You know, one of the things you learn after spending several years in Japan, is just how vast and diverse this country really is. Looking on a world map, Japan doesn’t seem all that big, and yet it really is. However, there are some areas that remain very much on the proverbial “path less travelled” when it comes to tourism.
Of the 47 prefectures in Japan, there are several that could rightly proclaim to be household names: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hokkaido to name but a few.
But how many of you have heard of Yamaguchi?
Apart from being the home prefecture of current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and several of his predecessors, there really isn’t that much to say about Yamaguchi. A Japanese friend of mine once jokingly referred to it as “That Shinkansen Station between Hiroshima and Kyushu that everyone seems to forget about.”
Such an attitude, whilst obviously expressed in jest, does this proud prefecture something of a disservice. There is actually quite a lot that Yamaguchi has to offer to both travelers and tourists alike, as I discovered during a recent weekend trip there. One of the strange little curiosities about Yamaguchi is in the make-up of the prefecture itself. Despite having a centrally located city called Yamaguchi, the prefectural capital is actually the larger city of Shimonoseki, which lies in the south of the prefecture almost exactly on the southern tip of Japan’s main Honshu Island.
One of the local delicacies that you must try on a visit to the prefecture is the famous Kawara Soba noodles. These noodles are famous throughout Japan, most notably for the method by which they are prepared and cooked.
The origin of Kawara Soba goes back to the Seinan Rebellion of 1877 at the height of Japan’s Meiji Era. During those times of war, which gave creative fuel to the fire of Tom Cruise’s epic (if not exactly historically accurate) movie “The Last Samurai”, food was scarce. Not only was food scarce, but so too were the appropriate utensils with which to cook the food. Soldiers, ever resourceful on the battlefield, had to improvise with what was available. They would cook long grass and whatever meat they could find on hot tiles. Today, with a little bit of local embellishment this tasty dish has come to be known as Kawara Soba. A dish of Kawara Soba, prepared using the traditional local recipe, consists of green tea noodles, an embellishment to be sure but decidedly more palatable than wild grass, strips of fried egg, stewed beef, green onions and liver, all grilled up together on a traditional hot tile. This is a delicious little piece of local history and was as delightful a surprise that was pretty much indicative of Yamaguchi as a whole.
From Yamaguchi City, if you head north you’ll come to the cultural hub of Hagi City. Hagi City is a place where the passage of time doesn’t really seem to have had the seismic impact it has elsewhere. Looking around this delightful little town, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a time portal and warped back about 100 years or so into the past. In a playfully defiant expression of the individuality of this city, there are a number of subtle differences between Hagi and other similarly sized cities in Japan.
Whilst most of the rest of Japan adopted European style red post boxes several decades ago, the ones in Hagi City remain either green or brown as they were in a bygone era. In a way Hagi City is like that curmudgeonly uncle we all have. It has its own way of doing things, and to hell with whatever the modern world says must be changed. Nonetheless the city has a great warmth to it, with friendly locals, excellent restaurants and cafes, and the central focal point of the city: The Hagi Museum.
The museum is an affectionate homage to the Samurai residences of the city’s proud past, with highly detailed and informative exhibits, which are updated on an annual basis. Hagi is also home to a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the site of what was once a reverberatory furnace.
From Hagi, I headed down to Shimonoseki, the prefectural capital and in all honesty probably the most interesting place in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
If you’re a fan of the delicious but potentially deadly Japanese pufferfish delicacy known as fugu, then Shimonoseki is the place for you. The city is affectionately known as Japan’s fugu capital and is the largest single harvester of the fish each year.
The city’s coastal region also offers some of the most dynamic views of the Japanese coastline anywhere in the country as you can look across the Tsushima Straight to the misty backdrop of Kitakyushu.
The city is also home to one of Japan’s more unconventional museums, The Yamagin Archive, a museum chronicling the history of the Yamaguchi Bank. On the face of it a Japanese Banking Museum may not exactly sound like a particularly interesting day out, but it’s actually a lot more interesting than it sounds, and it's relatively small so you can easily cover it in an hour or so. Unfortunately no amount of research on the bank's history could tell me why I still keep getting turned down for a credit card!
History buffs should also make time to check out the Kozan-ji. This stunning temple dates back to 1327, and is number 19 of the famous Chugoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage trail. Given its heritage in the Zenshuyo sect of Buddhism, the building blends both Chinese and Japanese contemporary aesthetics, to create a beautiful shape and design. It’s also the oldest example of a Zenshuyo temple still in use to this day.
If you can, probably the best time to visit Shimonoseki is in August for the Kanmon Kaikyo Fireworks Festival (held annually on ). The event takes place in and around the Karato Port area. There are few things in Japan more beautiful than watching a glorious firework display as the distant lights of Kyushu linger in the background.
Shimonoseki is located about 2 hours south of Osaka and just under 5 hours south of Tokyo by Shinkansen. Internal flights to Yamaguchi from several of Japan’s regional airports are also available.
See here for more articles about Yamaguchi prefecture.