Kitsuki, Oita Prefecture 杵築
Kitsuki is a small castle town located on the southern edge of the Kunisaki Peninsula in northern Oita Prefecture. Kitsuki is a little bit off the usual tourist route and consequently gets relatively few visitors, but has a surprising amount of interesting things to see and do and the lack of crowds makes for a more pleasant experience.
One of the many small towns in Japan labeled "Little Kyoto", as well as the lack of crowds that Kyoto suffers, the people of Kitsuki are generally much friendlier to visitors and prices for the sites and attractions are a fraction of what you would pay in Kyoto.
It would be possible to visit the major attractions in Kitsuki in a single day, but a couple of days there would allow you to soak up more of the atmosphere as well as discover interesting things hidden away from where most tourists go. Kitsuki also is suitable as a base to explore the many sites scattered all over the Kunisaki Peninsula.
History of Kitsuki
The Otomo Clan based themselves in Kitsuki in the Kamakura Period (1192-1336) and changed their family name to Kizuki, from where the town takes its name. The 4th Kizuki daimyo built Kitsuki Castle here in the early Muromachi Period (1338-1573). During the Edo Period (1603-1868) the town was the economic and political center of the whole Kunisaki Peninsula.
Kitsuki Castle, like most castles in Japan nowadays, is a concrete reconstruction, and is distinguished by being known as the smallest castle in the country, but while the castle itself is not anything special, its location is.
Perched on a promontory where the river widens and enters the bay, the views from the castle look out in a 360 degree sweep over the town and out to sea. Full details of Kitsuki Castle, its history, and information on opening times and charges can be found here.
Kitsuki Samurai & Merchant Districts
All castle towns in Japan had samurai districts, most have now disappeared, but some remain in various degrees of preservation. The samurai houses in Kitsuki are among the best preserved, as well as being laid out unusually, atop two pieces of high land to the west of the castle.
The northernmost section, Kitadai, is the best preserved and is approached from the town center below the castle up a long slope known as Kanjobanozaki with steps built for ascent by horse rather than by foot. On top the narrow lane lined with mud walls screening higher class samurai dwellings is much like it was two centuries ago, an impression enhanced by the absence overhead power lines and modern signage. There are half a dozen samurai houses, a couple with nice gardens, open to visitors, some with free entry. A full article describing the different houses and details of entry fees can be found here.
Down below is the main commercial street, as it was during the Edo Period. Plenty of white walled storehouses, including the obligatory sake brewery, still remain from that period, though now gift shops and cafes and restaurants have now replaced many of the more traditional businesses. Worth looking out for on some of the white walls are kote-e, plaster relief paintings, depicting symbols meant to ward off fire and other forms of bad luck as well as to attract good fortune. There are several other towns in the area that still feature kote-e, and more details can be found here.
Above the merchant district is Minamidai, the southern samurai district. Much more developed than Kitadai, it is nonetheless worth a visit for the attractions it has to offer. There is an old, thatched samurai house. Warakuan, though it now operates as a kimono rental and dressing business.
For a reasonable fee, the friendly and knowledgeable staff will help you choose the best kimono and accessories and will dress you. On the third Saturday of each month a professional photographer is available to take photos, but everyday many of the local businesses and tourist sites offer extensive discounts or gifts to any customers wearing kimono. Though Kitsuki is rarely busy or crowded, it is best to make a booking in advance if you can.
Warakuan is open every day except Sundays and the New Year period. Open from 9am-5pm.
193-1 Minamikitsuki, Kitsuki City.
Tel: 0978 63 0100.
Above the Warakuan is the large and modern History Museum. There are three spacious floors with artifacts and displays on Kitsuki history. Open from 9am to 5pm, closed on Mondays and during the New Year, entry is only 200 yen.
Nearby is the Hitotsumatsu Mansion, a twentieth century structure completed in 1929 which combines features of traditional architecture and Western architecture, something quite common among the elite of early modern Japan. It was built for Sadayoshi Hitotsumatsu, a politician of the era who obviously had some pretensions considering the size and location of his mansion. The views are worth visiting for. Open from 9am to 5pm, entry is only 100 yen.
Tucked away down a side road just a few hundred meters from the bus terminal and tourist information office in the center of town, the Kitsuki Retrokan is housed in an old rice granary and displays thousands of objects from the Edo Period up until the mid twentieth century, though most falls in the latter part of that time frame.
Toys, musical instruments, all manner of domestic paraphernalia, even a small car are displayed appearing more like a junk shop than a museum. Collected by the owner, the collection caters to the quite strong nostalgia many older Japanese feel for the early post-war period. Open from 10am to 5pm, closed on Tuesdays, entry is 300 yen.
Tamon 6-2, Kitsuki, Oita 873-0001.
Tel: 0978 63 5228.
Kitsuki Temples & Shrines
There are no major shrines or temples in Kitsuki, though many of the shrines and temples are worth a visit especially in the fall when the leaves have turned. Just below the castle is Seien Shrine, and a little north of that on the other side of the Retrokan, are Kitsuki Shrine and a small Inari Shrine, both within the overgrown ruins of what was the Daimyo's garden.
Situated at the western end of the Kitadai area is a Yasaka Shrine, and across the way at the edge of the temple district is a Tenjin Shrine, the origin of the biggest matsuri in Kitsukji, the Tenjin Matsuri held in July. For temples, the temple district is worth a wander, with the Yotokuji Temple having a semi-interesting garden. Tucked in at the base of the cliff of the Minamidai area is Komyoin, which has an altar in a cave.
The Tourist Information Office is open from 9am to 5pm and is close to the bus station. English is sometimes spoken and free wifi is available. Tel: 0978 63 0100
There's not an overabundance of accommodation in Kitsuki, just one large hotel and a handful of smaller ryokan and minshuku, but it should not be a problem finding a place to stay.
If coming by car exit the highway at Kitsuki IC. Kitsuki is close to Oita Airport (25-30 minutes) by car. Kitsuki Station is 14 minutes by Sonic Express from Beppu.
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