Japan’s Lost Pilgrimage: Kunisaki in 55 Photos

This weekend trip to the Kunisaki Penninsula, in Oita Prefecture, Kyushu was an impulsive gift to myself before my birthday. ANA has an Explore Japan special flight offer to Kyushu in support of the region since the 2016 spring Kumamoto earthquake. The round trip flight just a little bit over a round-trip bus fair to Kyoto!

Kunisaki Futago-ji stone Nio

I’ll post up diary entries of my walking trip soon! These comments below are cursory notes and my random commentary to keep you entertained.

Kunisaki Peninsula (国東半島) sticks out of south-eastern Kyushu. The train line skirt along its perimeter and cuts down to popular Beppu (the famous red onsen town). However, the region wasn’t always like this. At the centre of this circular peninsula is Mount Futago, which rises to a modest 700 metres above sea level. The hills wind their way over, and between them the fertile valleys have been home to many a small village for centuries.

Kunisaki, it turns out, has a plethora of Buddhist temples and shrines. Some of them, like Fuki-ji, were built by the illustrious Fujiwara Clan that controlled the Heian Imperial Court. Many of these modestly-sized shrines house historical works of art, artifacts, Heian-Era statues, or are even national treasures themselves. Many of the temples are associated with Ninmon, a Nara Period monk who founded 28 temples on Kunisaki in the 8th century. The peninsula flourished as a place of Shugendo training as well. The region has gone through turbulent times, when temples fell out of favour and were systematically destroyed. The Kunisaki Pilgrimage has reportedly endured for close to a thousand years. Mysteriously, it died out in the 1960s, despite the introduction of bus pilgrimage tours. Now, there is one major walking pilgrimage every 10 years.

Walking Shikoku has gotten me a bit addicted to the contained walking and shoestring trips. Basically, I was looking for an excuse to walk. This is Japan; it is safe, the people are nice, there are vending machines. Nothing could go too wrong. With that, I bought a ticket and figured I’d sort out the rest after I arrived.

Day 1: Oita Airport to Baien no Sato

Upon arrival, I learned that even the Oita Airport, which is in Kunisaki itself, can’t be bothered to list out its local bus times; the only bus routes they showed were to cities outside the area. That meant I trotted off to my first temple at 8:30am fresh off the plane.

寶命寺 Homei-ji temple kunisaki
Walking to my first temple from Oita Airport

My first temple had a map of the historical premise, which sprawled over the little mountain. I was fascinated, so I followed the overgrown stairs up to find these first Nio statues. I continued following the overgrown paths up, and up, chased by a wasp whirling around me.

寶命寺 Homei-ji temple kunisaki
Curiosity killed the cat.
寶命寺 Homei-ji temple kunisaki
Incense urn at the top is unused.

The top really didn’t have much. The shrine was clearly disused. The wash basin had stagnant water. The incense urn was covered in leaves. Yet, someone was keeping the flags neat and clean. As my first temple, it set the tone for what was to come. I was already behind schedule.

Surviving off of vending machines
Surviving off of vending machines

I thought Shikoku had nothing. Kunisaki didn’t even have convenience stores. Once I headed into the valleys, the only sources of calories were vending machines.

Rurikō-ji Temple 瑠璃光寺
Second temple, Ruriko-ji

Moss and stone is a common refrain.

Rurikō-ji Temple 瑠璃光寺
A small main temple, with many old wooden carvings.

A kind monk showed me around and explained the various statues and paintings. Truth be told, I couldn’t catch everything he said, especially since he mixed it with some Kyushu dialect. But I got the gist!

Kunisaki forest
Cutting through the shady forest means less heat, but more bugs.

Kunisaki wild flower

Kunisaki Rokugo Manzan
Trying to follow the Kunisaki Long Trail K5.

I’d found the Kunisaki Long Trail map online, but it wasn’t clear enough to find the right roads in the network of mountain paths criss crossing everywhere. Still, I eventually stumbled upon the trail markers, which, sadly, lead to many unkept trails (still passable, but it’ll take you some time).

Yours truly with trying a new camera!
Seeing the drought firsthand.
Seeing the drought firsthand.

As someone who’s volunteered on farms, this is a sad sight. By August the rice fields should be golden and drooping. They’re still lush green long grasses, which is good for my eyes, but not for the farmers.

Passing many open homes with napping elderly.
Passing many open homes with napping elderly.
Baien no Sato Park Camp
First night camping.

I lucked out and stumbled into the Baien Museum right when one of the ladies was getting off. She offered to drive me to the Baien no Sato, which is an onsen and has accommodations. By the evening, I’d not eaten a proper meal all day, so I was grateful to have somewhere to at least buy snacks. Even better, of course, that I could get cleaned up for ¥310 and then camp just outside!

Kunisaki area map
The maps are cute, but not that practical!


Day 2: Baien no Sato to Kunisaki City, Hotel Baygrand Kunisaki

Kunisaki Sunrise
Watching sunrise over the valley.

One of the best things about camping is waking up to natural light. I never sleep well camping, so part of me can’t wait for dawn so I can stop trying to sleep.

Kunisaki Mount Futago
Walking towards the center of Kunisaki, Mount Futago

Walking through the valley wasn’t so bad because the hills offered shade most of the route up.

Kunisaki Futago-ji stone Nio
The iconic stone Nio statues of the area.

The Futago-ji Nio are Kunisaki’s icons.

Kunisaki Futago-ji stone Nio
The closed-mouth Nio is called ‘ungyo‘ and makes the ‘n’ sound.
Kunisaki Futago-ji stone Nio
The open-mouthed Nio is ‘agyo‘ makes the ‘a’ sound.
Kunisaki Futago-ji Temple Oita Moss
The entrance gate to Futago-ji for pedestrians.
Kunisaki Futago-ji Temple Oita Moss
This green approach is a great place to see autumn foliage (koyo).
Kunisaki Futago-ji Temple Oita Moss
I was shutter-happy with all the greenery.

Perhaps it was summer. Perhaps it’s Kunisaki. As usual, there were not too many visitors, which worked just fine for me. As the ‘head’ temple in the region, the complex is large and includes various shrines and temples. The back of the shrine leads to the peak of Mount Futago, where there should be a view of the sea.

Kunisaki Futago-ji Temple Oita
The new building at Futago-ji, the lead temple in the area and therefore more wealthy.
Kunisaki Futago-ji Temple Oita
The main hall has 3 shrines and is open for the public to enter and pray.
Buddhist wooden panel art
Wooden panel relief with gold leaf.
Kunisaki Futago-ji Temple Oita
A breezy spot to look down from the raised building area.
Kunisaki Futago-ji Temple Oita
The gentle hills surrounding Mount Futago.
Kunisaki Futago-ji Temple Oita
It’s good to sound a bell again in the mountains.
Kunisaki Futago-ji Temple Oita
The Oku-no-in, inner temple has the Goddess of Mercy enshrined.

I took my time there, and also took my time leaving. I was undecided about which side of the mountain to go down. It was 35-degree sunshine. I was perpetually drowned in sweat and worried I’d burn. I also didn’t have reception, so it made booking anywhere difficult. In the end, I hedged and decided to head to Kunisaki City.

Kunisaki Golf Course Lodge
The Kunisaki Golf Course has a lodge beside the landmark dam.

At around 11:45am, I came across this golf course. One never know what Google Maps is actually mapping in these rural parts, but I poked my head in to see if I could get a drink and sit down to get an hour’s reprieve from the sun.

Kunisaki Golf Course Lodge
My upstairs napping spot and recharge area.

Not only did they have ice-cold drinks, I found the upstairs area was perfect for napping. Double score! I plugged my phone in to charge, gulped the local kabosu (citrus fruit) soda, and napped on the tatami mats for an hour. I was making up for the sleepless night before.

Kabosu - Kunisaki special fruit drink
Kabosu – a local Kunisaki citrus fruit that’s especially refreshing in summer!
Gyonyu-ji kunisaki
The Tendai temples, unlike the Shingon ones, seem plain square and very open.

Even after the nap, walking at 1pm was basically going through an oven. I was glad to reach each temple, but they didn’t offer much so I moved on quickly. Unlike the Shikoku temples, many didn’t have an incense urn and instead had an open prayer hall.

Gyonyu-ji kunisaki tendai buddhism

Gyonyu-ji kunisaki tendai buddhism
The hallways that are used for airing and for insulation in the winter.
Jingu-ji Kunisaki
The short, steep hike up to Jingu-ji.
All the moss-covered stones...as usual.
All the moss-covered stones…as usual.

I just need to say, as scenic as it was, and as short a climb as this should be, at 2pm, it felt like forever.

The temple was 'closed' since the monk was just about go go out, but nothing is locked.
The temple was ‘closed’ since the monk was just about go out, but nothing is locked.
The shadow's more interesting than the actual sketchy, sweaty person.
The shadow’s more interesting than the actual sketchy, sweaty person.
Senpuku-ji Rokugo Manzan
Senpuku-ji is one of the oldest temples, and therefore enjoys better conservation.
Senpuku-ji Rokugo Manzan
The simple deity shrine in the main hall.
Senpuku-ji Rokugo Manzan Kunisaki
A typical view from a temple entrance into a quiet village.

After this, I was done for the day. By then, I had reception, so I could ask my sister to help me phone up places to stay. On a good day – if I wasn’t dying of heat and probably lack of calories – the rest of the walk to Kunisaki City should only be 2 hours. I was pretty dead by then and determined to hitch a ride. I was fortuante enough to some 15 minutes after setting off. The kind oji-san dropped me off at the Kunisaki Tourist Information Centre when I told him I wasn’t sure where I’d stay.

As a result of that, I met the man who created the Long Trail Map, and his daughter designed Sakichi-kun, Kunisaki’s mascot! It turns out, Sakichi-kun was inspired by the Futago-ji Nio and is meant to mean ‘last’ (sa as a short for sai___) and ‘fortune’ (kichi).

Meeting Kiyonari Takeshi, the man who mapped the Kunisaki Long trail.

By then, my sister managed to confirm a hotel I’d found 15 minutes away from this tourist centre. It was above my price point, but by then I was pretty sleep deprived and desperate. Plus, it was 15-minutes walk away. That factor alone made it good already.

Hotel Baygrand Kunisaki
My hotel room
Hotel Baygrand Kunisaki Sunset
Watching evening set in.

Day 3: Hotel Baygrand Kunisaki to Oita Airport

One thing I like to do to mark special occasions is to see a good sunrise. Part of the point of this trip was so that I could work myself to exhaustion and enjoy going home to Tokyo to enjoy my birthday. This sunrise was spectacular from the 5th floor of the hotel.

Sunrise Seto Inland Sea
Sunrise over the Seto Inland Sea
Sunrise Seto Inland Sea Hotel Baygrand Kunisaki
The higher res version of my hit Facebook / Instagram photo.

These sweet potato cakes I’d picked up from the Michi-no-Eki beside the tourism office is the closest thing I’ve had to a proper meal in the pat 2 days. Either way, it was yum! Kyushu is known for its food, and after browsing their local options, I can see why!

Beppu Oita Sweet Potato Omiyage
Beppu Oita Sweet Potato Omiyage
Sunrise Seto Inland Sea Hotel Baygrand Kunisaki
After sunrise, and my 6;30am onsen, cloud theatrics.

A bit more sun after I went to the onsen at 6:30am.

Seto Inland Sea Hotel Baygrand Kunisaki
The sky in Kyushu is a turquoise blue, different from the shades in northern Japan.

In the end, I decided to enjoy my hotel room until check out time at 10am. I needed to remind myself that once in a while, it’s okay to not set off at 7am to walk again. Instead, I wrote postcards for friends and typed up reflections for my birthday. One of the reasons I want a quiet morning and like having my time alone before the day is to reflect, and I ended up having the perfect location to do it!

Houon-ji rokugo manzan
My last temple this trip.

This one-hour walk to this last temple was murderous. I’d dropped my bag off in dark corner of the public library to lighten my load. It was lighter, but no less hot.

Houon-ji rokugo manzan
Again, the open layout, and the monk and his wife who live in adjacent rooms behind the shrine.
Homemade umeboshi from last year.

The lady (and the monk) who care for this temple came back just as I was leaving. She insisted on giving me a drink, then making me onigiri (rice balls). The warmest thing about temples is seeing that the people who care for them still have a comfortable environment to live in. This one certainly did, with is spacious tatami rooms and modern kitchen facilities. Even though it was still going through slow repair, the place felt warm and homey.

201608 Kunisaki-1110576
Takenaka-san who insisted on giving me homemade onigiri.
The sweltering corner where I waited for my bus to the airport.
The sweltering corner where I waited for my bus to the airport.

And that’s it for now. I’ll follow up with transporation / access and diary posts soon!

Thanks for checking this out!

If you liked this series, look out for my upcoming diary posts that delve into the history of Kunisaki and my experience walking through this lost corner of Japan.

In the meantime, you can check out my photo essay of Invisible Tokyo in Koto-Ku, the canal district.

Athena Lam

A content marketing strategist and consultant.

15 thoughts on “Japan’s Lost Pilgrimage: Kunisaki in 55 Photos

  1. 妹头 having fun,呵呵。I am planning my next Kyushu 108 temples walking. Next is to go with Iwatani portable Butane stove CB-JRB3, and NatureHike UP1 tent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ❤ Yes, I want to do the Kyushu 108. In some ways its harder because it's not an established route anymore. Some parts I went through reminded me a bit of Kochi. We should meet up some time in HK!


      1. November is coming, be there then. I will walk Shimanami Kaido and ferry down to Beppu. Amaze myself Kyushu 108 then.


  2. Yes oh yes, we talk-rocks with Cantonese then ! Thus far, I knew Jake (Ojisan Jake) Davies had walked the Kyushu 108 temples and few locals did? how about others? I dunno, I don’t care. I will rough it out again in late Fall, turtle-shell ration, portable stove and Butane Canister.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey there ! Nice article and nice photos! I’m in Beppu at the moment and thinking to go for 2-3 days to the Kunisaki peninsula to walk. Considering you did it, to you have a map as well as access from Beppu? Or any recommendation?

    Thanks in advance !


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