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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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.
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.
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.
Header image: Higashishiiya waterfall near Beppu © Shutterstock