Introducing Kunisaki Peninsula
It would be easy to overlook this remote corner of Kyūshū north of Beppu, underserved as it is by public transport, but you'd be missing some of the most undisturbed pawā spotto (power spots, Japanese slang for spiritual places) in the nation. The town of Bungo-takada is nicknamed 'Buddha's Village' and the region is noted for its early Buddhist influence, including some rock-carved images linked to the more famous ones at Usuki. Your own car is useful for getting around the region efficiently.
The national treasure, 11th-century Fuki-ji in Bungo-takada, is the oldest wooden structure in Kyūshū and one of the oldest wooden temples in Japan. Its overgrown grounds and moss-covered stupas complement the structure beautifully. Ōita Kōtsū buses from Usa Station go to Bungo-takada (¥810, 35 minutes); from there, it's a 10-minute taxi ride (around ¥1000).
In the centre of the peninsula, near the summit of Futago-san (721m), is Futago-ji, founded in 718 and dedicated to Fudō-Myō-o, the ferocious, fire-enshrouded, sword-wielding deity, able to repel attacks while appearing calm. It's a lovely climb, especially in spring or autumn and there are plenty of subtemples to explore around its forested gorges.
Nearby Taizō-ji is known for its famously uneven stone stairs. Local legend says that they are so random and haphazard that the Oni (devils) must have created them in a single night.
Around 2km south of Maki Ōdō Hall, and deep in a forest along a mossy riverbed, are two Heian-period Buddha images carved into a cliff, a 6m figure of the Dainichi Buddha and an 8m figure of Fudō-Myō-o. Known as Kumano Magaibutsu, these are the largest Buddhist images of this type in Japan. If you thought the few hundred steps to the carvings were tough, wait until the next few hundred to the shrine at the top.
The sprawling, wooded and water-crossed Usa-jingū, the original of which dates back some 1200 years, is the chief shrine among some 40,000 in Japan dedicated to the warrior-god Hachiman. It's a 4km bus or taxi ride from Usa Station (get off at Usa-Hachiman-mae), on the JR Nippō line from Beppu.