This is the first installment of our ‘Welcome to the Inaka’ series. We hope this series will encourage you to explore some of the hidden gems in Hiroshima and create your own inaka experience!
Words by Charly Draper
Photos by Jeff Wigg
Welcome to Jinseki-kougen. That is, Jinseki plateau. You can forgive yourself if this is the first and last time you hear of Jinseki. Many Japanese haven’t heard of it either!
Jinseki-kougen boasts a total of two ALTs, many rice paddies and has recently gained its first konbini. Of course, since it’s only open between the hours of 7am and 9pm, it’s debatable how ‘konbini-ent’ it is. However, it is also the type of Japan most people never see – tiny mountain villages, wooded hillsides that turn flame-coloured in autumn and people with an unmatched curiosity and generosity of spirit. When the rigours of paperwork at the BOE get you down, a weekend in the mountains of Jinseki is a breath of fresh air, physically and emotionally.
Jinseki-kougen is in the mountains west of Fukuyama and covers an area of 381 square kilometres. Jinseki-kougen was ‘created’ in 2004 when they merged the three towns and one village in the area, due to the declining population. This means that despite the obvious small village clusters, according to government information it is indeed one ‘town’ – a rather misleading label. The most recent count puts the population at 10,693. So 2 people out of 10,693 in Jinseki-kougen are foreigners. In Japan, that’s not bad odds!
Jinseki-kougen is home to many, many old people. Of course there are some families with young people too, but there is a notable lack of people aged 15 to 50, although the area’s population swells drastically at Obon time, when everyone returns to spend the weekend with family. Most of the year, the plateau is something straight out of National Geographic. Obaachan and ojiichan can be seen, hunched over in the rice paddies. Heavily-wooded mountains rise sharply from the populated valley floor. Animals like tanuki (racoon dogs) and inoshishi (wild boar) scurry across the road in front of headlights, or graze quietly across the river.
So other than practising to be a National Geographic photographer, what can you do in Jinseki-kougen? You can pack a picnic and visit Taishaku-kyo!
Taishaku-kyo, or Taishaku Gorge, is a 15-km valley carved out by the Taishakugawa River. The area has an abundance of walks under beautiful mature trees and iconic red bridges, but the real highlight is the On-bashi Bridge.
The On-bashi is the third largest land bridge in the world. It is a comfortable 20 minute stroll from the car-park and, although the path continues further, most people choose to take their shoes off for a wade in the river before meandering back to their car.
Extremely keen hikers can follow the track all the way to the end, which is conveniently close to a top-notch ramen restaurant. However, a warning: unlike most tracks in Japan, the latter half is overgrown and much closer to the New Zealand national activity known as ‘bush-bashing’. Leave at least a couple of hours for this one! Partway to On-bashi there are caves where you can get up close and personal with bats (just avoid the excrement!). Should you prefer more sedentary pastimes, beside the car park you can hire a rod and try your luck in a pond of captive trout. And if you are very lucky, you might even spot a monkey or two.
While you’re in the area check out Lake Shinryu, made by damming the Taishakugawa River in 1924, and ponder the fact that the remains of an 8-10,000 year old dwelling were found in Taishaku-kyo recently.
Whatever you choose to do in Taishaku-kyo, don’t forget your camera. This is a very picturesque part of Hiroshima, particularly in autumn when the leaves change, or in early spring when the vibrant green new leaves appear. But beware that the area gets snowy in winter, so don’t attempt the journey without your snow tyres.
Next time you have a free weekend or want to escape the low-land heat, come on up to Jinseki-kougen. Pack a picnic, lace your sneakers and grab your camera. Have fun exploring!