Raina's Japan Travel Journal
by Raina, staff writer of japan-guide.com

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2016/10/24 - The way of old on the Kunisaki Peninsula

Looking out towards Himeshima from near the top of Mt. Fudo

For most locals, the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Oita Prefecture is its reputation as a hot spring destination. The prefecture has the most hot spring sources and the largest flow of hot spring water in the country, enough for it to be branded the "onsen prefecture". But today, my focus is not on hot springs, but on an oft-overlooked part of the prefecture, the Kunisaki Peninsula (Kunisaki Hanto).

The Kunisaki Peninsula is located in the north of the prefecture, sticking out into the sea. The peninsula is also where Oita Airport is located, making it the first port of entry for those who arrive by plane and an easy choice for those who want to explore the road less traveled. Mountains make up the interior, and farmland can be found on the low-lying land towards the coast. The two cities of Kunisaki and Bungo-Takada make up most of the peninsula.

The Kunisaki Peninsula is home to a unique local Buddhist culture, called "Rokugo Manzan", which contains elements of Buddhism, Shinto and mountain worship. An interesting fact about the Rokugo Manzan temples is that since they combine Buddhism and Shinto beliefs, their lower halls typically feature Buddhist statues, while Shinto gods are often enshrined in their upper halls. 2018 will be the 1300th anniversary of the Rokugo Manzan culture, and the temples and shrines on the peninsula are gearing up to celebrate the religion's long history.

Priest at Mudoji Temple performing a ceremony to ask for blessings (goma kigan)
Ritual in progress

Intrigued about the Rokugo Manzan culture, I wanted to check out the locations and activities that were central to the religion. Tourist offices are some of the best places to get local information, and I stopped by the ones in Kunisaki and Bungo-Takada cities before setting off to explore. The Kunisaki Tourist Information office at the Kunisaki Cycling Terminal not far from Oita Airport and the Bungo-Takada Tourist Information office at Showa no Machi near the Bungo-Takada Bus Terminal provide English assistance as well as English maps and brochures.

Kunisaki Tourist Information office
Tachiuo, a local delicacy, prepared like unagi for lunch at the restaurant beside the tourist office
Bungo-Takada Tourist Information office in Showa no Machi
Explored the Showa no Machi, a tourist attraction
Lots of stuff from the Showa Period (from 1926 to 1989)
Symbol of the city, two kids playing a pushing game
Inside a super retro restaurant, prices unchanged in the last 35 years

The flight from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to Oita Airport took about 100 minutes, and it wasn't long before I found myself on the trail of some amazingly old temples and hiking routes.

The Kunisaki Peninsula Ridge Long Trail is a 137 kilometer long hiking route that more or less follows the Rokugo Manzan mountain worship trail that connects the major temples and shrines on the peninsula. Walking the entire trail would take at least a week, but I only managed to walk some parts of the route because I was a little short on time this trip. I'm already looking forward to the next time when I can go back to attempt a longer hike.

On my first day, I visited the three temples of Futagoji, Iwatoji and Monjusenji. All three temples are connected by the trail and each have Nio guardians at their entrances. Their inner sanctuaries (okunoin) tend to be built into cliffs, as is common in the mountain worship practice.

Futagoji Temple has a history of 1300 years and is located near the peak of Mount Futago, the highest mountain in the middle of the Kunisaki Peninsula. Iwatoji Temple features the oldest Niomon statues on the peninsula, while Monjusenji Temple is one of the region's oldest temples.

Nio guardians at Futagoji Temple
Main hall at Futagoji Temple
This stone Kunisaki Pagoda at Iwatoji Temple is an important cultural property
Niomon statues at Monjusenji Temple
The okunoin at Monjusenji Temple
Write your wishes on these cedar sticks to be burnt in a ceremony known as goma kigan
A fertility shrine at the Imi Betsugu Shrine

After visiting the three temples, I made my way to Petit Farm Tanaka, a local homestay. Similar to a minshuku, my homestay with the Tanaka family was a good way to meet the locals and experience some local activities. Unlike a minshuku where everything is provided, this felt more like staying at a relative's place. They brought me to the local public bath before heading back and tucking into a very delicious dinner prepared by Mrs. Tanaka. Farming activities are offered in the daytime, which sounds perfect for city dwellers to get back into nature.

One of the many local public baths in the area
Kabosu goes with everything in Oita
Kunisaki octopus and chicken tempura
Mrs. Tanaka making bread for breakfast tomorrow
Breakfast is typically made by Mr. Tanaka
They have a wood-fired oven and a traditional rice stove
The Tanakas outside their home

The next day, I bid the Tanakas farewell and hit the road again. Heading first to Ofudo Iwaya, a cave up in a cliff which offers a good view of the valley and forest below. From there I headed to the Kyu-Sentoji ruins, where you could see the remains of the former temple's foundations and the still standing Niomon guardians. The Fudosan Teahouse, a public rest house, is located further up from the Kyu-Sentoji ruins, and from where you could walk further up towards the top of the mountain.

A section of the Kunisaki Peninsula Ridge Long Trail
Inside the Ofudo Iwaya
This sure made me feel really small. Did you spot the two people in the picture?
Torii gates at the Kyu-Sentoji ruins
The Niomon at the Kyu-Sentoji ruins
Following the trail beside the teahouse led to this view
Antony Gormley's installation which is said to erode and return back into nature in time to come

Tennenji Temple was up next on the itinerary, including an incredible hike up to a stone bridge about 200 meters above ground. The hiking trail is part of the mountain worship trail known as mineiri, where worshipers would go on a pilgrimage trek. The return journey to the bridge and back from Tennenji takes about 1.5 hours.

Looking up at the Mumyobashi Bridge from the ground
I had to get a picture on the bridge
Pretty good views of the village below
My guide waving to the people watching our folly from the bottom
There are a bunch of ascents and descents that required a chain support
Kawanaka Fudomyoo carved in stone

One of the major and unique events on the peninsula is the Shujo Oni-e festival, which was designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property in 1977. Typically celebrated on the seventh day of the first month of the lunar calendar, the Shujo Oni-e festival allows one to meet with the gods. The gods, which take the form of scary looking creatures, come to take away the bad so that good can enter and remain. Priests don wooden masks to represent the gods and perform dance rituals with burning sticks to beat and chase bad luck away while calling for fortune.

This festival used to be performed at many temples across the Kunisaki Peninsula but is now only performed at three temples; Iwatoji, Tennenji and Jobutsuji. A good place to learn more about this interesting festival is the Oni-e no Sato history museum beside Tennenji.

Masks that used to be worn at Futagoji Temple during the festival
Inside the hall where the festival is performed at Tennenji Temple

Thus concluded my second day on the Kunisaki Peninsula, and I headed to Fukinoto Ryokan to stay for the night. The ryokan is actually owned by Fukiji Temple next door and run by the priest's family. Dinner included handmade soba noodles, a specialty of the Bungo-Takada region, and it was definitely welcomed after a long day. Staying beside Fukiji Temple meant that I was able to participate in morning meditation (zazen) offered at the temple, which I did the next day.

The main hall at Fukiji Temple is a designated national treasure and the oldest wooden structure in Kyushu, and that was where the morning zazen was held. The priest explained the structure of the hall and pointed out the cultural treasures inside after zazen, all this before breakfast!

Local handmade soba
Had a relaxing bath at Fukinoto Ryokan after a day of hiking
Morning zazen at Fukiji Temple
Kyushu's oldest wooden structure
Not quite autumn color season yet

With my head full of Buddhist history and my belly full from breakfast, I left for Tashibu no Sho, a village where the rice fields remain as they have been for over a thousand years. Unlike the newer farmland with its rectangular rice fields, the fields here come in many different shapes. I also visited a couple of small cliff temples and a cave temple in the area.

View at Tashibu no Sho
Looks small from the outside, but there's more in the cave
A stone statue inside the cave

The last two stops on my trip were to Makiodo, a hall that displays wooden images of Amida Buddha, the four heavenly kings and a Fudomyoo statue sitting on a bull (that is said to be more impressive than a similar one in Kyoto), and the Kumano Magaibutsu Stone Buddha, two large stone carvings in the walls of a cliff. These stone carvings are the largest in Japan and can only be seen after climbing a long flight of stone stairs.

Wooden statues inside the gallery
Niomon statues in the Makiodo Hall
These steps were supposedly laid by an oni (ogre) in a night
Eight meter tall Fudomyoo on the left and a nearly seven meter tall Dainichi Buddha on the right

Just like that, I spent three days on the Kunisaki Peninsula and only covered a fraction of what is offered. There is so much more to discover on the peninsula, and I heard that one could even go in search of all the different Niomon guardians on the peninsula and find that all of them have different facial expressions and poses. So if you're on the hunt for traditional and cultural Japan, you should definitely put the Kunisaki Peninsula on your radar.

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List of Posts:
2019/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2019
2019/12/03 - Shopping at Shibuya Fukuras and Parco
2019/10/23 - 46th Tokyo Motor Show
2019/03/20 - Moominvalley Park opens near Tokyo
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2018/08/19 - Hello Kitty Shinkansen
2018/05/16 - Cruising Tokyo's waterways
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2017/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2017
2017/10/25 - The 45th Tokyo Motor Show
2017/10/11 - Dipping into the three onsen towns of Yamanaka, Yamashiro and Katayamazu
2017/07/24 - Remote Riches in Toyama
2017/07/03 - Spiritual Chichibu
2017/05/02 - Fuji Shibazakura Festival
2017/04/14 - Sneak Peek from Ginza Six
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2017/02/07 - Travel to the Goto Islands
2017/02/06 - Nagasaki Lantern Festival

2016/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2016
2016/12/19 - Winter Illuminations in Tokyo
2016/10/24 - The way of old on the Kunisaki Peninsula
2016/10/11 - Following the Tadami Line in Oku Aizu
2016/08/27 - Fool's Dance at Koenji Awa Odori
2016/08/16 - The three sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan
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2016/04/03 - Setouchi Triennale 2016
2016/03/08 - The hunt for Namahage on the Oga Peninsula
2016/03/02 - Sake Sangria
2016/02/20 - Tokyo Plum Blossom Report
2016/01/26 - Tour de Reinan: Obama, Oi and Takahama
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2015/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2015
2015/12/10 - 48 hours in Tokushima
2015/11/20 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/11/19 - Autumn Color Report: Kankakei
2015/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Korankei
2015/11/17 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
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2015/11/10 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
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2015/11/08 - Autumn Color Report: Miyajima
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2015/10/21 - Hirado, where East meets West
2015/10/20 - Kujukushima Islands and Winter Illumination at Huis Ten Bosch
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2015/09/16 - Nakanojo Biennale 2015
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2015/08/04 - Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale 2015
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2015/04/23 - Kakunodate Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/22 - Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/21 - Kitakami Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/16 - Sendai Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/09 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/08 - Fukushima Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/06 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2015/04/03 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
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2015/04/01 - Osaka Cherry Blossom Report
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2014/12/03 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/21 - Autumn Color Report: Osaka
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2014/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Miyajima
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2014/11/13 - Autumn Color Report: Fuji
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2014/04/22 - Aizu-Wakamatsu Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/16 - Matsumoto Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/15 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/14 - Yoshino Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/13 - Osaka Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/12 - Kanazawa Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/10 - Tokyo Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/06 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/05 - Hiroshima Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/04 - Osaka Cherry Blossom Report
2014/04/03 - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Report
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