As you turn into the quiet country road leading to Usuki’s Buddhist rock carvings, a stone torii gate, riveted into the earth, deeply corroded by wind and rain, comes into momentary view. Standing in a field of rippling green paddy, it is an unintentional signal that you have entered a different time zone, a different mode of thought.

Situated at the edge of a forested escarpment that overlooks a shallow valley, Usuki’s Sekibutsu (Stone Buddha Ruins), 31 km southeast of Oita City and a good 20 minutes by local bus or taxi from Usuki Station, are inconveniently enough located to deter all but the most serious visitors, only a trickle of whom venture this far out into the Kyushu countryside. For those prepared to make the effort however, the 59 carvings of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and the furious visage of a Deva King, on a lone rock face set apart from the main four clusters, are an arresting sight, a colossal memorial to a cult of esoteric Buddhism whose followers and principals have vanished without trace.

Usuki’s Buddha clusters are considered to be among the most accomplished stone carvings in Japan.

Although some realignment and fissuring has been caused by centuries of earth tremors and natural subsidence, the consummately carved reliefs at Usuki remain remarkably intact. The site has been designated a Special Place of Historical Importance. Though it is probable that the work was begun during the late Heian Period and completed by the early Kamakura Period, visitors look in vain for more concise historical directives. There appears to be no absolute consensus regarding the origin of the site, who commissioned or executed the carvings, or why such a large, relatively remote area was dedicated for the images.

All of this adds a patina of mystery and charm to Usuki, a place which lends itself to quiet moments of introspection. In late afternoon the sculptured sunlight filters through clumps of cedar, pandanus, bamboo and yew, drawing out the earth hues, yellow, ocher and sand, from the faces and torsos of these eerily beautiful Buddhas. The site’s annual Stone Buddha Fire Festival takes place in late August, a nocturnal event in which 1,000 torches are lit around the clusters, making it the largest fire festival in western Japan.

For the photographer these are captive subjects, faces that never flinch or alter their expression. Each gallery of Buddhas, however, is protected by large wooden pavilions that block out much of the natural light they once enjoyed, and which made photographing them easier. The first tableau, the Hoki Stone Buddhas, consists of 20 seated and standing figures. Apparently begun in the late Heian Period, the ensemble, with 10 kings surrounding a meditating figure, solemn in their ceremonial costumes and crowns, with traces of orange and red paint still visible on their robes, is considered to be a masterpiece.

The central arrangement of the second cluster is a superbly carved Amitabha Trinity; the third grouping, the Sannousan Stone Buddhas, is a set of almost childlike figures whose features radiate an innocence that has lent them the alternative name of the “Hidden Jizo.”

Usuki’s final collection of images, the Furuzono Stone Buddhas, is dominated by the figure of the Dainichi Nyorai Buddha. A late Heian Period work, the figure is distinguished by its compassionate features, deeply carved eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes and faint traces of red along the outline of the mouth. It is artfully positioned at the center of a mandala that forms the heart of the Usuki Stone Buddhas. Now it is fully restored, but older pictures of the Dainichi Nyorai show the head resting at the base of a legless torso, decay and the elements eroding the site but enriching it with a lost-world ambience.

Most visitors make directly for the stone carvings, returning to the station without first exploring an older, quieter Usuki, a mere 10-minute walk northwest of the station. Not that the station area isn’t a quiet place, but the vulgarity of its buildings and shops, the modularity of a new town bearing down on the old with insistent bad taste, contrasts with this older teramachi (temple town) of dark stained wood houses, narrow lanes with banked stone walls, and temples and shops selling Buddhist paraphernalia.

The beautiful, placid features of the Dainichi Nyorai define Usuki’s collection of stone Buddhas.

It comes as a surprise to learn that the original town stood at the feet of a now-vanished castle on an island surrounded by sea. Persistent land reclamation has resituated the stone battlements and solitary watch tower of the castle ruins squarely inland, like the rest of this old quarter. The original castle was built by Otomo Sorin in 1564. A convert to Christianity, he had a chapel built on the castle grounds. Portuguese ships docked in Usuki Bay were a common sight in the days when this part of Kyushu welcomed the new faith and its messengers.

The sea and its immediacy is reflected in the cuisine of Usuki, which can be sampled in some of the restaurants tucked into the back lanes of this older quarter. A local version of blowfish, served with kabosu (a citrus fruit indigenous to the area), fish pickled in soy sauce and mixed with bean curd lees, and rice colored with gardenia fruit characterize the Usuki cuisine.

Ryugen-ji, a temple complex with a rare three-story pagoda is a stylistic portal to this district: all black wood and black tile. Sombre and graceful, the pagoda was dedicated to Shotoku Taishi. A second temple in the area, Geke-ji, is notable for its Zen garden, an austere, sternly abstract karesansui (dry landscape garden). Its little visited graveyard, the resting place of several members of the local nobility, is a time-warp of moss-encrusted tombs, mottled stone masonry and the ever-present scent of incense.

Although I came upon several fine old store houses being torn down to make way for a new car park, Usuki has a number of listed buildings, among them 10 well-preserved bukeyashiki (samurai dwellings). Marumo-ke house and the estate of the Inaba family are perhaps the best preserved.

The house of Yaeko Nogami, a well-known writer whose 99 years spanned the reigns of three emperors, stands along one of the lanes of this old core town. Its walls are easily spotted, surfaced in a harlequin pattern, a plaster-relief design known as namako-kabe, which is more commonly associated with the homes and store houses on the Izu Peninsula.

Here, among the traffic-free back lanes of the old quarter, in the domain of samurai, merchants, artists and the Buddha, time stands momentarily still, recalled only by the castle’s ancient bell, rung three times a day as a stern reminder of the hours.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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