A Great Day Out in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi
Yamaguchi prefecture is the often overlooked middle child of the western region of Japan. Nestled between its cooler and more famous siblings: Fukuoka, the trendy city with delicious ramen and a lively nightlife and Hiroshima, the city rich with history, culture and a rabbit filled island. You would be forgiven for forgetting about Yamaguchi.
Yamaguchi, which literally means mouth of the mountains, certainly has a lot to offer in terms of nature and greenery. But that is not all that the prefecture has! In East Yamaguchi there is the small city of Iwakuni, A place that I have called home for over two years now. Iwakuni mainly gets mentioned because of the large US marine base that is on the city outskirts, but thats not what I am here to tell you about today. It has some charming tourist spots that are kept secret from the general foreign tourist. But today I am going to spill the beans and tell you how you can have a great day sightseeing in Iwakuni City.
Iwakuni City is easily accessible by Shinkansen from most stations, but if you are coming from Hakata or Osaka then you might be lucky enough to ride the Hello Kitty Shinkansen to get here. Once you arrive at Shin Iwakuni station it’s a very short train ride to our destination, Kawanishi.
Kawanishi translates to west of the river, and the small town has risen up from the river banks. It's a short walk following the river to arrive at Kintaikyo Bridge. One of the five most beautiful bridges in Japan, this five arched wooden bridge is a sight to behold. Once across the bridge, you will be in Kikko park. Kikko park is a picturesque park with cherry blossom trees in spring and Japanese maple trees in autumn. There are a few local merchants selling a variety of wares from hand made pottery, to local snacks and ice cream.
In the centre of the park is the white snake museum. These albino snakes are very rare and have only been found in a few places in Japan. The locals believe the snakes to bring good fortune as they kept the rats away from the harvests, helping the town to prosper. To this day the white snakes are seen to be a good luck charm and if you are lucky enough to see a white snake in the wild, then you will have good fortune in the days to come.
The museum itself is small but very modern, you can see the history of the relationship between the people of the town and the snakes, learn about its life cycle, read some manga that was inspired by the local history and finally you can see some snakes in the flesh. The museum also has a breeding program so if you are very lucky you might get to see some baby white snakes too!
Across from the museum is the cable car that will take us to our next destination, Iwakuni Castle. From the cable car you are able to see all the way out to the coast and Hiroshima Bay. The journey is only 3 minutes and cost 300 yen, but I recommend that you buy the discount ticket at the bridge for entry to it. The cable ride and castle together are 900 yen.
Once you are at the top of the mountain there are two separate routes to take to get to the castle. The front entrance leads you through the castle gates and you can get the full effect of seeing the castle up close. The second path takes you a little through the woods and around the back of the castle. Sometimes you can see wild boar or other wildlife in the distance, don’t get too close to them though as they are pretty dangerous when provoked.
The castle itself is maintained by volunteer staff who although don’t speak much English are very friendly and welcoming. Inside the castle is a small museum and as you climb up the floors you can see a variety of things from swords and amours, to artifacts found in the local area. The real gem of the castle though is, of course, the view from the top. You can see all of Iwakuni and beyond all the way to Hiroshima on a clear day. It is a truly breathtaking sight.
Once you have had your fill of the view you can either take the cable car back down the mountain or choose to take the 40 minute hike down. The walk is not too strenuous, but be careful in the summer heat.
There are a few places to get something to eat inside the park, and plenty more places in the surrounding area near the bus terminal.
There you have it, a great day out in Iwakuni, so next time you are traveling through the area to Hiroshima or Fukuoka, or even beyond, why not take a day to explore this hidden gem in the mountains of Yamaguchi, where snakes, castles and plenty of ice cream are waiting for you.