By Kazuhiro Katayama / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterUSUKI, Oita — “Onsen-ken” (prefecture for good hot springs) is the catchphrase used by Oita Prefecture to promote itself in recent years. But the sight of many “magaibutsu” Buddhist figures in the prefecture is another tourist attraction here.
Magaibutsu are carved into a cliff or a natural rock face. More than 80 places in the prefecture are home to such figures. The most prominent of them is the Usuki Sekibutsu, a group of stone Buddhist images designated as national treasures. These statues are the sole stone images among the carvings designated as national treasures.
Although the Usuki Sekibutsu may be thought to lie deep in the mountains, they are actually located relatively close to the central part of Usuki, about a 15-minute drive away from there. There are about 60 stone images at four places on the sides of mountains that overlook village communities and cultivated fields.
Although many magaibutsu images are sculpted as reliefs, Usuki Sekibutsu figures are 3D artifacts, the minuteness of which can be mistaken for wooden statues. These stone images, believed to have been produced from the late Heian period (794 to the late 12th century) to the Kamakura period (the late 12th century to 1333), are marked by their rounded and mild facial expressions.
These stones are the welded tuff that came into being after a colossal pyroclastic flow from an eruption at Mt. Aso coagulated about 90,000 years ago. Such stones are so soft and porous that they can be easily carved. On the other hand, they tend to deteriorate easily, as shown by the fact that they gather moss.
“The stones can be damaged if brushes are used to forcibly remove living moss from them. It has taken us as many as 10 years to develop a different method, and we use ultraviolet light to wither moss and then remove it,” said an official of the cultural assets-related department at the Usuki Board of Education.
Streets in the city of Usuki are difficult to remember. The Hatcho-Oji shopping area lies in the center of the city. The Nioza Rekishi no Michi street is lined with Buddhist temples and old samurai houses, reminiscent of a landscape from the Edo period (1603-1867).
Power cables are buried underground in the city, while roads there are neatly paved with stones. But visitors can find themselves lost in the city. They may drop in at shops or restaurants and then leave, only to face an unfamiliar street view. “From which direction did I come from?” they may say to themselves. Many alleys lead to corners or T-junctions, and visibility is poor there.
“Roads in each zone of this area remain unchanged from the Edo period, when they were built with many corners as a defense against enemy attacks,” said a man in his 70s, who heads a group of local volunteer guides.
Usuki thrived on its trade with Spain and Portugal during the warring states period from the late 15th to late 16th centuries. It was formed as a castle town when Otomo Sorin, a Christian feudal lord, built Usuki Castle.
In those days, the castle stood on a coastal island, although that spot lies adjacent to the land today as its surroundings have been reclaimed. The castle used to be surrounded by the sea, protected by steep cliffs. The castle town used to be surrounded by mountains in three directions. It is thought to have been highly unassailable.
A park that lies where the castle used to stand serves as a place where local residents relax and refresh. Visitors may think of the turbulent warring states period only when they look at historical artifacts there — the figure of Sorin in relief and a replica of a cannon imported to Japan by European traders.
After the 1600 Battle of Sekigahara, the Usuki domain was ruled by the Inaba clan, who had moved there from the Gifu area. In the latter part of the Edo period, Murase Shobe-e, principal retainer of the Inaba clan, pulled the domain out of a fiscal crisis.
“At that time, Murase made all-out efforts to ensure people lived simple and frugal lives. Even after that, Usuki residents continued to practice thrift,” the volunteer guide said. “So much so that people used to say, ‘If you take a wife, you should marry a woman from Usuki.’”
This doesn’t mean there is a stiff, uncomfortable atmosphere in the city. At local shops and facilities, visitors may be affably treated. On their way home from school, junior high and high school students may offer a friendly hello. One is not only able to enjoy eating puffer fish from the Bungo Channel, but also the food served at local izakaya bars.
Usuki is a simple but comfortable place to visit.
Christian graveyard relics
There are no noticeable ruins in urban areas of Usuki that are tied to the prosperity of Christianity during Otomo Sorin’s rule of the region, due to a ban on the religion in the Edo period.
In recent years, however, the ruins of a large-scale Christian graveyard were excavated in the Shimofuji section in the city’s mountainous area. Last year, the relics were designated as a national historical site.
The site includes 54 grave posts as well as structural remnants, and it is said to be incomparably large in this country. The site has been covered with earth for preservation now, but it could be opened to the public in the future.
Ice cream with miso sauce
Usuki has long been known for its brisk production of miso soy bean paste and soy sauce.
The longest-established producer in the city is Kani Shoyu (Tel: 0972-63-1177). The Kani family, who moved to Usuki from the Gifu area together with the Inaba clan, founded a soy sauce factory in 1600. The company has since been doing its business in the same location.
Kani Shoyu’s “Miso Sofuto,” miso-flavored ice cream, is also enjoying popularity — vanilla ice cream that comes with special sauce consisting of Kani Shoyu-made miso, sugar and sweet sake, sprinkled with crunched or powdered baked miso.
The soft ice cream is made by the mother of the current 12th president. It has a rich but refreshing taste. “I started making this about 10 years ago. People visit us from other prefectures to enjoy it,” she said. Served in a cone, this ice cream is priced at ¥350, while a small-cup serving costs ¥250.
Contemporary Usuki-yaki pottery
Usuki’s indigenous products include “Usuki-yaki,” the once-extinguished ceramic ware that local potters have brought back to life as a contemporary product.
During the Edo period, the lord of the Usuki domain summoned pottery workers from other domains to produce Usuki-yaki. But its production ceased somewhat more than 10 years later.
The production of Usuki-yaki has been revived by local ceramic artist Hiroyuki Usami and others.
The product lineup includes a mug priced at ¥2,700 and a small desert bowl at ¥3,024. They are sold at Yumeya Kai (Tel: 0972-62-8062), a general store on the Nioza Rekishi no Michi street.
Oita Airport can be reached by a 100-minute flight from Haneda Airport. The city is accessible by an 80-minute limousine bus ride from the airport.