Inspiration in Tomonoura and Onomichi

Inspiration in Tomonoura and Onomichi

Although Hiroshima is one of Japan's most popular tourist destinations, most people leave the area after little more than a few hours and barely scratch the surface of what the city, prefecture and region have to offer. In the Setouchi region - the coast and islands of the Inland Sea between Okayama and Hiroshima - can be found vestiges of the Japan of the past, beautiful vistas, myriad tiny islands punctuating the shimmering sea, and surprise encounters in the narrow streets of historic ports as well opportunities to explore regional culture both high and low.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to share some of my favorite places in Hiroshima and to discover some new ones. My aim was, as far as possible, to let serendipity be my guide and try to discover some of the gems between the major sights that lay just off the beaten path. I grabbed my copy of Donald Richie's classic account of his journey across the Inland Sea of over 40 years ago, and set out to see what I could find and how things have changed.

Inspiration in Tomonoura and Onomichi

- Tomonoura -

"The most beautiful scenic view in all of Japan" is how a Korean envoy on his way to Edo described the view from Fukuzenji Temple while in Tomonoura waiting for the tides to turn in 1712. I don't know if these envoys had ever passed Miyajima, but this ranking of scenic beauty is starting to appear quite subjective. It cannot be denied, however, that the view out across the narrow strait to Benten Island with its picturesque pagoda is indeed quite lovely.

Tomonoura, or Tomo as it is often called, is a sheltered natural harbor where two tidal streams meet. For over 1,000 years passengers and crews of boats that arrived on the rising tides coming in from both the east and west, would layover in Tomonoura before departing on a receding tide which flowed out in both directions. It is another place replete with myths and fantastic tales. However, whereas on Miyajima little documentary evidence survives, Tomonoura has left more of a mark on the historical record. The port appears eight times in the celebrated Manyoshu - the oldest collection of Japanese poems, compiled in the middle of the 8th century.

Kobo Daishi was here too. It is said that it was he who founded Iyoji Temple which stands on a hill overlooking the port. After taking in the view from Fukuzenji, it was to Iyoji that I headed. From the seafront lined with fishing craft and strings of flounder drying in the winter sun, I made my way through narrow streets, passing women preparing small fish in front of their houses watched by expectant cats. A lady of indeterminable antiquity pointed me up a steep narrow alley to the main temple with its impressive bell which dates from the mid 17th century. From here, a further breathtaking 583 steps (they are numbered) twist and turn up past stone jizo statues to a spot which takes in the entire curve of the circular port and looks out, over and beyond the view so admired by that 18th century envoy.

This beautiful view, relatively unchanged for centuries - save for one or two unseemly seafront hotels and the inevitable electricity lines - was until recently under threat from a development project that would have filled in part of the bay and put a large bridge right across the celebrated view. In 2012, 30 years after it was first proposed, the local governor scrapped the plan in order to preserve the area's scenic beauty - a first in Japan.

Richie said that although Tomonoura is small, "one can easily get lost with the narrow streets taking a turn every few feet", and although my target destination is the Edo-era port where the tall stone lantern which has become the town's symbol stands, I aim to let serendipity be my guide and follow my nose back down through the maze of streets.

I call in at the Saraswati Gallery and Cafe, for what I think will be a quick hit of caffeine. The owner, a former gallery owner who has relocated from Fukuoka, talks about her involvement in the campaign to stop the bridge project. The project had plenty of local support and she opines that many who have spent their whole life in Tomo find it difficult to appreciate just how unique a place it is. Nitta-san describes the trials of restoring the beautiful early 20th century house and garden which houses the gallery, with many a carpenter who could not see her vision having quit on her before that vision was realized. Her perseverance has paid off and Saraswati is a lovely place to enjoy coffee served in unique tableware. It also has one of the nicest views from a bathroom you are likely to find in Japan. Our conversation ranges far and wide and, before I know it, two hours have passed.

One of the more famous outsiders who recognized the unique nature of Tomo is Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli. He decided on Tomo as the location of his animated feature Ponyo after spending some time here. The film has raised the profile of the town as a place to visit, and this may well have had an impact on the decision to halt the development project.

My wanderings continue. My mind boggles at the thought of negotiating motor vehicles up and down such narrow roads, passing a house so unique that I'm sure Ponyo's adopted family must have lived in it. I take in Nunakuma Shrine to which the Empress Jingu is said to have summoned a sea god nearly 2,000 years ago, peer over the walls of impressive temples, and cross the Sasayaki-bashi, "Whispering Bridge" in one step, before arriving at the harbor - the only one in Japan that retains all the elements of an Edo-era port. I first visited Tomonoura over 15 years ago and I am struck at how much more lively the place is today. Coffee shops, boutiques and good natured shopkeepers - who claim that their version of Houmei-shu, a surprisingly palatable medicinal liqueur produced and sold in Tomo since 1659, is "the oldest" or "most powerful" - are scattered around the town without overwhelming it. A cafe next to the portside stone lantern that serves delicious seafood pasta and espresso drinks, has been designed with care and blends in with its surroundings. For now Tomonoura presents the visitor with the perfect balance of a historic but working town and accessibility.

- Onomichi -

Onomichi is a port that flourished before the age of steam ships, though it is far larger, better connected, and more modern than Tomo. Today, Onomichi's main selling point is nostalgia. The streets - though many are so narrow they hardly deserve the name - that crisscross the steep hillside rising almost immediately from the seafront and lined with tumble down houses, pull at the memory strings of domestic visitors from cities that bulldozed such places long ago.

When Richie arrived in Onomichi, he likened it to a Chinese city, "the houses emptying directly into the water". The waterfront has now been cleaned up, transformed into a spacious promenade from which the extensive Seto Ohashi Bridge and the shipyards on Mukaishima can be viewed. Much of the older sections of the town, however, remain largely untouched.

Onomichi is known as a city of culture. It has provided locations for many Japanese films, including Ozu's classic Tokyo Story. The Path of Literature is a pleasant walk that quietly celebrates the town's association with Japanese poets and writers. I, however, am here to wander. To dive into the labyrinth of streets and see where I end up. Onomichi lends itself well to wandering as, despite its mazelike character, it is very difficult to get lost. One can only really move parallel to the coast or up and down the mountainside so it is always easy to orientate oneself.

As I start out down the covered shotengai shopping arcade, something is not quite right. It doesn't seem to be in terminal decline. It feels alive. The delicious smell of freshly ground beans comes from gourmet coffee shops and small boutiques are mixed in with the usual hat stores (how many hats do Japanese pensioners buy a year?), barber shops and stores selling kitchen knives and sundry items. A former bathhouse has been preserved and converted into a souvenir shop. Graphic designers will love this place - the signage, a showcase of 20th century Japanese fonts in action.

Finding myself at the ropeway station I decide to aim for Senkoji Park, but to forgo the cable car. To be whisked over the back streets misses the point and sets one up for disappointment. I marvel at the huge camphor tree in the grounds of Ushitora Shrine - the oldest shrine in Onomichi, now visited by a new kind of pilgrim, fans doing the rounds of locations featured in the Kamichu! anime in which a school girl wakes up one morning to find that she is a Shinto god. Next to the shrine is the quirky Manekineko Museum. It is tiny and packed to the rafters with the lucky beckoning cat statues. It seems appropriate, as cats are a big deal in Onomichi. They are everywhere and you see lots of people trying to get classic Onomichi shots featuring a cat in a narrow alley, with a temple or dilapidated house in the background. From here, I wind my up towards the hilltop along narrow lanes passing more tiny galleries and corner cafes as I go.

Much of the symbolism at Senkoji Temple, said to date from the early 9th century, is lost on me, but the multitude of large rocks in and around it are fascinating. Although pulling myself up the chains over the Ishizuchi-yama-kusari makes the heart race (don't look down!), Senkoji Park itself is something of a disappointment. Reportedly beautiful in the spring when the sakura cherry blossom is in bloom, on my visit it seems rather sterile. The view, interrupted by the cranes and factories that litter the coastline here, fails to inspire in the way that those from Misen and above Tomonoura do. But that is no matter, in Onomichi, as is so often the case in Japan, it is the things that one stumbles upon between the sights that the traveler is here for. It is these encounters that eventually add up to the sense of Japan that one takes home.

Making my way back down the mountainside, the wooded Path of Literature joins the "Old Temple Walk" which links some 25 temples and leads you through quiet residential areas. I stop for a bowl of zenzei sweet bean soup and Japanese tea in the garden of a small gallery and tea shop. Even a five dollar snack is beautifully presented with carefully prepared flower arrangement.

Returning to sea level, I skirt Onomichi's now rather lackluster "entertainment" district in which Richie spent so much time, and drop in at the interesting-looking Yamaneko Cafe. The staff is totally unfazed when I say I don't eat meat and I enjoy a rare opportunity to let the chef surprise me. The food is good and well presented, and the importance the place puts on quality of its vegetables is clear. As I sip an espresso, one of the staff mentions a live music event being held in a coffee shop on the shotengai. Another customer happily walks me to the venue, and I head up to the second floor hoping to meet some more of Onomichi's friendly people.

I pull back a curtain and step into darkness. I can vaguely make out some figures in alpaca sweaters gathered around a stove, as I make my way to the counter. Music of the African savannah plays over the sound system. No beer is served, so I order a cup of chai. An earnest young man dressed in an African shirt takes the floor and announces that he will be playing the Mbira for us. He tells us that the appropriate way to listen to the music is in "a silence deeper than silence". The music is quite beautiful and the silence and darkness seems wholly appropriate. It is clear, however, that this isn't the time to try and start up a conversation. I sip my chai, let my eyes close, and slip out during the interval to catch the train.

Onomichi is developing into a hub for creative people outside the mainstream, taking over neglected hillside houses and creating a community on their own terms at their own pace. If you like your food, music and life organic, acoustic and slow, you are likely to find many kindred spirits here and could well enjoy an extended stay in the city.

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