Onomichi: A city of hidden gems

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Chaider with Hiro-san. (Photo by Toby Ley)

By Toby Ley

Onomichi is a gorgeous little city surrounded by the mountains and the sea. It’s a place with rich history, distinct character and it’s well worth at least one visit. Actually quite a popular tourist destination among the Japanese, Onomichi remains relatively unknown abroad. This allows foreign travelers an opportunity to enjoy a perhaps more authentic “Japan” experience without having to fight through massive crowds of camera-toting tourists.

Because it escaped bombing during the war, a great deal of traditional housing remains intact. Whether wandering the winding mountain paths of Senkouji Yama just north of the station, or the narrow streets of Shingai, Onomichi’s red-light area, one can get a real sense of Japanese life from ages past. Perhaps this is why Onomichi has been used as a set in so many Japanese movies and manga.

Onomichi’s major tourist attractions include various historic temples, famous and tasty Onomichi ramen, gorgeous cherry blossom viewing and several major matsuri (festivals). Becha Matsuri, my personal favorite, takes place November 3 and includes three men dressed as demons charging down the streets beating people with sticks. The lucky victims are blessed with good health, fine babies and/or better brains, depending on which demon hits you. The sight of parents offering up their squealing youngsters and begging demons to strike them is surprisingly entertaining. Just be prepared for the occasional jab to the ribs…

Despite originally being a major port city, Onomichi has a long history of famous artists and writers and this artistic scene has survived to the present day. Many of Onomichi’s residents and shop owners seem to possess easygoing warmth and almost bohemian attitudes, something that can seem quite rare in Japan. These people have helped cultivate Onomichi’s unique charm. Of course, visiting Onomichi’s temples, attending cherry blossom parties and watching the bizarre Becha Matsuri are all a must, but equally satisfying experiences include visiting the local izakayas and getting to know the characters who inhabit them.

While half the fun is exploring the area and stumbling upon your own little gem, here are some recommendations near the station, along the Shotengai (Onomichi’s undercover arcade):

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Teppanya Kaibutsu with Shunsuke-san. (Photo by Toby Ley)

YES Bar

Walking from Onomichi station, this awesome little bottle bar is at the very beginning of the Shotengai on your left. Just after the discount ticket shop, take a left up some stairs into a clothing store called Paraiso. Walk through the store, up a few more stairs and past the cafe to a very narrow staircase. Up these stairs you reach YES Bar and Aji-san. Aji-san, a carpenter and designer by trade, renovated the shop completely by himself and even put a hammock up on the roof. YES is an excellent place for a relaxed drink and some good conversation. Be careful though, YES Bar is only open Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays until 8 p.m.

Teppanya Kaibutsu

Maybe 20 meters up the Shotengai on the right, you can find this very groovy little izakaya. Teppanya is owned by Shunsuke-san, a truly entertaining host. There’s heaps of delicious Japanese food and the beer is served in frosty cold glasses. This place has real character and distinct style, especially if you have a group and get to eat upstairs. Food recommendations include the sasami fry and his Shunsuke’s famous tonpei. This place is not open on Tuesdays and it can get busy, so booking may be necessary.

Chaider

If you turn right off the Shotengai and go down the alleyway at Teppanya Kaibutsu, you come across Hiro-san and his bright orange shop, Chaider. Hiro and Chaider are destined to become world famous. His own drink creation, “chaider” is a delicious infusion of chai and cider. Hiro-san is great at English and his shop is well worth checking out.

Yamaneko Cafe

This cafe is fast becoming an Onomichi icon. Whether hosting an eclectic live music act, serving up another awesome lunch set or just offering great coffee, Yamaneko Cafe is a great place to meet friends at any time of the day. Every couple of weeks they have new pieces up on the walls from local artists. The good food is not the only reason that you must come to this cafe more than once. To get here, you walk down the Shotengai for about 15 minutes. You’ll pass a section that isn’t covered by the post office and Hiroshima Bank. Walk a little further and on your right there will be a narrow alley. Above the entrance of the alley, there’s a blue neon light with the silhouette of a white cat on it. Walk to the end of this alley towards the sea. Yamaneko is outside the alley just around the corner to your left.

Jiwats

This izakaya is directly above Yamaneko Cafe. Jiwats is always great to visit but especially on Wednesday nights when you can battle with the wait staff with janken (scissors paper rock) for half-price beers. Apart from the obvious fun and benefits of this, the food is incredible. Regular crowd pleasers include: mochi pizza, nasu gyoza, buta ume, udon salad and I really should stop there… I’m feeling hungry.