Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

September 3, 2013

Best Traditional Towns in Japan - Western Japan (Takahashi, Tomonoura and Onomichi)

There are still several traditional towns in Japan where modernization ("concrete-ization") has been less rampant than in the larger cities. Here are a few of my favorites in Western Japan (Okayama and Hiroshima Prefectures): Bitchu-Takahashi, Tomonoura, and Onomichi. Although I give suggestions for visits to temples and small museums in these towns, in the first place they are all just nice for a relaxed stroll through narrow lanes with old houses...


[Takahashi - Raikyuji's Garden]
1. Bitchu-Takahashi
The tiny former castle town of Takahashi stretches north to south along the Takahashi River. Lying in a mountainous region of great scenic beauty, it has a thriving merchant district of Edo-era buildings near the river and a well-preserved section of samurai homes, still occupied by the descendants of that martial class. Takahashi also features several interesting temples, of which Shorenji and Yakushi-en stand on high stone platforms. The place to visit is, however, Raikyuji, which boasts a fine garden laid out by Kobori Enshu. The samurai houses stand in the Ishibayacho district, just beyond Raikyuji. The castle was built in 1683 and sitting at 420 meters above sea level, is the highest castle in Japan. There is a great view of the surrounding hills from the castle hill (but it is a pain to get there, so you may opt to observe the castle hill from the town!) P.S. "Bitchu" is the name of this region in Okayama; it is added to the name of the town because there are more towns of the name "Takahashi" in Japan.

Places to visit are:
  • The Zen-temple Raikyuji. The renowned garden designer and tea master Kobori Enshu (1579-1647) served as governor of Takahashiand at that time lived in Raikyuji. He designed the present garden in 1604. The shakkei garden is characterized by a bold, wavelike hedge and in its daring design can stand comparison with the best gardens in Kyoto. 
  • Shorenji. This Nichiren temple is noted for its stone-walled terraces, which create an unusual effect.
  • Ishibaiyacho district with samurai houses. Two samurai residences (the Haibara Samurai Residence and the Orii Samurai Residence) are open to the public. 
  • In the merchant quarter near the river, one merchant residence can be visited: the Ikegami Merchant House, a soy sauce producer.
  • There are two small museums in town, the Takahashi Folk Museum (in an atmospheric building) and the Takahashi Historical Museum.
  • Bitchu-Matsuyama-jo. The highest mountain fortress in Japan. It retains the features of a medieval mountain fortress, although the present keep is more modern, from 1683. The castle is little visited as it stands a 20 min taxi ride outside the town. Climbing the hill takes another 15 min.

    Bitchu-Takahashi is 36 min by Yakumo Express from Okayama City, or 55 min by ordinary train via the Hakubi Line.

    Bitchu-Takahashi in Japan Guide (with a handy map). Japan Times article


    P.S. Fukiya, deeper into the mountains, is a copper mining town with old rust-colored houses, but as it is an hour by infrequent bus from Bitchu-Takahashi, it is rather difficult to get to by public transport.

[Tomo no Ura] 

2. Tomonoura
A little gem of a fisher's village with superb views over the Inland Sea, and an interesting place to stroll through the winding, narrow streets. Located on the southern point of the Nunakuma Peninsula, Tomonoura has been a famous scenic spot since the Nara period, when it was eulogized in the Manyoshu poetry collection. It was always a center for Inland Sea trade and many travellers passed through the town - the most important are the Korean embassies which came to Japan in the Edo-period (it was usual for travelers from Kyushu to Edo to travel through the Inland Sea by boat, before landing in Muronotsu in Hyogo Pref. and then - after visiting Osaka and Kyoto - hitting the Tokaido Highway). They would lodge in the Taichoro Pavilion of Fukuzenji Temple from which they could enjoy the view of three small islands in the bay, one adorned with a red pagoda. This Chinese-style landscape would be perfectly framed in the windows of their lodgings. Another visitor to Tomonoura was koto-composer Miyagi Michio (1894–1956), who was here inspired to write his masterwork, "Haru no Umi," or "The Spring Sea." In addition, anime-director Miyazaki Hayao developed his idea for the film Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (2008) while staying in Tomonoura.

Note: Tomonoura is in some danger of having its scenery spoiled by "development," such as a large bridge which may cut right through the small port town. See this article by WMF (the World Monuments Fund). 

Places to visit are:
  • Fukuzenji and Taichoro (Wave-facing Pavilion), the temple with pavilion where the Korean Embassies lodged, just next to the modern ferry landing. There are several memorabilia from these embassies on view, such as a calligraphy dated 1711 praising the view.
  • The Old Town with rows of fine old houses plus a distillery that makes Homeishu, a traditional medicinal liqueur.
  • The Temple and Shrine quarter in the north-east part of the town. The most interesting temple is Ankokuji, which has a 13th c.  Shaka Hall which is said to be one of the oldest Zen-style halls in Japan; the temple also has an interesting wooden Amida Triad; the Nunakuma Shrine - though itself concrete - has an early 17th c. Noh stage (presumably from Hideyoshi's Fushimi Castle in Kyoto).
  • Tomonoura Museum of History and Folklore. Local history and folklore museum. Includes a display of tai-ami, the fishing for sea bream (tai) which takes place in May with one large net pulled by a number of small boats. Other displays include a blacksmith's workshop for anchor making, and a koto used by Miyagi Michio.

    Tomonoura is 35 min by Tomotetsu bus from Fukuyama Station on the Shinkansen and Sanyo lines.

    English website of Fukuyama Tourist Information. Japan Times article.


Onomichi
 [Onomichi]

3. Onomichi
Onomichi is a port town on the inland sea, a traditional shipping center. For non-Japanese it is famous thanks to the iconic images at the beginning and end of Ozu Yasujiro's Tokyo Story, where it is the hometown of the elderly couple. It does not lie on the open sea, but across a channel we find the aptly name Mukai ("opposite") Island, now linked via a bridge. Onomichi lies on a steep hillside, crisscrossed by a warren of narrow slopes. The hills are studded with temples and there are also a few interesting small museums, as well as many literature monuments and film shooting spots. There is also a suitably old-fashioned Shotengai (arcaded shopping street). Onomichi is a starting point for trips to islands in the Inland Sea, either by bus via the new bridge system (Shimanami Kaido) or, as of old, by boat.

Places to visit are:
  • Jodoji Temple, at the eastern end of the town. The temple boasts a Main hall and a Tahoto Pagoda which are both national treasures. Visitors can also view a tea house that purportedly came from Hideyoshi's Fushimi Castle in Kyoto, and an interesting treasure house. Jodoji is a good starting point for a walk along the other temples, as Tenneiji (three-storied pagoda) and Saikokuji (with its gigantic straw sandals). Take a 5-min bus or taxi to Jodoji, and then walk back in a western direction towards the station and the hill with Senkoji.
  • Senkoji Temple can be reached by ropeway and is a sort of tourist trap, but the good thing is the view over the Inland sea from the temple, which is justly celebrated (and you can hike up the hill instead of using the ropeway). There is also a "literature walk" on the hill along stones on which haiku and other works have been carved (but you need some Japanese ability to appreciate this). 
  • The Onomichi Motion Picture Museum - see my previous post on Ozu Museums and Shooting Locations.
  • The Onomichi Literature Museum - comprising the residence of 20th c. writer Shiga Naoya. Another famous author who lived in Onomichi is Hayashi Fumiko (she went to high school here).
  • The Onomichi Museum of Art, designed by Ando Tadao.

    Onomichi has a Shinkansen Station, but that lies rather far from the city center. Coming from the east, it is easier to take an ordinary train on the JR Sanyo Line from Fukuyama - this takes only 18 min.

    Onomichi City English website. Japan Times article. Japan Guide with map.