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Sunday, Dec. 19, 2010

Savor Yufuin's peaceful charms


Special to The Japan Times

Set your travel planning to autopilot and — if you are in northern Kyushu in need of the thermal succor only a hot-spring bath can lend — you are sure to be drawn by the gravitational pull of Beppu, the brash town in Oita Prefecture that is the onsen king of Japan and knows it.

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Main street: Stores along Yunotsubu, where most items are notable for their quality. CHRIS BAMFORTH PHOTOS

But wise travelers in search of a more serene bathing experience, combined with a proximity to nature that's consigned to Beppu's distant past, will set the controls full speed ahead to a place not so far up the road. They will head for Yufuin.

Presided over by the twin peaks of 1,584-meter Yufudake, Yufuin is a mere 25 km from Beppu, but a world apart. Where Beppu lies beside a bay of the same name that forms one of the western arms of the Seto Inland Sea and is well used to catering to tourist hordes, Yufuin sits in an upland basin 450 meters above sea level and is blessed with a stunning backdrop of thickly forested mountains.

Also in contrast to sprawling Beppu, Yufuin is so compact that you can easily stroll from one end to the other or get around by bike — though for the more rustically inclined there's also a horse- drawn carriage.

One place that most visitors make for is the most attractive physical feature within Yufuin itself — a small lake by the name of Kinrinko at the eastern end of town. And while Yufuin is renowned for the attractive mist that often carpets its valley floor in the morning, Kinrinko is particularly noted for putting on a misty show, its waters being warmed by the local geothermal abundance.

That energy of course finds its most agreeable expression in the plethora of hot springs that spout forth.

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At ease: Visitors take a leisurely approach to seeing Yufuin's sights.

Among those thermal spots, the most charming has to be the one standing beside Kinrinko — the thatch-roof building to the outdoor bath of Shitan-yu.

However, those with wads of cash who really want to luxuriate in the hot stuff should do so in the genteel surroundings of Hotel Kamenoi Besso. This achingly delightful place was established in 1921 as a private villa, only later becoming a hotel. It comprises 15 uniquely appointed rooms in a mixture of Western and Japanese styles scattered over its extensive wooded grounds. Cheap, though, it is not, and for most of us a stay at such a spot is but the stuff of fond dreams.

The hotel has long been a favorite among better-heeled writers and artists, and Yufuin generally tends to attract artistic types to its green and pleasant environment. In line with this cultural aspect, as well as sightseeing and accommodation maps the town produces one indicating where its various art galleries are to be found.

Yufuin has the distinction of being home to Japan's oldest film festival — no mean feat for a place without a single movie theater. Dating back to 1976, the festival is held annually in August in a community hall. Generally featuring about 20 screenings and the drier sort of academic symposia, it tends not to be a magnet for bright-eyed starlets on the make.

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Yufudake's twin peaks that preside over the town.

A rather less highbrow Yufuin experience can be appreciated in the form of the Beef Eating and Shouting Contest held in October. True to its name, the event sees people gather on the lower slopes of Yufudake, eat Yufuin beef stew from a communal pot — and then get in front of a microphone to deliver a good old bellow of choice phrases. The winner is the one who makes the most impressively stentorian delivery, not the one most adept in the art of eating stew.

Cultural expression of a more down-to- earth nature is evident in the dusty, woody environment of the museum known as Kyushu Yufuin Folkcraft Village. On display are items that were commonplace utensils before mass production shaped the appurtenances of daily life. Artisans are on hand to demonstrate the traditional way of making things out of paper, wood and bamboo.

But the best place to see works of an artistic or artisanal ilk is along Yufuin's main thoroughfare, named Yunotsubu. Even though this is the town's chief tourist run, it is an agreeable road. Building restrictions stop anything detracting from the generally old-world character, and wood is a popular material in the construction of most shops, many of them with dark ceramic tiles, white and beige walls, wooden pillars and noren split curtains above the entranceways.

Shops along Yunotsubu sell such items to delight the tourist's eye as jam, flowery purses, chopsticks and honey. One specializes in goods made of charcoal; another, goods in glass. There is a store offering items with just the canine consumer in mind; another with just the feline. This street is commercialized, but in the nicest possible way, and the articles on sale are quality ones — even if the store owner might ride a Harley-Davidson and sport a cowboy hat, suede-frilled jerkin and rainbow-tinted shades.

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The elegant lounge beside reception at the pricey but poetic Hotel Kamenoi Besso.

Yufuin is a hard place not to like. There is such a palpable proximity to nature, and an air of bucolic charm hangs over the town. The clear waters of its main river are thick with weed. Dragonflies flit in season above its rippling surface; fish dart within. The wonderfully unsullied environment is such that even fireflies — cleanliness freaks that they are — are positively profuse and put on their displays above the streams in late spring.

The best time to enjoy Yufuin is after 5 p.m., when the last of the tour buses has pulled out of the car park. That is, in fact, a coded signal to go and sit with a cold beer somewhere along Yunotsubu, now graced by just a trickle of people, take in the so-sweet mountain air — and savor placid Yufuin having become even more placid.

Getting there: Flights from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to Oita Airport take about 90 minutes. From there, it is about 40 minutes by bus to Beppu, from where it takes about an hour by JR limited express to Yufuin.


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