A Spontaneous Trip to Oita

I have less than two months until I say goodbye to life in Japan and touch back down on US soil, if not for good than certainly for a while. As with most endings this one has left me conflicted. While I’m eager to return home to friends, family and a fridge stocked with all varieties of cheese and reasonably priced fruit, I’ve already begun to miss the home I’ve built for myself here. It’s a strange feeling, missing a place you still inhabit. Every place I go I wonder if it’s for the last time. I catch myself falling back in love with little aspects of Japanese life that had previously faded into the background. I’m both grateful for this hyper-awareness and saddened by it, because of course I’m just that much more aware of what I will miss and how fast the time is going.

But one positive thing to come out of this impending ending is my renewed motivation to do as many of the things on my Japan Bucket List as possible. One of the big items on the list was to visit all nine of the prefectures in Kyushu, the island on which Miyazaki is located. I had nearly written this goal off as my final weekends began to fill up with farewell parties and June’s promise of endless rain, but one Thursday I found myself looking at a rare sunny weekend and no set plans. I made a snap decision not to let the weekend go to waste and booked myself a room at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Oita, the last prefecture on my list.

Oita is Miyazaki’s northern neighbor, and is best known for being home to Beppu, the largest hot springs resort in Japan. It’s about a three hour drive from Miyakonojo if you take the toll roads, and significantly longer if you’re feeling cheap. I decided to save some money and see some friends along the way, so I set off after school on Friday and drove 2.5 hours to Hyuga, a coastal city in Northern Miyazaki. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that night was a full moon, and so when I met up with my friends around 10pm, they were all keen to take a dip in the ocean to celebrate the occasion. Once we actually made it down to the water, however, we all seemed to lose our momentum and ended up only going in up to our ankles. But the weather was nice, the water felt good and the conversation was great. In fact we had so much fun chatting and catching up that once we left the beach and retreated to my friend’s apartment, we didn’t stop until nearly 4am. Time truly flies when you’re having fun.

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The neatest sloppy joe I’ve ever seen

The next morning I groggily got back onto the road and headed straight for food. When in Northern Miyazaki I always try to visit Scroll Cafe, which has hands down some of the best food and kindest staff in town. The owner lived in Canada for a while and speaks flawless English, and the food is equally amazing. I ate what was likely the least sloppy sloppy joe of my life (though it lacked nothing in taste!) and chatted a bit before continuing on my way northward.

I had been dreading the long, solo drive but once I actually got on the road I realized that Northern Miyazaki and Oita has some of the most gorgeous scenery I’ve seen in Japan. The entire three hour trip was through the mountains and I loved it. I broke up the drive with a quick stop at Harajiri Falls, then hit the road again.

 

I arrived in Yufuin in the afternoon and was shown around my ryokan by the very friendly staff. I was excited to stay in the Japanese style inn and took full advantage of the inn’s three private baths, all fed by natural hot springs. I soon discovered that the appeal of onsen is not nearly as strong when the weather is warm, but I did enjoy the open air bath’s view of Mt. Yufuin.

 

But the real reason I chose the ryokan was the food. For dinner I had a full kaiseki meal, full of foods I had never eaten before and still couldn’t name. The picture below really doesn’t do it justice – this was snapped at the very beginning of the meal, before most of the dishes came out. I tried my best to finish everything but couldn’t quite manage. It was all delicious and I practically waddled away from dinner. Needless to say I decided an after-dinner walk was in order.

 

The next day I woke up to yet another fancy meal, which was equally as delicious. As much as I love Japanese food, I was forced to admit two things after that breakfast. First, morning meals are not really for me. As lovely as the food looked and as tasty as I know it was, my stomach simply couldn’t handle that much food so soon after waking up. And Second, Japanese-style breakfast will probably always be a bit too foreign for my tastes. As much as I try, I can’t get over the idea that fish is not a breakfast food. After two years of trying to change my own mind, I’m giving up.

 

On my way out of Yufuin I stopped by one a shrine on my way to Kinrin Lake. The shrine was quiet and peaceful, and I felt totally at ease wandering the grounds. The shop was open so I had one of the priests sign my shrine book (it’s basically a collection of calligraphy) and resumed my course.

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A serine shrine on the way to Kinrin Lake

Kinrin Lake was cute, but crowded with Korean tourists. I snapped some pictures and snuck off to a nearby coffee shop. The coffee wasn’t great, but the atmosphere was fun, and I needed the caffeine kick before a long drive.

 

As long drives go, this was another gorgeous one. I really lucked out with the weather, it was sunshine and mild temperatures all weekend, and the mountains were gorgeous. I even turned off my navigation for a while so I could get some video footage of the drive.

Once I made it to Beppu I decided to check out its most famous attraction, the “Hells” of Beppu. These are natural hot springs that aren’t quite fit for human use, and their strange colors make them perfect tourist traps. I started out at the “Sea Hell,” which was actually very pretty. The surrounding gardens were nice, and the sea-blue hot spring was indeed pretty. I think I could have done without the crowds, but I enjoyed myself.

 

Hell number two was the Oniishi Bozu Hell. This one had mud pools that bubbled in a very photogenic way. So I took some pictures, stuck my feet in the foot bath, and sat down for lunch nearby. Beppu’s signature cuisine is food steamed using the hot springs. I ate some super tasty steamed buns, a few dumplings, and even some custard all made in the steam. While I was eating a German woman sat down to chat with me, and we went to the next hell together. This one was the Kamado Hell, which also had blue water. I think this one was the prettiest

 

After hell number three I decided I’d had enough, since I had other places I wanted to go and a long drive back to Miyazaki ahead of me. So I said goodbye to the German woman and drove two hours to Usuki, which is famous for giant stone Buddhas. Supposedly they are the best examples of stone carvings in Japan, but I was a bit underwhelmed when I saw them. The surrounding area was nice though, and I enjoyed being outside.

 

Finally it was time for the final leg of my trip, three hours on the highway back home. Naturally this was the longest, and most boring part of the whole weekend. Armed with hours of podcasts I somehow made it home in one piece. On the whole it was a lovely weekend.

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