Words and photos by Aleck Skeie
How to get there: Peace Liner (ピースライナー) bus from Hiroshima Bus Center platform six, 1 hour 40 minutes; local Chuu bus from Onomichi, Mihara or Miyoshi train stations, all about one hour; for all buses, get off at Kouzan (甲山) bus station. However, for most of the sights around Sera, a car is recommended.
Nestled in the heart of our wide prefecture is the region known to many as the “breadbasket” of Hiroshima. Sera-gun is famous for growing some of the area’s best fruit, vegetables, flowers and, of course, rice.
In this mountainous region of 19,000 people, any flat land that could be used has been walled and turned into rice paddies. The colour of the valley belies the changing of the seasons: the mirror of spring flooding gives way to bright emerald shoots, which mature into plants that eventually yellow to warn of the coming winter.
The town serves as the center of the surrounding farmland, so most of the amenities are located in close proximity. There are three large grocery stores, two housewares chains and four konbinis. It has a large, modern hospital that serves the region, as well as four elementary schools, three junior highs and one high school. These provide jobs for the three ALTs who call Sera home.
A short walk south of the bus station is Imakouyasan (今高野山), a temple dating back to the 12th century. The original building was donated to Wakayama-based Kouyasan Temple by the retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa in 1186. It was greatly expanded to include 12 branch temples dedicated to Shingon Buddhism. As the samurai extended their reach towards the end of the Kamakura period, Shingon Buddhism’s influence waned and many of Imakouyasan’s temples were demolished. A surviving temple and the remains of more recent buildings are still visible here.
Behind the temple grounds is a trailhead that leads up a mountain. It’s a steady but undemanding 30-minute hike up to a lookout that affords spectacular views along the length of the valley. From here you can plan your excursion around Sera.
If you’re lucky enough to be in town on August 19th or 20th, you can take part in the street festival that locals call Kouzan Hatsuka Ebisu (甲山廿日えびす). When I was first told to attend, my colleague described it as such: “Children pull big carts and men dress like women!” So, with confusing images of my town’s streets rife with cross-dressing and child labour, I went to see what kind of archaic Japanese custom was being celebrated.
As it turns out, besides the ubiquitous yukata, fireworks, and food on sticks, this festival is a 300-year-old tradition where musical floats are indeed pulled through the streets by children, like a team of sled dogs. But they stop frequently, and the kids get to rest while they’re entertained by locals who have prepared assorted shows, ranging from historic samurai dramas to modern comedies. While it’s true many of them feature men in short skirts and make-up, it all comes across as great family entertainment and hours of endless amusement for the town’s residents, gaijin or otherwise.
If you miss the festival, you can still sample the town’s friendliness and sense of fun. Any shop or restaurant will welcome you with a smile and offer you all kinds of local handmade delights to take home with you: Japanese sweets, French pastries, sake, and small-batch soy sauce. Don’t be surprised if someone stops you on the street to chat or tell you all about the great places to visit in the area, which is where a car comes in handy.
North of the valley is Sera Kougen (世羅高原), the fertile plateau that provides so much goodness and draws so many tourists to the area. For those with an aesthetic eye, there are enough flower farms to keep you busy for days—months even: phlox, wisteria, chrysanthemums, poppies, lavender, dahlias and tulips all pop up as the farms transform with the weather.
One of the major draws is Sera Kougen Farm, a sprawling flower garden that displays seasonal flowers throughout the year: a kaleidoscope of tulips in springtime, yellow sunflowers in the summer, and dahlias as the days get shorter. The farm’s gardeners create patterns and pictures with the flowers, so be sure to bring your camera!
For those with an appetite or those who want to work one up, Sera has numerous places for fruit and fruit picking. Sera Kougen Farm lets you pick your own strawberries, while 40 varieties of blueberries are at your fingertips at Sera Blueberry Garden. If picking berries doesn’t entice you, try to resist the “wheel of ice cream” in their garden terrace!
As the cool weather sets in, apples and pears (both nearly the size of your head!) are ready for harvesting. Sweet, juicy and—like most fruit in Japan—expensive. Why not get some exercise and save a little money by picking your own? Check out Birne Laden or Sera Taiho and taste for yourself the differences between Kosui and Hosui pears.
In fruit and flower country, as you travel from farm to farm, you might find yourself lucky enough to travel along one of Sera’s two slightly hidden “melody roads”. Grooves have been engineered in the pavement that cause a car’s tires to vibrate in such a way that they start “singing”. One of them even features music from “My Neighbour Totoro”. Try finding that in the city!
And what tour of Sera would be complete without taking a tour (and sampling some of the wares) of its award-winning winery? Sera Winery recently added more hardware to its trophy case with some 2010 and 2011 vintages. These and other wines are available to be tasted in its gift shop.
Sera is an expansive area and seeing it all can be long, thirsty work. Go on, have a drink. You’ve earned it. Kanpai!