Visiting Japan: Rakan-ji Temple and Nakatsu, Kyushu

Rakan-ji temple complex

Rakan-ji Temple is near Nakatsu in Oita prefecture. It’s a temple built into the cliff face halfway up Mount Rakan. The site dates from the 14th century and is mostly famous for thousands of stone Buddhas and the wooden rice paddles that people write prayers on and nail to the walls. There’s a hall with 500 Buddha statues, each with a different face, but what I loved about it most were the views across the valley and the sense of peace. It’s a beautiful place but a complete pain to get to.

First, take the train to Nakatsu. A limited express service runs from Oita about every 30-60 minutes which takes 45-55 minutes. It costs 2,890 yen each way but is covered by the rail pass. This is the easy part.

From Nakatsu, you need a bus to Nakashima bus stop. Go to the front of the station where there’s a mini bus station to the left (and I mean mini: there’s a shelter, some benches, timetables and a staffed hut). There’s no English on any of the signs so ask the person in the hut where the bus goes from – I can’t string the sentence together but use ‘doko’ (where) ‘bass’ (bus), Nakashima and ‘kudasai’ (please). I was lucky that the woman in the hut took pity on me, sold me a bus ticket (640 yen each way; otherwise take a ticket when you get on and pay the fare shown on the board next to the driver when you exit), made sure I got on the right bus and told the driver where I was heading. Bus announcements are in Japanese only but are easy to work out. Also, for most of the journey I was the only passenger and the driver let me know when we were approaching Nakashima.

The other problem with the buses is there aren’t many of them. Here are PDFs of the timetable from Nakatsu station – the third column from the right definitely goes to Nakashima, so Mon-Fri 9.40am, 10.30am, 1.40pm, 3.40pm, 5.10pm, 6pm and 7.10pm, though I have read elsewhere that all three columns furthest to the right will get you there – and the timetable back again from Nakashima, which is a lot more obvious. Still only about one bus an hour though. The bus journey takes 30 minutes and passes tourist site Yabakei Bridge and goes through the Ao-no-domon tunnel.

Once at Nakashima, you now have a 2km walk to the base of Mount Rakan. Nakashima bus stop is at a crossroads, and you need to walk in the direction this sign is pointing:

nakashima

See the kanji at the top, where it says 2km? That says Rakan-ji; try and memorise it if you can. The walk is along a main road for 1.5km through pretty countryside. (There also seems to be a small taxi rank just past this sign if you don’t fancy walking.) Eventually you’ll hit two small convenience stores with drinks vending machines, one on either side of the road. Just after the shops there’s a small bridge, with this sign:

bridge

Told you to memorise the kanji! Cross this bridge and walk for about 500m towards the mountain. Once you’re at the base, go past the shops (or stop at the one with the small restaurant for some excellent noodles; no English menu but the owners are nice people and very understanding). You can walk up to the temple – it’s very, very steep – or you can catch a chairlift for 800 yen, which covers the trip to the temple, up to the top and back down again. The chairlift is tucked away behind a building so look for this sign:

chairlift

There’s also a nice viewing point and garden at the top, so make sure you go all the way up the mountain in the chairlift.

I just missed a train on the way back so I had a wander round Nakatsu, visiting Gogan-ji Temple. It seems like a pleasant little town, and it has a castle. I barely scratched the surface (and didn’t get to the castle), but luckily Zooming Japan has. If you did want to stay, I could see a Toyoko Inn and a Super Hotel from the train platform.

This article is part of a series on visiting Japan, and is inspired by Tom Royal’s Japan on a Budget.

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