Onomichi: The Town of Trade and Literature
Ever wondered what an old Japanese trade port town looks like? Think no further and head to Hiroshima prefecture for a mind-changing experience. On the Seto inland sea is Onomichi, a seaside town once prosperous thanks to trading but nowadays a place to reminisce of such past.
However, the town has seen a rebirth in the last 20 years, thanks to the opening of a highway connecting Onomichi on this part of Japan to Imabari in the island of Shikoku: the famous Shimanami-kaido road.
Onomichi is located at ideal distances from either Hiroshima or Fukuyama stations by local train, making it a perfect day trip from those big cities. There is a bullet train station (Shin-Onomichi) that is connected by bus services to the town center. The town itself is basically split by the railroad. One part, the "modern" commercial side directly faces the water, features waterfront promenade and shops, a motion picture museum, and a very nostalgic shopping arcade known as Hondori, almost 3km long and full of regular shoppers and tourists.
The other part, developing on a hill, stands to represent the past wealth of this town and is very lively during the day thanks to tourists wandering around its paved trails. Rich merchants here in Onomichi built temple after temple around the hills facing the sea, and by doing so created a place that attracted artists and writers, as its picturesque beauty was beyond belief. Traces of and references to all artists and poets who have been inspired by the town can be found all around the city, in the form of carved rocks, statues, famous writers' feet moulds, museums, residences.
One of the 25 Temples of Onomichi
Today, all that’s left of that wealth is two dozen temples and shrines connected through a series of paved slopes and stair steps that are now attractions known as “temple walk” or “literature path” (marked by rocks carved with poems). The high density of temples are impressive for this town, but many of those are small or even abandoned, and overall none of them are really so striking by themselves. There is one, however, nestled in a rock and towering over the town and the inland sea: Senkoji.
Senkoji Temple dominates the hillside, and seeing it from the sea one realizes immediately it must have looked really splendid in the past. The view still looks pretty, although most temples now are hidden behind the modern buildings and hotels. It can be reached easily via a short cable car ride, or climbing the many stairs and walking the paved trails that are characteristic of this old part of town. While ascending to reach the temple grounds one passes by cute cafés and artsy shops, cats chilling on walls or roofs, and several other temples I will never remember the names of. A couple of these temples also contain pagodas, like the Tenneiji Temple, worth a special mention for a pretty nice view over the strait.
Views of the Seaside and of the Town from Senkoji
The cable car stops on top of the hill, inside the Senkoji Park. Near there, one can head to the observatory for the ultimate straits view, before starting the descent down to the temple and the trails back to the station area. The paved roads are very well planned and signaled in order to take people through all temples within, and to touch the important spots where some artist had gotten inspiration for a poem or had painted a view from. There is another famous trail, called the "cat trail", where it is possible to spot many kinds of stray cats, occasionally pet them and definitely photograph them.
Onomichi holds its own charm but it is very quiet for a seaside town, especially if we compare it to the European seaside towns where all we do is wait for the good season to enjoy life. I was surprised to see no restaurants opening up towards the promenade, no people lively chatting outside, not many places to go after dinnertime. It is clearly not what I would expected to see in the middle of summer. But I am sure the locals must like it that way.