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Night view from the top of Oita station.
Night view from the top of Oita station. Image: marumaru/Pixta

A guide to Oita City's nature, culture and food

By Elizabeth Sok

For many, onsen (hot springs) are the first things that come to mind when people think of Oita Prefecture. With over 5,000 hot springs in Oita, it’s not surprising that Hells of Beppu or Yufuin’s picturesque baths steal the spotlight.

While Japan’s onsen capital rightfully deserves its relaxing reputation, less traveled places like Oita City often get overlooked.

Oita City is the prefectural capital and located in the eastern part of central Oita Prefecture. Facing Beppu Bay and hosting the Oita and Ono Rivers, the urban center enjoys a long maritime history and easy access to nature.

Meanwhile, as the largest city in the prefecture, Oita also boasts several cultural attractions for art lovers and history buffs and plenty of fun for foodies. Read ahead for a slice of Oita City fit for a day trip or weekend getaway.

Oita City: A transnational hub

Otomo Sorin’s legacy is memorialized in stone at Jingujiura Park. Image: 大分帰省中, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

The area comprising Oita City has long been known for transnational trade and cultural connections. In the 16th century, a feudal lord named Otomo Sorin controlled the Oita region, then known as Bungo Province.

Sorin developed close relations with the Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, and eventually converted to Christianity. Sorin also sent the first Japanese delegation to Europe, which met with the Pope and several European royals. With this network in place, Bungo was one of the first Japanese regions to welcome Western science, medicine and firearms. Meanwhile, Sorin maintained mutual trade relations with China and Southeast Asia.

Although the Otomo clan eventually lost power, Oita’s reputation as an area with a global outlook continued. After World War II, the city established sister-city ties with Wuhan (China), Austin (Texas, U.S.) and Aveiro (Portugal).

JR Oita station

For many, your trip to Oita starts and ends at Oita train station. Image: PIXSTAR/Pixta

If you’re visiting Oita via rail or highway bus, JR Oita City will likely be your entry point. The station first opened in 1911 and was completely redesigned in the mid-2010s.

This eight-story station complex houses a shopping area complete with luxury and affordable brands, a cinema, an arcade and an array of gourmet and local restaurants. Head to the rooftop for great views of the city, a playground and a miniature train for children. Come back to the roof on your return trip home and visit the Railroad Shrine dedicated to safe train travel.

The ground floor has dozens of omiyage (souvenir) shops offering Oita specialities. Pick up some Zabieru (Xavier) treats, an homage to the prefecture’s Christian history This is a buttery blend of Western and Japanese pastry packed with white bean paste and flavored with rum raisin.

Exploring the city’s cultural landscape

Don’t worry, at the Oita Prefectural Art Museum you’re allowed to push the eggs! Image: Elizabeth Sok

Accessible from the city’s shopping arcade, the Oita Prefectural Art Museum (OPAM) is a must-visit for art enthusiasts and novices alike. While OPAM opened its doors in 2015, its roots run much deeper. For over three decades, the Oita Prefectural Art Center was the city’s most renowned museum before it finally closed in 2012. Over 5,000 pieces of the Center’s collection made its way into the care of OPAM.

Today, visitors can appreciate a variety of artistic media, including painting, sculpture, pottery and more. The museum also showcases local traditions, particularly artists from the Bungo Nanga School active during the feudal era and into the early 20th century. From ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints to modern artists grappling with the devastation of the world wars, OPAM has a varied permanent collection that showcases the strengths of Japanese art.

To explore the history of Buddhism and Shinto in Oita, make your way to the south side of JR Oita City. Several of the sites you’ll find were originally built by members of the powerful Otomo clan, such as the Yasaka Shrine which was constructed in the 13th century by the first head of the family. About a kilometer away, visit the Motomachi Stone Buddha which stands about five meters tall and was carved in the 11th century. These sites and more can be seen on a historical walking tour that covers the central part of the ancient Bungo Province.

Outside the city center

Grab a seat at Takasakiyama Natural Zoological Garden in springtime and enjoy over 80 Yoshino cherry trees. Image: marumaru/Pixta

Accessible by bus and taxi from the city center, Oita Marine Palace (Umitamago Aquarium) and Takasakiyama Natural Zoological Garden give you a chance to learn about the prefecture’s animal and sea life. Umitamago showcases sea creatures living throughout Oita on two floors and an external beach area. Across from Umitamago on the slopes of Mount Takasaki is Takasakiyama Natural Zoological Garden. Home to over 1,000 Japanese macaques split into two large troops of about 400 to 700 monkeys each, this park is a unique opportunity to see the animals scramble up trees, jump through the air and dash for food.

For a break from a city and trek through the city’s natural landscape, go to the Waseda area south of the city center. At the Nanase River Nature Park, you can stroll through bamboo thickets in the Nature Observation Forest and cross the Nanase River via the Ayatori suspension bridge while overlooking the surrounding greenery.

Treat yourself to a custard-filled walrus snack at Oita Marine Palace. Image: Elizabeth Sok

Southeast of the park and first appearing in historical records in the ninth century, Sasamuta Shrine was once a key religious site in the old Bungo Province. Every May, the shrine hosts a wisteria festival where its 450 year old trees take center stage. Finally, although Oita City isn’t known for hot springs, it is home to over 200. The Tsukano Kousen Public Bath has a rustic aesthetic with waters rich in chloride said to soothe gastrointestinal pains. It’s also tattoo friendly!

Oita for foodies

Two Oita specialties: "toriten" (chicken tempura) and "kabosu" (Oita Prefecture citrus). Image: ささざわ/Pixta

Chicken lovers shouldn’t miss out on toriten (chicken tempura). Seasoned with soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice cooking wine), ginger and more, this chicken is then fried and served with ponzu (soy and citrus juice) sauce. Locals insist that its preparation and flavors distinguish toriten from both tempura and karaage (fried chicken).

Situated along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, Oita is renowned for seki-saba (mackerel) and seki-aji (horse mackerel). These premium catches are trademarked and apply to fish caught in Saganoseki, a town in the city’s boundaries.

The fatty seki-aji comes into season between July and September and is characterized by its meaty taste. The season for seki-saba is from December to March after the fish have fattened up during the chilly winter months. Both can be enjoyed as sushi, sashimi or topped on a rice bowl. Add a spritz of kabosu, an Oita Prefecture citrus, for a refreshing taste.

With this guide to Oita City, you’re off to a good start getting to know this underrated prefectural capital. There’s plenty more to explore when you’re done, like:

  • digging deep into Oita’s past at the Oita Prefectural Center for Archaeological Research.
  • taking in the great views of the Seto Inland Sea at Sekizaki Ocean and Astronomical Observatory.
  • cycling up and down the coast around Tanoura Beach.

Whether it’s your first or 10th time in the city, we hope you can add something new to your itinerary.

What places, foods and experiences do you recommend in Oita City? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

© Japan Today

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They didn’t even mention Monkey Mountain… or maybe that’s Beppu? - yeah I went to APU!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Monkey Mountain is right across Umi Tamago aquarium and it is mentioned as Takasaki mountain!

Oita beach is a nice artificial summer spot and the seacoast to the south is beautiful.

Usuki stone Budas and Beppu onsens are also in Oita and deserve a mention or maybe even separate article!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Good article on Oita that finally focus on things different from onsen, there are a lot of attractions available that frequently don't get much attention. The prefecture is a good destination by itself, but also a nice part of a whole Kyushu tour.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Lived there one year as a JET. Nice place. Could see myself retiring there.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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