June 8, 2018

Kicking it in Oita

Oita is a prefecture with a surprising amount of depth to it. This guide will give you an typical overview and also recommend some hidden gems.

A statue of Fudo Myoo at the Ogre Mountain Hell or Oniyama Jigoku in Oita Prefecture’s city of Beppu

Welcome back to another installment of my area guide series. Lately, it seems like I’m pounding out these incredibly in-depth articles at a breakneck pace. Today, we’ll be exploring Oita Prefecture in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands. Often hailed as the “onsen prefecture,” Oita and its mountainous terrain is home to many natural hot spring. Of course, chief among these is the famous Beppu onsen which is often hailed as one of Japan’s premier hot spring getaways.

While best known for its many onsen, Oita Prefecture is home to a rich cultural heritage that rivals many well known spots such as Nara and Kyoto. For example, the area’s remote Kunisaki Peninsula was one of the first locations where Shinto and Buddhism began to intermingle into a single belief system. Though these religions would later be forcibly divorced by the early Meiji government in the 19th century, there are stunning examples littered throughout the Kunisaki Peninsula documenting their symbiotic relationship.

A concept art of the 2019 Rugby World Cup which Oita Prefecture will host

In addition to Oita’s historical legacy and hot springs, the prefecture also sports an intriguing international chillness. This is in no doubt thanks to the presence of Asia Pacific University which hosts many international and study abroad students. What’s more, Oita Prefecture is also slated to host the Rugby World Cup in the year 2019. This international tilt combines with the area’s many onsen to give the region a welcoming vibe that is all but lacking in many other prefectures.

All in all, Oita Prefecture is a highly recommended destination for repeat visitors to Japan. In a way that few other places can, Oita strikes the perfect balance between a popular resort destination and a hub of hidden history waiting to be explored. Whether for a mere overnight stay in one of its many ryokan or an expedition into the area’s rich past, Oita Prefecture is sure to deliver a top notch experience.

Getting to Kyushu & Oita Prefecture

A plane flies from Tokyo to Oita Prefecture’s city of Beppu

When it comes to transportation, I have some good news and I have some bad news. The good news is that Oita Prefecture is really easy to get to. The bad news is that this almost always entails catching a flight if you’re traveling from Tokyo or Osaka. For this reason, Oita is often neglected by those holding JR Rail Passes. While the prefecture can in fact be reached by trains, the journey is needlessly long and will cost you the better part of the day. If you can afford it, save yourself some time and just book a flight with JAL or ANA.

If you are absolutely set on making use of the JR Rail Pass and must visit by train, it would behoove you to consider checking out some other prefectures in Kyushu as well. A Fukuoka to Oita itinerary is ideal and will give you a taste of Japan that most westerners seldom experience. As is always the case when taking the train, be sure to refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to plan the most effective routes.

Begin Your Oita Journey with Beppu

Steam rises from onsen in Oita Prefecture’s city of Beppu

While the capital of the prefecture is Oita City, the real draw for this region is the city of Beppu. Commonly described as an onsen heaven, this seaside town is sandwiched between a protective mountain range and the Seto Inland Sea. One feature that sets Beppu apart from other hot spring towns is the fact that the city produces more water than any other location in the country. Because of this, visitors to the area are spoiled for choice. Expect to encounter both typical onsen as well as mud baths, sand baths, and steam baths. These latter options are one of Beppu’s major defining factors evidencing why it is regularly hailed as the best onsen town in Japan.

While it’s not hard to imagine, in many ways, Beppu can easily be recognized as the world’s hot springs capital. Within the city limits, you’ll find a total of EIGHT hot spring sources. Respectively, these are known as Beppu Onsen, Kannawa Onsen, Myoban Onsen, Kankaiji Onsen, Hamawaki Onsen, Kamegawa Onsen, Horita Onsen and Shibaseki Onsen. Of course, each of these comes with its own set of hot springs and ryokan for guests and visitors to enjoy. Given the wide variety of accommodations on offer, it would be in your best interest to review a bit of research before visiting.

Beppu also has several historic public bathing facilities to check out. Of these, Takegawara was by far my favorite. First constructed in the very early years of the Meiji period (1868–1912), this facility is Beppu’s most famous public bath. Takegawara Onsen offers both your regular bathing experiences as well as hot sand baths combined with a nostalgic atmosphere that one would be hard pressed to find elsewhere. You’ll find Takegawara Onsen located here. Just note that these days, the bath is partially surrounded by a red light district.

For a full list of all bathing facilities that are open to the public, be sure to refer to the tourist information desk at the JR Beppu Station. Here, you will find stacks of English language materials and the staff are more than happy to assist you. Lastly, if you have never experienced an onsen before, be sure to read my guide first. Nothing makes being stark naked with complete strangers more awkward than not knowing the protocol or what to expect!

Beppu’s Seven Hells in Oita Prefecture

The Ocean Hell or Umi-no-Ike Jigoku in Oita Prefecture’s city of Beppu

While relaxing all day in an onsen might appeal to some visitors, the majority of tourists will likely be itching for some cultural attractions to visit. Thankfully, unlike with many other onsen towns across the country, there’s a lot to see and do in Beppu. Chief among these are the so-called “Seven Hells of Beppu.” Unlike the bathing facilities, these hot springs are displayed in their natural form as bubbling calderas. Though certainly designed to lure visitors to Beppu, they are truly a sight to behold!

In my opinion, the best way to experience the hells is to start at the Myoban Yunosato facility. From here, after learning all about minerals encrustation that are known as yu-no-hana (lit. hot water flowers), you’ll be able to meander your way down toward the first of the hells. You can reach Myoban Yunosato via bus from the JR Beppu Station. Unfortunately though, I can’t be of much help in describing this route as I was guided around by a local acquaintance with a car. I’ll therefore recommend you check in with the aforementioned tourist information desk to figure out the bus run.

Anyway, here’s a full list of all the hells with an accompanying link to a Google Map. Some of the hells are fairly easy to miss so be sure to refer to the map to get your bearings.

  • The Ocean Hell
    As can be seen in the above photo, this caldera is one of the more beautiful of the seven hells. Though appearing as an icy blue lagoon, this bubbling pool of hot water will melt the skin right off your hand.
  • The “Monk Head” Hell
    This hell is so named as it resembles the shaven heads of Buddhist monks. Nearby, you’ll also find a foot bath and a public bath with multiple pools to choose from.
  • The White Pond Hell
    Just as the name suggests, this hell features a pool of boiling, milky-white water. The area is surrounded by a peaceful little garden and also sports an aquarium that has seen better days.
  • The Cooking Pot Hell
    This hell features several boiling ponds as well as a gaudy demon statue that is dressed as a cook. Visitors can also sample the taste of hot spring water or indulge in steam-cooked snacks. There’s even a free foot bath.
  • The Ogre Mountain Hell
    Though visually not as impressive as the others, this hell has a large collection of crocodiles that are bred and kept here. And no, before you ask, the crocs are not lurking in the hot spring water.
The Blood Pond Hell or Chi-no-Ike Jigoku in Oita Prefecture’s city of Beppu

While the above five hells are clustered relatively close, the remaining two are located in the nearby Shibaseki district. Though the distance is possible to walk, it’s a bit of a hike, especially if you followed my advice and checked out the yu-no-hana. To spare your feet, take bus number 16/16A to Shibaseki where the remaining two hells are located.

  • The Blood Pond Hell
    Pictured above, this hell features a blood-red spring and is one of the more photogenic of the seven hells.
  • The Sprout Hell
    Here at this final hell you’ll encounter a boiling geyser that erupts every half-hour or so for five to ten minutes at a time.

There’s Still More to Oita Prefecture

A statue of a Buddhist monk on Oita Prefecture’s Kunisaki Peninsula

Able to drive a rental car? Well, then do I ever have some cool hidden gems for you! Though I am always up for a good soak in an onsen, my real passion is for uncovering historical narratives that have been lost to time. Luckily, when it comes to this spirit of adventure, Oita Prefecture is able to deliver in spades. As mentioned in the introduction, the area’s remote Kunisaki Peninsula is home to a cultural richness that is rarely found elsewhere. In fact, the very act of just comprehending this region’s history compels one to rethink the entire arc of Japanese history.

What’s this hidden story that has been lost to antiquity you ask? Glad you asked! Time to rewrite some text books folks! Briefly stated, the lion’s share of Japanese history, at least insomuch as it’s taught, focuses on the Kyoto and Nara areas as if they were the sole seats of power up until the start of the Edo period (1603–1868). Indeed, while much historical action clustered around these central areas, they were by no means the single source of political influence. Along with regions like Hiraizumi in northern Japan, Oita Prefecture’s Kunisaki Peninsula was one such area that accumulated power.

While today much of the tale has been lost to the pages of history, the mountains of the Kunisaki Peninsula were home to a polity known as the Rokugo (lit. “six villages”). This group served as an early “meeting of the minds” between Shinto priests and Buddhist monks from Asia. While the former group had control over the land, they lacked knowledge and a form of writing which the latter provided. The resulting combination gave rise to an elite faction that held sway over much of the Kyushu island. Over time, this synergistic fusing of Shintoism and Buddhism spread across the nation in such a manner that it became the norm.

Shinto priests meet with Buddhist monks outside of Oita Prefecture’s Usa Jingu on the Kunisaki Peninsula

Today, perhaps the best location to explore these antiquated roots is at the magnificent Usa Jingu which is pictured above. This hidden gem is the head shrine of thousands of establishments across the country that are dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war and archery (who by the way, is said to have been the legendary 15th emperor of Japan). Usa Jingu sits at the entry to the Kunisaki Peninsula and played a pivotal role in shaping the local culture of mountain worship. Historians now make claim that Usa Jingu once held dominance over a third of all the arable lands in Kyushu, a testament to the might of the Rokugo polity.

Usa Jingu sits at the base of the 721 meter-tall Mt. Futago and guards the entrance to the peninsula. Deeper into the mountain’s numerous valleys you’ll encounter a terrific collection of ancient temples just waiting to be explored. Of these, be sure not to miss Futago-ji and Fuki-ji. The former sits at the summit of Mt. Futago and boasts an imposing pair of stone Nio guardian statues. On the other hand, Fuki-ji lies 15 kilometers to the south and is home to the oldest wooden building in Kyushu. Along with Uji’s Byodo-in and Hiraizumi’s Chuson-ji, the Amida Buddha Hall at Fuki-ji is ranked as one of Japan’s best.

Unfortunately, the bucolic Kunisaki Peninsula is notoriously bad for public transportation. There are literally no trains servicing the inner areas and buses are neigh non-existent. This is where the part about the rental car comes into play. For those of you whom this is not an option, there’s unfortunately little other recourse. While Usa Jingu can be reached easily enough with the sparse options available, you’ll need to charter a taxi or join a tour to visit the other attractions. Warning — expect language barriers.

Historic buildings in Mameda-machi which is found in Oita Prefecture’s city of Hita

Looking for something a little less remote? Why not check out the charming Mameda-machi in the city of Hita. Located at the northwestern reaches of Oita Prefecture, this historic district is very reminiscent of my beloved Kawagoe’s warehouse district. The area used to be a castle town during medieval times and prospered under the Tokugawa shogunate’s protection. Blessed by good access to the rest of Kyushu, Mameda-machi grew into a major commerce center. Even today, many craftsmen continue to call this region home.

Much like the Kunisaki Peninsula, Mameda-machi is best reached by rental car. If you have to make the journey by train from Beppu, know that it requires a few transfers and will take up to two hours. Be sure to check in with our friend Hyperdia first. Once you’re there, Mameda-machi can be reached from the JR Hita Station in about 10–15 minutes on foot. Here’s a Google Map to help guide you just in case.

Note that Mameda-machi is actually closer to Fukuoka Prefecture than the resort areas of Beppu. Because of this, it might make more sense to hit up Fukuoka and Mameda-machi first before exploring Oita Prefecture. Additionally, a trip to Hita and Maeda-machi also combines well with a visit to Fukuoka Prefecture’s Asakura. If you’re on the hunt for something that most tourists never see, consider giving it a look!

Until next time travelers…