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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Trip to Kyūshū, Day 5 - Getting stoned on Buddhas 九州の旅5月26日

The day began with a Japanese-style breakfast at the Folkcraft Ryokan Kaminoya 民芸旅館かみの家. Normally I’m not too crazy about eating things like baked fish and pickled vegetables in the morning, but this meal was superb – I even found myself wishing there was nattō 納豆. Following breakfast, I went for another long walk along the Takachiho Gorge 高千穂峡, which looked just as beautiful, if not more so, in the early morning light. The rowboats were not in operation, for reasons explained on a sign, but for which I didn’t bother to try and figure out the kanji 漢字. This was a minor disappointment, as I was looking forward to hiring a boat and getting an up close look at the gorge and the falls, but buying a bottle of the locally-brewed Takachiho Beer 高千穂ビール from a convenience store helped me to get over the letdown. Japan has seen a boom in regional craft beers 地ビール in recent years, and I was only too happy to try some of them out on this trip!

Eventually I returned to the ryokan, picked up my bag, walked up the road to the bus center and caught the 10:30am bus to Nobeoka 延岡. The ride there was spectacular in places – towering mountains, deep ravines, pretty villages and so on – and it was a bit of a letdown to return to an urban area, even to a city as small as Nobeoka. I didn’t stay long there, however, walking over the adjacent train station to buy a ticket for the 12:09pm “Red Express” (特急にちりん) on the JR Nippō Line 日豊本線 and my next destination, Usuki 臼杵, a port city in Ōita Prefecture 大分県 with a population of 36,000 (the photo on the right was taken at Nobeoka Station 延岡駅. It was the Beer That Got Away as I didn't have time to buy a bottle. It sure looked intriguing):

Instead of buying a bentō 弁当 at a convenience store, and eating on the train during the nearly 90-minute ride to Usuki, I gambled that there would be an eatery around Usuki Station 臼杵駅, and that I have would enough time to eat there before catching the bus to the stone Buddhas 石仏 (see below). It turned out I lost on both counts. The next bus was due to arrive at 2 (I got in to Usuki at 1:32), and there were no restaurants visible in the vicinity of the train station. I had to make due with a box of CalorieMates カロリーメイト (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calorie_Mate) purchased from the station kiosk.

The thing that brings the visitors to Usuki is the stone Buddhas, a collection of roughly sixty statues that were carved into soft lava tuff sometime between the 12th and 14th centuries for reasons unknown. It was a 20-minute bus ride from the train station to the site of the images, which are grouped into four clusters. The most noted of the statues are those of Amitabha Buddha and his two attendants 阿弥陀三尊像 (left), the Sannōsan trinity of Buddhas 山王山石仏 (middle), and the star of the show, the Dainichi Nyorai 大日如来 (right), acclaimed as the finest stone-carved Buddha image in all of Japan:


I encountered an elderly gentleman who was acting as a volunteer guide, and who was only too happy to explain the details of the Buddha statues. Many Japanese are justifiably proud of their culture, and such guides (usually retirees) can be found at many tourist sites all over the country. Their explanations can enhance the experience for the visitor, as when this man (whose name I forget to ask) pointed out the fading colors of the auras on the Sannōsan trinity, and described the long process of restoring the head to the body of the Dainichi Nyorai.

 
After marveling at the stone Buddhas, I took the bus back into Usuki, but got off at the Hirasōzu 平清水 bus stop in order to check out the old center of the city. One could spend a couple of hours wandering the streets, looking at the traditional shops, temples and old samurai homes, and that’s exactly what I did. Not only were the old buildings attractive, I was impressed with how many of them still functioned as stores selling daily necessities and sundries. Newer edifices were built to harmonize with the older structures, such as the Sala de Usuku visitors complex, where I was able to check my email. I found it a little strange that my guidebooks didn’t feature more information on Usuki’s traditional part of town:

By this time it was six o’clock, and I was getting famished. I walked back to the station, got my bag from the locker where I had stashed it earlier in the day, checked into my hotel for the night and set off in search of food. I didn’t have to go far – the hotel across the street from mine had an attached restaurant offering reasonably priced set meals, so I dug into the サイコロステーキ定食 (juicy bite-sized pieces of steak) and washed it all down with the largest mug of draft beer on the menu. Afterward, I decided to take a long walk and burn off some of those calories, first visiting the site of Usuki’s former castle. Like many old castle towns in Japan (especially ones that didn’t preserve or reconstruct their feudal fortresses), the grounds had been turned into a public park atop a high hill, providing views overlooking the city (as you can see in the video below). From there, I walked over to the port area, getting my first up-close look at the ocean on this trip. By now, it had gotten dark, so I returned to my hotel and got ready to call it a night:

My digs for this particular evening was the New Hotel Tamaya ニューホテル玉屋, a short walk from the train station. Though unprepossessing from the outside, with the room being of the typical business hotel variety, there was a public Japanese-style bath on the sixth floor that was the perfect way to soak my bones at the end of the day. Not at all bad for ¥4900, or $53/NT1710 (below is the view of Usuki Station from my room, taken when I first checked in):

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