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ONOMICHI

Its Retro Streets Remain Enshrined in Famous Masterpieces

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About 1 kilometer east of Onomichi Station is a stop for the cable car which takes you up Senkoji mountain, from where you can view the city scape of Onomichi. On the opposite side, across Onomichi Water, are the islands of the Seto Inland Sea, such as Innoshima.

Onomichi is a port town, surrounded by mountains and sea, that stretches along an east-west strip of land in the south-east of Hiroshima prefecture; with historic temples and modern buildings scattered throughout, the town retains a retro ambiance. Overlooking the opposite shore from the pier, the tall shipyard cranes are reminiscent of a former era of prosperity, when the town was a hub of sea-faring traffic and played its part, along with Osaka and Kobe, in the economy of western Japan. Onomichi is just over 20 minutes by conventional railway from Fukuyama Station, which lies on the Sanyo Shinkansen (high-speed bullet train). The town leaves visitors with a warm glow in their hearts, as it blends aspects of modern Japan, which strived to modernize, with the warmth of its inhabitants who live in tranquility, overlooking the sea.


Like Looking Back at a Picture

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Left: An old residential area of Onomichi with its complex weave of narrow sloping paths and stairs.
Right: Han-u-tei, a quaint cafe set up in a renovated old warehouse that was built more than 100 years ago.
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The "Three-storied Pagoda" in Tennei Temple is a symbolic historical site. When it was built in 1388, it had five stories, but sustained much damage and was rebuilt about 300 years later.

Downtown Onomichi can be viewed by taking the cable car to the top of Senkoji mountain (altitude: 144m). You can see Onomichi Water, a small strait just over 200m wide, and the long, narrow plain surrounded by mountains, where the streets appear to be paved with a continuous string of houses. The tiled roofs of rather old houses stretch out to the foothills, and it is called the "hill-side town" with its sloping paths and stairs weaving a complex scene. If you climb the elegant cobbled slopes, the refreshing sea views that you glimpse over the roof-tops and from the gardens heal the soul just like looking at a fine painting. It's also fun to stop by one of the old residences or warehouses that have been renovated into quaint cafes.

Onomichi once flourished as a shipping hub and many temples were erected in memory of its wealthy merchants, mainly during the Edo period (1603-1868). These days, the walking trail that takes you on a visit of these ancient temples with a distinguished history has become one of highlights of tourism. Many temples have the sites designated as national historic landmarks, such as Tennei Temple's "Three-Storied Pagoda," which is an Important National Cultural Properties; and some of the temples even offer a range of experiences such as Zazen (Zen meditation) sessions. At Jiko Temple you can make a Nigiri Buddha (Squeezed Buddha) and it is strange that, although you just squeeze the clay and then carve the face, the facial expression of the completed Buddha spontaneously resembles your own.

The old-fashioned streetscapes of Onomichi have also appeared as the location for many Japanese movies and television dramas. Indeed, this location was the main stage for Tokyo Story (released in 1953); the show-case work of world-famous film director Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963). The "Tahou Pagoda" which is a National Treasure in the Jodo Temple and formed the back-drops to famous scenes - and the glittering surface of the sea with steamers plying to and from leave a lasting impression. You can look back on such memories of movie locations at the Onomichi Motion Picture Museum which has been set up in a renovated, white-washed warehouse along the eastern side of the sea front.

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You can experience Nigiri Buddha making at Jiko Temple Jodo Temple, famous as the location for the Japanese movie “Tokyo Story.” Its Tahou Pagoda is designated as a national treasure. In the Onomichi Motion Picture Museum, a short version of Tokyo Story is shown in the cinema.

How Cute! A Town of Cats

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Left: A lone "lucky stone cat" adorns the road side; a symbolic character of Onomichi
Right: The painter Shunji Sonoyama paints the “lucky stone cats” one by one.

With store-fronts, signs and objects providing a retro atmosphere, the streets of Onomichi are full of girls holding cameras and spontaneously exclaiming "How cute!" as they peer through their viewfinders . One such street is the "Cat's Alley"; one of many attractions definitely worth a visit, where you welcomed by bill-boards, murals, figurines, and so on, of cats that all bear friendly expressions.

In 1997 Shunji Sonoyama, who was famous for painting temple ceilings, moved in and remodeled an old house. He turned it into the "Maneki-Neko (Beckoning Cat) Museum in Onomichi" and it heralded a spread of the unique "world of the cat." Mr. Sonoyama painted 108 round stones with pictures of cats; known as the "lucky stone cats." These are randomly placed around the alley - in the eaves of houses, or the shade of trees etc. The stone cats each have different expressions and it is said that if you stroke their heads three times, good luck will visit you.


When you are tired of exploring on foot, why not take a break and enjoy Onomichi's specialty tea and cakes? Hassaku Daifuku (a rice cake with sweet bean paste and citrus inside) is a Japanese cake that combines the sweet and the sour in harmony, using fruit mainly produced in the islands of the Inland Sea. A rich-tasting custard pudding made from locally sourced eggs combined with sweet and sour citrus syrup is known for its refreshing qualities. And you want to enjoy the crispy crunch of Ice Monaka - a ball of ice-cream enclosed in an octagonal wafer.

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Hassaku Daifuku, the refreshing-looking Japanese cake, with sweet and sour fruit.(Courtesy of NAKAYA HONPO)
Onomichi Custard Pudding in old-fashioned glass bottles - a popular souvenir
(Courtesy of OYATSU & YAMANEKO)
The Ice Monaka - a perfect blend of Japanese-style monaka wafer and vanilla ice-cream (Courtesy of KARASAWA)

The Blessing of the Inland Sea

The Inland Sea is known as one of the best fishing grounds in Japan, as nutrients flow into it from the mountain rivers of surrounding Honshu and Shikoku, making it rich in plankton which serve as food for its fish. The uniquely strong tides of these waters firm up the fish and increase their flavor; and sushi is ultimately the best way to fully enjoy seasonal seafood such as halfbeak and sea bream. Extravagantly layering the fruits of the sea on a bed of hot rice and heartily champing on your sashimi-topped bowl of rice is highly recommended.

There are also many popular noodle shops - with long queues outside before the opening hours - that serve Onomichi Ramen, which have pork back-fat added to the dashi soup (made mainly of seafood) to enrich the taste.

With the pale sheen of a tasteful antique, Onomichi gently welcomes the visitor to explore and eat out.

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Fish from the Seto Inland Sea, beautifully lined up as sushi. (Courtesy of KURAZUSHI)
Seafood bowl, piled high with seasonal seafood. (Courtesy of KAKIZAEMON)
Onomichi Ramen with the characteristic generous helping of pork back-fat floating in a soy-sauce soup (Courtesy of Onomichi Ramen TANI)

(November 2013)

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