[From December Issue 2013]
An area of hot springs, Oita Prefecture is visited by tourists not only from within Japan, but from all over the world. Although located in the Kyushu region, links with the Chugoku region, Shikoku, and Kansai have flourished via the Seto Inland Sea. This is because Oita is surrounded by mountains, and therefore, until the advent of modern roads and railroads, interaction with other prefectures in Kyushu was rather limited.
In terms of their sheer number and output, the hot springs in Oita Prefecture outstrip any other in Japan. Within the prefecture there are 4,471 individual sources, the greatest concentration in the world. There are 11 varieties of hot spring in the world, ten of which can be found in Oita. Whether you’re talking sand baths, mud baths or steam baths, Oita’s springs are also characterized by their rich diversity. There are also carbonated hot springs, hot springs that turn from being transparent to brown when the water comes into contact with the air, and hot springs that you can drink from to help alleviate stomach disorders.
In Beppu City, where over half of the prefecture’s spring sources are located, hot springs have been typically utilized as public bathhouses for centuries. That’s why, even today, many old houses do not have a bath. Moreover, these days it’s not unusual for baths in modern homes to draw their water from a hot spring.
Taking the best part of the day to cover, the “Hell Tour” begins just five minutes by car from the Beppu Interchange. From the blue “Umi-jigoku” (sea hell) to the red “Chinoike-jigoku” (blood pond hell), it’s possible to see eight individual hot springs. Scalding hot water gushes out from each spring with tremendous force, allowing visitors to experience the enormous power of the Earth’s energy firsthand. Jigoku-mushi savory dishes and puddings are cooked instantly by harnessing the power of the high temperature steam.
Only a 40-minute drive from The Hell Tour, is “Yu no Tsubo Kaido” (Hot Spring Boulevard) in Yufu City, another popular tourist spot. The street is lined with gift shops and eateries. One street away from the main road is the Oita River where one can take a stroll and enjoy the scenery that changes according to the season. Only a 15-minute walk away is Kinrin Lake, in which a hot spring bubbles up from the bottom. On winter mornings this creates a fog on the surface of the lake; a fantastic spectacle.
Another 50 minutes by car from Kinrin Lake is Kokonoe “Dream” Suspension Bridge in Kokonoe-machi. At 173 meters high and 390 meters long, it is Japan’s largest suspension footbridge. From the highest point of the bridge, it’s possible to enjoy some spectacular scenery: the Kuju Mountains, the Kyusui Ravine, the Shindo Waterfall and the Naruko River Canyon. A 45-minute drive from there takes you to the Kuju Flower Park on the Kuju Plateau in Taketa City. With the Kuju Mountains as a backdrop, in this extensive flower park, depending on the season, a variety of different flowers bloom including, tulips, lavenders, and cosmoses.
Situated on the north side of the Kuju Mountains, the Tadewara Wetlands in Kokonoe-machi is a marsh formed from an alluvial fan created by volcanic activity. Along with the Bogatsuru Wetlands, it was registered in the Ramsar Convention (Convention on Wetlands of International Importance) in 2005. It is possible to stroll freely through these wetlands and the surrounding forests along a trail that was constructed for the purposes of studying the nature in the area.
Those with an interest in history should head for the Stone Buddhas of Usuki in Usuki City. Carved into a natural cliff face, the statues have been designated a natural treasure. Believed to have been carved around the 12th century, there are four groups of over 60 stone Buddhas. In the nearby Stone Buddha Park different flowers can be enjoyed in different seasons, but it’s recommended that visitors go in July and August when the Sacred Lotus blossoms. In Oita City there are also the Oita Motomachi Stone Buddhas and Kamezuka Kofun (an ancient burial mound). In Bungo-ono City there are the Sugao Stone Buddhas.
Usa Jingu in Usa City is the head shrine for over 40,000 Hachiman shrines across the country. The grounds are so enormous that it takes about an hour to walk around the whole perimeter. One notable feature is that, along with many of its surrounding buildings, the main shrine – which has been designated as a national treasure – has been lacquered in vermillion. Only used once every ten years, another highlight is the covered bridge and courtyard. The road leading up to the shrine is lined with a number of gift shops.
An Edo period (17-19th centuries) townscape has been preserved in Kitsuki City. The sloping streets of “Suya no Saka” and “Shihoya no Saka” used to connect the higher level samurai manors with the merchant town below and, because of their scenic beauty, are often used as a backdrop for filming TV dramas and movies. Before taking a stroll, it’s recommended that you visit Waraku-an, where you can rent kimono to wear for only 2,000 yen, this also earns you free admission into Kitsuki Castle, a museum and other places. If you don’t speak Japanese, it is no problem, but English-speaking representatives can be made available if you call ahead of time.
Those who want to immerse themselves in nature are encouraged to visit the Inazumi underwater limestone caves in Bungo-ono City. Caves of this scale are rarely found anywhere else in the world. Formed 200,000 years ago during the glacial period, there, countless stalactites can be found. The water inside is over 40 meters deep. Magical scenery can also be found at Yufu River Gorge in Yufu City. The v-shaped gorge, measuring between 20 to 50 meters deep, with its innumerable strings of cascading water and smoothly eroded rock is a natural work of art.
These days the “Olle” style of travel, which originated in Korea, is attracting attention. With a map in one hand, participants walk along at their own pace, looking out for ribbon signposts placed along the route while enjoying the scenery. In the dialect of Jeju Island in Korea, Olle means “the narrow road home.” In Kyushu there are eight routes. Passing by various parks and temples along the way, the Oita route starts at Asaji Station in Bungo-ono City and gives hikers an enjoyable taste of the rural landscape. Finishing at Bungo Taketa Station in Taketa City, the route is approximately 12 kilometers long and takes five to six hours to complete.
Blessed by nature, Oita has lots of delicious local cuisine to offer. Its dried shiitake mushrooms and barley shouchuu liquor are renowned throughout Japan. Oita brand seki aji (Japanese horse mackerel) and seki saba (Japanese chub mackerel) are considered to be of the highest quality. Normally chub mackerel has to be cooked to be eaten, but this variety can be eaten raw as sashimi. Oita produces 97% of the kabosu (a type of citrus fruit) grown in Japan. With its juice poured over sashimi, tsukemono (pickled vegetables) or into beer, most of it is consumed in the prefecture. Toriten deep-fried chicken dipped in tempura batter is a staple local specialty as well as a traditional home-cooked dish.
In the Oita Prefecture Tourism Guidebook are a number of different coupons offering discounts and special promotions. Information and directions are available in English, Korean and Chinese both inside JR Beppu Station and on the street just outside the station. A “Friendly Guide” service can be provided if requested at the cost of 3,000 yen for two hours, excluding travel expenses.
It takes roughly six and half hours to get to Oita Station from JR Tokyo Station on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train), transferring at Kokura along the way. From Haneda Airport in Tokyo it’s roughly a one and a half hour flight to Oita Airport. At Oita Airport, plastic replicas of sushi plates of shrimp and sea urchin revolve around the conveyor belt as you wait for your luggage.