The guesthouse I was staying at in Kitsuki was named after the owner, a tough but warm-hearted example of Kyushu womanhood, someone who had learnt to stand her own ground on an island known for its almost theatrical levels of machismo.
The guesthouse, located at the edge of town, right on Route 49, suffered from a steady rush of passing trucks, the urgency of their progress sending shudders through the wooden building.
The owner’s tough-love act no doubt evolved after years of dealing with the kind of itinerant workers who had temporary lodging there. A boisterous lot sharing a single room, they were in the habit of playing quarrelsome card games into the early hours until exhaustion overcame them and they snatched a few hours’ sleep before an early rise and breakfast.
The decibel levels were augmented by three high school boys, similarly billeted in one room, and who also seemed to suffer from insomnia — as well as a tendency to leave food trays at random in the corridor and a habit of forgetting to switch off lights and showers.
Perhaps that explained why there were no travelers at the guesthouse, though I did spot a cyclist swathed skin-tight in the colorful, gleaming wear of the serious amateur. He was making a hasty exit one morning.
Were it not for the presence of a feudal domain in this part of present-day Oita Prefecture, Kitsuki would have remained a pleasant but missable natural valley disgorging into Morie Bay on the Pacific Ocean. As it turned out, it developed into a castle town— but one with a difference.
Here, instead of a central fortress being surrounded by a merchant quarter, as per usual, two distinct samurai districts were built atop facing escarpments. The northern bluff, Kita-dai, faces its southern counterpart, Minami-dai, with the old commercial district running between, on and beneath the succession of slopes that drop precipitously from each of the two high plateaux. It’s a unique arrangement, found nowhere else in Japan.
I decided to ascend Kita-dai via a long flight of steps on a slope named Kanjoba-no-zaka. What was striking about those steps, and others on nearby slopes, was their width, since they were designed to suit a horse’s stride.
Adding to the interest of the incline and its solid-clay, plastered walls were the flagstones themselves, some fashioned into pleasing forms such as a Japanese fan or the outline of Mount Fuji. A small town easily negotiated on foot, the fascination of Kitsuki was in details like this. Atop Kita-dai, is soon encountered the Isoya Residence. Formerly owned by one Yogoemon Kato, the home has a quiet dignity that must have made it an ideal venue for the government affairs and administrative issues once discussed there.
Antiques and household objects from the Edo Period (1603-1867) were scattered about the interior, making them appear like perfectly ordinary daily items. Moving from one room to another, it was easy to forget that the rear section of the residence was the Kurihara Katsumi Art Museum. The woman who showed me around the house was eager to unsheathe a long samurai sword and demonstrate its efficacy. Not for the first time, I reflected on how those weapons may be the most beautiful instruments of death ever created.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the way she swung the sword in the air, as its whistling sound came a little close for comfort and I shuddered to think of the hurt even a glancing contact would inflict. More calming were the property’s grounds, abundantly planted with trees and bushes and embellished with meandering paths, water basins and stone lanterns.
Back in the house, I realized that each room was carefully positioned to afford the best view of the surrounding gardens; or perhaps it was the opposite — with the landscape having been modulated to compliment the outline of the building.
The grandest structure along the street was the Ohara Residence, former home of chief retainers of the influential Matsudaira clan. Large enough to boast a circuit-style garden, its thatched-roof, timber-and-plaster walls were almost Elizabethan, resembling an English country manor of the late 16th century.
Halfway along the lane, the scale of Hanko-no-mon, an imposing wooden gate, was arresting. This led to the Gakushu-kan, an Edo Period school established to educate children of samurai families.
With the samurai class living on the heights, and the lower orders below, Kitsuki was a perfect template of the feudal class system that kept a firm grip on the comings and goings of the populace nationwide, as well outsiders. A little north of the samurai residencies of Kita-dai, the Kitahamaguchi Guardhouse, set up to monitor the movement of people and goods, is the only checkpoint left of five that once existed.
There are fewer residencies open to the public in the Minami-dai quarter, but its Ameya-no-saka and Shioya-no-saka slopes are conduits to times past — stone grids of history featuring several small temples and shrines and fine waterscapes of the Yasaka River.
After the modest simplicity and good taste of the samurai properties, the Hito-tsumatsu Residence in the Minami-dai district was an altogether more pretentious affair, built to ambitious specifications in 1927.
A blend of artisan chic and high living, this sprawling statement of power and authority was once owned by a member of the postwar national parliament, which likely explains the whiff of hubris it emanates from it commanding site offering views of the town on one side and the bay on the other.
Perhaps it was due to my sleep deprivation, but right around then the slopes began to bend and buckle oddly before my eyes. Descending to the terra firma of the old commercial district, I caught a glimpse of TV cameras moving around the shadowy interior of a sake shop, lights being set up and actors in Edo Period costumes hanging around.
It’s not hard to see why the town is a popular filming location and, for owners of heritage properties, how it may pay well in a town that has much to offer as a tourist destination, but appears to receive very few visitors.
During the three days I spent there, I only saw a trickle of outsiders, mostly small groups of retired folk. I saw no foreign visitors. Despite the proximity of Oita Airport, it appears most people head straight for the nearby hot-spring resorts of Beppu and Yufuin.
Even from a distance, it was obvious that Kitsuki Castle is a replica, slapped up by the look of it during the years of Japan’s high-growth construction boom. I’ve always been puzzled how such projects can be described as “reconstructions” — when the original wooden structures are replaced with ferro-concrete.
The castle and its modest collection of feudal heirlooms was worth the ticket cost — though for the views from atop the donjon along the river and across the bay. I was told there were horseshoe crabs and shellfish to be had in those waters, just beyond an old oarsmen’s house that marked the town’s end — but that would have to wait for a future visit.
Back at the guesthouse, dinner was about to be served, a piping hot stew fit for the likes of working men, ravenous schoolboys and nocturnal gamblers.
Getting there: The JR express train from Hakata takes about two hours direct to Kitsuki. Trains from Beppu take just 25 minutes. Oita Airport is 20-minutes away by bus. The tourist office (0978-62-3131) can help with accommodations.
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