Visiting The Onsen Towns Of Yufuin and Beppu And The Stone Buddhas Of Usuki, Kyushu Island, Japan
I love Japanese Onsen (hot springs) towns.
Over the years, we must have visited dozens of different Onsen towns in Japan, and while similar in many ways, each town is quite unique.
Their uniqueness comes from their history, the growing region and of course the landscape, which dictates the lay of the land and the villages.
There are Onsen towns on the coastline bordering the blue sea, along winding rivers, on top of snowy mountains, in the middle of rice fields, and some surrounded by lush green hills.
The similarities are in the ways you spend your time while you are visiting an Onsen town.
For the most part, you enjoy sightseeing during the day, and bathe in the hot springs and taste the local specialities in the afternoons and evening.
Yufuin is a charming Onsen village.
It is small, with a 1.5 km-long main road that is filled with lovely little shops, cafes, shops selling sweets, pickles, varieties of miso, honey, gifts, souvenirs, and a collection of local restaurants.
There are also a few art museums, which makes for a lot to see for such a small town.
There is a river, a small lake and Mount Yufu, and even some rice fields around town.
Our Ryokan (Ryokan Nogiku) is located by the river.
We got a very large suite with two rooms, each with Tatami mats lining the floor.
The Tatami is a woven rice mat that is soft, has great aesthetics and feels very organic.
You cannot place heavy furniture on a Tatami mat, because the legs of chairs, sofas or beds would damage the Tatami.
The traditional rooms have only a low table with floor cushions, or chairs with no legs but only with a back support.
The beds are futons that are spread out on the Tatami at nighttime.
Sometimes the low table in the room is used to eat the Kaiseki (multi course meal) dinners and the traditional Japanese breakfasts offered by the ryokan.
But our ryokan in Yufuin does not serve any dinners.
They gave us a recommendation for a lovely Izakawa restaurant that serves a Kaiseki meal which we enjoyed very much.
It was pouring buckets of rain on the night we made our way along the rice fields from Nogiku to the restaurant.
We were the only diners that evening who had braved the serious downpour to the restaurant.
But it was well worth it.
We ate a fabulous meal of many artistically arranged dishes.
After that first night, the weather improved and we enjoyed sunny and mild weather every day.
Even though we enjoyed the Kaiseki restaurant with its local specialties, we did not return to eat there again.
Kaiseki usually amounts to a lot of food to eat every night, and the town was filled with many Italian restaurants, Ramen and soba noodle restaurants and lots of other choices.
The hot springs waters of the public baths at Nogiku were very soothing and relaxing.
If possible, I would take an Onsen bath every day of my life.
I find it so soothing and healing.
There is a side of my personality that truly loves this way of life….
The soothing hot spring, the artistic food, the beautiful Tatami rooms with their beautiful aesthetics…. it all feels so wholesome, that it takes away all the hassles of roaming from place to place.
In fact, I love traveling this way.
I love it that every day we see new places, meet new people, have new experiences and taste new things.
During the day, we have been walking as much as possible, covering 15 to 23 kilometers every day.
Then in the evenings, I washed and bathed in the hot springs, meditated to the sounds of the croaking frogs in the rice fields, listened to the chirping of the crickets and the sweet sounds of the countryside at night.
We did not walk only around Yufuin while we stayed there.
We also took the train to the Onsen town of Beppu and saw the “Hells of Beppu,” which are volcanic hot springs too hot to be used for bathing.
There were geysers, red volcanic pools, blue pools, pools filled with white, bubbling mud and some even full of alligators.
Beppu is much larger than Yufuin, and it lacks the small town charm of its neighbor.
There were buses of tourists, mostly from Korea and China, in both towns.
The Main Street of Yufuin is where everyone strolled, carrying sun-shade umbrellas, tasting the local food and snacks, visiting the local galleries, museums and artisan shops.
We visited the Marc Chagall Museum, located on the shores of the small lake at the end of the Main Street in Yufuin.
The museum is small and it is above a restaurant and gift shop.
Chagall was commissioned to paint scenes from the circus, which he did in his free, modernist style.
He used gouache and pen and the resulting pieces look lovely.
The paintings were reproduced in a limited edition of 250 large books.
The exhibition in the museum displayed the prints inside one of these circus books.
On another day, we took the train to the small coastal town of Usuki.
This time, there were not buses of tourists, as we walked the long road to visit the Seki Butsu (Stone Buddhas) which were carved into the rocks in the countryside about 7km from the town.
It was a long walk from the Usuki train station to the Seki Butsu, and we stopped along the way at a small coffee shop, to enjoy a chat and the gourmet coffee creations that the owner made for us.
He painted faces, cats and flower leaves on the foam of the lattes we had.
The stone Buddhas used to be covered in moss, but now that they have been designated national treasures, they have been cleaned and restored.
On our walk along the highway, we were surprised to see a woman running towards us.
She had parked her car on the side of the road and she offered us a ride, since she guessed that we were walking towards the stone Buddhas and knew that it was still a long walk to go.
We politely refused her offer and bowed many times in gratitude.
She understood that we wanted to walk and drove away.
We were very touched by her kindness.
As we walked, I reflected on the fact that in Auckland NZ and in Denver Colorado, we always stop to help people.
Recently we stopped to talk with homeless people in both places and offered help, we stopped to help a young woman in Denver who was hysterical and bleeding profusely from her nose, but here in Japan, there is rarely anyone who needs our help.
In fact, people from all over look to see if we need any guidance or help, and their kindness always stops me in my tracks.
Coffee shop owners gave us gifts, the Ryokan receptionist brought from his own home his Apple TV, so we could stream movies from Netflix, since the Ryokan had only Japanese TV, and we encountered many more examples of kindness like these in the short time we’ve been in Kyushu.
People rush out of their shops or restaurants to take our photos so we can pose together, ask us if we need bus reservations, and all this kindness always warms our hearts so much.
When we walked back towards the station, we strolled in the old Samurai District of Usuki and admired the beautiful architecture.
As old as these houses were, they still look as if they were built in a stunning contemporary architectural style that is very life enhancing.
In my humble opinion, human beings were never meant to live like sardines in busy apartment blocks.
When I look at “modern” apartment buildings in Japan and elsewhere, I can’t help but wonder why we have lost the most important elements that are required for harmonious living….
We need space, air, light, flow, water, wood, plants, beauty….
Why do they demolish the beautiful old Japanese houses with their beautiful circular windows, lots of light, wood beams and earthen walls, wooden verandas and manicured courtyard gardens, shimmering rice paper walls, clay roof tiles and Tatami rice mat rooms, to replace them with concrete, plastic products, linoleum, Formica and ugly siding walls?….
Anyway…..I feel very restful here, roaming among these Onsen towns with nothing but a light backpack…
We packed light to travel around Kyushu.
We left our suitcases at the hotel in Fukuoka and packed only essentials in our backpacks.
On one of our evenings, we did our laundry in a coin operated shop, and while our clothes dried, we called to wish my mother a happy Mother’s Day on Skype.
I’ve lost one of my new hiking pants.
It got caught in the door of the washer and the strong spin cycle tore my pants apart.
From Yufuin we took the local bus to the Onsen town of Kurokawa.
I will write again from there.