The Mystery of Usuki's Sleeping Buddhas

by Denise_Tench

If the neon lights, bustling noodle bars and late-night karaoke haunts of Japan's big cities have left you wondering where the country's tranquil side is, head to Uzuki to find some serenity

For a corner of Japan less worn on the map than the manicured gardens of Nara or the bustling temples of Kyoto, take a trip to Usuki on the east coast of Kyushu. Just outside of this small castle town, groups of ancient stone Buddhas sit suspended in line, fashioned into hillsides of soft rock formed thousands of years ago from the eruption of nearby Mount Aso. Nobody knows exactly who made them, or when or why, but they have survived the passage of time, watching silently over the fields and hills that manouvre through the colours of the Japanese seasons.

It's best to dedicate a day to Usuki, unless staying in nearby Beppu or Oita. It can be easily reached from Fukuoka or Kokura by taking a sonic express train (the shinkansen has yet to reach the majority of subtropical Kyushu), which costs around 5,000 yen (approximately £30) for a day return ticket.

Those who want to mix the tranquillity of a day at Usuki with some good food and drink in a hidden gem of a town could book a night or two at the comfortable Station Hotel in Kokura, which sits conveniently above the transport hub.

Technicalities aside, you'll never hear an 'are we there yet?' on the journey to Usuki. Every inch of the way, there is something to see - from uniform houses dotted with washing lines and witch-style brooms to waterlogged paddy fields and sloping, mountainous landscapes. Best of all, the train passes through Kozaki, in the top right corner of Kyushu, and flirts with the choppy, aqua waters of the Hoyo Strait along the way. This pristine channel is a beautiful sight as it spreads into the distance to the Seto Inland Sea, the body of water separating three of Japan's four major islands - Kyushu, Honshu and Shikoku.

Once in Usuki, visitors may be surprised to find that, despite its remoteness, the humble station is filled with translated leaflets, posters and accurate timetables. The guards on the gate are well-versed in the helpful treatment of English-speaking tourists. The bus to the Buddhas leaves frequently from outside the station, and for those who have never taken a local Japanese bus before, this is a great opportunity to do so. Walk on, grab a numbered ticket and watch the price change on the LED board above the driver as each stop passes. Put the right money and ticket in a box next to the door before getting off.

A clearing with a restaurant unfolds as the bus pulls into the site. Admission to the Buddhas is around 530 yen (roughly £3.50). An ascending path leads past citrus fruit and dried mushroom vendors before the walk becomes steeper and closed in by slender, leaning trees. The winding trail then leads on to a plateau housing the first group of Buddhas.

Behind a stone altar, and set into the rock face, a row of statues sits in line, varying in size from one to the next, but all keeping vigil over the sprawling fields and woods below. The chips and deep cracks adorning their faces and bodies betray their estimated age of around 900 years. Incense, prayer beads and candles lie at the altar and, religious beliefs aside, the urge to throw in a few yen and light a stick is irresistible.

In Japan, ranks dominate many aspects of life and this seems no different for the Buddhas. Further upwards along the path are larger, more imposing examples of these tranquil giants, sitting in their own wooden enclosure. The painstaking underpinning and restoration work performed in the 90s to halt the spread of damp and moss is proudly recounted and translated. Although there are sure to be other visitors around, whispering on the steps, the stillness these Buddhas command is unparalleled,  their closed eyelids and slight smiles humbling even the air into a pensive silence.

For those with sturdy knees and even sturdier lungs, a steep trail leads upwards to a small clearing housing a shrine, some torii gates and bizarre wooden carvings tucked away in corners. Aside from the jaw-dropping views, another reward for the climb is a ramble through a creaking bamboo forest. The trees here disappear into the sky, playing with shards of light as the sun drops lower.

Just when you think there could be no more inner peace on the agenda, the cornerstone of the site comes into view on the descent. An image of the Dainichi Nyorai, a figure of high veneration in Tantric Buddhism, sits behind a wooden fence, along with some smaller bodyguard-like Buddhas. The weighty head of the Dainichi Nyorai has met with some unfortunate mishaps in the past - namely, falling off. For some time, the head was placed at the foot of the body while authorities decided whether to put it back on - which, luckily for aesthetics, they did.

It's a testament to the skills of whoever lovingly carved it, that it is impossible to view the head as a lump of rock. The weather-beaten, pockmarked face of the Buddha has even taken on some subtle, lifelike hues over the years; a sandy-coloured complexion is flanked by greyish hair and a slightly rosy mouth. Thickly-chiselled brows sit above gently closed eyes and an expression that could plunge even the liveliest of visitors and the sturdiest of disbelievers into deep contemplation and awe - somewhat like the country and people that so carefully created it.