15 Things to Do in Oita
Oita Prefecture (大分県) is located in northeast Kyushu (九州), about a 2-hour plane ride from Tokyo or a 45-minute train trip from Hakata (博多). Known to most Japanese for its famous onsen (温泉), or hot springs, and although no trip here would be complete without visiting them (and onsen sites dot our list below), there are many unique travel experiences in Oita for those willing to venture beyond the most well-advertised landmarks. I’ve listed 15 places I think are “must experience” locations that will make any trip to Oita a memorable one. And, to help you find your way just a little bit easier, I’ve provided links (as available) where you can find out more about these fun, memorable, and in some cases, adventurous destinations! Let’s start with Oita itself.
Mount Yufu dominates the landscape in the area around Beppu (別府). The series of earthquakes which struck Kyushu in the spring of 2016 has not diminished the mountain’s beauty, but has made it somewhat less accessible. If you plan to climb (estimated 4-5 hour round-trip), be sure that you check to make sure that the trail you’ve selected is open. Hikers/trekkers should heed the signs warning of the potential for rockslides and slippery terrain (no part of Japan is geologically inactive, least of all, a volcano like Yufudake). If you reach the summit, you’ll command a spectacular view of the Bay of Beppu /Beppu Wan (別府湾) and the entire eastern region of Oita Prefecture.
2. Yufuin (湯布院)
Perhaps the most popular destination in the Beppu area, this place is a hive of activity. The main shopping street Yunokaido (湯の街道) is an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. Among the attractions, try carving your own chopsticks at Hashiya Ichizen (箸屋一善). Weekends can be very crowded, so, ideally, plan for a weekday visit!
3. Yufuin Craft Village (湯布院民芸村)
Part of the Yufuin area, the Yufuin Craft Village is a great spot to see, taste, and experience local products from around Beppu. Try, for example, glass making, or tie-dye. The village encourages hands-on participation so jump in and make your own unique souvenir to treasure from your visit!
4. Kinrin Lake (金鱗湖)
Also adjacent to Yufuin is Kinrin Lake. This lake is fed by hot springs so its temperature is essentially constant, and warm! As such, it provides a particularly striking view during the winter months but is popular with visitors and local residents year-round. A very popular communal bath in the vicinity is Shitanyu (下ん湯). As it permits mixed bathing, and the bath house opens its windows most days permitting a full view of bathers, consider yourself warned. There is also a small shrine near the lake if this geological anomaly moves you to want to commune with a higher power.
Kinrin Lake Official Website (Japanese)
5. Yufuin Showakan (湯布院昭和館)
This little museum meticulously commemorates one of Japan’s most consequential eras, Showa (昭和), the “Era of Enlightened Peace”, which spanned more than 60 years, from 1926 to 1989. There are many items, in particular, from the immediate postwar period (1946 onwards). If you are interested in that period of Japanese history, you’ll find the displays to be both interesting and revealing. You can touch everything and photos are allowed.
6. Yunohira Onsen (湯平温泉)
The Yunohira Onsen (湯平温泉), is the top rated hot spring on this list! Nestled among a neighborhood of narrow and winding streets, this village is tailor made for travellers looking for an escape from modernity. Don’t worry though, you can choose to what degree you wish to “escape” as the hot springs in the area serve both luxury minded visitors and those on a budget!
7. Hyotan Onsen (ひょうたん温泉)
This hot spring has a reputation for being particularly welcoming to non-Japanese visitors. A cursory glimpse at its website reveals that in addition to Japanese content, the site has Korean, English, and Simplified Chinese content as well, underscoring the location’s effort to be inclusive to overseas visitors. In addition to hot springs themselves, there are different kinds of “baths” including sand baths and a sauna as well. The entire onsen might, in fact, be better described as a resort and you can spend the day going in and out of different bathing experiences while breaking for snacks or meals or just taking a break in the free space areas. Perhaps owing to its efforts at improving visibility and communication with the global tourist community, this experience can be crowded. If you’re looking for an onsen experience but want to be reassured by a relative lack of linguistic barriers, this is the place to visit before taking on some of the more isolated Japanese hot spring experiences.
8. Jikoku Meguri (地獄めぐり)
No visit to Oita is complete without taking the Jikoku Meguri “Hell Tour”. “Hell” referring to the name ascribed to naturally occurring, yet amazing thermal lakes, mini geysers, and boiling mud pits found in many parts of Oita, and especially in and around the Beppu area. Each “Hell” along the prescribed route has its own name. I’m partial to Chi No Ike (血の池) or Blood Lake (pictured below). Although spread over a distance of a few kilometers, the baths themselves are conveniently, for the most part, situated in such a way that one can walk from one to the next without a great deal of excess exertion. For those that do get tired feet, if you’ll find that most of the “Hells” have ashiyu (足湯) or foot bath areas where you can soak and give your feet some relief!
9. Beppu Ropeway (別府ロープウェイ)
If you’re looking for a birds-eye view of the beautiful Beppu landscape, but want to skip the hike to the top of Yufudake, opt for the Beppu Ropeway (別府ロープウェイ). Rising almost 800 meters from Beppu Kogen Station to the summit of Tsurumidake (鶴見岳), riding the ropeway in any season or time of day is a visual treat. Enjoy the view on the way up the mountain, or take in the panoramic scene of the Bay of Beppu.
10. Takasakiyama Nature Zoo (高崎山自然動物園)
Famous for wild monkeys, this park is actually a preserve, not a zoo. The monkeys that inhabit the park are not contained or otherwise held in captivity in any way. It’s a pretty popular destination, so, if you are visiting during holidays or weekends, be aware. Highlights of a visit here include the running commentary by park rangers about the habits of the monkeys and scheduled feeding times. While not formally attached to the preserve, it is possible to find volunteer English speaking guides (they may find you, actually) who are happy to share all kinds of information, trivial and otherwise, about the monkeys and their habitats.
This former castle town is currently famous for its array of stone buddhas. Also, the area around the castle has been picturesquely developed and is a great place for strolling and picture taking. For foodies, supposedly along one of the local shopping streets is a miso/soy paste (みそ) shop that has been manufacturing their product for over 400 years. The shop is said to be the oldest of its kind in Kyushu and one of the oldest in Japan. While you visit, try the soft serve ice cream with miso syrup!
12. Inazumi Underwater Limestone Caves (稲積水中鍾乳洞)
Inazumi Shonyudo may rate as the most unique adventure on this list. Japan’s largest stalactite cave was formed more than 3 million years ago, and became submerged as a result of volcanic activity 300,000 years ago. Portions of the cave are accessible above the waterline. This is a truly awe inspiring natural formation. One of the very few places in Japan which offer this kind of cave exploration opportunity. It’s also a bit off the beaten path from other sites on this list, so be sure to plan ahead. Along with access to the cave itself, admission to this attraction allows you to visit other related areas in the cave complex. Well worth the effort. You’ll instantly feel the power of the natural world surround you as you venture into this most impressive labyrinth.
13. Amagase Onsen (天ケ瀬温泉)
If you’re planning your visit to Oita around hot spring relaxation, Amagase Onsen represents an authentic experience. Don’t try here if you’re feeling bashful, however, as on any given day your relaxing dip in the warm waters may be witnessed by any number of passersby, not to mention hotels full of guests looking down on your bath!
14. Taio Gold Mine (鯛生金山)
Japan is famous historically for being bereft of precious minerals and natural resources (except coal). But, there are places where gems and other precious metals have been and are still extracted. A visit to the Taio Gold Mine (鯛生金山) provides a rare glimpse into the history of mining in Japan. Claustrophobics might want to skip this site, but, if you do, you’ll miss the chance to possibly strike it rich panning for gold yourself!
Taio Gold Mine Official Website (Japanese)
15. Secret Hot Springs
Last, although my list featured several notable hot springs, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that, besides all the landmark places to visit listed, one of Oita’s real pleasures is the existence of “secret onsens”. These places aren’t going to be found in guides or maps, but they exist all the same. Consider yourself a determined adventurer if you can locate one and steal a momentary one-of-a-kind experience!
Good luck finding this place (pictured below), and have a great visit to Oita!!
Photo and Editorial Contributor: Julie Nootbaar