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Roads of Oku: Home


Inspiration ...

Matsuo Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa / Google Map: Bashō's Oku no Hosomichi ("Narrow Road to the Deep North")

Journeys ...

Spring 2004: On the Road in Kansai / Google Map
Summer 2005: Roads of Oku / Google Map
Fall 2006: Where Gods Alight / Google Map
Summer 2007: Hōkūle‘a in Yokohama / Map
Winter 2008: Snow Country / Google Map
Spring 2008: Full Bloom & Festivals / Google Map
Summer 2009: Fireflies & Sweet Fish / Google Map
Fall 2009: North Country Colors / Google Map
Summer 2010: Legends of the Land / Google Map
Spring 2011: On the Far Side of Disaster / Google Map
Summer 2012: Travels in the Fifth Moon / Google Map
Summer 2013: Far Roads: Finishing Touches / Google Map
Summer 2015: Saké-Tasting in the Kingdom of Local Brew

Memorable ...

Roads / Seacoasts & Coastal Roads / Bridges / Ferries / Walks & Hikes / Mountains / Ropeways / Rivers / Waterfalls / Lakes / Trees / Rocks / Caves / Hot Springs / Sakura / Fall Colors / Archaeology and History / Castles / Shrines / Temples / Gardens / Festivals / Food / Drinks
Photography: Dennis Kawaharada and Karen Ono

Note ...

On Driving in Japan

Roads of Oku: Journeys in the Heartland

A collection of essays on Japanese culture, history and literature. Available at Amazon.com. (Far Roads Press, 2015).

Summer Delights: Fireflies & Sweet Fish

Shikoku and Chugoku / May 18-June 3, 2009

Updated: August 18, 2010

Early summer – mid-May by the traditional lunisolar calendar – is a good time to visit Japan for touring, walking along streams to waterfalls and hiking on mountain trails. The forest foliage is a refreshing light green; the days are getting longer, the weather warmer; it’s not yet the rainy season (starting around mid-June) and not yet hot and muggy (July-August). The weather is uncertain, between spring and summer, alternating between sunshine and rain, especially on the windward (western) side of the central mountains of Honshu (the san'in, or “mountain shadows” side). Even when it’s cloudy or rainy and cool, you may be able to walk around comfortably in shorts during the day.

Daisen shrine

Researching mountain worship in Japan, I wanted to walk the trails and visit the shrines at two famous mountains of Western Honshu: Ishizuchi, the tallest mountain on Shikoku, in Ehime; and Daisen, the tallest mountain in Chugoku, on the border of Shimane and Tottori.

Trail

I also wanted to see the Hii River, which flows down from the Chugoku mountains and into the western end of Lake Shinji in Shimane. The town of Izumo is built on the river’s delta and rice fields line the banks. Along one of the tributaries is a walking trail through an area called Oni ga Shitaburui, “demon’s trembling tongue” perhaps the reason for rocks having tumbled down into the river bed.

Hii river

In Shinto mythology, Susano-o, the kami of storms, fertility, and agriculture, landed in Japan near the Hii River after leaving the heavenly homeland. (Susano-o is the brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu.) He learned that an eight-headed serpent, Yamata-no-Orochi, was eating the daughters of one of the farmers, who asked Susano-o for help. Susano-o lured the serpent from the hills with eight vats of sake, one for each head, and after the snake was drunk and asleep, he slew it, cutting of its heads. The grateful farmer and his wife offered their last daughter for Susano-o’s wife and he accepted.

Susano-o found in the dragon’s tail a sword. One website associates this sword with the iron manufacturing that developed in the upper reaches of the Hii river. Its iron-rich reddish sand was melted down into pig iron in a furnace, then further refined into a high quality steel, used for making swords and knives. The town of Yoshida in Oku Izumo has a mining museum that documents the process.

As it was summer, I also wanted to see ukai, the practice of river-fishing at night for ayu (sweetfish) with trained sea cormorants on leashes. The fish are attracted with fires burning in metal baskets attached to the front end of the shallow-water boats.

Comorant fishing

The cormorants are released to dive for the fish. A metal ring around their necks prevents them from swallowing any large fish, which the handler induces the bird to disgorge after pulling the bird back to the boat. There are three crew members, two to maneuver the boat and one to handle the birds. The handler manages up to a dozen birds, so part of the art is to make sure the leashes don’t get tangled.

On leashes

Ayu, a genus of fish related to the trout but unique to Japan, are said to smell sweet, like watermelon, hence their name. They have a life cycle of a year: adults spawn then die in the fall, near the mouth of a river; the fry live at sea until spring, then swim upstream where they feed on lichen and mature during the summer; finally, in the fall, the adults swim downstream to spawn and die. Ukai takes place in the summer, as ayu fatten themselves before heading downstream.

Originally from China, ukai is described over 1300 years ago in Japan: using this method, fishermen provided ayu to the imperial court. Ukai became popular among the daimyo or provincial lords as well, but eventually declined to near extinction when it was no longer economically viable. Since 1890, to encourage the traditional art, the imperial household agency has authorized fishermen in Gifu to provide the emperor’s household with ayu from the Nagara River.

Ukai takes place in twelve other towns and cities in Japan. In Iwakuni, in Yamaguchi, upstream of the five arches of the Kintai Bridge, the practice is said to be 370 years old.

Nishiki river

The bridge was the ideal setting to watch this traditional art, which opens in Iwakuni on June 1 and continues till August 31. I scheduled a stay at a ryokan on the banks of the Nishiki river overlooking the bridge, on the opening night.

So the itinerary for our trip took shape around these points: Mt. Ishizuchi on Shikoku; and, in Chugoku, Daisen, the Hii River, and Iwakuni.

Route map

Click on the Image for a Google Map.

Koyasan

We landed in the evening at Kansai International and spent a night in Wakayama, from where a car ferry to Tokushima, Shikoku, leaves, according to a website, at 11:30 am. Since we were in the habit of getting up before dawn, we went to see Koya-san before catching the ferry. This mountain religious complex, in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula sixty miles east of Wakayama, was founded in 816 by Kukai (774-835 CE, posthumously Kobo Daishi, or Great Teacher), one of the most famous religious figures in Japanese history. He was born in Sanuki province on Shikoku, and after becoming a Buddhist and attaining enlightenment, he studied in China for two years, then returned to establish the esoteric Shingon sect based on the teachings he received in China.

The winding mountain road to Koyasan ended at the top of the ridge where the red Daimon, “Great Gate,” stands.

Great Gate

The road down into the valley from there leads to a small town with shops and restaurants around the buildings of the monastery complex.

Koyasan

The morning air was chilly. The painted screen doors at Kongobu-ji were impressive, but even more so was Okunoin, said to be the largest cemetery in Japan. A walking path goes up to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi (No photography allowed: the woodblock print below is by Tomikichiro Tokuriki [Sept. 1941]).

The path to the Mausoleum is lined with towering cedars and tombstones of the numerous worshipers buried near the Great Teacher.The warlord Oda Nobunaga, who laid the foundation for a unified Japan in the sixteenth century, is enshrined at a memorial there (though he was killed in Kyoto and his body was never found in the burnt-out building where he died.) Companies like Nissan and Panasonic have burial sites.

OkunoinNissanOkunoin imagesMemorials

It’s not clear whether the body of the Great Teacher is actually in the mausoleum, as one tradition says that he is in eternal meditation in a cave in one of the peaks surrounding the town, assisting the faithful to achieve enlightenment, which is why so many have chosen to be buried near him.

Shikoku

We got back to Wakayama at 11 am for the ferry to Tokushima, the dock worker waving us on just before the door was shut and the lines cast off. (The information I had from the website was apparently old and the ferry was leaving half an hour earlier.) The crossing took about two hours.

From Tokushima, before heading to Mt. Ishizuchi on the northside of the island, we went south to Muroto to visit places associated with Kobo Daishi, who was said to have gone through religious training there and achieved enlightenment while meditating in a cave called Mikura-do when he was just 24 years old.

On the way to Muroto, we stopped in Hiwasa at Yakuoji, the twenty-third temple on the 88 temple pilgrimage around Shikoku, established after Kobo Daishi’s death in the ninth century as his followers made the rounds of memorial places at the temples around the island. The pilgrimage starts in Tokushima and goes clockwise around the island. Walking the 745 mile route takes around 1-2 months, the most popular seasons spring and fall. When we visited Shikoku in fall 2006, we stopped at temples 1, 38, and 51. (The serious pilgrims begin and end the pilgrimage at Koya-san, paying homage to the Great Teacher.)

On display in the front gate of Yakuoji are straw sandals six feet tall, symbolizing the pilgrimage.

Straw sandalsYakuoji

The stairs leading to the temple on Yakuyoke hill has 42 steps on the men's side and 33 steps on the women's side. Walking up the steps, which contain the sutra of Yakushi written on pebbles embedded in them, provides protection for men at 42 (“shini,” a homonym for “death”) and for women at 33 (“sanzan,” a homonym for “disaster”). Yakushi is the Buddha of medicine and healing.

The town also has a roundish turtle rock offshore of a sandy beach where sea turtles come ashore lay their eggs. (The rock looks more like a snail to me.) On the beach is a turtle museum, and outside of it a turtle-shaped phone booth.

Turtle rockTurtle phone booth

That night our ryokan in Muroto served us odd-looking pieces of meat as part of the kaiseki. It was gamey and very chewy. I suspected it was whale, and the waitress confirmed it. I looked out the window: one of the banners along the road was advertising “kujira” – whale. I finished chewing and swallowing it. It’s an acquired taste, not something I would order again. Karen didn’t eat hers.

The next morning we walked along the short coastal trail to Cape Muroto, from where it ascends to a view of the coast and Hotsumisaki temple.

Cape MurotoWalkway

Along the way was Mearai-no-ike Pond, where Kobo Daishi is said to have purified the water of the pond and cured people of their eye diseases. The pond was green with algae. And near on entrance to the trail was a fig tree spreading its roots like a octopus over a rock.

Pond Fig tree

We hiked up the hillside trail to Hotsumisaki-ji, temple 24 on the Shikoku 88 temple tour.

Hotsumisaki-ji

Back down on the highway was the cave where Kobo Daishi meditated and “until the Morning Star appeared” (i.e., achieved enlightenment).

Cave entranceInside cave

On the roadside was a gigantic statue of Kobo Daishi – one of the many oddly tacky-looking gigantic Buddhist statues found in Japan, appearing to be made of white plaster.

I arrived by sea in Muroto in the summer of 2007, with the crew of the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a, on our way from Uwajima to Yokohama, part of a cultural exchange tour. In Muroto I remembered the Bade House, a deep ocean water spa with a turtle shaped dome made of wood, housing a pool lined with water jets that massage different areas of the body, from the head down to the feet as you circled the pool. The deep ocean water, which wells up just offshore, is said to contain restorative minerals and to be free of pollutants. After our hike up to Hotsumisaki-ji we went for a water-jet massage and lunch at the Bade Haus before heading to Kochi.


Near Kochi that afternoon, we stopped at Ryugado. Billed as one of the three largest stalactite caves in Japan, the cave is not spectacular, but offers a pleasant half-mile walk. The one known for long-tailed roosters. I assumed the roosters would be displying their tails in an open yard, but after exiting the cave, we walked through a tourist shop where the roosters were in a narrow glass case, immobilized, so tourists could view their tails. It was a ploy to get you to walk through the souvenir shop. Depressing.

RoosterStalactites

In 2006, we spent a night in downtown Kochi, near the station, and walked around the shopping arcade near the castle, visited the castle and drove at to Katsurahama Beach. This time we stayed outside the city, at Auberge Tosayama, in a small rural valley. It turned out to be an excellent stop.

Auberge Tosayama

As its name implied, the hotel had a Japanese-European decor. The new-age kaiseki served for dinner was excellent, made from local produce, with a selection of local sake.

Tosayama kaiseki dishesTosayama kaiseki disheTosayama kaiseki disheSake

The next morning, before heading to Takamatsu, we walked along a country lane, with an freshwater channel running alongside. Small crabs were crawling at the edge, with a few crushed on the road by vehicles.


To get to Takamatsu, we detoured off the expressway near Oboke and Koboke Gorges, to go through the Iya Valley, a remote mountainous region. We wanted to see the famous pissing boy statue, set on a steep cliff and pissing into a stream far below. It’s said to represent a courageous traveler. We turned around a couple of times trying to figure out which road to take. At one parking lot, there was a group of four or five elderly men on motorcycles, including one or two Harleys. You could tell from their ages and outfits that they had grown up in the fifties, and their identities were shaped by watching Marlon Brando’s portrayal of a motorcycle gang leader in The Wild One.

On a winding road past the town of Ikeda we found the statue. The motorcycle riders showed up after us.

Pissing boy statue

We headed to the famous vine bridge at the east end of Oku Iya. There is a more frequented vine bridge near Ikeda, but it’s visited by large tour buses packed with tourist, so we skipped it. (Both bridges are reinforced with steel cables today, for the safety of tourists.)

The road up the Iya River valley was narrow and winding. The GPS icon for “closed in winter” (a snowman with an X over it) began to look to me like a skull and crossbones telling me we shouldn’t have taken this route. When we got to the vine bridge after a long drive, it was deserted. Then the bikers showed up. The bridge was a pleasant stop, not necessarily something to drive 20 miles to see, unless you have the time and enjoy driving into remote areas on narrow roads.

Vine bridgeView of vine bridge

From the bridge, we headed north, down the mountainside to Takamatsu. This road was also an adventure, winding through small villages, and in places fogged in, with visibility of a few yards.

Before going to our hotel in downtown Takamatsu, we looked for the Isamu Noguchi Museum, but couldn’t find it at first. We drove up and down various narrow winding roads in an upper middle-class neighborhood. The GPS was not giving us an exact location. I decided to park in a dirt lot and ask the residents out and about for directions. We apparently took a wrong turn, as the museum was down at the bottom of the hill. When we got there, it was closed. It didn’t look like there was much to see there, other than a yard full of large stones.

Back at the car, the owner of the dirt lot we had parked in, who lived across the street and happened to be sweeping her driveway, began a nasally whining in the inimitable tone of a certain type of middle-aged Japanese woman, voice rising and falling with indignation, like the interminable wailing of a civil defense siren warning of imminent danger in a bad dream. She was upset that our car was parked in her empty dirt lot. She reminded me of bird cheeping and flapping its wings in defense of its nest. What else could we do, but leave, which we did. Later a gaijin who had lived in Japan for nine years laughed at my experience and explained to me that (1) parking tickets are more expensive than speeding tickets in Japan; and (2) the Japanese are very protective of private property. Someone else told me that you can't buy a car in a city unless you have a certified parking space for it.

Up the ridge on the next peninsula to the west, toward Takamatsu was Yashima. The road up overlooks a 12th century battleground of Genji-Heike to the east, as the Genji chased the Heike out of the Yamato region. On the other side of the ridge was a great view of Takamatsu, now in the setting sun, and the islands of the Seto Naikai (Inland Sea). At the top is Yashima-ji, temple 84 of the 88-temple pilgrimage.

TakamatsuYashima temple

After checking into our hotel, we caught the local train to the shopping arcade in Katahara-machi, billed as one of the things to do in Takamatsu. By the time we got there, in the early evening, most of the shops were closed; as shopping arcades go, it was nothing special. We decided to have dinner there and ended up at a restaurant that served the worst sushi we’ve ever had in Japan. As we left the restaurant, I was still chewing the gristle from a piece of maguro and spat it out once we got outside.

Next morning, early again, we went to Ritsuin Garden – a delightful garden with pines, ponds and intricate walking paths. Other early risers were there, engaging in their morning walks and exercises as soon as the garden opened.

Ritsuin garden bridgeTree branchesPinesStone formation


After our morning walk, we were on our way westward to the ropeway at Mt. Ishizuchi. The road up was narrow and winding.

Ishizuchi road

We had gone up the ropeway in fall 2006, but it was late in the afternoon, and we had time only to look around the station at the top and catch the next to the last car back down. This time, I wanted to hike farther up. From the top station, we took the ski lift up to a lookout with a good view of the summit

Summit view

Dedicated to gongen (deities with both Shinto and Buddhist forms), Mt. Ishizuchi is a pilgrimage site during the summer climbing season. Near the summit, chains aid the pilgrims in getting up the steep slope. Called Kusari Zenjo, this is the most important ritual site, symbolic of the difficult climb to enlightenment, represented by Ishizuchi’s highest peak, Tengudake, which is home to a long-nosed mountain goblin (tengu) called Hokibo.

Deities

The trail from the lookout led to Joju shrine, and from there, hikers pass through a gate to a trail with a torii along a fairly easy ridge walk. When we got to the point where the trail got steeper, and a sign indicated that the rest of the way was really steep, we turned around and walked back down to the ropeway.

Ishizuchi gateTrail

After coming down the mountain, we headed for Saijo, where an Asahi beer factory with a beer hall is located. The sausages and beer were a delight after the hike.

Asahi brewery

Judging from the guidebook entry about Imabari, where we planned to spend the night, there isn’t much to do there. The hotel was near the castle, so we strolled around its moat as evening fell.

Imabari castle

Yakitori is said to be a town specialty, so we were looking forward to a good dinner. There were several yakitori restaurants marked on the map we got at the hotel. We asked the front desk for a recommendation. It turned out to be an izakaya, not a yakitori restaurant; the food was tasty, but nothing to go back for.

Back on Honshu

The next day we crossed back to Honshu via the Shimanami Kaido, which island-hops (eight bridges, nine islands) between Imabari and Onomichi.

Shimanami Kaido

The industrial towns of the Inland Sea don’t have much to offer the visitor looking for nature and culture, so after driving around Onomichi and Fukuyama, we headed north to the hot spring town of Maniwa, where I had booked a hotel with the intriguing name of Mori-no-Hotel Rochefort. It was raining off and on, more frequent and harder the farther we got into the Chugoku mountains. On the way to Maniwa was Atetsu Gorge, which sounded like an interesting route, but turned out to be just a small river valley, with a one-lane road along the north side.

Ikura Cave was worth the drive and the visit. Just outside the cave is a tall slender feathery waterfall plunging over a 240 meter cliff.

the cliff gazes up into the sky with such dignity, even the maple leaves are awe (tanka on Ikura Falls by Akiko Yosana, 1929)

Ikurado fallsFalls

Water was dripping from the ceiling for part of the walk in the cave, and there were three waterfalls inside as well, with streams running alongside. The umbrella we picked up on the way in came in handy.

Cave

The Mori-no-Hotel Rochefort, like the Auberge Tosayama, had a European flavor, and provided a comfortable and cozy respite from the rain. We stayed in all night. The food was good, as it usually is at ryokan; and the onsen was perfect relaxation.

Dinner


The next day the weather cleared, so we hiked to the two-stage Daisen falls, upstream on the Kaseichi River, on the southeast side of this mountain. It was a pleasant hike up and down stairs and across a steel-cable bridge.

Pedestrian bridgeDaisen falls 

After the hike we drove around to the north side of the mountain, had a quick lunch of soba at a restaurant in the town, then visited the temple, Daisen-ji, founded by the Tendai sect in 718 and Ogamiyama shrine above it, dedicated to the mountain god, at the top of a long flight of stone stairs.

Daisen templeDaisen gate

The mountain kami is considered a protector of livestock, so horse and cattle fairs are held in villages around its base on the twenty-fourth day of the fourth moon. The mountain itself is worshipped as a water and agricultural kami and rice-planting festivals are held in the spring.

We drove down to the coast at Yonago, a hot springs/beach resort town. The beaches of Japan are generally not much to look at, especially if you are from Hawai’i, and the water is too cold to swim in. The weather was sunny, but chilly. On the beach, looking south, we could see Daisen ("Big Mountain") rising above the coastal plain.

Daisen

From the west, Daisen looks conic like Fuji-san, but the other sides of the mountain have eroded, with ridges, cliffs, and valleys. The highest peak is Kengamine (“Sword Peak”), at 5,700 feet. As climbers have fallen to their deaths from the narrow ridge leading up to it, climbing is prohibited. But shrine priests still ascend nearby Misen to bring down herbs and water on the fourteenth day of the sixth moon (6.14, usually in July). This ritual may have originated in a rite to bring the fertility god down to the fields to ensure a good harvest.

The manager of the ryokan came out to greet us in the parking lot and help us with the luggage. The hotel and the area around it were fairly deserted, partly because it was off-season and partly because of the recession.


The next day we headed for Matsue, stopping at Fudoki no Oka, an archaeological park where artifacts dating to the first century have been excavated.

Fudoki no Oka

Near the park are two shrines, Kamosu and Yaegaki. Kamosu, dedicated to the creation kami Izanami, is said to be the earliest examples of a Taisha-style shrine, with a floor raised high on wooden pillars.

Kamosu shrine

Yaegaki is known as “the shrine of happy marriages” and commemorates the storm god Susano-o’s marriage to Kushi Inada Hime ("rice field princess"), whom he had saved from Yamata no orochi, an eight-headed, eight-tailed serpent. On the shrine grounds is a small sub-shrine flanked by phalli, one wooden and one stone, symbolic of male fertility.

Yaegaki shrineShrine

As we were leaving, a group of elementary school students arrived. I wondered if they were brought before the subshrine and phalli by their teachers and allowed to ponder the mystery of procreation.

Matsue, the capital of Shimane prefecture with a population of 150,000, is noted for its castle, originally built in 1611 and since reconstructed. We saw the castle in Fall 2006, but didn't go in. The keep offers a view of the city.

Matsue castleView of city

We walked around the castle moat along a well-kept street lined with museums and shops and crowded with tourists and traffic. We ended up at the Shimane products store and bought bottles of saké, then headed west to Izumo for the night.


The next day we drove along the Hii River into Oku Izumo ("Remote Izumo"). The river flows down from the Chugoku mountains and empties into the west end of Lake Shinji.

River mouth

The Hii River valley is where Susano-o slew the eight-headed, eight-tailed dragon and saved the rice field princess he married.

In Oku Izumo, we hiked to Oni no Shitaburui ("Trembling Tongue of the Ogre") along O-maki stream. This narrow gorge is full of large boulders that have fallen from the grantie cliffs along the river.

BouldersGorgeFallen rocksGreenery

Origin of Oni no Shitaburui, according to Izumo-Fudoki (local history of Izumo): a beautiful princess, Tamahime-no-mikoto, lived in this valley. A crocodile which lived in the Sea of Japan fell in love with her and went up the river every evening to visit the princess. However, the princess disliked the crocodile and placed a big rock in the river to block his visits. It is said that these rocks of Oni no Shitaburui are the remnants of that rock.

We also stopped at the Yoshida Iron Manufacturing Museum, which has good displays and a DVD on the traditional techniques of iron manufacturing from the iron-sand in the Hii River.

MuseumTraditional technique

On the way back to Izumo, we drove up Tachikue Gorge.

Tachikue gorge

We got back to Izumo earlier than expected, so we went to the Taisha (“Grand Shrine”), where we had witnessed the annual Kamiari ("Gathering of the God"), in fall 2006. The main hall was being rebuilt; we visited the treasure house, then had some soba at a restaurant across the street.

From there, we drove out to Hinosaki Lighthouse, one of the tallest in Japan, with a view of the rocky coast below.

Hinosaki lighthouseRocky coast


The next day, on the way to Hagi, the largest city on the Sanin Coast, we detoured up to Mt. Sanbe, thinking we might hike up one of its peaks and see mountain irises in bloom. But the weather was drizzly and the peaks, though not high, looked steep and muddy, so after stopping at the mountain iris pond (not in full bloom yet), we continued on to the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine.

Mt. SanbeIris pond

Established in the early 16th century, Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine was once the most productive silver mine in Japan and one of the top producing silver mines in the world. During the 16th and early 17th centuries, the large production of silver by the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine resulted in commercial and cultural exchanges between Japan and the trading countries of East Asia and Europe. It was mined for nearly 400 years. In 2007 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Mine entranceMines

We stayed at a ryokan in the fishing town of Yunotsu, where the sashimi was excellent at a restaurant for lunch and dinner at a ryokan.

Yunotsu harborTown


The next morning, up early again, on our way to Tsuwano, we stopped at Tatami ga Ura, just past Iwami Seaside Park. The entrance is via a tunnel from a small fishing town. Inside the tunnel is a memorial. The knobby rocks on a flat rock shore are like nothing I’d seen anywhere else in Japan.

Entrance to Tatami ga UraRocksShrineExitCoastBeach

Tsuwano is a tourist town sometimes called the Kyoto of Chugoku, but it’s much smaller and in no way comparable to the ancient capital. It’s noted for carp in narrow waterways along its main street, sake breweries, Taikodani Inari Jinja Shrine (one of the five great Inari shrines) and its castle ruins.

Tsuwano streetCarps

For lunch, we had the town's speciality: uzume meshi, a dish of tofu, mushrooms, mountain vegetables over rice.

Lunch

Then we drove up the hilllside to visit the Inari shrine built in 1773 by Tsuwano’s seventh feudal lord Kamei Norisada to enshrine a share of the kami worshipped at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. The Tsuwano Inari Shrine has a hillside torii tunnel similar to (but not as long as) the tunnel at the Fushimi shrine.

Tsuwano Inari shrine Torii

Just down the road is a chair lift to the top of a steep hill, where the trail to the castle ruins starts. It was a drizzly day, so no other visitors were at the lift. The castle, built around 1325 and used until the Meiji Restoration (around 1868), offered a view of the town and valley shrouded in mist. We passed a lone gaijin woman on the trail.

Chair liftRock pathCastle ruinsView from castle


From Tsuwano we drove to Hagi, a seaport on the Japan Sea at the western end of Honshu. Hagi is known for the leading role of its lord and samurai in the nineteenth-century movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate, restore the Emperor as the head of the nation, and expel Westerners. Photos clockwise from top left: 1. beach at Hagi; 2. remains of the outer wall and moat of Hagi Castle, built at the base of Mt. Shizuki and destroyed in 1874; 3. squid drying near the fishing port; 4. lava cave on Kasayama; 5. Stone Buddhas at Tokoji; 6. rows of stone lanterns at Tokoji; 7. a street in the samurai district east of the castle; 8. the reconstructed outer gate of the castle.

Hagi castleGateDrying squidStreet in samurai district

The next day on the way to Yamaguchi, we stopped at Akiyoshi-do, the largest, most impressive cave in Japan, with a high ceiling and pathways along an underground stream. It was very crowded when we got there in the early afternoon; maybe it would have been better to arrive earlier in the day. The other two caves we had seen on the trip Ryugado, in Kochi, and Ikurado, Okayama, and the caves on previous trips (Hida, in Takayama, and Ryusendo, in Miyagi) have very narrow passages; Akiyoshi-do, by contrast has a huge cavern.

Akiyoshi-doCave entranceInteriorVisitors


We spent that night in Yamaguchi. Karen’s cousin Keiko and her husband Satoru met us at the hotel and we had a sashimi dinner in the basement restaurant. A couple of Japanese men came in with younger foreign women. It was a reminder that there was a Western presence in the area, a US air force base in Iwakuni. Judging from their clothing and hair, the women were call girls.

Satoru discovered that there was a Hotaru Matsuri, or Firefly Festival, that night, at Ichinosaka Stream, which was less than half a mile away.

We caught a taxi to the stream, where parents with children and groups of teenagers were walking to watch the bioluminescent tails of the hotaru darting about the reeds along the bank, before disappearing.

Hotaru matsuriFestival goers

One landed on Karen’s jacket and lit up as it crawled up her sleeve. It was smaller than I had imagined. Hotaru (“Lantern insect”) comes in two sizes in Japan, a smaller Heike variety and a larger Genji one, named after the two families that battled it out for supremacy during the medieval period of Japanese history. The Genji frequent rice paddies; the Heike streams.

Hotaru appear for two weeks in early summer to mate, lay eggs in the river, and die. Their larvae live in the stream during the year, feeding on a river snail called kawanina. Around May they crawl out of the river and develop into chrysalides. In June, they emerge from their cases as fireflies. Their glowing tails attract mates.

The recent decline in fireflies is attributed to the widespread use of pesticides, which kills the snails on which the larvae feed during the year.

Fireflies, like sweet-fish, are a sign that summer has arrived. They are thought to be the souls of the departed, or symbols of the brevity of life. Basho composed the following haiku after going to see the fireflies at Seta, a river flowing flows south from Lake Biwa:

these fireflies, like the moon, in all the ricefields (kono hotaru tagoto no tsuki ni kurabemin)

my eyes recall yoshino’s sakura in Seta’s fireflies (me ni nokoru yoshino o seta no hotaru kana)

falling from a blade of grass and flying off – a firefly (kusa no ha o otsuru yori tobu hotaru kana)


When we got back to the hotel, we had a discussion in the lobby about what to do the next day. Keiko had brought along some readings about an early twentieth poet named Nakamura Chuya, who hailed from Yamaguchi. His museum was nearby. Satoru (quite astutely) told her that Karen and I probably wouldn’t be interested in it because we couldn’t read any of the text of the exhibits or the poetry.

I mentioned to Satoru that I was thinking of hiking up to Sandan Falls, which was a ways off in Hiroshima prefecture. I had researched the hike on the internet. Sandan-taki (“Three stage waterfall”) is on the upper end of Sandan Gorge, carved out by the Shibaki River.

Sandan-taki waterfall

From the visitor’s center, it’s something like a 7.5 mile walk, one way, 15 miles round trip. I knew we weren’t up to walking fifteen miles, but I had read that there was a parking lot much closer to the falls, like a mile or so away. My only hesitation was that I wasn’t sure how drivable the road was. It’s hard to tell on a Google map. We had been on some narrow winding roads that had we known that they were so narrow, we might not have attempted to drive on them. The back roads of Oku-Iya and Iga-Aoyama come to mind.

I showed Satoru the maps I had printed out before the trip. He did some research on his cell phone and decided what I had in mind was doable, and said that he would drive with us to Sandan Gorge the next day. What he planned (but couldn’t explain to us) was that we would park at the center, and he would drive us in his car up to the lot closer to the falls and join us on the hike. Later I found out that part of the reason he wanted to go was that he had hiked to the falls with his children a long time ago, and now they were grown up and had children of their own.

The weather was sunny. The falls is not the most spectacular we’ve seen, maybe ranking with Daisen Falls or Urami no Taki in Nikko, but it was a pleasant walk along the banks of the stream.

WalkStream


We parted with Keiko and Satoru after the hike, they returning to Yamaguchi and we going south to Hiroshima. At the expressway junction I made one of those “fatal errors” which put me in a bad mood for about 30 minutes: I entered the wrong lane, which forced me to drive 18 miles in the wrong direction before I could get off to turn around. When we got off, I got out to let Karen drive so I could read the GPS, maps, and street signs without having to worry about driving.

Before heading into the city, we detoured to Tomo, the town where my father’s mother hails from. I had visited the town 30 years earlier, and wanted to see if I could find the farmhouse, family graves, shrine, and Buddhist temple we visited back then. We found the temple, which I recognized from a faded photo from that trip – Sennenji, right below Tomo Station. I remember it being on a dusty road in a small town. Now there was a modern electric train line overshadowing it and the buildings on the well-paved street looked new, like they had been built in the last ten or twenty years. We drove into the hills among the rice fields; the landscape looked vaguely familiar, but I didn't recognized anyplace that looked like our family farmhouse, graves, or shrine.

SennenjiStatue of monk

After spending the next morning on Hondori Shopping Street and at the Peace Park in Hiroshima, we drove Iwakuni for the opening of ukai.


From the ryokan at Iwakuni, as evening approached, we watched the fisherman with their boats and birds gather below Kintai Bridge for the opening ceremony. Earlier, when I asked the front desk where the best place to view the fishing, he replied “from your room.” But we wanted a closer look, so we went down to the river. After a ceremony on the river bank, the crew began poling upstream in the twilight. Motorized tour boats went after them. I hadn’t thought about going on one of them, which would have given us a close-up view of the fishing.

Iwakuni boat

After the boats had gone upstream past the highway bridge over the river and stopped there for a while to prepare for fishing, we walked up to the bridge, so we could watch the boats pass under the bridge on the way back to Kintai bridge. The vantage point was excellent and we watched the boats with their fires and birds drift downstream below us.

Night fishingComorants

After the boats landed near the Kintai bridge, we walked back to see them unload. One of the boat owners gave Karen two fish and told us to take them back to the hotel as the staff would have them cooked for us for breakfast.

Fish catch

The next morning, when we arrived in the dining room, the two fish, roasted with salt, were on the table along with the rest of breakfast.

Breakfast

We had eaten ayu before, once after hiking down to Joren Falls on the Izu peninsula, and my recollection was that it was that tasty: it was a little mushy, slightly bitter tasting, and cold; perhaps it had been sitting on a stick over a weak charcoal fire for too long. The freshly roasted ayu we had for breakfast was delicious.


The next day, we headed back to Kansai Airport via Saijo, Hiroshima’s sake town; Okayama, famous for Koraku-en (a garden); and Ako, a resort on the Inland Sea.

Saijo has eight breweries around its station. We went sake tasting. One of the breweries offered us a taste of nama ("raw," or unpasterurized, sake), which needs to be refrigerated. It had a refreshing taste.

Saijo brewery

Korakuen, the garden in Okayama considered one of the three best in Japan, offered an enjoyable walk, with winding paths among hills and ponds.

Korakuen gardenTopiary birdsLotusGarden plants

Our last night was at Ako, famous for its castle and its lord who was ordered to commit suicide after a breach of protocol at Edo Castle (the shogun's residence) in Tokyo in 1701. Forty-seven of his samurai took revenge on the lord who had provoked the protocol breach. The incident, romanticized, has been told in novels, plays, and films. The ruins of Ako castle are one of the town's main tourist attractions.

The ryokan overlooking the Inland Sea had a view of the ocean from its rotemburo.

Onsen