20 October 2023
A Day in Usuki: An Unforgettable Journey Through History, Gastronomy, and Art
Situated just an hour by car from the famous Hotspring town of Beppu, the captivating city of Usuki offers a harmonious blend of historical wonders, culinary magic, and artistic prowess. As dawn illuminates the ancient Usuki Stone Buddhas, the city extends an invitation to travelers to explore its myriad offerings in a day-long adventure. With the guidance of a tour guide, journey from the tranquillity of Beppu to the bustling heart of Usuki. From the haunting charm of old samurai residences, the hands-on thrill of pottery crafting, to the delectable taste of fresh puffer fish, Usuki crafts a tapestry of experiences that linger long after the day ends. Join us in exploring this vibrant city's offerings, ensuring a memory-filled escapade.
- The Historic Stone Buddhas
- Pottery Experience at USUKIYAKI
- Lunch at Kotegawa Shoten: Local Gastronomy
- A Nostalgic Walk through the Old Town: Usuki Castle and Niouza Streets
- Kirakuan: The Culinary Art of Fugu Cuisine
- A Timeless Tapestry of Culture and Culinary Delights
The Historic Stone Buddhas
In the heart of Usuki city lies a historical marvel: the Usuki Stone Buddhas. These awe-inspiring stone sculptures are not only rare survivors from the transitional period between the late Heian era (794 CE - 1192 CE) and the Kamakura (1192 CE - 1333 CE) period but have also astonishingly stood the test of time for almost a thousand years. The veil of mystery surrounding these sculptures thickens when one considers that little to nothing is known about the architects or the artisans who birthed this wonder. This enigmatic history only intensifies their allure as enduring witnesses to a bygone era.
Uniquely, each statue portrays a different stage of life, reflecting the faces of young children, the middle-aged, and the elderly. It's believed that these statues were originally adorned in vibrant colors, a testament to which is the faint remnants of paint that can still be observed on a handful of them. Their sheer scale, number, and the remarkable quality of craftsmanship make these statues unparalleled in Japanese history. It's simply incredible to fathom that such a significant assembly of statues remained concealed in this locale for centuries.
Pottery Experience at USUKIYAKI
Situated just a few minutes walk from the stone buddhas, USUKIYAKI offers an immersive molding experience that both captivates the heart and challenges the hands. The journey begins with the foundational act of rolling the clay, laying down the canvas for your artistry. From there, participants can choose from an array of molds, ranging from the ethereal lotus designs to the simple elegance of circular and diamond shapes. The chosen clay slab is then gently placed atop a cement mold, becoming the vessel for your creativity. Yet, it's not just the mere placement on the mold; the true magic unfolds as you delicately press and caress the clay with your fingertips, defining the intricate lines and trimming off the excess with a knife. This careful finesse, the gentle dance of fingers on clay, differentiates a masterpiece from a mere piece.
While the mold offers guidance, it's the subtle adjustments, the nuanced artistry post-molding, that truly set the professionals apart from novices. And to make this keepsake truly yours, USUKIYAKI allows you to etch your name or any emblem of your choosing on the plate's back, personalizing your creation. Once your work undergoes the transformative firing process, it's shipped directly to your doorstep, serving as a lasting memento of a delightful day spent crafting at USUKIYAKI.
The workshop features a gallery showcasing their exquisite USUKIYAKIi ceramics. Additionally, they have a restaurant on-site that serves delectable local dishes made with organic vegetables and lotus flowers.
Lunch at Kotegawa Shoten: Local Gastronomy
Returning to the center of town, situated directly opposite the famed Kotegawa Brewery lies the charming restaurant of Kotegawa Shoten. With a history stretching back to 1861, this establishment has been serving the community with delectable miso and soy sauce. Today, it is run by Fundoukin Soy Sauce, dishing out traditional Usuki cuisine made from their proprietary condiments.
Housed in a building that retains the quaint charm from its founding era, the restaurant invites patrons to savor Usuki's traditional dishes.
The delectable meal from Kotegawa Shoten masterfully intertwines Usuki's rich culinary heritage and the philosophical approach of "simplicity and thriftiness," a principle deeply woven into Usuki's food culture since the Edo period (1604 CE- 1867 CE). It features a miso soup, curated with the finest barley miso aged to perfection in wooden barrels, and the regional dish "黄飯" (ki-meshi), adorned with a natural yellow hue derived from gardenia fruit. Legend purports that ki-meshi was introduced by the lords of Usuki as a substitute for red rice, elegantly blending tradition and necessity.
Complementing the set is "きらすまめし" (kirasumameshi), a scrumptious tuna dish that necessitates a reservation, and the "かやく" (kayaku), a nutritive concoction of white fish, tofu, and vegetables. Both kirasumameshi, made from leftover sashimi and soy pulp, and kayaku emerge as exemplary dishes that manifest the ingenious usage of limited resources to create meals that are both nourishing and satisfying, continuing to delight and narrate the culinary tales of the region.
For first-time visitors, tasting Usuki's local dishes at Kotegawa Shoten is an enlightening experience; each bite is a gentle yet rich flavor, epitomizing the town's enduring spirit of cherishing food and celebrating its cultural legacy.
Kotegawa Brewery, situated in a corner of Usuki city has been crafting exquisite spirits since its establishment in 1855. Renowned for its unique shochu made from black koji, it boasts a distinctive, deep flavor with a hint of sweetness that has garnered appreciation from connoisseurs.
A Nostalgic Walk through the Old Town: Usuki Castle and Niouza Streets
Once flourishing under the reign of the Inaba clan, the remnants of the town's rich heritage are vividly visible today. At the core of this old town stands the Usuki Castle, surrounded by the picturesque area known as Niouza. This district was named after the Nio gate of the Gion Shrine (now known as Yasaka Shrine). The streets, cut through solid pyroclastic rock hills from Mount Aso's volcanic ash, still reverberate with history. Narrow alleyways showcase the city's distinct ambiance with high stone walls, impressive tiled roofs, and pristine white-walled buildings.
Notably, the area in front of the former Shinko-ji Temple, referred to as "切り通し" (Kiridoshi), represents one of the most iconic landscapes of Usuki. Its wet cobblestones, especially after a rain, encapsulate a moody, atmospheric charm.
As you walk through Niouza, you'll be greeted by an array of ancient samurai residences, charming shops, and historic temples, such as Zenpo-ji and Hoon-ji. The pathway, characterized by its unique stone pavement, winds through imposing residences and temples, making it a perfect route for exploration. It's a journey that offers a serene, picturesque backdrop, allowing every visitor to immerse themselves in the time-honored spirit of Usuki.
Kirakuan: The Culinary Art of Fugu Cuisine
Established in 1878, 喜楽庵 (Kirakuan) has stood as a beacon of exquisite Japanese cuisine, with its legacy stretching over five generations. Presently under the stewardship of the fifth-generation owner, the restaurant continues to exhibit an unwavering commitment to the finest ingredients from Usuki.
Kirakuan's dishes feature puffer fish from the Bungo Channel and the freshest local vegetables, capturing the essence of each season. This culinary dedication is housed within a Japanese-style house built in 1912, originally constructed as a mansion for a prosperous kimono merchant.
With the beams and transoms preserved almost in their original state, visitors are instantly transported to a bygone era, further accentuated by delicate windowpanes, each remarkably untouched since their installation.
However, it's their dedication to Usuki cuisine that sets them apart — traditional dishes like "Ki-meshi" and "Kirasu rice." Yet, the most famous is undoubtedly their fugu, or puffer fish, offerings. Raised in the waters of the Bungo Channel, the fugu is handpicked for its quality and served with minimal delay, ensuring that patrons savor the freshest catch.
Unlike the conventionally thin slices of fugu sashimi elsewhere, Kirakuan's fugu boasts a thicker cut, celebrating the natural elasticity and sweet essence of the fish. This technique results in a sashimi that, when bitten into, offers an unparalleled chewy texture, which has become the hallmark of Usuki's fugu delicacy. Kirakuan's hearty fugu slices are elegantly presented on elegant dishes, emphasizing their unique character and flavor.
A Timeless Tapestry of Culture and Culinary Delights
Usuki city stands as a testament to the harmonious coexistence of history, art, and gastronomy. From the ethereal beauty of its ancient stone Buddhas to the vibrant culinary traditions embodied in establishments like Kotegawa Shoten and Kirakuan, the city weaves a rich tapestry of cultural experiences. As visitors traverse its picturesque streets and engage with the legacy of its samurai, artisans, and chefs, they are invariably reminded of the enduring spirit of Usuki. This is a city that invites you not just to observe, but to immerse, partake, and carry forth a piece of its heritage in your heart, ensuring memories that resonate long after the journey concludes.
By Yoshikaze Kawakami