In Oita Prefecture, life seems to happen at a different pace to the rest of Japan, making it the perfect place to clear your head and broaden your horizons
Many first-time v isitors to Japan g rav itate towards the pu lsating neon buzz of its major cities, but if it’s mindf u lness you seek , or simply a new perspective, there are few more suitable destinations in the entire archipelago than Oita Prefecture. Situated on the southwesterly island of Ky ushu, Oita feels li ke a d isti l lation of a l l that is tranqui l and unblemished in Japanese cu lture. It’s famed for its many onsen ( hot spr ings), as wel l as its histor y as a reg ion of immense relig ious sig nificance, so you won’t find it d if ficu lt to lose yourself in amongst its many enticing sites.
Step back in time
For a true understanding of what under pins Japan’ s religious history, head to the bliss fully un disturbed Ku n is aki Peninsula. Hiring a car will certainly make your visit here much easier, but the journey is well worth it for an extensive and striking range of spiritual sites. It is thought that Shintoism and Buddhism first began to intertwine here, shown by the 9th-century Fuki-ji temple on the out skirts of Bung o-Tak ad a. It is one of the oldest wooden temple son Kyushu Island, and its architecture is beautifully complemented by the wild vegetation surrounding it. Even more arresting is the large Shin to shrine of Us a-jingu, an ornately carved vision of bright red beams with golden accents. It is the main shrine of some 40,000 in Japan dedicated to warrior god Hachiman. Near the summit of Futago-san (721 m)int he centre of the peninsula, not only will you find the Futago-ji temple, dating from 718, but lush forest sand idyllic streams that make perfect hiking scenery. No visit to the Ku n is aki Peninsula is complete without seeing Kumano Magaibutsu – two Heian-period Budd ha car v ings in a cliff face by a forest river, and some of the largest Buddhist images of this type in Japan.
Unwind in the present
Many of Oita’s centur ies-old trad itions are a live and wel l today, not least the cu lture of onsen. T he prefecture is recog nised throughout the countr y as the best onsen spot, and for the most a l l-encompassing ex per ience, it has to be the hi l ly cit y of Beppu. Here, steam r ises constantly from vents in the ground throughout the year, to the extent that in the w inter, v isitors can enjoy the sight of the entire cit y shrouded in a warm cloud. Each of the cit y’s hot spr ings has its ow n charm, so it's worth sampling as many of them as you can. For a tru ly loca l onsen ex per ience, head for the main Beppu Onsen, or for the most impressive natura l surround ings, choose K ank aiji. Arguably the most pastora l and rela x ing of them all is Shibasek i, situated a long a mountain stream. Ta kegawara Onsen in centra l Beppu is housed in a quaint wooden structure and is one of the cit y's most famous attractions. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even tr y the sand bath here, which involves being bur ied up to your neck in heated sand, before a d ip in the onsen. A v isit to the giant, bubbling , clay-li ke mud baths of Onsen Hoyo Land will also leave you feeling suitably pampered and invigorated.
Steam engulfs the city of Beppu. FAR LEFT Buddha car vings on the cliffs of Kumano. LEFT The sun rises over Oita
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP Tranquil Lake Kinrin in Yufuin; mist rises in the Yufuin basin; one of Beppu's many garden pools