September 7, 2018

Deeper Into Oita

While Oita is best known for Beppu and its lovely hot springs, places like the Kunisaki Peninsula conceal many ancient and spiritual wonders.

The stairs leading up to Oita Prefecture's Futago-ji temple complex on the Kunisaki Peninsula

It’s no secret that I am in love with Oita. I’ve been enamored ever since I first visited the prefecture in May of 2018 for a visit arranged by the governmental agency JETRO. Our experiences were captured in this amazing video by my YouTuber friend Chris Okano. Anyway, although Oita is best known for its large collection of onsen, there’s so much more to the area than just its hot springs. In fact, despite being something of an onsen fanatic myself, it was not dreams of soaking in relaxing springs that lead me to espouse Oita. No, instead, I was and continue to be drawn to the area’s large collection of hidden narratives, especially the Kunisaki Peninsula, but more on that in a bit.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, for the last few months I’ve been working behind the scenes to help Oita prefecture get their digital marketing game up to par. Unfortunately, as Ashley Harvey, the former COO of Go Central Japan points out in this scathing review of the local travel industry.

"Government tourism departments were, not so long ago, the place where elderly gentlemen were put out to pasture in a place they could do no further damage."

—Ashley Harvey

Luckily, the Oita Prefectural Tourism Association has a leg up on their competition. Enter Yuko Yamasaki (pictured above), a bilingual former journalist with a knack for weaving gripping tales out of convoluted collections of facts. With my occasional support from the shadows, she has been doing an incredible job of garnering more global attention on Oita prefecture. So, when Yuko invited me down to explore some of the region’s uncharted locations, you better believe that I was chomping at the bit.

Note that is article will be a bit of a break from my usual style. While I regularly write up areas into easy-to-follow guides, this piece is going to be more akin to a travel journal. Many of the places that Yuko and I visited on our two day sojourn are not prepared to welcome foreign tourists just yet. In many cases, English support is every bit as lacking as the public transportation. Because of this, unless you have a Japanese-speaking to guide to assist you through both the language and logistical hurdles, you’re better off exploring more developed locations. With that said though, I’d still like to impart you, the reader, with some juicy morsels to stoke the fires of wanderlust.

Getting to Oita Prefecture

Before moving on, allow me to reiterate that this is going to be an article that delves deeper than even I typically venture. I’ll be taking you WAY off of the beaten path to areas that few tourists have ever explored. Moreover, for these reasons, the following locations and attractions are definitely not suited for first time visitors to the prefecture. For Oita newbies, I instead suggest that you initially start with my comprehensive area guide to the region. This will help you get a better sense of what Oita has to offer and is catered to those who aren’t keen on renting a car or chartering a driver for the day.

Warning stated, let’s quickly review Oita Prefecture’s geography. Located down on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu, Oita is sandwiched between the volcanic Mt. Aso and the Seto Inland Sea. Though it is possible to reach the prefecture via train, the trip is often more of a hassle than it is worth. Approximately 80 percent of Oita’s area is occupied by mountains and the challenging terrain requires the train lines to circumnavigate the towering crags. With that said, I almost always recommend booking a flight from any major city unless you have A LOT of time to kill and are looking to milk your JR pass for all its worth.

Should you opt to follow in my exact footsteps, I suggest that you book yourself a hotel near the JR Oita Station. Not only is this station the main hub for transportation within the prefecture, but the location also offers multiple hotel options. While you could stay in Beppu, a visit there is an experience unto itself and therefore something that is best saved for a later time. Though I admit I’m biased, I recommend the hotel that I stayed at. It has a rooftop onsen that has a killer view of Beppu Bay and surrounding city.

Oita’s Kunisaki Peninsula

The Kumano Magaibutsu on Oita Prefecture’s Kunisaki Peninsula

Yuko and I started our two-day journey with a visit to the Kunisaki Peninsula. This area is represented geographically on the map by the “knob” that conspicuously protrudes out into the Seto Inland Sea from Oita’s northeastern side. The Kunisaki Peninsula is charmingly bucolic and at the same time, home to a rich cultural pedigree. Here, over 1,300 years ago, the first syncretic unions between Shinto and Buddhism began to form. These gave rise to a polity known as the Rokugo Manzan. Honestly, a full explanation of this “meeting of the minds” would require a tome of its own. In the interest of staying on topic, I’ll direct those hungry for a few more details to my article on Usa Jingu. The long and the short of it is that the Shinto priests had political dominion over huge swaths of the land yet lacked knowledge of matters such as writing that the Buddhists held. The two groups collaborated and eventually melded into the Rokugo Manzan culture.

With the background the Kunisaki Peninsula now a bit clearer, let’s get back to our journey. The first destination that Yuko planned for me was the Kumano Magaibutsu. This group of stone reliefs is the largest of its kind in Japan and is registered as an Important Cultural Property. The attraction consists of two stone carvings, one of the so-called “Immovable King” Fudo Myoo and the other of the historical Gautama Buddha. Both carvings are said to date back over 1,000 years to either the late Heian (794–1185) or early Kamakura period (1185–1333). If you look closely, you can tell that the Gautama Buddha relief was carved by a master of his craft whereas the one of Fudo Myoo was fashioned by a monk in training at the nearby temple.

An artist’s rendition of the oni myth surrounding the Kumano Magaibutsu on the Kunisaki Peninsula

Just so you know, the Kumano Magaibutsu site is located at the top of a shoddily-built set of stone stairs. These can be a real challenge for those who don’t properly prepare and I’ve heard that a handful of travelers injure themselves here every year. According to our guide, the haphazard craftsmanship actually has its own unique story. Allegedly, in years gone by, the residents of the local village had grown fat and lazy. Thereafter, a local oni who had developed a lust for human flesh sought approval from the deity to devour the townsfolk. Supposedly, being was willing to turn a blind eye to the bloody feast if the oni would build a set of 100 stone steps to where the Kumano Magaibutsu reside. The only condition was that the would-be gourmet would need to complete the staircase by dawn.

As the story goes, our flesh hungry oni set about his task in a gluttonous frenzy. Though his attention to detail was certainly lacking, the starving fiend worked at a pace that even the deity did not expect. In fact, just as the oni was carrying the final stone up the makeshift steps, the god finally noticed that he had greatly underestimated the creature. Not wanting to have a village massacre on his record, he took the shape of a rooster and cried out as if the morning had come. Believing he had been denied his feat, the oni threw a tantrum and fled in a fit of rage. To this day, the locals still say that you can see the cave where the legendary oni dwelt nearby the Kumano Magaibutsu.

Statues of the four heavenly kings at Maki Odo on the Kunisaki Peninsula

Our second stop for the day was Maki Odo. This site was once the largest temple of the Tendai sect in the Kunisaki Peninsula. Historical records show the temple was used for Buddhist monks practicing asceticism and a whole other assortment of training. Today, little remains of the temple’s past glory other than the former main hall. Luckily though, you can still get a taste of Maki Odo’s bygone splendor by visiting the site’s treasure repository. Constructed in 1966, this modern facility houses three breathtaking statues made entirely from wood. The trio was thankfully spared the same fate that befell the rest of Maki Odo and comprise of the following celestials:

  • Amida Buddha
    The principle image of Maki Odo is the Amida Buddha and let me say that the 215 cm tall sculpture will leave you speechless. The statue is made of multiple pieces of wood that have been seamlessly combined into the masterpiece pictured above. Be sure not to miss the four heavenly kings that surround the Amida Buddha on all sides!
  • Fudo Myoo
    This towering piece of art stands on one side of the Amida Buddha and his heavenly kings. This statue is over 250 cm tall and is the largest image of Fudo Myoo in Japan. The “Immovable King” is flanked on both sides by representations of his dualistic harsh and gentle nature.
  • Daiitoku Myoo:
    This imposing figure is known as Daiitoku Myoo in Japan and has six feet, six hands and six faces. He is often referred to as a god of war and sits astride a giant white beast.

Note that, as with most temples, you’re typically not allowed to take photographs in the inner areas. Given that I had an escort from the Oita Prefectural Tourism Association, the monks let it slide but you won’t be so fortunate…

Though not much of Maki Odo remains today due to a massive fire 700 years ago, it’s easy to imagine just how affluent the temple must have been in days of yore. After all, many of the Buddhist carvings in the Kunisaki Peninsula are made of rock due to their ability to better withstand the tests of time. The fact that Maki Odo’s Buddhist iconography is made from wood presupposes that the ascetics here had dedicated shelters to protect them from the elements. Put another way, they were financially well off enough to be able to provide roofs for their incredible works of art.

After being completely floored by the majesty of Maki Odo’s wood sculptures, we returned to our car and headed to the area nearby Tennen-ji. After all, we had a date with a demon and we didn’t want to keep the fiend waiting! Truth be known though, this is a bit of a lie. You see, while the Japanese word oni is often translated as “demon” when interpreted in English, the actual being is much more akin to what we might call an ogre. This isn’t all too surprising though as the leathery wings and whatnots that characterize western demons are entirely absent from Japanese folklore.

Now all throughout Japan, oni are often thought to be malevolent entities. Yet for some unknown reasons, these terrors instead became benefactors in the Rokugo Manzan culture. Today, this legacy continues to be celebrated in the Kunisaki Peninsula in what is known as the Shujo Onie Festival. Every year during the month of February, the locals gather at Tennen-ji to pray for abundant harvests and good health. Though the festival goes all day, the main attraction only starts after it gets dark. To kick things off, a few chosen members will begin by purifying themselves in the nearby river in front of a stone relief of Fudo Myoo. Though the spiritually cleansing dip doesn’t last long, keep in mind this all happens in the middle of February.

Anyway, this is all merely the preamble for what happens next. After receiving the blessings from the monks of Tennen-ji, the now-purified selection of local men will begin lighting giant braziers. Once lit, these will be thrashed against the foundations of Tennen-ji’s main building to invoke prosperity in the future. Eventually, the climax of the night’s festivities will begin. As can be seen in the video above, two oni will appear out of the darkness and prowl the narrow halls. The pair of creatures will smash lit bundles of wood against the complex’s exposed, flammable beams in an effort to bless the crowd. As you can imagine, this peppers the ecstatic crowd with burning ash but that’s just all part of the Shujo Onie Festival’s fun. If you’re afraid of fire, this might be one you want to skip though.

Masks and other tools related to the Kunisaki Peninsula’s Shujo Onie Festival

Unfortunately, my journey with Yuko was scheduled during September so I wasn’t able to enjoy the fun. Luckily though, a nearby facility holds a small museum that chronicles the Shujo Onie Festival as well as the area’s history. Given that it’s the only place to park nearby, you really can’t miss it. While all of the explanations are in Japanese, I cannot more highly recommend popping in if you’re not planning on taking in the festival. The museum has a great video that tries to recreate what it would be like to actually partake in the Shujo Onie Festival. Note that the same building that houses the museum also has some really good local soba. Should you find yourself visiting Tennen-ji, be sure to stop by for a bowl!

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. On the way out, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for this tiny bridge perched up in the mountains behind the museum. Known as Mumyo Bridge, this stone archway leads to a spot where practitioners once traveled to train. Allegedly, the walkway was used to challenge monks’ mental stability. And these days, millennial bitch and moan about their difficult commutes to work…

The iconic Nio guardians of Futago-ji on Oita Prefecture Kunisaki Peninsula

After having lunch and encountering an oni, the next stop on our list was the amazing Futago-ji temple complex. This impressive site is located at the top of the 721 meter-tall Mt. Futago, the highest mountain on the Kunisaki Peninsula. The temple was originally established all the way back in 718 and thereafter became an important site of ascetic training for the Rokugo Manzan. While I cannot comment on the validity, I’ve read online that during the Edo period (1603–1868) nearly two-hundred temples on the Kunisaki Peninsula were all merged into the present incarnation of the temple. These days, Futago-ji’s precincts are considered to be a Prefectural Historic Site by the local government. What’s more, Futago-ji is located within a natural wonderland that is often hailed as one of Japan’s top 100 forests.

The entirety of Futago-ji is indeed spectacular (and especially so in autumn) however it is its two Nio guardian statues pictured above that get all the attention. These solemn effigies were created hundreds of years ago and stand watch over the mossy stairs that lead up to the temple. Truth be told, I tried my hardest to be a hipster and shoot something else but I kept coming back to the pair of stone guardians. There’s just something about their stern yet welcoming visages that is inescapably alluring. Call me mainstream if you must but damn are those things spectacular to look at!

Anyway, in addition to the pair of Nio guardians that watch over the approach to the temple, the Futago-ji temple grounds are also home to additional wonders. Among these are the Goma-do hall which is dedicated to Fudo Myoo (boy, he’s just about everywhere) and the Okuno-in hall which enshrines the merciful Bodhisattva Kannon. Lastly, brave and/or suicidal readers may even try ascending a challenging path that cuts through the mountain side. Those who make it without falling to their doom will be able to view some natural wonders. Unless you’re particularly looking to die though, this can be skipped without worry.

A bunch of stone Buddhas at Monjusen-ji on Oita Prefecture’s Kunisaki Peninsula

For our final stop of day one, we hit up Monjusen-ji. This ancient site has a history that dates well back to 648 and is apparently the first of the Rokugo Manzan temples. The Bodhisattva Monju, widely known as the “Progenitor of Wisdom,” is the principal deity of Monjusen-ji and the temple has a rarely revealed statuette in his likeness. Though it too sports a pair of Nio guardians like Futago-ji, the similarities end there. For one, Monjusen-ji is much smaller than its larger sibling. Moreover, the temple is nestled into the cliffside and you’ll need to scale a steep set of over 300 stairs to get there.

Monjusen-ji has a host of activities to enjoy from the Goma Fire Ritual to even spending the night “Shukubo” style yet I had another purpose in coming here. You see, Yuko had arranged for me to meet the head monk of the temple so that I could get some answers to the burning questions I had about the Kunisaki Peninsula. The monk obliged and walked me through the hidden history of the area. I won’t bore you with an overly complicated tale that even I am still working on comprehending but suffice to say, the Kunisaki Peninsula played a far greater role in Japanese history than I had thought. If you’re interested in learning more hit me up on social media and I’ll be happy to walk you through what I can.

Following our discussion, one intriguing thread that I finally understood was why such a remote part of Japan maintained such a flourishing syncretic religious culture. As I learned, the Kunisaki Peninsula was situated directly on the route to and from China. Any and all ships bound for the mainland would therefore have to make a stop near Usa Jingu at the base of the Kunisaki Peninsula. As such, the Rokugo Manzan polity were, by default, the first to get their hands on any and all new teachings coming out of China. This, coupled with the natural environment, proved to be the perfect training grounds for practicing esoteric Buddhism. Moreover, the mountainous terrain of temples such as Monjusen-ji allowed for unobstructed vantages of all ships sailing in and out of the port.

All in all, I think the Kunisaki Peninsula could easily be one of my favorite areas in all Japan. If you’re looking for something “spiritual” that hasn’t yet been commodified like Mt Koya has been, it’s hard to compete with what the Kunisaki Peninsula has to offer. Though access and language are indeed still problems, the local powers that be are doing their best and have recently added English audio guides at several sites. For repeat visitors to Japan who are looking for something a little different, I cannot more highly recommend a visit to the Kunisaki Peninsula!

Oita Prefecture’s Bungo-Ono

A stone lantern in the middle of one of Bungo-Ono’s rice fields in Oita Prefecture

For day two, Yuko and I got back in the car and headed south in the pouring rain to the rural city of Bungo-Ono. To kick things off and get to know the lay of the land, we first made our way to the Bungo-Ono City Museum of History & Folklore. In addition to archiving the annals of the local culture, this facility also details the massive geopark in which the city of Bungo-ono is located. Much of what we learned is too specific for this piece yet nevertheless it was intriguing to see how much of the area was formed by ancient volcanic eruptions. Moreover, these geological happenings have tangible cultural parallels too. For example, one of the reasons that Oita is home to over 70 percent of all the stone Buddha carvings is the prevalence of soft stone that is easy to work with.

On that note, our second stop for the day was the Fuko-ji Magaibutsu. Much like the aforementioned Kumano Magaibutsu, the engravings at Fuko-ji are carved directly into the cliff face. The largest Buddha at this site is over 11 meters tall, making it one of the biggest in Oita prefecture (and by proxy, all of Japan). While this stone masterpiece is indeed quite impressive in and of itself, I was even further moved due to having just learned about Bungo-ono’s geology. By the way this connection between knowledge and place is something that I consider to be key to the experience of authenticity that I keep harping on and on about.

Next up, after exploring Fuko-ji and it’s giant stone Buddha, Yuko and I headed to the stunning Harajiri Falls. Often hailed as the “Niagara of Japan,” this picturesque, 120 meter-wide wonder of nature is quite the sight to behold. Japan. Like with the Fuko-ji Magaibutsu, this stunning attraction is also a product of the Bungo-Ono Geopark’s unique geological environment. Thereafter, we hit up a collection of three local shrines that play a central role in the region’s festivals. Truth be known, the Bungo-ono Geopark is massive and home to a ton of other attractions too. Unfortunately, in the interest of time, we had to skip a lot but you could easily spend the better part of a day exploring the many options.

A lunch plate at the Vege Cafe Ms in Oita Prefecture Bungo-Ono area

For lunch, we swung by The Vege Cafe Ms. that is a few minutes drive away from the Harajiri Falls. Here we dined on some of the freshest local produce that I’ve ever had. Moreover, the lion’s share of the veggies were all locally sourced from the Bungo-ono area. Trust me when I say that the meal was just as good as it looks in the above picture. After eating our fill, we made a quick stop at a small museum-like facility next door. This space curates a large collection of dolls made by a local artisan who passed away at the age of 89 in 2007. Each of her works depicts a scene from the creator‘s past and a quick perusal is like flipping through the pages of her diary. Note than entering this museum will run you a few hundred yen.

Oh yeah, before moving on, if you’re interested in industrial tourism and seeing how local sake is made in Bungo-ono, swing by Takakiya. Japanese speaking male readers beware! Don’t be surprised if the wife of the owner lauds you with compliments on your looks and even tries to set you up with her daughter. The things I suffer through for content…

Oita’s  Stone Buddhas in Usuki

The ancient Usuki Stone Buddhas in Oita Prefecture

For the final stop of our two day adventure, Yuko and I hopped back on the highway and headed towards the Usuki area. Our destination was a collection of stone sculptures known as the Usuki Stone Buddhas. Carved from hardened volcanic ash sometime during the Heian period (794–11185), this set of statues is quite different from the aforementioned Kunano and Fuko-ji Magaibutsu. Though the Usuki Stone Buddhas are also technically reliefs, the softer rock here allowed craftsmen to create more three-dimensional representations of Buddhist icons. In 1995, 59 of the statues here were designed as national treasures, becoming the first stone Buddhas in all of Japan to receive this distinction.

The Usuki Stone Buddhas are separated into four different clusters. While many of the effigies are still in prime condition, the years have not been kind to some of the others. Quite frankly, there’s something haunting about looking at engravings in the rock face that have partially crumbled away. After all, the very fact that even stone has a lifespan is a solemn reminder of the impermanence of existence and the entropic nature of reality. While many of the Usuki Stone Buddhas’ colors have faded, the remaining hues become visible again when wet. If you’re lucky enough to be able to visit on a rainy day like we were, you’re in for a real treat!

In addition to the Usuki Stone Buddhas, be sure to also check out the two Nio guardians at the nearby Mangatsu-ji temple that allegedly look like Ultraman. According to our guide, long ago the area was plagued by disease. In an effort to cure themselves, the locals ground up the stone noses of the pair of statues into a powder which they then imbibed. Miraculously, they were somehow cured of their ailments though I certainly can’t say that modern medicine would approve of the villagers’ methods…

Oh yeah, before I forget, be sure to also keep your eyes peeled for the torii gateway at the entrance to the Usuki Stone Buddha complex. Due to several floods over the years, the archway has sunken deep into the ground making it the torii equivalent of a miniature horse (at least when compared with a regular sized stallion).

Rental bikes at Usuki’s tourism information center in Oita Prefecture

Anyway, readers looking for more in the Usuki area should know that the region is also home to a former castle town. Though it pales in comparison to something like Kawagoe, it makes a nice addition to the Usuki Stone Buddhas. Unfortunately, like with many other areas across Japan, the castle was lost to the ages and the only prominent structures remaining are a turret and a gate. To be frank Yuko and I didn’t have all too much time to explore Usuki’s castle town so I’ll defer to the Japan Guide entry on this one. Note that as can be seen above, the local tourism centers have bicycles available to rent. This is a great way to both get around and save time without the need to worry about where to park the car.

Wrapping Up Oita Prefecture

As anyone who makes it this far can likely imagine, my two days in Oita were jam-packed full of utterly exhausting adventures. If you seek to replicate anything detailed in this article, it would behoove you to do it a bit more leisurely than Yuko and I did. Given that we were on a deadline, our trek across the prefecture was at a breakneck speed but travelers from overseas would do better to take their time and smell the roses.

As always, if you have any questions about visiting any these spots, please don’t hesitate to hit me up. Depending on what you’re interested in doing, I’ll see if I can’t get you set up with a proper guide!

Until next time travelers…