Ancient samurai towns, bubbling hot springs, serene mountain temples – Oita Prefecture, in the northeast of Japan’s island of Kyushu, is a wild and diverse region which promises travellers beauty and adventure in equal measure. It’s easily accessible from airports in Tokyo (Haneda), Narita, Osaka and Nagoya, too. Stay in quaint ryokan inns, bathe in geothermal baths, and delve into the rich history of one of Japan’s most intriguing corners with this guide to Oita.
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Few aspects of Japanese history capture the imagination quite like the fabled samurai. These warrior lords held sway over the country between the 12th and 19th centuries, characterized by their fearsome armour, military might and strict code of conduct. Kitsuki, in northern Oita Prefecture, was one of their strongholds. In fact, it’s often referred to as a “sandwich castle town”, because it is home to two historic samurai districts, on hills to the north and south of town, with a commercial district in the middle. To this day, the samurai houses have been beautifully preserved, their pavilion roofs and Edo-period architecture as elegant as ever. It’s no wonder that these historic neighbourhoods are often used as filming locations for Japanese period dramas.
Several historic samurai properties are now open to the public as museums. Kitsuki Castle is a neat, three-tiered wedding cake of a fortress, claimed to be the smallest castle in Japan. It was originally built in 1394, although the structure you see now was rebuilt in the original style in 1970. Inside you’ll find a museum display on society in Kitsuki in times past, including exhibits of the personal effects of daimyo – the landlords who owned land during the feudal period, and paid the samurai to defend it.
The samurai attained vast wealth through their work for the daimyo and built beautiful houses, some of which you can still visit in Kitsuki. The grandest of them all is the Ohara Residence, which, with its clay walls, tatami floors and thatched roof, is a classic example of an aristocratic home of this time. In an effort to maintain Kitsuki’s old-world atmosphere, authorities have even given free entry to many attractions for people wearing kimonos – the perfect excuse to get dressed up.
There is no more quintessential Japanese experience than bathing in a traditional onsen (hot spring), and Oita is home to over 4000 of them – more than any other prefecture in Japan. Many hot springs are home to traditional inns known as ryokan, and in Oita you’ll find one of the most picturesque in the country. Sanso Tensui sits on a hill overlooking the Sakura Falls, which cascade dramatically into the Goraku River. Relaxing in a traditional onsen hot spring bath is a magnificent way to take in the view; afterwards, retire to your luxurious tatami-floored guestroom or enjoy some gourmet Japanese cuisine. The dishes here use fresh local ingredients, like beautifully marbled Bungo beef, shiitake mushrooms and Oita fish, famed for its natural sweetness.
Beppu is surely the hot-spring capital of Oita. This small city is home to fewer than 125,000 people, yet boasts some 2000 geothermal springs. Of these, the most famous are the so-called Seven Hells of Beppu: bubbling pools of water rich in minerals which give them each a different colour. Umi Jigoku, for example, is a vivid electric blue, while Chinoike Jigoku – known as the Blood Pond – is a striking orangey red. Mounds of bubbling mud belch from the surface of Oniishibozu Jigoku and are thought to resemble the bald heads of Buddhist monks, while Tatsumaki Jigoku is home to a powerful geyser which shoots a jet of steam every 30–40 minutes – that’s even more prolific than the USA’s Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park.
Needless to say, these hot springs are strictly for admiring from a distance – the water is far too hot for bathing. That said, the locals have discovered some novel uses for the thermal waters. In particular, the cheerfully named “hell steam cuisine” – food cooked using the natural steam from the hot springs – is well worth a try. Outside the springs you’ll find vendors selling steamed custard puddings, while you can try steaming some food yourself at the Jigoku Mushi Steam Cooking Centre. Rent a cooking chamber and buy plates of pre-prepared meat, rice and veg, and then let the steam work its magic. It’s said that the minerals in the steam imbue the food with health-giving properties and a unique flavour. Whatever your thoughts on hell steam cuisine, Beppu is certainly worth visiting for anyone with a fondness for the dramatic side of the natural world.
Oita’s beauty does not end with its hot springs. The slopes of Mount Futago, the highest peak on the Kunisaki Peninsula, are covered in dense cedar forest, from which emerges a stone staircase, thick with moss and looking almost as primeval as the trees themselves. Climb the steps, past menacing stone guardian statues, to reach Futago-ji: an ancient Buddhist temple which has stood here for more than 1300 years. Established in 718 by a monk called Ninmon, Futago-ji was the product of a school of Buddhism which also drew influence from Shinto and animist mountain worship. The temple’s centuries-old pavilions house beautifully ornate statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and Fudo, a fiery protective deity who wields a flaming sword.
After exploring infernal hot springs, remote mountain temples and ancient samurai towns, wrap up your trip with a stay in Oita City, the capital of the prefecture. Oita Prefectural Art Museum is an art-lover’s dream even before you get inside, thanks to its eye-catching exterior designed by acclaimed architect Shigeru Ban. Within, you’ll find displays of the finest artworks from the Oita region, including the nature-themed paintings of Tanoura Chikuden (1777–1835). The modern era is also represented, with a collection of artworks by Oita local Fukuda Heihachiro, famed for his colourful, minimalistic wildlife paintings.
After a day spent admiring the work of Oita’s most celebrated artists, head to the luxurious City Spa Tenku, a modern bathhouse set on the 19th–21st floors of a glass skyscraper. Relax in the open-sided terrace infinity bath, reflecting on your Oita adventures as you take in views over the city and the mountains and ocean beyond.