Words and photos by Harriet Swann
How to get there: Using public transport, take a 40 minute highway bus from Togouchi, then take another 10 minute bus to Sandankyo. There is also a 2 hr bus from the city that stops at all the places that have events. Buses run once an hour. However, the area is much easier to explore if you have a car.
I know a lot of people on the JET Programme come to Japan with the hope of living in a neon city like you see on TV. My placement in Akiota couldn’t be much more different to that. I remember getting my placement letter before I came and madly googling away. I didn’t find very much except waterfalls and rice fields. So I came to Japan not knowing what to expect.
Akiota is a small mountainous town of about 8,000 people. More than 90% of the town is forest, making it a beautiful town all year round. It is about 45 minutes from Hiroshima city by car or bus. There are three junior high schools and seven elementary schools, but with dwindling numbers of students. All my schools are friendly and welcoming and the small class sizes give you a really good opportunity to get to know your students. There is a biggish supermarket, a home store, two pachinkos, three convenience stores, a small Daiso and a handful of delicious restaurants. There are lots of waterfalls, rice fields and mountains. It is beautiful in the autumn with all the orange leaves, in winter when the mountains are covered in frost and snow and in the summer when the tress turn a lush green. A town definitely worth a visit!
Reasons you should visit Akiota!
Sandankyo: you should definitely come for a weekend walk through Sandankyo. It a really beautiful area. Sandankyo is a 16km long ravine and is famous for its autumn maple leaves. There are three waterfalls and you can even take a boat ride through the gorge. There is also a delicious restaurant about an hour in by foot, where you can eat cold soba in the summer (if you can catch it)! All of the tables have a circular hoop of water which spins round. They will bring you a bowl of soba noodles which you drop in to the water bit by bit. The water is there to cool them down in the summer. Then you catch them with your noodles, dip them in the sauce and eat! Delicious! There are two entrances to Sandankyo. The main bus stops at the first entrance and you can get a shuttle bus to the other entrance. One warning – Sandankyo is full of snow from December till the end of March, so avoid this period!
Fireflies: each year in June for about a month you can see thousands of fireflies around the river near Nukui Dam. You can see most just after the rain has stopped. I had never seen anything so beautiful; it was hard to work out where the stars and fireflies separated.
Frog Festival/Yoshimizu: the frog festival is the 1st Sunday in June. There are lots of festival events such as kagura, dancing, stalls and food. Kagura is a form of dance and music dedicated to the Shinto gods. It combines music, dance and drama. At the side of the stage are several musicians who play all the music. Kagura often has a similar theme. There is usually a hero who tries to defeat the oni (demon). There are lots of variations on this and it is fascinating to watch! On this weekend Yoshimizu Garden is also open so you can stroll around and see all the tree frogs and their eggs. Yoshimizu was first built as a mountain getaway in 1781. A shrine was added in 1783, and it was remodelled again in 1803. The garden was then declared a wildlife reserve in 1953 because it is a natural habitat for the Moria Tree Frog. The park is also open for two weekends in November so that you can see the autumn leaves. This event is in Kake town. Here you can also try the famous taiyaki. This is a fish shaped pancakey-thing with beans inside. It’s most delicious when it is warm.
Nukui Dam (龍姫湖まつりIN温井ダム): there is a very big dam in Akiota! It has been there since 2001. Again there are lots of festival things (fairground games, delicious foods and local handicrafts for sale) and in the afternoon they open the dam. You can go down into the dam to watch the water surge out and spray you. There is also a nighttime illumination. You can watch a special type of kagura here. It involves four or five huge snakes which the heroes must try to slay. It is really impressive to watch as they take up the whole stage and puff with smoke. The children love watching it and all try to defeat them as well. Nukui Springs Hotel is also very nearby with an onsen (Japanese bath) if you want to relax before you head home!
Horseback Archery: on the 1st Sunday in October there is a Horseback Archery festival. The history of Japanese horseback archery dates back to the 4th century. This event starts at 12 ‘o’ clock and features two archers on their horses. At this event there is usually a male and female rider who compete against each other. Women have been allowed to take part since 1963. They speed along a 140m straight track and try to shoot a target to the side. Everybody lines up along the track to cheer them on and offer support if they miss the target.
Autumn Kagura: there are lots of kagura events throughout autumn and the beginning of winter. They usually start quite late, about 11pm and continue right through to about 4am. Everyone huddles round fires to keep warm. On the same night you can wander the town and watch different groups perform. Kagura is particularly famous in this area. There are 18 different groups, two of which are for children. Each group is connected to a shrine which is where they practice and perform. It is a great opportunity for communities to get together. These events usually attract lots of people. There are old people, children, teenagers, couples and families all crowded round to watch.
Skiing: there are lots of ski resorts both in Akiota and nearby. White Valley Matsubara is a family resort and a great place to go if you are a beginner. Osarakan is also nearby and has more advanced slopes. My favorite was White Valley Matsubara but I am a complete beginner! It was good to be able to practice on a family slope where the majority of people seemed to be learning. If you are more advanced though, I would recommend going to Osorakan. After you have finished there are a few onsens dotted around. Greenspa Tsustsuga has just reopened after a renovation. There is also Nukui Damn Hot Springs where you can enjoy a hot bath looking out over the mountains.
Akiota is an absolutely beautiful town, full of friendly people. Coming out to the inaka can definitely offer you an experience you would never get in the city. I hope you enjoy it!