After all the self-indulgence of Beppu, the small and attractive castle town of USUKI (臼杵) offers a reminder of the spiritual side of life, and makes a pleasant stop on the coastal route to or from Miyazaki. Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, in a little valley around 5km southwest of town, skilled craftsmen sculpted some sixty Buddha statues in the soft lava tuff. The weather has taken its toll since then, but restoration work has saved several of these serene statues, which continue their vigil unperturbed.
The stone Buddhas, or Seki butsu (石仏), are grouped around the sides of a narrow north–south valley and divided into four clusters, of which the first and last are the most interesting. Following the path anticlockwise, the first you reach is the Hoki Second Cluster, dominated by a 3m-tall figure of Amitabha Buddha and his two attendants, each individually expressed. The path then takes you round via the Hoki First Cluster – comprising over twenty statues – and the rather worn Sannōsan trinity of Buddhas, to the Furuzono Cluster. Here, the central Dainichi Nyorai is considered one of Japan’s finest stone-carved Buddhas. While the lower body has partly rotted away, the Buddha’s face, picked out with faded pigment, is still sublime.
After you’ve walked round the Buddhas, which won’t take much over thirty minutes, it’s worth taking a quick stroll through the old centre of Usuki on the way back to the station. You’ll eventually come out on a traditional shopping street, where the local speciality, fugu, is much in evidence, either for sale dried in shops or on restaurant menus.