Fukuyama: The Southern Undiscovered Treasure of Japan
As regular Japan travelers will know, most train stations in Japan, whichever line they are on, have the same, uniform format to their signs. Station names are written in Kanji, English and Hiragana script. This way, students of Japanese such as myself are able to gather both the Japanese pronunciation and the English reading of Kanji characters from station signs alone. Some names stick out in the memory more than others.
Fukuyama was one name I remember well. It was a place I knew nothing about and yet all the major Shinkansen lines stopped there on the way to Hiroshima, so I assumed it must be a place of some significance either historically or economically. Eventually, after having lived in nearby Kurashiki City for a while, I decided one day to go and check out Fukuyama just to see what the city was all about. As far as Japanese cities go, it is a medium to small-sized city, with a population of just under half a million people. Despite being just about 1 hour away from Okayama City and about 90 minutes from Hiroshima by local trains, Fukuyama is actually part of Hiroshima Prefecture, being its northernmost city.
The area’s storied history begins in 1619 when Mizuno Katsunari, a cousin of the then reigning Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, built Fukuyama Castle and established the town as the capital of his domain, which ran between what is now Hiroshima, Okayama, Yamaguchi and Shimane Prefectures. To this day the castle remains a focal point for visitors to the town. And indeed is one of the more prominent locations you will notice when passing by train, given its high elevation above the city.
As far as Japanese castles go, it’s an impressive sight to be sure. Unfortunately almost all of the original buildings were destroyed when a fleet of American B-52 bombers destroyed much of Fukuyama City in August of 1945. Today, the fully reconstructed castle serves as a historical museum and focal point for local festivals and other cultural events.
However, in the almost 400 years since its founding, Fukuyama has grown to become much more than a mere “castle town”. Visitors to the city will find plenty of other distractions to pique their interest.
For history buffs, in addition to the castle itself, nearby you will also find the Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of History. Whilst the museum houses several different and equaling fascinating exhibits from all around Japan, the primary focus of the museum is on items excavated from the nearby Medieval ruins of a town known as Kusado Sengen.
Dating from Japan’s Kamakura and Muromachi periods, around about the same time as the Crusades were taking place in Europe up until the Elizabethan era, Kusado Sengen offers a look back into the times before Fukuyama’s founding, when Japan was still the domain of various feudal warlords and the area around Fukuyama and Hiroshima was the source of a lot of unwanted attention from Korean and Chinese invaders.
Given that the area was waterlogged for centuries after being abandoned, many items have been almost perfectly preserved and can be enjoyed at the museum. Gravestones, tools, wooden and stone objects as well as fabrics were uncovered at the site. What is especially interesting is that a great deal of the pottery discovered at the site was found to have been imported from China, Korea and even Vietnam, suggesting that even at this relatively early stage in Japan’s development, international trade was a big deal!
As a centerpiece to the museum’s Kusado Sengen exhibit, there is a reconstruction of part of the town, allowing visitors to experience up close what life was like in this part of Japan around 8 or 900 years ago.
If you don’t mind taking a bit of a bus ride to the outskirts of the city, you can bask in the gently relaxing surroundings of Tomonoura. A fishing port in the eastern Ichichi Ward of Fukuyama City, the port has a history that predates Fukuyama itself. Today the port remains an important regional seafaring hub, with Red Sea Bream a local delicacy that you really must try while you are there.
There are also an assortment of historical temples and shrines to take in throughout the area too. One of the most famous buildings of local historical significance is the Uoya Manzo, a former merchant’s residence which has now been fully restored and acts as a guesthouse and information centre for visitors to the area.
If you are a follower of the movies in the X-Men franchise then Tomonoura may look somewhat familiar to you. A number of outdoor scenes in the franchise’s 2013 entry “The Wolverine” starring Australian action star Hugh Jackman in the title role, were filmed in and around Tonomoura.
Perhaps after a morning of gallivanting around town you are feeling a bit hungry. If that’s the case then why not round off your time in Fukuyama with a visit to Uono-Sato? Uono-Sato is a local factory that produces Japanese snacks, most commonly the dry, crunchy crackers known as senbei and the somewhat rubbery, fish-based snack called chikuwa. Most of the fish caught locally in the Fukuyama port area will, in the fullness of time, find its way to this factory.
As you can see Fukuyama has plenty to offer for both newbies to Japan and veteran visitors alike. Next time you are hurtling down toward Kyushu on the Shinkansen, why not stop off and spend a few hours in Fukuyama?