More Than Just Onsen! 3 Days of Fabulous Food and Scenery in Kyushu's Oita Prefecture

Renowned for being the hot spring capital of Japan, Oita Prefecture, located in the northeastern part of Kyushu, boasts an abundance of famous hot springs, and visitors from all over the world flock to stay in popular hot spring towns such as Beppu and Yufuin. Oita is also blessed with mountains and a coastline, which offer incredible sights and delicious bounties from the land and sea. The prefecture is also home to many picturesque old towns. For three days and two nights, we’ll take you through this delightful corner of Kyushu! We’ll travel back in time in the “Little Kyoto of Kyushu” Mameda in Hita, ride a bicycle along the Yabakei River in Nakatsu, take long, hot baths in Beppu's hot springs, and experience the old charms of Kitsuki Castle Town.


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[ Day 1: Hita ]

Our journey will begin in Hita City in the west of Oita Prefecture. Encircled by mountains, Hita was one of the domains under direct control of the Tokugawa shogunate (military dictatorship) during the Edo period (1603 - 1867).  Merchants traveling to and from Hakata, Nagasaki, Kyoto, and Osaka would lend money to the local daimyo (feudal lords), enabling Hita to prosper financially through these dealings, as well as flourish as an important cultural and transportation hub.

While Hita’s golden era has long passed, many of the original buildings from the Edo and Meiji periods (1868 - 1912) still stand, lining the streets of this historically significant city where traditional culture and ancient celebrations can still be experienced today.

Start Your Journey at the Hita City Tourist Information Center

Near JR Hita Station, you'll find the Hita City Tourist Information Center, where you can find information about local tourist attractions, buy local specialties, and even rent a decent bicycle for an effortless tour of the city.

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Japan’s Largest Private School: Kangien Academy

Kangien Academy was founded by Confucian scholar Tanso Hirose in the Edo period. Its egalitarian philosophy meant that students were accepted regardless of class, age, or academic background. This was a radical concept at the time as hierarchy was paramount. Throughout its operation, the school reportedly trained approximately 4,800 students, making it one of Japan’s largest private schools. Today, it is a national historical site known under the name "Kangien Academy Ruins."

The thatched-roofed Shufuan shown above, which was a residence built for Tanso's uncle, as well as Tanso's study Enshiro are the only remnants of the academy today, and can be visited for free.

Kyushu’s Little Kyoto: Mameda

About a 15-minute walk from JR Hita Station is Mameda, a town that flourished following the construction of Nagayama Castle in 1601.

With 400 years of history, Mameda was once a significant place for the Tokugawa shogunate, and had been a transport and economic hub of Hita. Its prosperous heydays can be seen from all the old houses that line the grid townscape.

Due to its historical significance, many of these valuable late-Edo/early-Meiji houses and townscapes were carefully preserved, and in 2004 became one of Japan's several Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Historic Buildings, earning Mameda the reputation “Kyushu’s Little Kyoto.” Step back in time as you stroll through Mameda, a town rich in the atmosphere of a bygone era and an unmissable spot on your Oita itinerary.

Kimono Rental at Le Lien Hita

Housed in a repurposed kominka (old Japanese family house), Le Lien is a chain kimono store, selling small items in traditional Japanese design such as furoshiki (wrapping cloths), hand towels, and wallets, as well as kimono fabrics. It also provides yukata and kimono rental services.

The owner hails from Kyoto and sources good-quality and low-cost materials directly from the manufacturer, with a wide range of choices, from the bright colors of spring to the richer tones of autumn. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to transport yourself back to the Edo era as you stroll through the old streets of Mameda in a well-selected kimono.

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Take in History at the Kusano Honke Merchant Residence

Located in the center of Mameda is Kusano Honke, the residence of a former wax-maker. As the oldest merchant house in Oita Prefecture, it became a nationally designated Important Cultural Property. The house and inner courtyard that have been preserved since the 17th century are extremely precious. As such, the site is only open to visitors four times a year, namely during the Hina Festival (March 3), Children's Day (May 5), Hita Gion Matsuri (late July), and Tenryo Festival (early November).

During the Hina Festival, Hina dolls from the Edo period are displayed, along with household items reflecting life from centuries ago and ceremonial objects. If you happen to visit the area during the Hina Festival, take the opportunity to check out the elegant Hina doll display at Kusano Honke.

Admire Traditional Japanese Pottery at the Ohara Onta-yaki Pottery Shop

Ohara is a shop specializing in Onta ware (Onta-yaki), a type of Hita pottery that originated from the Onta area at least 300 years ago. These ceramics are defined by their characteristic patterns such as “hakeme” (brush pattern), “tobikanna” (a pattern resembling bouncing blades), and “kushigaki” (a pattern comprised of multiple parallel lines).

To this day, Onta ware is still made using ancient kiln-firing techniques and does not rely on mechanical power or fossil fuels. Powered purely by the flow of the river, the wooden mills grind the earth into clay. Potters’ wheels are manually kicked by the potters themselves, and the ceramics are fired in a wood-burning kiln. The whole process can be said to be the perfect collaboration between man and nature.

Onta ware is normally produced in the agricultural off-season by local amateur potters. Up until the early Showa period (1924-1989), Onta ware was gaining fame thanks to the efforts of Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the mingei (folk craft) movement in Japan. However, not many pieces can be produced each year as the techniques for making Onta ware are still exclusively passed down to disciples and only one successor can be chosen per family.

It has been designated by the national government as an Intangible Cultural Property.

If you don’t have time to visit the Onta Pottery Village where production is still taking place today, you can stop by the Ohara Onta-yaki Pottery Shop when you visit Mameda.

The store is decorated like a home, with a variety of Onta pottery casually stacked around the premise. The cups, bowls, sauce plates, grinders, bottles, and large dishes sit delicately and peacefully, in harmony with the house and its surrounding environment. Pottery fans will definitely want to visit this little gem of a place.

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A Traditional Sweet Treat: Akashi Hita Yokan Shop

This is the representative souvenir shop in Hita. It came about when the confectionery shop was commissioned by the government to create a special sweet that represented the beauty of Hita. Since then, it has been passing down its recipe and techniques from generation to generation for approximately 120 years.

The signature sweet to come out of the government's request was the yokan. Unlike many other yokan, Akashi Hita's yokan is still made in the traditional way. By allowing the sugar to crystalize over time, a thin layer forms on the smooth surface which acts as a natural preservative. This was incredibly useful in an era when chemical preservatives were not yet available.

A variety of flavors have been developed to suit the modern palate. The yokan is cut into tiny squares, put in small glass bowls, and lined up neatly along the wooden counter for visitors to sample.

Among the multitude of flavors, the classic "Azukikoshi" flavor uses carefully selected red beans from Hokkaido that are peeled and cleaned before being made into semi-transparent bean paste. The most notable flavor is the "Shioaji" (salt flavour), where salt is added to bring out the depth of the sweet adzuki, perfect for those without much of a sweet tooth. They are great as gifts, but also as a nice little treat for yourself.

Decadent Lunch Featuring Hita's Specialty Foods: Hita Mabushi Senya

Freshwater fish has been a staple source of protein for the Hita locals since ancient times, and therefore ayu (sweetfish) and eel dishes are popular around here. In fact, eel is one of Hita's signature dishes!

Hita Mabushi Senya is a great place to have lunch while in the Mameda area. Its most defining dish is the Hitamabushi. The carefully selected Japanese eel used to make this dish is marinated in wine, mirin, and various kinds of soy sauce before being grilled until crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. It is then served on piping hot rice with other side dishes.

There are three recommended ways to eat this dish.

First, use the rice paddle to scoop some eel into your bowl and try it without adding any seasonings to savor the sweetness and tenderness of the eel itself. 

The next step is to have the eel with condiments. The restaurant recommends eating it together with wasabi and shallots or yuzukosho (fermented chili paste) with daikon (Japanese radish), but you're free to mix and match the condiments in whatever way that you like. This is also when you should take your eel with a sip of the eel liver soup that comes in the set meal.

Finally, have your eel “ochazuke” style. In a bowl, mix the eel, wasabi, shallots, stock, and some sauce according to your liking. The stock gives the eel a mellower taste, and with the elegant and delicate aroma of the wasabi, it creates a dynamic profile of flavors that surprisingly don't overwhelm the taste buds. Before you know it, you’ll be scraping the bottom of this dish!

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Sip Some Local Alcohol at Kuncho Sake Brewery

Hita, being surrounded by mountains, is blessed by nature. It has exceptionally clear groundwater, which has brought about a thriving sake brewing industry. Kuncho, a long-established sake brewery founded in the Edo period in 1702, has undergone over 300 years of development and changing ownership. Yet it has preserved the architectural style of its buildings, and more importantly, has not wavered in its pursuit of quality when it comes to its sake.

While the brewery still produces sake and shochu today, part of the space has been converted into a stylish brewery museum in order to educate the public about Japanese sake. You'll also find a souvenir shop, cafe, and even a bakery!

The museum exhibits 190-year-old tools, machines, and facilities that were once used in sake brewing. Visitors can visit for free and learn about Japanese sake brewing in a truly traditional environment. From late October to late March, visitors can also witness craftsmen diligently steaming rice in the brewery.

The souvenir shop Kuncho Liquor Center sells Kuncho's limited edition products, including 2-3 kinds of seasonal sake for visitors to sample.

For those who are less keen on drinking alcohol, why not treat yourself to a Ginjo Ice Cream made from ginjo sake, sake lees, and red rice at the cafe KOGURA? This rich-tasting ice cream has a delicate sake aroma, is not too sweet, doesn’t taste of alcohol, and contains red rice grains to give it a bit of crunchiness. They also have other flavors of ice cream, including pumpkin, blueberry, taro, red bean, and matcha. The alcohol content is only 0.3%, so you can enjoy the sake experience even without drinking.

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Relax at the End of the Day: Seoto Yuoto no Yado Ukiha

To finish off the day, stay at this lovely hot spring inn.

Seoto Yuoto no Yado Ukiha draws its onsen (hot spring) waters from Amagase Onsen, which was discovered about 1,300 years ago. During the era of Emperor Tenmu (672-686 AD), hot water gushed out of the ground after a big earthquake caused a landslide. This formed Amagase Onsen, which eventually became one of Oita Prefecture's three major onsen along with Beppu and Yufuin.

Onsen ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) line the banks of the local Kusu River, white steam rising out of their open-air baths. The sulfur content of the water that fills these baths is said to be beneficial to those with rheumatism, skin diseases, and high blood pressure. As such, the onsen has been loved and featured in academic work and literature for centuries.

Seoto Yuoto no Yado Ukiha is a 10-minute walk from Amagase Station. Here, on top of indulging in a scrumptious Japanese feast and local sake, take the opportunity to dip in their tranquil onsen—from large baths to private ones that you can take in giant sake barrels—to let go of the stresses of the day and relieve those tired muscles. If you’re a fan of the serenity of the hot spring environment, a night at this ryokan will most definitely be your cup of tea.

Kyushu Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

About the author

Fuchi Pan
Tokyo based Taiwanese writer/ editor. Passionate about Japanese food culture, culinary traditions and local/seasonal quality ingredients.
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