Written by: Lowell Bell
You’d be forgiven for never visiting Yamaguchi. As the last prefecture on Honshu, most people stop at Hiroshima and turn back or skip right through to Kyushu. I don’t blame them. At face value, Yamaguchi doesn’t have a lot going for it. Sure Shinzo Abe and a handful of past prime ministers hail from Yamaguchi, but political pedigree doesn’t exactly make it a must-visit locale. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t even know the place existed before the JET Programme placed me here. My friends were placed in and around major prefectures like Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Osaka, and Tokyo, and I was pretty jealous at the time. Yeah, I know. I’m not really selling my host prefecture to you. But don’t let initial impressions fool you. Beneath Yamaguchi prefecture’s anonymity hides a wealth of awe-inspiring Japanese cultural artifacts, along with—and most importantly, if you ask me—some damn good food.
From the edge of Hiroshima prefecture down to the southern tip of Honshu, Yamaguchi features three cities I recommend—all of them along the Sanyo train line. Mind, I have only been here for a few months, so there’s guaranteed to be more to see off the beaten path. However, for the purposes of this brief guide I’ll be looking at the cities of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi, and Shimonoseki. Perfect stops if you’re on your way down to Kyushu from Hiroshima.
Iwakuni might as well be in Hiroshima prefecture rather than Yamaguchi. In fact, it’s much closer to Hiroshima City than it is to Yamaguchi City—so much so that the JETs placed there regularly visit Hiroshima but rarely come out to their own prefectural capital. Fortunately, this also means Iwakuni is the perfect destination for a day trip from Hiroshima. They’re only an hour apart by train. Furthermore, Iwakuni neighbors the ever-popular Miyajima island (Itsukushima), making it the perfect place to hop over and see after enjoying Japan’s most popular shrine island.
Iwakuni’s claim to fame is the Kintai bridge, commonly referred to as Kintaikyo. Built in 1673, Kintaikyo spans the Nishiki river. What makes it so special, however, are the five elegant wooden arches that the bridge is composed of. I recommend a visit during cherry blossom season like most everywhere else in Japan, but no matter the season the bridge impresses. My first visit was an overcast day while the bridge was going through its annual renovations, and I was still awed. Don’t fret about arriving later in the evening, either. After the sun sets, the bridge is lit up from below.
Kintaikyo can be reached from both Iwakuni and Shin-Iwakuni station via a short bus ride, or about a 30 minute walk. The buses run frequently and are clearly marked as Kintaikyo is a major gaijin destination. If traveling all that way just to gander at an impressive bridge doesn’t strike your fancy, keep in mind the far side of the river houses a gorgeous park along with Iwakuni castle, which resides atop a hill overlooking the entire city. The bridge costs about 300 yen to cross while a trip up to the Iwakuni castle (if you don’t want to hike, that is) runs about 600 more. Bring a few hundred extra for one of the many ice-cream shops located around the park, and you’re all set.
Before you leave Iwakuni, be sure to swing by Mike’s Tex-Mex. Located about five minutes away from Iwakuni station, Mike’s boasts some of the best American-Mexican food this side of Osaka. It’s a great place to forget about Japan for an hour or two and eat a real, honest-to-god burrito. Yamaguchi JETs make the trip over to Mike’s frequently. Keep in mind, however, that it’s closed during the afternoon. I made the mistake of arriving much too early once and couldn’t get my Mexican fix. It still pains me to this day.
Yamaguchi City sits nice and snug in the center of the entire prefecture. While it has the lowest population of any Japanese prefectural capital city, it’s steeped in history and some surprisingly delicious food. It’s also my home city, so I know a thing or two about where to go and what to see.
Perhaps the city’s most famous landmark, the Rurikoji pagoda, draws crowds no matter the time of year. It’s one of Japan’s most famous pagodas, which are slender, many-storied temples, and touted as a national treasure. It should be viewed in cherry blossom season, much like Kintaikyo, but I’ve found summer and early autumn are also wonderful times to go. And it’s only a 10 minute bus ride or 30 minute walk from Yamaguchi station. Built in 1442, the pagoda is an amazing piece of Japanese architecture and culture—really, they don’t make anything like this back where I’m from—and the surrounding Buddhist temples impress as well. The entire place exudes a calm, relaxing atmosphere. Many Japanese teachers of English admit to sneaking off to the pagoda during work hours to clear their heads and relax, and I don’t blame them. I haven’t tired of the place even after half a dozen visits.
Right next door to Yamaguchi on either side are the Akiyoshido limestone caves and the Chomonkyo gorge. As Japan’s largest limestone cave, Akiyoshido is a must-see natural wonder. Massive stalactites and stalagmites hang from the ceiling and jut from the cave floor, respectively. A walk through the cave can take upwards of two hours at a leisurely pace, so it’s a great way to kill an afternoon. What’s more, in summer it remains nice and cool—a great excuse to escape the heat. It’s a bit pricey to see—around 1200 yen for entry and the same for bus fare from Yamaguchi station—but overall it’s worth at least one visit.
On the other side of Yamaguchi city is the Chomonkyo gorge, a hiking trail about 40 minutes by train from Yamaguchi station. A popular dating spot, the base hike runs a total of five kilometers from one end to the other with a restaurant plopped in the middle. Unlike Iwakuni and Yamaguchi, the best time to go is late fall when the trees begin changing colour. A gorgeous, crystal-blue river runs along the hiking trail between the two mountains as well. It’s free, but be wary of what kind of weather you travel in. A few years back two ALTs were trapped in the gorge when a rainstorm flooded the river and the path. They were rescued by helicopter and made local headlines.
I recommend stopping by 1Way on your way out. 1Way is by far the best burger place I’ve been to in Japan—or anywhere in the world, really. It’s that good. 1Way’s owner lived in the United States for many years and owns a real butcher shop nearby (none of that beef/pork mix nonsense). The burgers are handmade while you wait in the quaint little shop. Be warned: the shop is tiny and fills up quickly, but it’s a must if you visit Yamaguchi city and happen to enjoy a good burger. You can find it on Google Maps a short distance away from Yamaguchi station at the tail end of the downtown shopping arcade.
Shimonoseki (locally known and henceforth referred to as Shimonosexy) is Yamaguchi prefecture’s largest city, and while a population of roughly 300,000 might not seem like much, the city at least has something resembling a night life. Shimonosexy’s attractions milk its close proximity to the ocean and its location on the tip of Honshu. The Shimonoseki City Aquarium houses penguins, jelly fish, and a really neat sea tunnel you can walk through while fish swim around it. The aquarium will cost you 2000 yen for admission and is about 10 minutes away from Shin-Shimonoseki station by bus.
More so than the aquarium, Shimonosexy is known world-wide for its local delicacy: fugu fish, or puffer fish. Fugu fish are those highly poisonous fish that only certain licensed chefs can prepare. Only a handful of people die each year from eating fugu, but I personally wouldn’t recommend it. More people die each year from vending machines falling on them than eating fugu, but I don’t go around rocking vending machines. Still, the locals claim eating fugu is an absolute necessity if you’re in the area.
A good time to visit is in the summer when the Kaikyo Fireworks Festival takes place. A channel runs between Shimonosexy and Kyushu, and each year in August the two sides of the channel (Shimonoseki and Moji) put on a stunning fireworks display to commemorate a naval battle that happened way back in 1185. It’s basically a massive fireworks battle. Last August, boats in the channel set off fireworks as well; it was quite the spectacle and, so I’ve heard, one of the most impressive fireworks displays in Japan.
Tsunoshima, located north of Shimonosexy, also warrants a visit if only to gander at the Tsunoshima bridge. Tsunoshima itself is an island located just off the coast of Yamaguchi prefecture, and it’s home to an impressive bridge and one of the most beautiful beaches in the country. Really, whenever I ask my students where their favourite place in Yamaguchi is, most claim it’s Tsunoshima.
Tsunoshima, I think, is a great place to end your journey through Yamaguchi prefecture. I haven’t touched on many of Yamaguchi’s other attractions, like the idyllic Japanese city of Hagi, but I feel these three cities—Iwakuni, Yamaguchi, and Shimonoseki—serve as a great introduction to what the prefecture has to offer. Like anywhere in Japan, you can’t go 10 meters without bumping into something culturally significant. Yamaguchi prefecture is no different. Just don’t come here with any delusions of exciting cities. Instead, come if you’re in the mood for a place that’s a little sleepy and very beautiful.