Why the Chugoku Region?
I have been visiting the Chugoku Region; 中国地方 — on and off for over eight years now. I first explored the region back in early 2017 with my Japanese partner. Her family is from Hiroshima City, and it was my first experience of meeting a ‘real’ Japanese family. I was quite nervous of meeting them at that time, however I needn’t have worried; they were, and continue to be very welcoming, open and caring.
Their daughter later became my wife, and we now have a beautiful three year old daughter of our own.
The first three years of visiting this area, of which this essay collection is formed, are the most special for me. It was a magic time full of discovery and exploration, getting to know a culture at a deeper level than had been possible from within the often frenetic and sometimes harsh bubble of Tokyo City, where I was living at the time.
I will add another essay that focuses on Hiroshima City, and its world famous island neighbour — Itsukushima, or Miyajima, in due course.
Tomonoura village, Fukuyama Ward
Including the three photos above; Tomonoura; 鞆の浦 — is a small and cute old coasting fishing village a couple of hours drive to the east of Hiroshima City.
It’s a peaceful place for a day trip with many little cafes and a few sights to take in. Possibly the most famous landmark is the Joyato Stone Lighthouse.
The town itself is also the inspiration for the town of the same name in the Studio Ghibli animated film by Hayao Miyazaki — Ponyo.
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Kintaikyo Bridge, Iwakuni City
Kintaikyo Bridge; 錦帯橋 — is an elegant five-arched wooden bridge built atop stone pillars. It’s not the original of course, as most things in Japan are subject to the brutal mix of earthquakes; tsunamis and typhoons, the latter of which destroyed the original bridge in 1950 after 300 years or battling the elements.
It was reconstructed to the same original design in 1953. It’s a beautiful example of ancient Japanese design and engineering and certainly worth a day trip.
Above the Nishiki River there is a park and castle, both accessible via a cable-car, and affords some superb scenery of the area.
Mitarai and bridges | Geiyo Islands
Mitarai; 御手洗 — is a small village and historic preservation district of traditional architecture with a small fishing harbour on the east coast of Ōsaki-Kamijima Island; 大崎上島 — in the Seto Inland Sea; 瀬戸内海 — between Honshu; 本土 — and Shikoku; 四国.
Getting to and around the Geiyo Islands; 芸予諸島 — requires driving over some quite spectacular suspension bridges, of which the Kurushima Kaikyō suspension bridge is the most impressive. When completed in 1999 it was the world's longest bridge of its type; it connects Hiroshima Prefecture; 広島県 — and Honshu, with Ehime Prefecture; 愛媛県 — and the fourth major island of Japan: Shikoku; 四国 — spanning a series of islets and small islands — on which Mitarai finds itself.
Onomichi; 尾道 —is the gateway city to these island and the bridges that connect them.
The 55 bridges of Geiyo
These bridges form the essential links on the Nishi-Seto Expressway, known as the Shimanami Kaido, which roughly translates as Island Wave Sea Road. It's the only route through the Geiyo Archipelago — this group of mountainous islands clustered at the heart of Japan's main waterway, the Seto Inland Sea.
It's a hugely impressive piece of civil engineering especially considering it was primarily built for the islanders themselves, rather than to ease congestion from other routes to Shikoku. One of my favourite little facts related to this is that in one of the towers of the Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge, there's even a lift that descends to tiny Uma Island, with a population of 13.
The bridge seen here is the Tatara, one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in the world. Its elegant schooner mast design is a link to the area's maritime history of pirates [Murakami kaizoku] — of which eventually evolved into Japan's first form of a coastguard.
The Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge, now the eighth longest suspension bridge in the world, spans 4,015m (13,173 ft).
Note: The panoramic photo above has been reflected on the x-axis to help bring the very thin aspect ratio to life in this limited viewing experience.
Mitarai's exotic past
Mitarai is certainly a very cute little village with narrow walkways and lovely examples of old Japanese residential architecture. It also feels very friendly; entrances to many homes welcome visitors to the island and the village itself with displays of floral bouquets and placards of poetry.
What I didn’t know until I researched the village again for this essay, was that the main attraction until 1956 — were the women of Mitarai.
It was very famous in nautical circles for Oiran; 花魁 — a collective term for the highest-ranking courtesans in Japanese history, and a precursor to the Geisha; 芸者 — known for their more refined entertainment skills and training in the traditional arts.
There were many ‘tea houses’ operating in the area entertaining the wealthy and elite travellers that traded and navigated their cargo ships along these nautical routes of the past.
It all thankfully came to an end when Japan passed a law banning this form of traditional entertainment.
Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture
Kurashiki; 倉敷 — is located in Okayama Prefecture; 岡山県 — not far from its capital Okayama City. Kurashiki has a well preserved canal system, lined with willow trees, that is crisscrossed with a network of lovely old stone bridges.
The area dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867), when the city served as an important rice distribution centre.
In the twentieth century it became famous for being the first area to manufacture denim in Japan, and retains a healthy scene of boutique designer denim houses that attract international attention and acclaim.
Kurashiki is a living and breathing historical town, and not just a display piece like some other tourist destinations in Japan, therefore it has a good buzz and genuine energy thanks to the locals going about their regular lives; the former storehouses have been converted into museums, boutiques, restaurants and cafes — making the town a great destination for a day trip or two.
A great way to see the town at a leisurely pace is to hire a rickshaw for an hour or two. Simply ask your human motor to show you the highlights, and then pop back later for a proper mooch should an area pique your interest.
Interestingly ‘rickshaw’ originates from the the Japanese word jinrikisha; 人力車 —
- 人 — jin = human;
- 力 — riki = power or force;
- 車 — sha = vehicle;
literally a human-powered vehicle.
焼杉 — is a traditional Japanese technique of wood preservation. Yaki means to burn, and sugi means cypress tree.
By charring the surface of the wood without combusting it — this method of carbonisation creates a water-proof layer and also makes the wood far more durable against the elements.
It also protects against insects, rot and, somewhat ironically, makes the wood fire retardant. Plus it’s beautiful.
Yanai, Yamaguchi Prefecture
Yanai; 柳井 — is a small, charming coastal town located in Yamaguchi Prefecture; 山口県 — and not far from Hiroshima City; 広島市 — therefore a good destination for a day trip.
Yanai is another Edo Period (1603-1867) town, with some great examples of old Japanese architecture, merchant shops and townhouses. However, what sets this town apart and makes the streets so special to explore is the red and white goldfish lanterns that line the buildings, streets and interiors/exteriors of most shops and buildings; they are everywhere!
They are called Kingyo Chochin; 金魚ちょうちん — literally goldfish lantern, and are unique to Yanai. Constructed from washi; 和紙 — paper, with a bamboo structural skeleton. But more importantly they put a smile on your face and make the streets especially beautiful during the evenings when they are illuminated.
Had enough photos of goldfish? Perhaps it’s time to take a short break and look briefly at a few other things in Yanai. Don’t worry, the illuminated lanterns are still to come, and take the prime position of final photos from this whirlwind tour of the Chugoku Region — well, until the next instalment of course ^_^
As is always the case, you’ll find some superb ramen; ラーメン — in almost all Japanese towns, and Yanai is no exception.
Yanai is also famous for a sweet variety of soy sauce; 甘口醤油 — and you can visit the Kanro Joyu Soy Sauce Museum, where you can peer into the vast wooden vats and see the dark soybean paste bubbling and fermenting away happily.
Washi is traditional Japanese paper, and is made using fibres from the inner bark of the gampi tree, the mitsumata shrub, or the paper mulberry (kōzo) bush.
Washi is produced in a way similar to that of ordinary paper, but relies heavily on manual methods. It involves a long and intricate process that is often undertaken in the cold weather of winter, as pure, cold running water is essential for its production.
As a Japanese craft, it is registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.
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