Obi Town - the 'Kyoto of Kyushu'
Two days in this quaint historical town won't disappoint
Regarded by many as the cradle of Japanese civilization, Miyazaki prefecture - in Kyushu’s south-east - is a wonderful place full of historically significant sites. One of the most beautiful and picturesque of these is Obi town, in Nichinan city. Labeled as the ‘Kyoto of Kyushu’, it is very popular with tourists and domestic travelers for good reason. There are a range of activities and experiences to do in and around Obi town, and a weekend trip is the perfect opportunity to take it all in.
If you’re travelling from Miyazaki city (or anywhere north of Obi) you should take Route 220 to Obi town. This coastal road hugs the ocean for long stretches and provides spectacular views as you wind your way south. From Miyazaki city, the drive takes about an hour and from the popular seaside town of Aoshima, it takes about 40 minutes. You can also take a road through the mountains if that’s what you like, but I highly recommend the coastal route. The road to Obi is clearly marked and easy to follow.
If you arrive in Obi around midday, it’s the perfect time to have lunch at one of the many gorgeous restaurants that lie in the shadows of the castle. One restaurant I highly recommend is Hattori Tei. Not only is the food fantastic, the restaurant’s interior décor, traditional rooms and surrounding grounds are a great attraction in themselves.
I had the ‘lunch of the day’ set and it was incredible value. For just ¥1,620, it was a feast. The main dish was a traditional rice dish and it was accompanied by all sorts of small, tasty treats. I really liked the variety. The sashimi was succulent and fresh and caught locally at nearby Aburatsu. And for those that have a sweet tooth, dessert was equally pleasing. It was both delicate and flavorful and was presented with a cup of green tea and subtle decorations.
Once you’ve finished your lunch, you can walk around the surprisingly large grounds of the restaurant. Out the back is a gorgeously manicured garden that offers a tranquil retreat and a nice opportunity to stretch the legs and take in the fresh air. For photographers, there are endless opportunities to take photos that encapsulate the traditional feel of this restaurant and its environment. When you stroll around in the silence, you can almost imagine someone playing the shamisen or koto in the background.
After lunch is the ideal time to head over to Obi’s major attraction – Obi Castle. It is a very short walk but if you’re feeling adventurous, or delight in absorbing as much tradition as possible, you can be wheeled to the castle entrance in an old-style rickshaw, replete with carrier in traditional dress. Most of the castle’s structures date back to the 1400s, though restoration work was done in the 1970s. The castle holds quite the significance in Japan’s history, and it’s easy to read about it in the pamphlets provided (in multiple languages) or in the castle grounds.
The thing I love most about the castle is the open spaces and plentiful areas to just walk around, soak in the atmosphere, and inhale the clean, fresh air. The castle is full of beautiful green trees on its grounds, as well as flowers and, in the right season (early April) cherry blossoms. There is one area that looks like it belongs in a Miyazaki Hayao movie like Princess Mononoke or the like. When we were there, we saw a number of young high school girls who had made their way down to the castle for some costume play (cosplay). The tall trees and misty, crisp air make for wonderful picnic grounds or, for kids and parents, some hide-and-seek fun. I could have sat for hours under the magnificent trees and just read a book.
For people interested in the historical role Obi Castle played in Japan’s samurai past, there are a number of buildings and small museums that provide all of the answers. You can see what the samurai used to wear, the tools they used, the kitchens they cooked in and the hot saunas they used for washing. It’s very interesting and gives you a real sense of the importance the castle enjoyed. You can easily spend a few hours just wandering around the castle grounds enjoying the serenity. To finish, I think everyone should have some fun at the traditional bow and arrow target range. For ¥300, you get to shoot 10 arrows from an old-style bow. It is surprisingly easy to get the hang of and is fun for all ages. Look out, Robin Hood!!
After you have finished at the castle, you can stroll through the uncrowded Obi Town streets and find a café to rest in. There are many along the streets and all offer tea of various flavors as well as coffee and snacks. There are also a number of galleries you can visit. I liked Kodama gallery. It has two floors and is full of crafts and handmade trinkets. Not to mention the natural chocolate on sale there. How did they know I was such a chocolate lover?! Rest, relax, eat chocolate and enjoy the smiles of the locals passing by.
By the time you’re done with your afternoon refreshments, it will be time to head to your hotel and check in. We stayed in a traditional-style Japanese accommodation that was just a few hundred meters from the castle. It was clean, spacious, cheap and well-equipped with TV, kitchenware, futons, towels, and toiletries. We relaxed there for about an hour, had a little nap, recharged our batteries and got ready for dinner at a local izakaya.
There’s something great about dining at an izakaya. Different from your traditional restaurant where you typically order a single starter and main, izakaya are all about ordering as many small dishes off the menu as you can. They come at breakneck speed and you just eat, talk, laugh, and drink the nectar of your choice. For me, that was an ice-cold beer at the end of a lovely day. The atmosphere is great and you can hear the locals and other visitors reveling in the joy of spending time in Obi town. Once you’ve finished, there’s just one last thing to do – take photos of the carp in the little waterways that line some streets. They are coloured beautifully and are not shy in making their presence felt. What could be a better way to end the day than watching the carp swim under the lights of Obi Castle?
With a full day ahead, there are many things to enjoy around Obi town. About 15 minutes’ drive west of Obi at a place called Sakamato Tanada there are some incredibly manicured rice fields to enjoy. The drive itself is nice, as you weave through tight mountain roads and verdant, lush valleys. There are two places to park, depending on the view you wish to take in. I suggest seeing both. To see the rice fields in their full resplendent green tiers, you will need to go around July-September. You need to drive up the mountain, which then deposits you in an open car park. It is well signed so you can’t miss it. Climb the wooden viewing tower and take in agriculture at its finest. At other times of the year, such as in April, there will be a kaleidoscope of flowers instead of rice. At this time of year, you want to drive directly to the fields and frolic among the flora. This is a favorite for couples and for parents wanting to take photos of their kids dwarfed by flower beds.
Having waltzed through the flowers and the rice terraces, your appetite should be well and truly ready for lunch. We went back into Obi town and actually returned to Gallery Kodama. I didn’t realize the space was so huge and it was the same place I had enjoyed my chocolate on the previous day. Again, I sure wasn’t disappointed. As an Australian, I love my barbecues and while this wasn’t a barbecue lunch in the traditional sense, I did get to put my fish onto a small, fire-lit cooker. As with almost all of the restaurants in Obi-town, this one was well decorated, nicely furbished, full of unique and interesting trinkets to view and purchase, and some wonderful, peaceful views.
The thing that continued to amaze me about my weekend in Obi was how cheap everything was. Again, I had to double-check when the bill was presented to me. For an absolute feast that consisted of all sorts of culinary delights, the price was a meager ¥1,300 per person. That was for three courses and endless refill of warm green tea. If you’re on a budget, or used to higher priced lunches in bigger cities, Obi will be a wonderful surprise.
The last stop of this 2 day Obi/Nichinan trip is the sweetest of them all. If you’re visiting between the months of January to May, then you absolutely have to go to the local strawberry farm. Why? Well, you get to eat as many strawberries as you like, and even take as many as you like back home!! This strawberry farm allows you to do strawberry ‘tabehodai’ (all you can eat). But not only that, you actually get to walk among the strawberries and pick them out yourself. I think I ate more while I was ‘searching’ than after I’d actually ‘picked’! I love strawberries and this was a feast that never ended. And if you want something really sweet, you can also get some strawberry soft cream too.
Like a lot of things in life, if you spend some time getting to really know something, you find things that most people never come across. And so it is with Obi town. Most people drive to the castle, spend an hour or so walking around the magnificent castle grounds, then get back in their cars and drive away. But if you give yourself a couple of days, there are so many things to see and enjoy. And the locals are some of the most charming, open people I’ve met in Japan. Of course, Obi castle is the crowning glory of this ‘Kyoto in Kyushu’ but if you follow this plan, or make another plan of your own, then the two days you spend here will certainly be some of the most memorable of your travels.