Ōita: Hot Springs, Gods, and Hills

Further West

A few weeks after arriving in Kansai for work, I traveled to Oita to meet an old friend staying in Beppu. After work, I took the Shinkansen to Kokura (Kita-Kyushu) and switched to the Sonic Express to Beppu. The Sonic Express twisted and turned across Northern Kyushu until finally I arrived at Beppu, a town famous for many Onsen’s.

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When I arrived at Beppu, I noticed a slightly different accent to the Japanese just in the train station announcements. I made my way out of the station past several signs for nearby Onsen and found my hotel, just another station-area business hotel.

An Overview Map of the Journey
An Overview of the Journey

To the Kunisaki Peninsula

After a brief night of sleep, I went to rent a car and meet my friend. We didn’t really have much of a plan, so we set out towards the Kunisaki Peninsula. The road out of Beppu ran along the coast for a ways through smaller neighborhoods and little towns, but never really became very rural. Eventually, we saw a castle up on the hill above us as we crossed a bridge to a different town and decided to stop.

We had arrived in Kitsuki, Oita. Kitsuki is a small town at the Southern edge of the Kunisaki Peninsula. Like most small Japanese towns, it was picturesque and very quiet. We parked the car and walked up the small hill to the castle.

Originally built in 1394, it was destroyed during the Meiji Restoration and re-built in 1970. The reconstructed castle is home to a small museum featuring various statues, samurai armor, and other local historical artifacts. The castle overlooks the town and a small bay at the edge the larger Beppu Bay.

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From the castle, we turned towards the center of the Kunisaki Peninsula and up the slopes of Mt Futago. As far as roads climbing mountains are concerned, the path up Mt Futago is very straight with only a few curves. Somewhere near the top of the mountain, we stumbled on Futago-ji, a Buddhist Temple established in 718.

Futago-ji and Usa-jingu

Futago-ji (両子寺) sits near the top of the Kunisaki Peninsula. The main temple building itself is somewhat typical, but the setting is breathtaking in the autumn. My friend and I wandered up the hill on the path through the forest as the multi-colored leaves fell. Japanese forests are always somewhat spiritual places and this was no exception.

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From Futago-ji, we drove back down the mountain and off the Kunisaki Peninsula. As we drove, we decided to turn towards Usa-jingu (宇佐神宮), a Shinto shrine originally founded in the early 700’s. After a lifetime of associating the letters U-S-A with the United States of America, it’s a little strange to see road signs that read “Usa 12 km” in rural Japan.

The shrine is set on a small hill and has multiple levels, so is somewhat interesting to explore. Despite its somewhat remote location on Kyushu, it is one of the more major shrines in Japan. As the first shrine to enshrine Hachiman-jin, Usa-jingu is considered the head of the many Hachiman shrines throughout Japan. Our visit was somewhat brief and from Usa, we headed back South towards Yufuin, where I had a hotel for the evening.

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Yufuin (湯布院)

Yufuin is a small town at the base of Mount Yufu (由布岳), a volcano. It is known as the site of many Onsen and is a popular tourist destination in Oita. The town has a single main shopping street, a small lake (with hot springs feeding into it), and scenic views of the surrounding volcanic hills.

We wandered the shopping street until the shops closed and found a yakiniku restaurant before heading back to rest for the night. Like many Japanese hotels and Ryokans, the rooms do not have showers or baths attached to each room. This particular hotel had a naturally-fed Onsen in a wooden tub (imagine a giant masu 枡—the box that glasses of sake are often poured over).

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The following morning, we left Yufuin and drove back towards Beppu. The views of Mount Yufu were astounding as the road curved and twisted its way up and over. When we were almost at the edge of Beppu, we turned onto the highway and drove South-East towards Usuki, a small town known for a set of Stone Buddhas.

Usuki Stone Buddhas (臼杵磨崖仏)

Just outside of Usuki is a large and remarkable set of Stone Buddhas from the 12th century. They range in size from very small to just a few times larger than human-scale. The stone buddhas are carved into the sides of the hills and stretch across a few small gullies that lead to a small valley full of rice fields. There were a few buses of Japanese and a few tourists, but no one else from overseas. Most foreign tourists travel by public transport and sometimes by group tour, but rarely by car to the smallest and most out of the way places. I find that renting a car and heading out in a random direction in Japan generally yields amazing hidden treasures like the Usuki Buddhas.

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The layering of Japanese culture, history, and religion is always present and was once again on display at Usuki. On a hill-top between the carvings of Buddhas there is at least one small (mostly abandoned) Shinto shrine and another one in the valley below. Usa-jingu (the previous day’s stop) once hosted a Buddhist temple on its grounds as well. It’s no wonder most foreigners can’t really distinguish between Shinto, Buddhist, and “new” religions in Japan very well.

The overall setting for the Buddhas is a typical rural Japanese scene. Small fields, farm-houses, and winding paths. The country may be modern on the one hand, but remains traditional and ancient at its core.

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We drove back to the center of Usuki and wandered around the town a bit. At this time of year (November), it seemed half-abandoned but we were able to find some lunch at a small restaurant before heading back towards Beppu. The town has some older buildings that are of some interest.

Back in Beppu, I stopped by my friend’s art exhibition to take a look at some of the latest works. I waited for my train to Kokura in an onsen near Beppu station and returned to Osaka for work the next morning.

Is this a real-life Thwomp?!

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