Spring Break in Oita, Japans #1 Onsen Prefecture!

On a cold Saturday morning in March, we set off for a week-long trip to Japan’s southernmost of the 3 main islands to visit an area that has long been on our bucket list: Oita, Aso-Kujo National Park and Miyazaki.

Oita Prefecture: Beppu, Oita City and Yufuin

As you already read in the title, Oita is Japan’s onsen (hot spring) capital! We have indeed never travelled to a place in Japan that has so many different onsen that you can use as a day spa (without staying over as a hotel guest), public onsen (cheap & cheerful) and outdoor foot baths. Needless to say we tried out a different one each day!

Oita City – two stunning art museums, coastal views and a monkey park

Did you know that Oita Airport is actually closer to Beppu than Oita City? When we arrived at the airport and rented our car, it was raining and so we decided to check out one of the two famous art museums in Oita City first. It was a tough decision – should we go for the one with outstanding architecture that is quite famous around Japan but hosts a smaller collection or contemporary art; or should we visit the one on a hilltop with a large, outstanding collection of artworks? We chose the latter (called Oita Art Museum) and were very happy with our decision!

ArtTable Cafe & Restaurant at Oita Art Museum with a farm to table concept

It so happened to be lunch time when we arrived and we were lucky to get a seat at the popular museum cafe that offers a delicious menu with local produce. I chose the medicinal lunch set (with a selection of herbs and ingredients that are well balanced and supposedly good for your health) and J had local (super juicy) chicken and tempura.

The artworks we saw in the gallery were an outstanding collection by local artists including paintings of local neighbourhoods, people and beautiful sceneries. There were a few particular paintings that are still on my mind today – unfortunately we were not allowed to take photos.

Takasakiyama Monkey Park – a natural home for hundreds of monkeys

Oh and Takasakiyama monkey park! Just by chance on Google Maps, we saw that there is a monkey park where monkeys naturally live and you can watch them. How do they keep the monkeys there without putting them in cages!? Regular feedings 😉 (It’s just like with us humans…)

Beppu – public onsen, hells and a vibrant town center

What we loved most about Beppu was staying in a traditional Japanese house (which I had booked thinking we’d just be staying in a small guesthouse room!), strolling through the vibrant restaurant district eating the best Korean and Chinese food we’ve had in Japan, and lastly seeing two of the seven Beppu Hells (hot springs for viewing not bathing) and trying out two different hot springs to relax in.

A beautiful park surrounding the steamy turquoise hot spring called Umi Jigoku

Beppu’s town center is actually way more interesting and bustling than I imagined – there are a countless amount of onsen right next to each other, which look vintage, are cheap and quite simple; alongside an abundance of authentic restaurants with a vibrant and creative vibe! On our first night, we ate at a Chinese restaurant, chatting in Chinese to the owner who was blown away and happy to be able to speak Chinese with us; while also chatting in English and Japanese to the customers next to us who were local pro surfers. For me, just the easy going eating out scene would be reason enough to return to Beppu.

Pink and purple lotus flowers in the greenhouse at Umi Jigoku

We also tried out one of the fancy onsen (called Ebisuya), which was very expensive to get into and had a variety of hot tubs in different shapes (tubs / natural with stones), sizes and water (milky and clear). However, genders are separated as usual and only one of the floors has a big variety, whereas the other area is much smaller and they charge the same price.

Doesn’t this just look like an artwork?! This is one of the seven hells and not one to dip your toes in!

On our last day, we visited two of the seven hells of Beppu (for lack of time, steep price and reading reviews which ones are the best two) and enjoyed spending time looking at the natural hot springs and the pretty surroundings they were set in, with cherry blossoms blooming while relaxing in a foot bath!

Yufuin – a wannabe Cotswolds, an outstanding small art gallery and great views onto Mt Yufu!

Pictured as a dreamy little village surrounded by mountains, where wildflowers naturally bloom… I was a little surprised and honestly disappointed when we walked through the town centre that was just full of mainstream souvenir shops (some of the same we have here in Yokohama) and very crowded. That kind of atmosphere reminded me of strolling through Suzhou or Lijiang (two famous, beautiful Chinese old towns with many tourist shops and people).

Politely smiling while thinking: This place is hell for me! At Yufuin Floral Village.

There were a few really nice cafés though and the one we stopped at had excellent espresso and craft beer! And then we visited the Comico Art Museum which hosts a small yet elegant exhibition and on entry they handed us a catalogue to read in more detail about the meaning of the artwork compositions and architecture. The exhibition starts in the main building and ends on a rooftop garden with spectacular views onto Mt Yufu. Both the espresso and art museum left such a strong impression on me that I almost forgot about the crowds… almost 😉

The rooftop exhibition at the Comico Art Museum in Yufuin. Artist: Yoshitomo Nara.

Thank you for reading my long post and I hope it inspired you to put Oita prefecture high on your Japan bucket list! For now, sadly, tourists are still not allowed to re-enter Japan and there is no plan to change this in the immediate future… so for this reason, I hope I can motivate even more people out there to hang on to their Japan travel plans whenever the borders open and give a few ideas of where to go! My next post will be about cycling in Kyushu and exploring the breathtaking Aso-Kuju National Park, Kurokawa Onsen and the nature paradise Takachiho in Miyazaki.

– Her

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