Photo:そらみみ on Wikimedia Commons

5 Reasons to Visit Yufuin, Oita

If you ever watched Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and wondered where you might find an idyllic Japanese village such as the one depicted in the animated movie, look no further than Yufuin, a tiny town in a mountain valley in Oita prefecture.

The spiritual heart of the township is Kinrinko – the Lake of Golden Scales – which is actually a tiny pond. The grandiose name was given by the 19th century philosopher Mouri Kuso, a Confucian whose ideas influenced the overthrow of the shogun and the subsequent modernization of Japan. Kuso’s mind was fertile with big ideas. He might have known that the alluring mist that shrouds the surface of the pond half the year was caused by the hot spring that bubbled on the bottom. The scholar might have even been familiar with the fact that the whole of Yufuin basin was once a volcanic crater and that the little pond was all that was left of a crater lake. He certainly gave the little pond a name worthy of something much more grand and magnificent. It might have reflected what he thought of Japan in his era and its future he desired; a little pond with a potential for greatness.

For some time Yufuin was pretty much a healing resort. Relaxing at a quiet hot spring was considered the only known treatment for such chronic ailments as tuberculosis and rheumatoid arthritis for centuries. People came here seeking convalescence, not excitement. There was plenty of tranquility at Yufuin. That was basically the only asset it had. Things started to change after an earthquake devastated the area in 1975. The Japanese economy was still reeling from the Oil Crisis of 1973 and the little town was left to fend for itself. A small group of visionary local entrepreneurs started the Yufuin Music Festival and the Yufuin Film Festival in an effort to turn the place into a tourist destination. After a slow, languid start, the effort succeeded, and Yufuin became the tourism spot it is today.

Today there are many activities you can do at the popular tourist destination. You can rent some kimono and amble through the historic quarter in traditional costume. You can take a ride on a rickshaw. You can eat sweets at one of many vendors on Yunohira Kaido Street. You can have your photo taken with an owl on your arm at the Owl Zoo. But to me, the true charm of Yufuin had always been the tranquility. It is a place where you can take just a few steps off the beaten track and become secluded from the tourist hoard entirely. Here are my five reasons to visit Yufuin:

1. The Museums and Art Galleries

The museums and art galleries of Yufuin are a special breed. The Yufuin Retro Motor Museum, for example, is a museum that houses some 70 cars. Not a particularly impressive collection for a seasoned car lover, and clearly not aimed at non-car lovers, the place is more like a child’s fantasy come true. It is closer to an over-indulgent man cave than an actual museum, but one you can buy tickets for.

The same can be said of the Iwashita Collection, a little way out of the center of Yufuin. Iwashita Collection is centered on a collection of 200 vintage motorcycles, but supplemented with all sorts of bric-a-bracs from the Showa era. There is no particular overarching theme. You either feel that it is awesome or you don’t. The place is a man’s ego gone wild, but in an innocent, geeky sort of way. If Japanese versions of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark collaborated on a secret cave, this is what you might get.

The art galleries are not much different. Sueda Art Gallery has always been my favorite, not because of its artistic merit, but for its personality. The crown jewel of the lot is Yufuin Mingei Mura, an interactive museum where you can see glass blowers, potters, and paper makers in action. You can actually make your own pottery and experience dying cloth with natural indigo. Again, you either love the place or you don’t.

2. The Hotels and Restaurants

Kamenoi Villa. Yunotakean.

The most famous hotels, cafes, and restaurants of Yufuin attract too many inconsiderate tourists now, much to the dismay of old-hand patrons. Places like Murata were once quiet refuges from the bustle of urban life where you could sit down and read by the fire all day. I wrote a part of my unpublished first novel on the balcony seat of Tenjosajiki back in the day. Today it is hard to get a seat at Tenjosajiki even on a weekday. Even harder is to make a reservation at Yunotakean restaurant on the same grounds of Kamenoi Villa. Tamanoyu Hotel still maintains its old-timey flavor. It is possible to sit down for a quiet cup of tea. The food in Yufuin is still quite good if you avoid the most touristy spots.

3. Educational Activities

Photo by James Gochenouer on Flickr

There are places in Yufuin other than Mingei Mura where you can join in pottery making. Yuzan is a small workshop where a pottery making experience is coupled with a pizza baking activity using an outdoor firewood oven. Hotaru Koubo is a workshop where you can turn clay on a potter’s wheel but you can also learn traditional benihana and indigo dying methods. Touki, Myu and Heikegama also offer pottery making experiences. In fact, there are about a dozen places in Yufuin that offer pottery making classes and experiences, which is a lot for such a small town. Most places charge around 3000 yen or so and will send the finished pottery to your home when it comes out of the kiln.

Yufuin Flora House is a workshop that will teach you how to weave natural fibers on a manual loom. They charge between 1500 and 3500 yen for the experience of making a variety of items from a luncheon mat to a muffler.

Hashiya Ichizen helps you make your own special pair of hand-made chopsticks. Yufuin Stained Glass Museum will teach you how to make small items, like a photo frame, out of stained glass. Many of these workshops are geared toward families, while others are aimed at wives whose husbands are out golfing for work or pleasure. But why Yufuin? Surely there must be workshops that offer similar services in the surrounding cities.

There is something about Yufuin that makes these hands-on programs special. Everything about Yufuin, from the shop signs to the festival events, has a hand-made quality to it. Most of the businesses are run by locals. Most of the attractions are less refined and more amateurish than the attractions you find in the cities. The whole experience of Yufuin has all the hallmarks of naïve ideas conceived and executed by small-town residents who never realized that they were competing in the same industry as the millionaire executives of Tokyo Disneyland. What better place to make a personalized coffee cup or an original pair of chopsticks than a town where everything is innocently hand-made?

4. The Onsens

Mt. Yufu

I lost count of all the outdoor hot spring baths that boast a view of Mt. Yufu decades ago. There used to be only a few. Musoen was one of them. They used to let you use their outdoor bath for a very low price even if you were not staying at the hotel. These days the bath is exclusively reserved for guests. Although the bath is too shallow to swim in, the area of the bath is certainly big enough to be a swimming pool. I believe the size of the bath was not ever meant to be filled to capacity, but rather was intended for you to enjoy the reflection of Mt. Yufu on the water surface as you bathe.

The place must have been a success because more and more hotels began to offer similar accommodations. I used to go to Musoen and have the huge bath all to myself. You probably still could if you selected the right time of day. Drifting in fantasy while soaking in an outsized bath was one of my favorite pastimes.

5. The Quiet

This is the most essential reason you should be visiting Yufuin. If you walk the back alleys, you will find houses built nearly a hundred years ago, with lumber reclaimed from older houses that had also stood for a hundred years. The walls may be sheathed in modern composites but a careful observer can see through the disguise. In spite of the Owl Zoo and the quirky museums, the most interesting thing about Yufuin is how, despite appearances, so little has changed. The multinational horde of tourists notwithstanding, Yufuin is still very much the idyllic Japanese village.

I saw some tourists in Yufuin the other day, scolding their child for wanting another ice cream after spending more than they intended on sweets while they walked down the main street.

They were visibly letdown at the sight of Kinrinko.

“Why, it’s just a pond!” one of them said.

But that is exactly the point. While the rest of Japan busily fulfilled the grandiose destiny Mouri imagined for the island nation, the pond remained the same. The place still waits the next philosopher.

What grand ideas can you dream up while you soak in an outdoor bath with a view of a volcano, arm’s length to some woods where Totoro might lurk? To seek the answer to that question is the biggest reason you should visit Yufuin.

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