Located in the northern part of Oita Prefecture in Kyushu, is the Kunisaki Peninsula. Characterized by numerous hills and valleys, several inactive volcanoes, forests and sparsely populated farmlands, Kunisaki is a veritable Japanese holy land, said to contain more than half of Japan’s stone Buddhist statuary as well as some of its oldest.
The peninsula is home to a unique local Buddhist culture, called Rokugomanzan, which combines elements of Buddhism, Shinto and mountain worship. The culture revolves around the peninsula’s numerous temples and the Usa Shrine. The stone statues are a defining characteristic of the Rokugomanzan culture.
During the early 8th century, a priest named Ninmon, founded 28 temples in this peninsula and created thousands of Buddha statues throughout the course of his life. The temples were constructed in six districts in the valleys radiating out from Mount Futago. (Rokugou means six districts in Japanese.) Another 37 temples were added during the 12th century, bringing the total number to 65.
A local lord named Atomo Sori, a Christian, did his best to deface the area’s Buddhist heritage and as a result only 33 temples remain today, which along with the Usa Shrine form a pilgrimage route.
The area is not very accessible even to this day necessitating renting a car or utilizing a tour bus. Further, one needs a certain level of fitness to negotiate the steep stone steps to the sacred sites deep in the Kunisaki Peninsula for they have buckled and been deformed by time.
If you are fortunate enough to visit this mysterious land, the following points of interest should not be ignored.
Futago-ji Temple: Futago means twins in Japanese and the temple receives visits from the families of twin children, which is a rather rare occurrence in Japan. The temple is located at the center of the Kunisaki Peninsula near to the top of Mount Futago. At the entrance of the temple, a pair of Niou (the guardians of the temple) keep watch. There is a path through the temple, which leads to the top of the mountain.
Usa Shrine: Dates back over 1,000 years and is dedicated to the God of War, Hachiman. The shrine is the oldest Hachiman shrine in Japan.
Fuki-ji Temple: Is the oldest wooden temple in Kyushu and one of the oldest wooden structures in Japan. The original temple dates back to 718 AD. The main hall contains a seated image of Buddha, which was designated as a National Important Cultural Property.
Kitsuki City: Is home to what is claimed to be the smallest castle in Japan, two samurai districts and one merchant district.
The two samurai districts are somewhat similar to those in Hagi in Yamaguchi Prefecture. As in Hagi, a number of former samurai residences are open to the public including the Isoya Residence, the Sano Residence, the Nomi Residence and the Ohara Residence.
The Hitotsumatsu Residence is the former home of Sadayoshi Hitotsumatsu (1875-1973), a Showa era politician, which is also open to the public. The mansion was considered to be the height of technology in its day.
The area is also known for two major festivals. The first is the Kitsune Matsuri (Fox Dance Festival). It takes place from August 14 to 17, on the island of Himeshima off the coast of Kunisaki. It is a traditional Obon festival honoring the deceased ancestors which draws considerable crowds to the normally tranquil and picturesque island.
The second is an interesting festival, which takes place in the small village of Ota during the month of October. The Shirahige Tahara Doburoku Matsuri is dedicated to sampling doburoku, the early fermented mash resulting from the sake brewing process.
Without doubt, there is plenty to see and do in this seemingly serene region that many tend to overlook during their travels to Japan. Whether you are inclined to take part in the fun and excitement afforded by the festivals or simply want to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery, the Kunisaki Peninsula is worth visiting. Kunisaki Peninsula is accessible via the Chuo Expressway and the Sanyo Expressway from Tokyo. The trip will require over thirteen hours and includes traveling by fery. Otherwise, you can fly to Oita from Tokyo utilizing either the Narita or Haneda Airports. Total flight time is an hour and 30 minutes, non-stop.
Usa Shrine Gate (Torii)