AN UNDISCOVERED AREA OF FASCINATION
Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba
1. LIVING WITH CATS IN A TOWN LOVED BY CYCLISTS – ONOMICHI
Japan, a country that changes with the seasons. Up in the north is Hokkaido with its skiing heaven, whilst Okinawa occupies the south with its beautiful coral paradise. Let’s not also forget Tokyo and Osaka as front runners for the latest world trends, amongst a variety of other unforgettable cities.
While Japan is a booming nation of tourism in itself, there is an area west of Osaka that has been gathering more attention of late – Setouchi. The Setouchi area refers to the central area of the Shikoku region that surrounds the Seto Inland Sea and is filled with beautiful cities and towns lining the coastline. Hiroshima is likely to be the most famous and long known tourist hot spot in Setouchi due to its past as the location where the United States dropped the atomic bomb. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, also known as the “Genbaku Dome”, is one of the many popular places to visit in Hiroshima.
This feature, however, will take a step further into the area to showcase spots away from the more famous locations. Although I will be going introducing each location in the order I visited them, this should not stop anybody from travelling directly to them from Osaka using the variety of transport methods on offer as they are all fairly accessible. In October 2017, I accepted an invitation from an organisation promoting tourism for the Setouchi area and hopped on a plane from Sydney to Japan to experience the wonders waiting for me. From the gateway to west Japan, Kansai Airport, I transferred onto another plane to head towards Hiroshima. For the most part in Hiroshima I was on a tour that focused on sake. If you are after some further reading about the intricacies of the liquor, then please have a look at the “GOING WALKABOUT IN THE SAKE TOWNS OF TAKEHARA AND SAIJO” feature (page 24) in the 16th volume of jStyle released last year. This feature is a continuation of that trip.
After delving into the fascinating world of sake in Take hara and Saijo in Hiroshima, we (a group comprised of media from Australia, the US, and other influential outlets invited to participate in this trip) visited the port town of Onomichi. Although it was my first trip to Onomichi, I was very familiar with the town as the backdrop of many movies and novels. With one look at the town I knew it as the place well loved by literary legends.
My first port of call upon reaching Onomichi was Senko-ji, a temple built over 1,200 years ago in the year 806. The
temple grounds, built atop a hill, can be reached by rop eway from the city centre. While there is a trail from the ropeway station at the peak to Senko-ji, known as the “Bungaku no Komichi” (Trail of Literature), I decided to stop by the nearby observation tower first.
The view from the temple is spectacular as it is, but due to the observation tower’s location higher up on a hill, it offers an even wider view of Onomichi. Everything that can be seen from this point encapsulates the beauty of the Setouchi area, from the town of Onomichi bustling below, to the Seto Inland Sea supplying water to the town, as well as Mukaishima further out.
From the observation tower I trekked down the Bungaku no Komichi. This mountain trail is lined with 25 poem monuments featuring verses capturing the beauty of Onomichi as seen through the eyes of various writers and the hearts of those who live there. The poems on these monuments are all written in old prose or completely in kanji (Chinese characters), making some of them difficult for the average Japanese person to grasp, yet even so, it was very strange to feel the intense passion emanating from each character written. As I soaked up this mysterious air on the walk down, I found myself at Senko-ji.
Senko-ji boasts a long history filled with many different legendary tales, which also means it offers a lot to see, such as peculiar-shaped rocks, and beautiful sights. The sight of various temple halls lining the sheer, mountainous terrain creates an intensely unique atmosphere. Take a trip over to this temple to feel the old Onomichi culture filling the air.
As you approach the city going down the narrow, yet elegant stretch of hillside from Senko-ji, you may find yourself lucky enough to spot a few cats. Onomichi is extremely fascinating for the cat-inspired ornaments placed around the area due to the large amount of cats lurking around the place. There are also cat cafés in the area, making it a must visit location for cat lovers.
Despite the compact size of the town, Onomichi is famous for its ramen, with many Onomichi-style ramen restaurants found dotted all around the place and people lining up to get inside. I highly recommend a leisurely stroll around the town to see all of the unique hot spots as the sea breeze gently flows through your hair.
Onomichi is also known as the starting point of the “Setouchi Shimanami Kaido”. The Shimanami Kaido is a bridging route stretching approximately 60 kilometres from Onomichi to Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. There are 6 large islands connected together through this route, and the characteristic shapes of the bridges have earned this route the nickname, “the bridge museum”. A defining feature of this route is that it can be travelled by foot and by bicycle. It was also included on CNN’s list of the “7 best bike routes in the world”, cementing its place as an internationally renowned cycling course. Onomichi is not simply just a well visited town, but also a town adored by cyclists from around the world. With rental services, ride-and-drop-off bikes, fully-serviced rest stops, and other cyclist-centric infrastructure makes this town a must for cyclists and enthusiasts alike.
After enjoying Onomichi to its fullest, I set off for the beautiful town of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture.
2. A TOWN FROZEN 300 YEARS IN THE PAST; THEREAR QUARTERS OF KURASHIKI – YAKAGE
Although I was unable to visit myself on this trip, a representative from the organisation highly recommended I drop by a certain place when I got the chance to. The place in question was the town of Yakage, which is known as the rear quarters of Kurashiki owing to its well preserved old streets. Back in the Edo period when Yakage was a prosperous post town on the old Sanyo Highway, it accommodated the feudal lords travelling between their respective regions and Edo during the period of feudal lords working for the shogunate. The residences of the Old Yakage Honjin Ishii Family and the Old Yakage Waki Honjin Takakusa Family still stand to this day and are both recognised as Important Cultural Properties of Japan. Both of these residences are the only two Important Cultural Properties that still exist and both can only be found in Yakage. The luxuriously spacious houses spanning approximately 3,300 square metres are a reflection of the grand times in which they were built. Those who have a chance to visit this area should take advantage of the free guides on offer. The streets of Yakage are also filled with other old buildings from after the Edo period, so make sure you drop by for a time slip into a more nostalgic era. With its handy location on the way over to Kurashiki, why not take a trip over when you find yourself with some time on your hands? A TOWN FROZEN 300 YEARS IN THE PAST; THE REAR QUARTERS OF KURASHIKI – YAKAGE Kurashiki has preserved the feel of its old street landscape, and is a town known for taking advantage of the natural and history-rich environment of which forms the heart of the region. One step into this town will make you never want to leave this beautiful, other-worldly place.
The area of Kurashiki centred around Kurashiki River has been reclaimed and is currently being developed into rice fields, whilst also maintaining its history as a main port city, ruled by the Matsuyama clan during the Edo period, where it served as a connecting point for goods heading north. Following this period, the region became an area of resources with the backing of protection from the bakufu and abundant produce in its surrounds. From this, the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter area then turned into the bustling location it is today.
Stucco-finished houses and white-walled warehouses lined the streets around the Kurashiki River during the period where boats would carry cargo through the area during high tide. The sight of these old buildings can still be enjoyed by visitors to the area to this day. There are also a variety of programs for visitors to participate in, such as wearing kimonos or taking a ride on a boat which harks back to older times.
3. THE INNOVATIONS OF THE EDO PERIOD PRISTINELY PRESERVED IN THIS TOWN – KURASHIKI
We all went our separate ways to explore the town filled with elegant stores as far as the eye could see. There was even a shrine on a hill offering a view of the whole town. Not a moment of boredom was to be had as I strolled around the town.
Of all the areas I visited, the area of Honmachi and Higashimachi to the east of the town centre was of particular interest to me. Walking around the streets here made me feel as though I had entered a time slip. All of the buildings still maintained the same charm as they had when they were first built before the area along the riverside. Cabinet makers, coopers, and other stores run by craftsmen continue to operate as they did long ago, making a walk through this area a highly recommended trip to the past.
A large portion of this area has been designated for preservation, however, approximately 200 families still call the area home. The feeling of people going about their daily lives in this historic area was quite refreshing.
Galleries, general stores, a jazz café, a café built in a refurbished tea house amongst a variety of other charming little shops can be found neatly dotted around the area. The harmony of old history and modernism found in Kurashiki is so quintessentially Japanese and definitely deserves to be experienced firsthand.
Another highly unique tourist attraction near Kurashiki that deserves a mention is Kojima Jeans Street. The Kojima area of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture is known as the birthplace of Japanese jeans. The 400 metre stretch of stores by local
jeans makers and general goods shops known as “Jeans Street” was named so to boost local business and to help promote the area. A variety of style-centric clothing shops selling pieces unique to the area, such as indigo dyed shirts, line the streets and absolutely cannot be missed by anybody who has a penchant for fashion.
4. A UNIQUE TOWN OF RED – FUKIYA
A large part of the itinerary involved going through the Great Seto Bridge to cross the Seto Inland Sea from Honshu to Shikoku, however, there was one place the organisation wanted to visit first – Fukiya in Okayama Prefecture. Located an hour and a half north of Kurashiki and Okayama City, it is a neat little place worth visiting.
The town of Fukiya is a historical town and was originally established for copper mining. In 1707, it became the first place in Japan to produce the red colour pigment, “bengara” in Japan. Known for having high quality bengara that maintained its red vibrancy even when baked, demand for the product spread across the nation. The Fukiya region prospered through the production of bengara during the end of the Edo period. After a conversation between bengara sellers leading to the establishment of the town, it was recognised in 1977 by the Agency of Cultural Affairs as an Important Preservation District or Groups of Traditional Buildings.
Visitors to other areas of Japan may find that the sight of luxurious mansions built by wealthy folk are not as uncommon as one might think; what sets Fukiya apart from the rest is that each of the individual houses are not in fact draped in luxury, but instead, were built by calling upon carpenters to build a whole town in the same style. While the concept may have been rather advanced for its time, seeing the completed town as it stands is impressive, to say the least.
No other place in Japan offers the sight of a neatly designed town comprised of copper-red Sesshu tiles and the bengara pigment. While the town itself may be small, quaint stores fill the streets, and visitors can also try their hand at some bengara dyeing crafts. For those taking public transport, there needs to be some juggling of trains and buses to get to the town, as it does require a little bit of leg work. Although it might be easier to hop onto a taxi or take a shuttle service from nearby accommodation facilities, this little town is definitely worth a visit for the unique experience it offers.
5. THE WORLD’S LONGEST MULTIPURPOSE BRIDGE – THE GREAT SETO BRIDGE
Once we left Fukiya it was finally time to cross the Great Seto Bridge connecting Honshu to Shikoku. The sight of islands connected by a great bridge in the peaceful blue sea is one that perfectly frames the area of Setouchi.
The Great Seto Bridge was opened in 1988 and is a collective term referring to the 10 bridges connecting Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture in the Honshu region to Sakaide, Kagawa Prefecture in the Shikoku region.
There is nothing quite like gazing over the islands floating in the calm Seto Inland Sea as you cross the great bridge. For those who want to soak up the views even further then a stop by the Yoshima Parking Area is highly recommended. This is the only parking area on the Great Seto Bridge and the Yoshima Plaza located in front of it is a tourist hot spot in itself with stores, a food court, and an observation deck with a great view of the area.
It is also a great place to visit to pick up some typical Setouchi region foods as souvenirs.
6. CLIMBING UP 1,368 STEPS TO MEET A DEITY – KOTOHIRA
Crossing the Great Seto Bridge led us to our next gateway, Kagawa Prefecture. The organisation we were with referred to it as the “udon prefecture” due to its reputation as the most renowned prefecture for udon in all of Japan. For udon purists, one cannot look past “sanuki udon” from Kagawa Prefecture. With the popularity of Japanese cuisine gaining more traction over the past few years, the term “sanuki udon” is sure to be making the rounds.
Not far from the gateway to Shikoku after hopping off the Great Seto Bridge is Kotohira, a town known for its worship of the sea deity since ancient times. The most famous shrine in Kotohira, Kotohira-gu (also known as “Sanuki Konpira-san”), can be found halfway up Mount Zozu and is said to have enticed pious followers from all around Japan to worship the deity of the sea for bountiful crops, large fish hauls, prosperous business, and other good fortunes.
While many people visit this shrine for its blessings, it also has another major draw card – the number of stairs it houses. There are 785 steps from the gateway towards the shrine to the main shrine itself, and a further 1,368 stone steps to the rear shrine. The approach leading to the shrine is filled with historic sites and cultural treasures, while the rear approach has displays of cherry blossoms in the spring, azaleas in early summer, and gorgeous leaves in autumn. Strap on your hiking boots and experience the beautiful seasonal views and you find yourself in an atmosphere of eternity, or, if you’re game enough, climb all the way to the top (taking necessary breaks) for a great workout.
Those who make it all the way to the top will be rewarded with a spectacular view. After a fulfilling visit to the temple the way back down is filled with a variety of shops to visit, making it a fun and relaxing way to leisurely quench your thirst on your trek home.
Kotohira is also known for its hot springs and is filled with a variety of magnificent accommodation establishments with onsen facilities. Book a room at one of these establishments to enjoy the services they have to offer, but don’t forget to grab a bowl of sanuki udon while you’re at it!
7. AWA DANCE AND ONE OF THE LARGEST WHIRLPOOLS IN THE WORLD – NARUTO
The last stop on this trip was none other than Tokushima Prefecture. This prefecture is known as “the land of Awa” (the former name of Tokushima Prefecture) as it is the birthplace of the ancient Japanese dance – the Awa Dance.
Awa dance involves chanting “yatto-saa, yatto-saa” while dancing in a group. It is a dance synonymous with Japan and has even spread overseas. In fact, its reach has also expanded to the point where large scale shows are held in cities such as Tokyo. While these shows may be big, nothing can surpass the scale of the authentic Awa Dance Festival in Tokushima, which involves children dancers and massive crowds. When the festival rolls in, people from all around flock to see this event, the largest of its kind in Japan. Since we weren’t lucky enough to visit Tokushima during the festival, we were treated to demonstrations of it instead and also got our own feet moving, too.
At first glance, the dance may appear to be rather simple – involving sticking your right hand and foot out at the same time, however, it was actually rather fun learning about the intricacies of the dance and the differences between how men and women dance. After wearing out our dancing feet, we set off for our final destination – Naruto.
Naruto is a tourist hot spot known for the tidal currents in its strait and is a must-see location for those who find themselves in Tokushima. While the islands of Japan are riddled with many complicated currents in and around it, Naruto is said to boast the fastest currents in all of Japan with maximum spring tide speeds reaching approximately 20 kilometres per
hour. These are said to be one of the largest tidal currents in Japan and are known for creating large whirlpools in the ocean surface. Tours operate during the times when these whirlpools occur, so visitors can get a close up look of them while on board these boats. These mysterious natural phenomena absolutely must be seen.
Large whirlpools can span up to 20 metres in diameter and can be seen up close by boat. The currents create whirlpools that last from a few seconds up to a minute. As one whirlpool disappears, another is formed in its place, repeating this cycle over and over again. I was fortunate enough to see these artistic natural phenomena created by the gravitational pull of the moon, combined with the sea currents, with my very own eyes. Experiencing the power of nature was absolutely awe-inspiring.
Naruto marked the end of the group tour. We all parted ways at Tokushima Awaodori Airport to fly out to Tokyo or Osaka, and finally head home. While our trip around the Setouchi area was quick and concise, I still vvery much got a chance to experience the wide and deep offerings the region had in store for me. Now that most smartphones come with capable GPS features to navigate around Japan in English, this might be the perfect chance to head on over for a fun road trip around Setouchi.
Go ahead and slip the Setouchi area into your itinerary for your next trip to Japan.