Venturing outside of the usual tourist trail (Tokyo,Osaka or Kyoto) can prove to be vastly rewarding in Japan, for the inquisitive traveler.
A simple visit, for instance to Oita prefecture on the island of Kyushu reveals lesser known little wonders.
In Oita city, a stop at the newly built art museum (OPAM) is a must for the art lovers, while architecture buffs will marvel at the rather innovative concept of the building combining both function and design. It is the brainchild of famed Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who designed among other things the Pompidou center in Metz, France.
Back in the Edo period (1603-1867) Oita was divided into many feudal domains and fiefs. This system of small independent domains is often used to explain what is described as the tendency to narrow mindedness among the prefecture’s residents. However, it is also this history that has helped Oita produce a variety of independent and self- motivated people able to develop creative new ideas unfettered by conventions.
It is in that same spirit that Shigeru Ban envisioned the creation of a unique museum here. Literally thinking “outside the box” by conceiving a new type place, less intimidating perhaps than the common type of museums he had encountered on his trips overseas, and which he likes to dub as “closed box”. Creating then an “open box”, with the use mainly of glass and pine wood, to allow a profusion of light to permeate the structure, giving any passerby a clear view of what is inside, enticing them in turn to naturally step in. The unknown has become familiar. Simple in shape, rather cubic; it is meant to fit its direct surroundings which consist mainly of office buildings; the novelty lies elsewhere. Inspired by the natural beauty of Oita, bamboo crafts a wooden ribbed pattern has been faithfully reproduced up to the ceiling, which also help to maintain the structure. Room size can be easily adjusted thanks to a system of railing drawn into the ceiling, or even opening its huge front folding doors in a blink of an eye.
Just north of Oita, the city of Beppu offers another striking vision. Considered “hell’s paradise” as vents come right out of the ground, its streets have indeed a mysterious atmosphere with hot springs spouting out and steam rising everywhere.
To hell and back for a complete “Onsen” (hot spring) entertainment experience, a visit to some of the most spectacular “jigoku” (hell) is a must to witness first hand the many mysteries of Mother Nature. Visiting the boiling “jigoku” that gush steam, mud and water make for a memorable sight. One is constantly in awe in front of these scenes of great beauty. Notably, “Umi jigoku” (Ocean hell) : this 208 F hot spring gets its name from its cool, cobalt blue color. The spring gushes out 150 liters a day and is thought to have been created when Mt Tsurumi erupted 1200 years ago. But also “Oniishi bozu jigoku” (shaven monk’s head), which gets its name from the grey mud that bubbles up from the springs. The round bubbles are said to look like the shaven head of a monk.
Or yet again “Chi-no-ike jigoku” (blood pond), the oldest jigoku spring in Japan. Its name comes from the boiling blood-red clay. There, visitors can purchase chi-no-ike ointment made from the magnesium oxide rich mud, which is said to be good for skin disease. Leisurely strolling along one can munch on “onsen tamago” (hot spring boiled egg), or take a foot bath (Ashi-yu) to relax those aching feet.
When ready for a feast fit for a feudal lord move on to the lovely city of Kitsuki, on the way to Oita airport. At Wakaeya restaurant, one must try “Ureshino”. It is a “Taichazuke” (Sea-bream chazuke)–chazuke being hot tea poured over rice. The dish is made by slicing sea bream into thin strips, steeping those into a well-kept secret sesame sauce, after which they are then placed on top of the cooked rice, onto which hot tea is poured. It originated from a story about the feudal lord of Kitsuki who once fed with this Taichazuke express its delight by saying: “Ureshi-no”, or “I’m quite happy with this”!
The best symbols of Kitsuki however, are the beautiful slopes which gives the impression and the atmosphere of the Edo period. This representative slope of Kitsuki is named “Suya no saka”, and the other slope facing it “Shioya no saka”. These two slopes which took an important role in people’s life in the past still do today as well, as Kitsuki is aiming to be a city in which to walk wearing kimono on certain days is the norm.
It suits the city perfectly with its many samurai residences to visit.