Japan is well known for its capital city, Tokyo and for Kyoto and Osaka yet it has many hidden gems that will surprise and delight visitors. One such gem is the island of Kyushu and the region of Oita Prefecture. With the most natural hot springs in Japan and stunning mountain ranges, there are some great things to do in Oita.
From Tokyo it’s only a 1 and a half hour flight to Oita. We flew with ANA from Haneda Airport, which has the advantage of being close to Tokyo centre. They give you complimentary soft drinks on board and we bought a soraben bento box at the airport. They’re a special type of bento, available for takeaway at airports and beautifully packaged. There was a fantastic selection of ready made boxes at reasonable prices.
Oita airport is very compact so it only took a few minutes to collect my checked in bag and to exit. Oita Prefecture will be hosting several of the Rugby World Cup matches at the next Olympic Games in 2019, which will no doubt put this hidden gem firmly on the map. Oita Prefecture’s slogan is Japan’s best hot spring hot spot as it has 4,381 hot springs, together with the largest annual yield of hot spring water.
Things to Do in Oita – Nakatsu
Our first destination was Nakatsu City which has a distinctive 8 arched bridge.
Close by, Farmer’s Restaurant Domon Patio is a perfect choice for lunch. It’s run by local women who have prepared delicious local dishes. Try the vegetable juice drink which was so tasty that I had 3 glasses! The dishes are all laid out buffet style and there’s an extensive choice. The cooks smiled and said goodbye to us as we left.
After lunch we visited a traditional Japanese house, with it’s cosy kotatsu mattress table which has a heat source underneath and keeps your feet warm. There was also a koto, a musical instrument that the daughter of the house played.
Our next port of call was Ao-no-domon Cycling Center. It’s popular with locals and tourists alike, who come to enjoy the Maple Yaba Cycling Road in Nakatsu-Yabakei Gorge. This 35 km track is reserved is built on an old rail track, reserved for bikes only and passes by scenic spots such as Yabakei Bridge. There are three places from which to rent bikes including Yabakei Cycling Terminal. It has a variety of bikes to choose from including all-terrain cycles and even a tandem. My bike was great fun to ride, with low handlebars and a comfy padded leather seat. Thankfully there were plenty of gears to help tackle any inclines. Having said that, the route we cycled was fairly pain free. As it was raining hard, we only did about 15 minutes. For those who prefer to avoid any hills, you can cycle down one way and get a driver to pick you up at the other end rather than doing a loop. I’d definitely recommend this cycle ride to all nature lovers and those keen on sport.
After this we headed to Yabakei Dam Memorial Gardens in Keisekien. These traditional Japanese gardens were made into a park when the nearby dam was constructed. There are some huge koi carp in the little lake and the moss growing there is particularly rare – some people visit the gardens just to see it.
From here we travelled on to the area of Hita and Mameda Town, known for its old merchant houses. The town was governed by the Tokugawa Shoguns in the Edo era from 1603 to 1867 and now has heritage status. There are some interesting places to visit such as Kuncho Sake Brewery Museum, where you can find out more about traditional sake manufacturing, taste a range of superb sakes and purchase them in the shop.
To the rear, there’s the Tenryo Hina Dolls Museum, that showcases over 3,000 handmade antique dolls.
There’s also an interesting little design shop that sells handcrafted wooden and paper items, Hita Sugi Project. Less than 10 minutes drive away you’ll find Hina-no-Sato SANYOUKAN. This hotel is clean and centrally located, with the advantage of having its own onsen. The hot spring water is channelled and used for hot bath facilities. This onsen, located on the 3rd floor of the hotel, has a nice river view. Men use one side and women use the other, as nude bathing is the usual practice. I was surprised at how hot the water is but you get used to it quickly and it’s very pleasant. The water has purported medicinal benefits and considered to be good for aches and pains. Guests have the opportunity to sleep in Western rooms or traditional Japanese style, which was fun to try and surprisingly comfortable. Breakfast at the onsen was served in private rooms bordering the buffet. In each of these, a bento box full of tasty morsels had been thoughtfully laid out on each table.
Another novel experience was dining on the onsen’s riverboat, the Yakata-bune. You dress in the yakata or light Summer kimono provided in your room. There are normally several tables of diners but as our visit was out of season we were the only ones on board. The waiting staff were very friendly and they brought us a succession of delicious dishes presented in a series of attractive little pots.
Aso Kuju National Park
Located in the centre of the Kyushu area, Asjo Kuju National Park is known for its huge caldera or volcanic cauldron measuring around 100km. Mount Kuju is the highest mountain in Kyushu, at 1,791 m high. It’s ideal to visit in May when it’s covered in pink Kyushu azaleas, or October when the trees turn vivid shades of red, yellow and orange. We popped into Chojabaru Visitor Centre where we met the manager who spoke excellent English. After showing us an informative video on the mountain and marshland, she took us on a tour of the boardwalk. Thanks to this structure, the marshlands are easily accessible to those with physical impairments. Tadewara Marshland is situated on the northwest side of Mount Kuju and is home to a huge range of fauna and flora, from Japanese Water iris to fan-tailed warblers.
Every year, villagers conduct noyaki or controlled burning of the meadows in order to preserve the vegetation.
Our guide sometimes plays the harp in the middle of the marshes – how atmospheric that must be!
Mount Fuju is also easily accessible for those who aren’t expert hikers although it’s recommended that they wear waterproofs and appropriate hiking boots.
Our next stop was lunch at Marufuku, famous for its fried chicken. Rest assured that it’s nothing like fast food chicken, being much better quality and of higher nutritional value. The toriten or chicken tempura was particularly moreish. The restaurant has 2 types of seating – an open plan area with tables and chairs and individual booths with traditional Japanese seating – very cosy.
Afterwards we visited Oka Castle, a real highlight of my Oita region trip. Originally constructed in 1185 by general Ogata Koreyoshi, it was inhabited by up to 3000 people at one point. Being built on a hill, it was already hard to invade but the builders made it trickier still by creating narrow paths where only a couple of people could enter at a time. Even though only the ruins of the original structure remain, it’s an atmospheric place with beautiful foliage and great views towards the Kuju mountain range. It’s also one of Japan’s top 100 cherry blossom spots and the Oka Castle Cherry Blossom Festival takes place in early April. There’s a statue of Rentarō Taki, one of Japan’s foremost composers and pianists who composed the song Moon Over the Ruined Castle in 1901 in homage to Oka.
After our castle visit we headed to Takeda Sogo Gakui to try our hand at bamboo pendant making. This former secondary school is now a hub for local artists and craftsmen. Our tutor is a talented artist whose works are all sculpted from bamboo, even though they look like copper or steel. He explained how to shape the pendant by threading the bamboo strands to create a ball shape. Whilst I won’t give up the day job just yet, I was happy with the end result.
The nearby area of Nagayu is considered to have one of the hundred best hot springs in Japan. The water is carbonated and has health benefits such as improving blood circulation. I tried an individual bathing room at Nagayu Onsen, a Ryokan (Japanese inn) on the river Serikawa. They admit guests who wish to use the facilities for a reasonable price, and they also have guest rooms and a restaurant. We dined at Kajika-An, a great local restaurant for meat dishes and vegetable tempura.
The weather in Kyushu was lovely and sunny and our morning hike was a real pleasure. We were taking part in Oku-Bungo Olle walking course. Olle are trekking courses that originated in Jejudo in South Korea, using a system of blue and red flags to indicate the right route to take. We started off in Asaji at the Tourist Information Office next to the train station in Bungo-Ono city. It’s a 12 km long route with many attractions along the way such as Yujaku Park with its lovely lake.
The highlight of our walk was Fuko-ji Temple. Not only is the temple itself a very serene place set in beautiful landscape, but there is an unexpected surprise…a giant Buddha. Carved from a boulder formed after Mount Aso’s eruption, it’s 11.3 metres long.
After our hike we had earned some refreshments and headed to Hamashima Shuzo at Ogatamachishimojizai Bungoono, a specialty sake brewery using traditional methods. We were lucky to be given a tour by the CEO and also chatted to his daughter who studied in Oxford and speaks perfect English, as well as his charming wife. The process is labour intensive and I can see why it tastes so delicious. For those who are used to strong tasting sake, this is much more subtle and reminds me of wine in its complexity. They don’t just make sake drinks here though, there are also tasty sake infused puddings and Sake kasu, the lees left over from production that can be used in smoothies or to flavour food, or even as a face mask!
Beppu is known for its hot springs, called The Hells, including bright blue Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell) and the red Chinoike Jigoku (Bloody Hell Pond). There are 8 different hot spring areas and many different Beppu Onsen to try out. We enjoyed lunch at Kurodaya, one of the many Beppu hotels with a restaurant attached to it and its own onsen. They use the hot spring water to prepare steamed dishes with Onsen spring water, and very tasty it was too.
From here, I had a look at Beppu foot baths, which are open to the public. You just pay a small fee if you wish to borrow a foot towel. It’s very pleasant to soak your weary feet in the individual tubs.
A few minutes away, there’s a devillish fountain where you can drink the hot spring water. It’s said to be good if you have gastroenteritis, diabetes or gout. I tried it and it tasted perfectly pleasant. Nearby, there are also sand baths where you are covered in sand – definitely something that I’d like to try on a future trip! The weather in Beppu was quite mild so it’s something that I’d recommend at any time of year.
Kitsuki Castle Town
Kitsuki bills itself as the Samurai town of kimonos and Kyushu’s Little Tokyo. That’s because it was the first castle town in Japan to be certified as a historic townscape where kimonos look right at home. Kitsuki is also home to the smallest castle in Japan, overlooking the sea. At Warakuan Kimono Rental, the staff are experts who will help you to put one on and there’s a huge choice for both men and women. It’s one of the most fun things to do in Oita.
We walked through a lovely garden on our way to the shop.
Kitsuki is said to be the only sandwich-shaped castle town in Japan, meaning that it has traditional samurai houses on plateaus to the north and south, with a merchant town in a valley between. Admission to the ancient samurai houses and all attractions is free to anyone wearing a kimono and you also get discounts in restaurants. We visited the Ohara Residence at 207 Kitsuki where a high-ranking samurai family lived during the Edo period. It was a goyoyashiki, a residence given by the Kitsuki clan to samurai for official business so the residents often changed. The main building has a thatched roof with a large reception room having 10 tatami mats. It has a beautiful garden with 110 varieties of plants, where visitors can wander around. A boundary-guard stone, a sekimori-ishi, which is a round stone tied with a knot, signifying that a path is closed.
As you can see, there are so many things to do in Oita and it refreshes your body and mind. It would be fantastic to go back and experience it in Springtime when the azaleas and cherry blossoms are blooming! If you travel there via the capital, be sure to check out our 3 day Tokyo itinerary too.
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Thanks to Kyushu region for arranging this trip