#TravelTuesday: Discover a lesser-known part of Japan on foot
Take it slow
It might not occur to everyone that Japan is a nation rebuilt. During World War II, the United States Air Force punctiliously hollowed out Japan's major cities, in the hope of stunting the Imperial Fleet's vehement sweep of the Pacific. However, the Japanese countryside accounted for a minority of the Hirohito's losses.
Today, while the allure of neon-lit metropolises like Osaka and Tokyo forms the intriguing facets of Japanese pop-culture (think technical innovation, animation, gaming, trend-irreverent fashion, robot defenders, fetishism, and more), the charm of Japan's countryside is its remarkable retention of traditional and natural life.
In a bid to garner interest toward less touristy locales, the Japanese government has been gradually demarcating scenic trails all through the countryside. Walk Japan is a leading travel firm that hosts picturesque expeditions throughout Japan. My Walk Japan guides, Miwa and Tetsuo, are experienced outdoorsmen who expounded on the culture and history of southern Japan as we trekked through Kyushu island's unforgettable, ever-changing scenery. I hope the photos of these sights that we witnessed along our journey will persuade you to explore the diversity of experiences that Kyushu beholds.
Waking up in Kogane Sanso lifted an immense weight off this city dweller's chest. Its rooms are draped in thoughtful detail, with windows that open directly into the Nakatsu countryside's flora and fauna. Housing both public and private onsens, its uncanny bar has an entrance carved into a wall, between ancient trees that grew through this historic building.
Carved into the mountainside, Rakan-ji is a temple named after its numerous stone idols, most of which are hundreds of years old. Each bearing a unique facial expression, they reflect the numerous ascetics who used to train on these holy grounds.
The Oita Hot Spring Trail brought us through several hotels whose enthusiastic chefs pleasured us with grandiose kaiseki dinners each night. What exactly is kaiseki, one might ask? It is Japan's version of French fine dining, where the chef expresses his discerning palate and refined skills in full flair, feeding and enthralling his guests in equal measure.
Although they might be mass-produced in China, Japanese shiitake mushrooms are precious because of their difficulty of cultivation. Oak trees have to be specially grown and harvested into shiitake beds, where the sewn spores of shiitake pick and choose if and where they will grow.
Through trade with the Chinese, the Japanese developed champon noodles, whose fiery "volcano" version kept us warm on a cold winter's morning in rural Yabakei.
Before automation, shoguns and their consorts would have to travel hundreds of miles over these hand-laid stone paths to visit the Emperor. Some Emperors would keep shoguns' first wives and first-borns — hostages of sorts — in the capital and make it mandatory for shoguns to meet with him at least once every year, especially certain powerful shoguns of Kyushu whom he feared the most.
We sought respite in Sanyokan in the old town of Hita, where guests will find it hard to resist coffee, local Oita-made beer or Oita-made sake in a riverboat facing the Mikuma river's sunset. The Mikuma river is beloved for its clean and clear water, which is lit up by fireworks in May and illuminated by bamboo lanterns in November. Come summer, it turns into a hunting ground for cormorants.
Our trek through Kokonoe started from the largest suspension bridge in Japan, bending through pine forests and wheat fields, even passing through a dairy farm where fresh milk and ice cream are served.
Daimaru Ryokan's indoor and outdoor onsen arguably leaves the deepest impression among all the inns we shacked up in. Its outdoor bath overlooks Nagayu's iconic river, where temperate trees constantly change their shades.
Owned by the prefecture's mayor, Daimaru Ryokan is situated in a charming township and overlooks a picture-perfect river. This very private inn offers different kinds of onsens within and nearby.
An ancient relief of the Fudo Myo-o embellishes Nagayu's hillside, whose legendary allegiance to protecting Buddha now protects the slope's faithful.
After crossing breathtaking rivers cutting through granite planes and strolling through paths of wild narcissi, we arrive at the ancient ruins of Oka Castle, an immense estate that was ordered to be demolished by the Meiji Emperor who was very wary of uprisings.
Named after the bamboo that grow exuberantly around it, Taketa at the foot of Oka Castle has several nooks that delightfully preserve its untouched, classical look. Look carefully and you will notice how the secret Christian inhabitants of this town would disguise their Christian idols as Buddhist ones, for fear of the anti-Christian Tokugawa shogunate.
Our trek through Okata brought us through the region's two most important Shinto temples, as well as two undated Buddhas carved into the mountainside centuries ago when pilgrims from India brought Buddhism to Japan. After passing through two torii gates, our scenic walk culminated with a waterfall situated in the middle of the small town.
A further walk down old Kyushu's major highway — a small road by today's standards — we arrive at a local sake brewery where its lady boss takes us through the painstaking techniques required to yield this ancient beverage. At lunchtime, we we drop in on Mrs. Matsumoto, a friend of our tour guide Miwa who gladly plucks fresh vegetables for our lunch, in her hillside house that overlooks the sleepy town of Okata.
The natural steam and spring water emanating from Beppu's ground is used by its residents to cook everything, wash themselves, and even wash their clothes. Steam constantly floats out into Beppu's skyline — it has been proven that if the steam were contained, the ground and its pipes would explode.
Find out more about the Oita Hot Spring Trail and other adventures curated by Walk Japan at www.walkjapan.com
About Andre Frois
Andre is a freelance journalist who posts his articles on andrefrois.com and an independent publisher whose books can be viewed at afstorytellers.com.