It’s a rare day that the top of Oita Prefecture’s Mount Yufu (or Yufudake) isn’t obscured by clouds, claims Lonely Planet’s “Hiking in Japan” guidebook. Luckily, our visit happens to coincide with one of those rare days — there is nothing but an unbroken stretch of blue around the peak and the crisp, autumn air is perfect for a hike.
Unfortunately, a number of other people share our sentiments and the parking lot at the base of this 1,583-meter-high volcano is packed on the final day of a holiday weekend. I’m not exactly looking forward to traffic on the trail but it’s been too long since my family and I enjoyed the great outdoors without smothering humidity and I’ve dusted off my old hiking boots just for the occasion. Aiming to outdistance some of the larger groups still lacing up their boots, my husband slips our daughter into the hiking backpack he has promised to lug up the mountain and we set off on a well-marked trail up one of Kyushu’s 100 famous peaks.
Even if you’re not in great shape, the short walk from the car to the treeline is worth the slight exertion. Dry grassland allows for an unobstructed view of the Yamanami Highway as it snakes from the commercialized, coastal hot-spring city of Beppu to the gentrified spa town of Yufuin and beyond. Here and there, puffs of steam rise from the landscape, a reminder of the volatile nature of this region and the source of those vaunted onsen.
Ten minutes into the hike, the path enters the forest and the climb begins. A handful of maples show tinges of red, but it’s still early in the season and the foliage of Oita is mostly sporting its summer green. Eventually, we take a snack break at a clearing, soaking up the views of the bare slopes of nearby Mount Iimorigajo while letting our daughter stretch her legs (and my husband rest his back). It’s a treat to catch such amazing weather between the slew of typhoons that have been pounding the islands lately and the good weather urges us quickly back to our task.
About 30 minutes later, the woods have disappeared and the trail grows rockier as it clings to the upper slopes. We hit the first of nearly 50 trail switchbacks as we simultaneously break into our hiking stride. The sun is warm on our necks, the trail well-maintained and easy to follow, and the summit is within sight. We’re feeling good — until the sole of my left boot completely falls off.
A few hundred meters later, when the other sole decides to detach itself as well, our day takes quite an unexpected turn. I’m reluctant to turn around so close to the summit, but my husband provides the voice of reason, convincing me I don’t want to end up scrambling over rocks in my socks. We start down the path, feeling quite dejected.
Within two turns of the trail, however, my savior appears in the form of 60-something local resident Haruo Obata. Lugging a milk crate full of tools for trail maintenance, Obata quickly assesses the situation and pulls some heavy-duty tape from his supplies. He patiently wraps up my now pitiful-looking boots, chatting with us about the 25 days a month he spends on the mountain, working to maintain the condition of the paths. He does an equally fine job on my footwear and proclaims the shoes capable of making it to the summit. Riding his wave of optimism, we express our thanks and do yet another 180 degree turn, to head once more in the direction of our initial goal.
Breathing heavily (toddlers aren’t exactly lightweights), we arrive at the saddle between Yufuin’s dual peaks in time for a late lunch. My daughter and I chow down on our convenience store bentō (boxed lunches) while my husband tackles the taller western summit. It’s a challenging path that involves chains and scrambling — with a 2-year-old and taped boots with no traction, I’m more than comfortable to sit this one out.
The views from the saddle are impressive enough, and I can see all the way down to the roofs of Yufuin.
Two hours later, we’re on the streets of that photogenic spa town, enjoying a post-hike pudding made from local milk products. Our knees are aching but we stroll the length of Yunotsubu Street — a bustling shopping artery that cuts through the center of town — poking into craft shops and shooting photos of the facades of the town’s exclusive ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). Despite the busloads of international tourists clogging the thoroughfares, it’s easy to see why Yufuin attracts the type of traveler looking for a slightly upscale onsen experience. Thick walls and scenic gardens hide the sumptuous ryokan from prying eyes. Only small signs with swirling characters hint at the famed hot springs beyond — I even recognize a few of the ryokan names from the dreamy sighs of friends back in Kumamoto (my hometown), who wistfully talk of escapes to Oita’s volcanic waters.
Yufuin’s main shopping street ends at the much-touted Lake Kinrin. The “lake” designation might be a little generous but, with numerous maple trees surrounding the small body of water, it promises to be a stunning spot in just a few weeks when the weather cools. The nearby Marc Chagall Yufuin Kinrin-ko Museum sits a few steps from the lake’s northern edge. We’re not about to drag a tired toddler through an art exhibition, but the site’s cozy, first-floor cafe serves a great cup of coffee and its floor-to-ceiling windows allow for lovely views of the lake in any weather.
A small public onsen sits on the south shore of Lake Kinrin, but we’re eager to reach our night’s accommodation and soak our sore muscles in a bath with a bit more privacy. Unfortunately, our getaway was a bit of a last-minute decision and booking a room in Yufuin over an autumn weekend is an impossibility if not planned well in advance. We retrace our steps to the car and steer south about 12 km to Ryokan Sanso Matsuya in the tiny hamlet of Yunohira.
Compared to Yufuin, Yunohira is a ghost town. Its famed Showa Era (1926-89) stone pavement, which runs the length of the village, is thick with mist, not tourists.
Our inn is at the very apex of the hill; despite my fatigue, I walk the main street back to its base but the shops are all shuttered at this late hour and I find only a cat or two for company. Before my muscles rebel entirely, I return to our inn for dinner and a dip in the onsen.
Sanso Matsuya’s baths are all “family-style,” and a flip of the sign on the door makes the bath yours alone for as long as you desire. From a huge marble tub to a set of stone-lined baths, the hot springs here are a treat. Even better, however, is the small rotenburo (outdoor bath) attached to our cottage-like accommodation. With the bath protected from the elements by bamboo screens, the only thing intruding on my soak is the sound of the river flowing just outside our door. If this is the reward for a good day’s hike, I’ll gladly tackle all of Kyushu’s 100 famous mountains … as soon as I get a new pair of boots.
Getting there: Mount Yufu is a 15-minute bus ride from Yufuin Station, or can be reached on the highway between Beppu and Yufuin. Many ryokan in Yunohira can arrange public transportation to the mountain.