A dose of small-town Japan: Onomichi

This autumn I spent 2 months leading tours across Japan. This post describes a day away from tour-leading spent in Onomichi, a quiet historic town on the shore of the Inland Sea.

Onomichi and the Inland Sea seen from Senkoji temple

After an 11 day tour, then getting up at 5am for a send off at the airport before a 3 hour train ride, I arrived in Onomichi tired but exhilarated to be let loose in a new place.

Onomichi, a few miles east of Hiroshima, features in the 1940s classic Ozu film, Tokyo Story. I saw the film in a Japan Club event 3 years ago. In Tokyo Story, Onomichi is the hometown of the aged parents who travel by train to visit their busy children in Tokyo.

Leisurely distraction appeared immediately, a historic temple-trail starting just outside the small train station. On the hillside above me, the sacred sites of old Onomichi and several stray cats beckoned.

The narrow asphalt temple trail took me between houses, temples, shrines and school grounds passing school-children, startled cats and locals freewheeling down on scooters.

As the sun began to set, I stopped at a temple gate to take a photo (actually, mainly to catch my breath). The green islands in the Inland Sea loomed large beneath the orange sky. Just then, 3 boys from the school athletics club jogged past followed by the call of monks chanting the Lotus Sutra. The effect was magical, even after discovering the tune came straight out of a tape recorder.

Accommodation was easy to find. I found a place to stay, using the latest fad in tech-savvy Japan: the intanetto, or simply the netto. My bunk for the night was in The Conger Eel Bunkhouse (Anago no Nedoko). Conger eel is a famous product of Onomichi and the guesthouse name reflects the narrow eel-like shape of the building which is a renovated Meiji-period clothes house.

At the front of the guesthouse was an even more curiously-named establishment, カフェあくび (Cafe Yawn). I couldn’t fathom the reason for the name, maybe because it was so relaxing? Check out the photos of the retro-interior and school-lunch style food here

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Anago no Nedoko is in the middle of a traditional shôtengai (shopping mall), some of which  house so many closed businesses they are prefixed by the word シャッター (shutter). The conversion of the old clothes shop is representative of the movement to bring these shôtengai back to life. In a similar fashion, a little further along the street an old bathhouse had been converted into a cafe and souvenir store. 

On the hillside, I heard about a 2nd hand bookshop that opens from 11pm-3am. Another sign that the normal rules of business do not apply in Onomichi. 

Dinner was curry rice in Cafe Yawn, enjoyed while listening to the 1940’s song Tokyo Boogie Woogie. The tatami mat floor in Anago was a communal lounge and a centre of international exchange. After dinner, I sat there sharing typhoon tales with a Polish and Spanish couple who live together in Dublin and a girl from Hokkaido on a round-the-world trip. The Europeans had come to Onomichi to cycle the Shimanami Kaido, an amazing island-hopping ride which I huffed and puffed along the next day.  

Briefly, for one day only, it was wonderful to be a traveller in Japan again not tied to anything, absorbed in the moment. revelling in the magic of a crisp autumn afternoon. After some stressful days leading groups through city crowds, small town Japan offered the perfect balance of recreation and tranquility.   I recommend Onomichi highly; I am not the only one to either; and I didn’t yawn once.

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