NIPPONIA No.18 September 15, 2001

Japanease Travelogue


Buddhist Paradise and Hellish Hot Springs

Written by Furui Asako
Photos by Omori Hiroyuki

Kumano magaibutsu on Kunisaki Peninsula. This eight-meter image of Fudo Myo-o, carved into the face of a rock cliff, is one of Japan's largest Buddhist stone images.

Kunisaki Peninsula juts out into the Seto Inland Sea from the northeastern part of Kyushu. Flying west from Tokyo, you'll see it after a flight of about 90 minutes.
The peninsula's seacoast has a circular shape with a radius of about 15 km. Mount Futago rises near the center of the circle, and from there a number of ridges and valleys stretch out like the spokes of a wheel. In the valleys you'll find rice fields and old farmhouses, and in the mountains you'll come across strangely shaped rock faces. The topography makes transportation difficult, an inconvenience we can be thankful for, because the Japan of yesteryear is still waiting here to be explored.
The peninsula has been known since ancient times as a Buddhist paradise, and remnants of Buddhist culture are Kunisaki's most distinguishing feature. Many temples were built in the mountains here, starting in the 8th century, and when Buddhism was at its height around the 12th century, about 2,000 monks and priests practiced their faith at Kunisaki. Today, many different types of religious stone statues remain, attesting to the fact that Buddhism was an important part of people's lives everywhere on the peninsula. Tourists here are likely to come across stone statues of the Buddha in tranquil contemplation and Buddhist relief carvings on vertical rock walls.
Two of these relief carvings, in the southwestern part of the peninsula, are called kumano magaibutsu . Carved out of rocky hills near Taizo-ji Temple, they represent Fudo Myo-o (a king of wisdom) and Dainichi Nyorai (the Cosmic Buddha). Fudo Myo-o stands 8 meters tall, and is one of Japan's largest stone Buddhist images. No one would say that the carvings are exquisitely done, but the workmanship has a special expressive power of its own. Experts tell us that the imagery has traces of the aesthetic values of continental Asia, indicating the cultural influence of the Korean peninsula.
Ancient Buddhism lives on, waiting to impress you in many other places as well. Of special interest are Fuki-ji Temple's Main Hall, which is the oldest wooden structure in Kyushu, and the Maki Odo Hall, which houses nine Buddhist statues. The Main Hall is a National Treasure, and the nine statues are important cultural properties.
Kunisaki is in Oita Prefecture, the home of a soccer stadium nicknamed "Big Eye." Oita is the only place in Kyushu where matches for the 2002 FIFA World Cup will be held. The gateway to the games in Kyushu is Oita Airport on the eastern coast of Kunisaki Peninsula, and a hovercraft takes travelers from there to the port of Oita City. I would suggest that fans going to the World Cup also include Kunisaki and the city of Beppu in their itinerary.
On the way to Beppu, you will pass through an old castle town called Kitsuki. This is a good place to stroll about--houses once occupied by samurai families stand side by side on hills, and merchants' homes and shops along an ancient highway give us an idea of life in the Edo period (1603-1867). Further to the southwest lies another small castle town, Hiji-machi, which is famous for its shiroshita flatfish. The fish are caught just below the castle grounds, since the castle stands by the sea. Filets of the flatfish are said to be ideal, with just the right thickness and firmness.
If you go south from here you will soon come to Beppu and some of Japan's best hot springs. The city has eight large hot spring resorts, known collectively as Beppu Hatto, with plenty of Japanese-style inns, tourist homes, and eating and drinking establishments. There are all kinds of hot springs--bubbling mud pots, sandy hot pools, steaming ponds, and more.
You'll want to relax in a hot natural bath, and I would suggest the popular "Tour of Hell" as well. There are various strange, hellish hot springs, some with hissing vents, muddy holes, or geysers erupting at regular intervals. At one spa, called the Sea of Hell, iron sulfate has dyed the water a greenish color. At another, named Blood Pond Hell, the mud is red with iron oxide. At Bald Man's Hell, bubbles of hot mud rise up. Take the Tour of Hell to experience firsthand the amazing energy that lies within our planet.
If you stroll around Beppu you'll often see people carrying basins used for bathing. They are locals on their way to a public bath--in Beppu, not only tourists enjoy the hot springs. In a country where bathing is practically a leisure activity, almost all homes have a bath, but this is not true in Beppu. With all the hot springs there, people don't need their own bath.
Geothermal energy is used for more than just bathing. It heats buildings and greenhouses, and is used for fish farming and other purposes.
Kagawa Ryuhei, who works at Myoban Spa, says, "I never miss a day in the hot spring. I might be tired when I get in, but I feel great by the time I get out." Perhaps travelers feel the positive effects as well, even after their first time in the mineral water.
Our trip has taken us from the land of Buddha in Kunisaki Peninsula and its religious stone images, to the "hellish" world of Beppu and its hot pools and steam. Someone enjoying the tranquility of Kunisaki would find the crowded city of Beppu another world altogether. But both places have something in common--undemanding people who savor time leisurely.
During my travels I asked a man what makes Oita such a great place to live. He scratched his head and grinned, "Oita people know how to relax, and they keep an open mind. I guess that's it."
(1)Kunisaki and Beppu


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