleming Bibliographical Archive/Jon Gilbert

Within the James Bond canon, Kyushu is significant as it is here that most of the action takes place in You Only Live Twice. It is in the coastal city of Beppu where a reluctant Bond eats the almost translucent flesh of the deadly fugu fish; and lurking in northern Kyushu we find none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld – using the alias Doctor Shatterhand – who has built an evil castle and deadly garden with the sole intent of encouraging as many Japanese as possible to commit suicide.

When You Only Live Twice was published, criticisms of the book focussed on the fact that it was more travelogue than thriller. A not unfounded observation as indeed it follows the real – and fourteen day – journey that Fleming made in the autumn of 1962 when he flew to Japan to undertake background research.

Fleming had already worked out the basic storyline and his visit was to ensure he got the necessary detail and local colour right. Indeed he obsessed over not making any glaring mistakes that would be spotted by sharp-eyed Orientalists.

Why he decided to set the novel in Japan is unknown but he had visited once in the late 1950s, and Japan was now very much in the limelight because of the forthcoming 1964 Olympics. Perhaps in part he was riding the wave of public interest in the country. On the other hand opinion worldwide was still mixed about Japan. Even a decade later in 1971, the State Visit of Emperor Hirohito to England was deeply resented by a swathe of the population.

Fleming undertook his journey with two friends Richard Hughes and Torao ‘Tiger’ Saito as his guides. In a letter to Hughes, Fleming had previously sketched out what he wanted to achieve, writing that he wished to visit ‘…the Inland Sea and beyond to whatever bizarre corner of Japan you and Tiger can think up. I had in mind Fukuoka.’ They had set out from Tokyo and then made various stops on a journey that took them ultimately to Fukuoka on Kyushu.

My direct knowledge of Fleming’s trip comes from the chapter Sayonara to James Bond that Hughes wrote in his memoir Foreign Devil. His descriptions of the various places they visited vary in detail and seemingly depend on the degree of exoticness and adventure that the threesome enjoyed. However, precisely because it is part travelogue, You Only Live Twice also provides a source, and combining the two – as not all the places they visited eventually found their way into the novel – and by adding a dash of local knowledge, a reasonably detailed itinerary can be established.

It was in Kobe that Fleming, Hughes and Saito boarded a steamship that took them through the Seto Inland Sea to Kyushu and the port city of Beppu.

In the 1960s, these ships plied daily across the Seto Inland Sea allowing travellers to easily travel from the great conurbation of Osaka and Kobe to Kyushu. Nowadays, although an overnight ferry the Sunflower still sails from Osaka to Beppu, the journey is more often made by car using the Expressway, or by taking the Shinkansen or plane. Nonetheless, my own journey started on a ferry to Beppu but on a shorter route that sailed between Yawatahama and Beppu.

Sunflower ferry from Osaka to Beppu

Beppu is a small city, squashed between the coast and the mountains, and with a population of just over 100,000. Famous for its hot springs that originate thousands of meters underground, it is claimed that more hot springs gush from the earth here than anywhere else in the world. It is these waters and their medicinal qualities that have drawn visitors from all over Japan for centuries. Historically the columns of scalding steam, and the boiling pools of mud would have created a terrifying landscape but like any place that attracted visitors this would have been mixed with all the bawdy fun and pleasure that Japan was famous for, and which was still true when the three travellers arrived.

Like many a tourist town in the 1960s, Beppu had its fair share of strip shows, prostitutes touting for business on street corners, and garish hostess bars. In fact it had more than its fair share, as Beppu was well known for its nightlife, a characteristic that had only been heightened as a result of it being used as a camp and R&R resort by the American occupation forces post Second World War. These bars, soapland establishments, dance halls and jazz clubs all remained long after the Americans had departed.

Night club for Amercian servicemen early 1950s.

Night club for Amercian servicemen early 1950s.

Beppu too had been spared the US carpet bombing in the last days of the war, and Fleming would have found a city that had retained much of its traditional character albeit now dotted with new landmarks such as the Beppu Tower, a shorter version of the famous Tokyo Tower.

Nowadays, much of the old has been demolished and replaced but the nightlife around the station area remains suitably raunchy, although the famous sex museum has now closed.

Despite or perhaps because of this, Beppu itself it is only briefly but accurately described by Hughes in his memoirs as being ‘vulgar, amusing and lascivious.’

Beppu today

Beppu today

And that’s it. Unfortunately we do not know what the threesome got up to during their overnight stay but most likely Fleming and co. did visit the boiling hot geysers and ponds known as the Beppu Hells as they are later described in the novel. One of these geysers is called Umi Jigoku and from a distance looks like a large and rather pretty pond under a leafy bank. However, closer to it can be seen that the water is boiling with great force and many people in the past have committed suicide by leaping in and being instantly scalded to death. This obviously matched Fleming’s desire to visit ‘…any terrifying manifestation of the horrific in Japan.’

Beppu Hell

Beppu Hell

We are not told where they stayed in Beppu but it seems unlikely that Fleming slept in a simple ryokan (which is where he sent Bond). As Hughes wrote, ‘(Fleming) never cared for eating or sleeping on the tatami (floor mats).’ Instead I would wager a guess that they checked into one of a number of hotels with Western facilities. These included the Oniyama and Shiragikuso, which are still in operation today but the one I think most likely is the Suginoi Hotel – but only on the assumption that this was the most expensive.

Beppu Hell

Beppu Hell

Beppu features in more detail when Fleming came to write the novel.

Bond and Tiger disembark in Beppu at dusk having travelled on the ferry. They drop their bags at an unidentified ryokan before visiting the ten spectacular Hells with their stinking sulphurous muds and geysers, belching great streams of red, blue and orange. Notices adorned with skull and cross bones warned visitors to keep a safe distance, which the two do while waiting for one of the geysers to erupt, shooting a thick stream of grey mud high into the air.

These Hells are still a highlight of any tourist visit although on my visit, while I could find plenty of warming signs, none utilised the skull and crossbones. However Fleming had made a mistake on the number of Hells as there are only eight, and it is unlikely that Bond and Tiger visited all of them across a single evening as they are some distance apart. They also sit within attractive gardens and perhaps this inspired Fleming to have Shatterhand construct a beautiful but deadly garden himself.

Gardens at the Beppu Hells

Gardens at the Beppu Hells

After their visit to the Hells, with some trepidation on Bond’s part, he is taken to eat fugu at a restaurant close to the seafront. A giant blowfish sign hangs ominously above the door. Beppu is in Oita Prefecture, which is famous for its fugu, and the region is one if not the best to savour this delicacy. Tiger had pre-ordered the dish when on the ferry and even today all good fugu restaurants will not accept walk-in diners but insist on reservations being made at least a day in advance. This for a very simple reason: the live fish needs to be carefully and meticulously prepared, and to do this without leaving behind even the slightest trace of poison takes time.

As they wait for the food to arrive, Tiger explains patiently to Bond that the poison is contained in parts of the liver and sex glands and, if eaten, kills instantly. (Indeed the neurotoxin is a thousand times more potent than cyanide.) Perhaps because of this knowledge, Bond orders and swiftly knocks back five tumblers of sake – almost close to a bottle – and, not surprisingly after this amount of alcohol, he concludes that the fish tastes…well of nothing. In fact fugu sashimi, even without drinking vast quantities of sake is a delicate almost tasteless dish – but one always prettily arranged on a plate like chrysanthemum petals, the flower of death.

Fugu

Fugu can only be served in licenced restaurants and by licenced chefs and even in these it is illegal to serve the liver. If this happens and is discovered, the chef will lose his licence, and could be imprisoned.

Because of this I cannot record where I ate as indeed I asked for and was served this most deadly of foods. The raw liver is the fish equivalent of fois gras: deeply creamy and a soft texture, which if it is to be your last taste of food is at least one that is worth going with.

However, when I came seventeen years ago, I dined on fugu at ふぐ松 which can be found close to the seafront on Nakama Dori; this was an establishment that was certainly around when Fleming and Bond were in town.

You Only Live Twice by ©Gerry Wadsworth

You Only Live Twice by ©Gerry Wadsworth

Once the meal was finished, ‘Bond sat back and lit a cigarette’ and drank more hot sake now laced with raw fugu fins. Fleming made a second mistake here as the fins need to be blackened – that is grilled over a flame or baked gently in an oven – if they are to be added as it is the Maillard reaction between amino acids and sugars that produces the distinct savoury notes that add to the taste of the sake. The drink is known as hirezaki and is an essential element of any fugu meal, although its origins may be post World War 2 and not traditional.

Hughes places their fugu meal not in Beppu but in Fukuoka where he writes that Fleming used a hot match end to show that the poison of the fish temporarily numbs the lips. An author’s exaggeration as the edible flesh of the fish contains no poison at all but it makes for good story telling. Today Fukuoka boasts a number of fugu restaurants including Izumi that has been awarded two Michelin stars.

From Beppu, Bond and Fleming take different routes: the former heads directly to Fukuoka while the latter heads inland finding the scenery dramatically different from much of Japan as it was stark, almost treeless, and formed into strangely shaped undulating hills.

Fleming initially had the idea to include a storyline about the Japanese committing suicide by jumping into a ‘live volcano.’  Kyushu is the perfect place for uncovering the factual detail on this as in its centre is the active volcano Mount Aso. In the decades after the Second World War it was a popular place for suicides.

Flying towards the crater on Mount Aso

Flying towards the crater on Mount Aso

To reach the crater they took a ropeway where they could then stand on the crater’s rim and look down on the stunning turquoise magna, a sheer drop below.

The ropeway (or cable car) had opened in 1958. It is still in operation – or at least was. Due to a volcanic eruption in October 2016, it was closed when I made my visit, and access to the crater itself forbidden as there was the danger of a sudden eruption. I was told that perhaps in 2018 visitors would be able to again stand on its rim as I had done in 1999. However, in true Bond fashion I was not going to be denied a second opportunity to peer deep into death, and so I took a helicopter that offered quick rides over the crater. It was magnificent. And scary.

Flying over the crater

Flying over the crater

Magnificent as it is, the volcano fails to feature in the novel, and the story of the suicides is conflated with Beppu’s Hells to become a deadly aspect of Shatterhand’s gardens.

They stayed one night in a nearby (but unidentified) hotel where Fleming spent some time sipping the water of the onsen to determine whether it had a salt base. Apparently not.

Without a precise description other than it was a ‘good’ it is impossible to definitively identify the hotel but there is more than a very good chance that it was the Aso Kanko Hotel. The reasons are straightforward enough: it was the only Western hotel in the area (and, as we know, Fleming liked his Western trappings); it was celebrated not least because Emperor Hirohito had stayed as well as other celebrities, and it was expensive and well-appointed.

The hotel had originally opened in the late 1930s as a luxury resort. Immediately after the Second World War it was requisitioned as a R&R centre for the American Eighth Army, and this role continued until the Korean War. In July 1953 the hotel was extensively damaged by a landslide caused by heavy rains, and was subsequently rebuilt in a more contemporary style.

It can be visited today but all that will be found is a long abandoned and ruined building strewn with debris and graffiti. Over the years its popularity had declined (not an unusual fate for resort hotels as public tastes change) and despite a proposal to redevelop it as a ‘Resort for Foreigners’ published in 2000, it was, thereafter, abandoned by its owners. The video below is a rather nifty drone flight around the derelict building and grounds.

From the hotel they continued on to Fukuoka which, without explaining why, they found anti-climatic. (Hughes writes that they should have gone to Nagasaki.) Perhaps exhaustion had set in after their long journey from Tokyo or perhaps they expected a smaller version of Tokyo and were disappointed. Back in 1962 Fukuoka was far more industrial than it is now because of the nearby coalmines, and contemporary accounts describe a city that was dirty, with many unpaved side streets but overflowing with traffic from bicycles, pedestrians, three-wheeled trucks, street vendors pushing carts, and taxis all of which took little notice of traffic laws.

Fukuoka today

Since that time Fukuoka has undergone a miraculous transformation and is now one of Japan’s largest and most dynamic cities with outstanding food, much culture, and an eclectic nightlife so, even without the Bond connection, it is a place worth visiting. But the reasons behind Fleming choosing Fukuoka can only be conjecture. Nagasaki would have been a natural choice because of it being a historic city and one with long and deep links with foreigners. Perhaps Fleming thought the dropping of the atomic bomb would arouse conflicting emotions if this were his chosen location.

A number of places are mentioned in the novel (but only one by Hughes and that is the police station where Fleming interrogated a local police inspector – and which is then featured as part of the plot.)  Shatterhand’s castle, the ama island Kuro, a sex shop called ‘The Happy Shop’, and the train station only appear in the book and none are given precise descriptions.

The Police Station was described as being just off the main street ‘…a stern‐looking building in yellow lavatory brick in a style derived from the German. ‘

This police station no longer exists and in fact I failed to locate its historic position.

Shatterhand’s castle and garden were to be found on a small promontory that stuck out from the rocky coastline. Reaching the fortress by land undetected was deemed impossible but it was believed that Bondo-san could enter via the seaward side by starting out from the small island of Kuro, home to a community of ama or pearl and abalone divers.

Blofeld - You Only Live Twice

Illustration by ©George Almond

The promontory is not identified by name but geographically it is most likely to be Bishamonyama only a few miles west from Fukuoka and hence is the easy taxi ride that Fleming mentions. This is wooded and boasts a sharp summit rising to around 300 feet. Suffice to say that there is no castle here but the nearby island of Nokonoshima matches the size of Fleming’s Kuro, and lies only about a kilometre off-shore. (Fleming says that Kuro is half a mile from the castle.)

Today Kuro is celebrated as a particularly beautiful island but it has never been a place where ama lived. Indeed there is no ama island off Fukuoka and no island named Kuro (although there are at least two Kuro islands elsewhere).

Looking out towards Bishamonyama on the left and Nokonoshima on the right

(Instead Fleming had used as his inspiration Hekura Island, which had been described by Fosco Maraini in his book The Diving Girls Island and can be found in the Sea of Japan off the Noto Peninsula.)

Back to Fukuoka. To reach the island, Bond took a police launch across the Sea of Genkai; today the same journey can be undertaken on a small ferry that runs frequently and takes no more than fifteen minutes from port to island.

On reaching Kuro he is introduced to his host, the beautiful ama Kissy Suzuki, and her family. Once a Hollywood actress Kissy had decided that this was not the life for her and returned to Japan disillusioned.

Fleming writes a long description of diving for awabi (abalone), when Kissy talks fondly of David Niven this, an interesting juxtaposition, as Fleming had suggested that Niven play the role of Bond in the film Dr No rather than Sean Connery.

Having gained entry to the castle, he is captured and is dragged away for tortuous questioning. Eventually Bond kills Blofeld, escapes from the castle moments before it blows sky-high because of an erupting geyser (harking back to Beppu), and is rescued by Kissy and taken back to Kuro. Here she realises that due to his injuries Bond has lost his memory. She hides him in away from prying eyes in a cave believing that he will fail to regain his memory, and that she and Bond will remain blissful lovers for the rest of their lives.

Bond and Blofeld | Illustration by ©George Almond

However, as a consequence of his injuries and amnesia, Bond has lost his sex drive. Kissy catches the mail-boat to Fukuoka, visits a sex shop where she is able to buy a vial of sweat from a special toad that will act as an aphrodisiac. To make doubly sure that she can revive Bond’s libido, Kissy buys a pillow-book of shunga pornographic engravings.

Shunga had become popular during the Edo period when thousands of explicit paintings, prints, and illustrated books were published. Many were known as ‘pictures of the floating world’ (ukiyo-e), and executed by some of Japan’s most celebrated artists including Utamaro and Hokusai.

Shunga Art

Today sex shops abound in the red light district of Nakasu, which is literally a skip and a jump from where Kissy would have disembarked from the mail boat. I searched but was unable to locate the actual Happy Shop. Even if I had, it is unlikely that any shunga would be found on the shelves as such establishments now sell far more animated stock. Instead the interested reader could do no worse than purchase the British Museum’s catalogue of their shunga exhibition held in 2013.

The novel’s final page has Kissy wondering how to tell Bond of her pregnancy but before she has the chance, Bond announces that he must discover his past, and that he believes it starts in Vladivostok. Kissy says she will take him to Fukuoka where he can catch a train to the northern island of Hokkaido, where he can take a ferry to Sakhalin, and finally a train to Vladivostok.

Bond, Fleming, Hughes, Saito, (and indeed I) all depart Fukuoka from Hakata Station and, to borrow the final words of Hughes quoting the writer Basho, we were,

Morning cold:

The voices of travellers

Leaving the inn.

Hughes and Saito never saw Fleming again after his trip.

Incidental Intelligence

Stuck on Crab Key Island with Graham M. Thomas

Bondo-San in Japan: Interview with Graham M. Thomas

Richard Hughes: Ian Fleming’s Man in the Orient

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2 thoughts on “Our Man in Japan: James Bond in Kyushu

  1. Wonderfully informative, as usual from Mr. Thomas. I have never been to Japan, but I could almost swear otherwise after reading this article and its predecessors.
    One semi-correction, regarding “Fleming had suggested that Niven play the role of Bond in the film Dr No rather than Sean Connery.” The available correspondence suggests that Niven was among several names Fleming pitched for the unmade McClory/Whittingham film that eventually became Thunderball. Fleming’s first recorded pick for Bond was Richard Burton.
    Niven appears in YOLT because he was a friend of Fleming’s—since Ian liked mentioning his friends in his books, Niven would have been the obvious selection when writing about Hollywood.

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