A thermal wonderland that's rich in natural beauty, spirituality and samurai history. Shoba Pillai picks six places to visit in Oita.

On the island of Kyushu, in southwestern Japan, is Oita. With its volcanoes and gorges, river valleys and waterfalls, agricultural plains and resource-rich coastlines, Oita's terrain is as varied as it is beautiful. More than 70 per cent is forested, and with abundant spring water and fertile land, the area thrives agriculturally.

Locally produced foods include shiitake mushrooms, soba noodles and seafood.

Food from Nishiki Sushi, Oita, Japan. Photo / Shoba Pillai
Food from Nishiki Sushi, Oita, Japan. Photo / Shoba Pillai

Adventurous diners can try fugu (the infamous pufferfish). Fried chicken lovers will be pleased to know both karaage and chicken tempura originated here. To sample excellent sake and see traditional handmade brewing, head to the award-winning Kayashima Sake Brewery. Then...

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1 Soak in the steamy goodness of Beppu

Oita is famous for its hot springs and has the status of Japan's onsen capital. The spa resort city of Beppu — sister city to Rotorua — is bordered by an expansive bay and volcanic mountain ranges.

Vents supply houses with steam for heating and cooking, and the rest produces billowing steam clouds. Beppu Ropeway is a cable car to the top of Mt Tsurumi, with panoramic views over this misty thermal city and a series of sacred shrines.

Jigoku Meguri, or Hell Tour, is a group of springs named for their thermal power. They're too hot to actually soak in, but there's plenty to admire — colours from blood-red to azure blue, ferocious vents of steam, bubbling mud pools and thermal snacks (onsen eggs and steamed desserts). More examples of steam-cooked food can be found in the streets of nearby Kannawa, a pleasant area to stroll through the city's charming past.

Onsen bathing is part of daily life and, for visitors, a way to mix with locals. A therapeutic tour of Beppu's onsens offers warm, mineral-rich waters, with bath houses and resorts offering an abundance of different styles. A soak — be it in a hot spring, herbal steam, mud or sand bath — promises to rejuvenate.

It's advised to find a ryokan (traditional style accommodation) offering its own onsen.

Hotel Shiragiku, near the downtown entertainment area, has tatami mat rooms with futon beds and both indoor and outdoor baths. Wandering the hotel in a robe and slippers is common practice, even at meal times.

2 The sacred mountains of Kunisaki Peninsula

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The volcanic mountains have long been places of peaceful worship. Their temples showcase elements of Buddhism, which arrived in the sixth century, and also of Shintoism and an ancient mountain-worshipping sect. Devotees make pilgrimages to elevated temples by scaling precarious rock faces and crossing tiny bridges over plunging valleys, all in homage to their gods.

Beppu, Oita, Japan.
Beppu, Oita, Japan.

Kunisaki Peninsula has more than 30 religious sites, with centuries-old caves and temples, plus the highest density of stone carvings and statues in Japan. Wandering these grounds offers insights into old and sacred practices, against mountain backdrops of cedar, maple and cypress forests.

At Tennen-ji temple, a Shinto shrine sits beside an unassuming wooden Buddhist temple built into a mountain's rock face. It's known for its fire festival, with fighting theatrics and mask-wearing monks, and an ancient rock carving standing strong in the middle of a river, offering protection from floods.

As one of Japan's most revered shrines and a designated national treasure, Usa Jingu shrine is a must-visit. Built in the eighth century, it is the birthplace of the local Shintoism-Buddhism fusion. A contemplative walk through the forest leads to the bright gable-roofed buildings, in their white and vermilion colours, welcoming people to cast prayers by paying respects to deities or writing wishes on wooden plaques and gourds.

3 A retrospective of 50s Japan in Bungotakada

Bungotakada oozes with nostalgic charm of the Showa period, Japan's era of prosperity in the 50s. Explore Showa no Machi — by foot, electric bike, or vintage bus — to see shop facades and browse typical wares. There's a car museum, a colourful candy shop, displays of retro posters, exhibits of daily life. A highlight is the retrospective collection of Japanese games, toys, comics and merchandise. Kids will also dig TeamLab, where drawings digitally come alive in an interactive display. Bungotakada is also famous for its buckwheat; across the river is Soba Etsu, a family-run eatery serving exquisite handmade soba noodles.

4 Kit up in a kimono in Kitsuki

The castle town of Kitsuki, referred to as Kyushu's Little Kyoto, is immersed in
traditional culture. Renting a kimono to wear is part of the experience; many attractions give free entry to visitors donning the traditional attire.

From Kitsuki's central street of old merchant shops — selling green tea, traditional sweets, sake and miso — head uphill via broad stone slopes that once served as roads for horses and palanquin bearers. Streets at the top are lined with samurai residences.

Ohara residence is a beautiful example. Typical of the Edo era, this thatched-roofed house — once home to a high-ranking samurai — showcases traditional architecture and elegant gardens with ornaments, palms, stone paths, rock arrangements, groomed trees and a pond. At Wakaeya restaurant, foodies can try a nourishing dish once much-loved by feudal lords: rice topped with bream and sesame soy sauce, warmed with Kitsuki green tea.

5 Usuki: A step back to samurai times

The historical township of Usuki offers a glimpse into the lives of feudal lords. Nioza Historical Street is a stone-paved lane with samurai houses, temples and shrines. The designated rest area for visitors (previously a temple) has distinctive wooden construction, a minimalist interior, and views over traditional Edo architecture.

The town's rustic buildings, with dark wood and white earthen walls, house old merchant shops, selling crafts and foods. Some, like the region's oldest dashi and miso shop, have been operating for hundreds of years.

Usuki Stone Buddhas, Oita, Japan. Photo / Shoba Pillai
Usuki Stone Buddhas, Oita, Japan. Photo / Shoba Pillai

In the peaceful countryside nearby are the Usuki Stone Buddhas — a group of more than 60 statues carved into rock cliffs, believed to be more than 1000 years old. A short walk away is the quaint Mangatsuji Temple with its striking stone guardians and groomed gardens.

6 Feasting in Saiki

Saiki sits on the southern coastline and is home to a thriving fishing and boat-building industry. Nishiki Sushi offers impeccably fresh local seafood, served by two charming brothers who entertain diners with their tales and sushi-making skills.

Hotel Kinsuien's restaurant has an excellent kaiseki (traditional multi-course dinner), beautifully plating up the region's best seafood and produce, and an equally delectable selection for breakfast.

GAME ON

The 2019 Rugby World Cup runs from September 20 to November 2 in 12 cities across Japan. Oita will be hosting five matches, including the All Blacks match on October 2 and two quarterfinal games. Situated in Oita Sports Park about 30 minutes from the city, the architecturally designed Oita Stadium can hold up to 40,000 people. Organisers plan to have shuttle buses to the stadium and a fanzone in Oita City.