Japan City Guides: Yabakei Gorge, Oita
Yabakei Gorge 耶馬渓
Formed over 2.5 million years by the Yamakuni River cutting through volcanic lava and tuff, there are numerous cliffs, caves, and rock formations that are particularly popular in the fall when the leaves turn.
There are more than 60 scenic spots and Yabakei Gorge is part of Yaba-Hita-Hikosan Quasi National Park. There are hiking trails, walking paths, cycle routes, and hot springs in the area as well as cultural and historic sites.
At the northern end, known as Honyabakei, the river is spanned by the Yabakei Bridge, the longest arched stone bridge in Japan. It is 116 meters long, with eight arches, and was constructed in 1923. Just a little down river is Ao no Domon, a hand carved tunnel through the cliffs. It was made famous in a novel by Kan Kikuchi, and with most legends, distinguishing fact from myth is difficult.
Ao no Domon
What is certain is that a 185 meter tunnel was dug by hand in the mid 18th century. The legend says it was made by a monk named Zenkan to provide a safe route to Rakanji, a spectacular temple further down the river.
Many versions state he dug it alone using just a hammer and chisel and spent 30 years doing it, though other sources say he enlisted help and paid masons to do the work. The tunnel has been enlarged in modern times to take a road, but partway in you can enter the original tunnel. Often Zenkan is attributed with altruistic motives for digging the tunnel, but others say he charged a toll, which would make it the first toll road in Japan, and that he became rich off the proceeds. A few kilometers downstream is Rakan-ji temple, well worth a visit.
If you happen to be in the area during February, then Sennen-ji, a small rural temple in the west fork of the valley is well worth making a detour to.
There is nothing particularly to see for most of the year, but for the month leading up to Hina Matsuri, March 3rd, they have an incredible collection of dolls on display, in the grounds in front of the temple, on the temple steps, in half a dozen rooms in the temple, and even in the small garden behind the temple.
There are hundreds and hundreds on show, in a variety of styles, and entrance is completely free. You will be invited to sit for a while and enjoy some green tea and a large selection of Japanese sweets, also completely free.
Sennen-ji is located on Route 500. Higashidani 916, Yabakei-cho, Nakatsu, Oita 871 0315. Tel: 0979 53 2018.
Further south on the East Fork is the most spectacular scenery, including Hitomehakkei, a spot where eight scenic views can be had from the one spot.
By Yabakei Dam is Keisekien Garden, made as a park after the dam was constructed, and on the reservoir is the Yabakei Aqua Park where you can try your hand at water skiing or wake boarding. There is a cycle rental depot on the Maple Yaba cycling path that follows a disused railway.
Accommodation near Yabakei
Nakatsu is the best place to stay if you are visiting Yabakei Gorge, the area around the main railway station in Nakatsu is dotted with a variety of hotels. Many of the major hotel chains are here as is the typical red brick Station Hotel, usually a good budget option. Also at Nakatsu Station is the Toyoko Inn Nakatsu Ekimae, the Hotel Route Inn Nakatsu Ekimae and the Super Hotel Nakatsu Ekimae. There are also numerous ryokan and minshuku in town.
Access - Getting to Yabakei
There are bus tours from Oita and Beppu to Yabakei, and buses from Nakatsu run to the northern end of the area with some buses going on to Rakanji, but the best way to explore would be by rental car or bicycle.
Throughout the area are numerous minshuku, and a couple of campsites, but Nakatsu with its wide selection of accommodations would also be convenient.
Nakatsu is located on the JR Nippo Main Line and can be reached by express train from Kokura in just over 30 minutes and from Hakata Station in 55 minutes. From Hiroshima it is 2 hours to Nakatsu and from Osaka, 3 hours and 15 minutes. The closest airport is Kitakyushu, just over an hour away by train and bus.
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