The typical ideal travel itinerary in Japan seems to occupy one of two types of experiences: the bustling modern concrete jungle of Tokyo or Osaka, or a temple-filled ‘traditional’ experience full of tea ceremony and kimono, usually in Kyoto.
If there is a town that feels like it’s stepped right out of a Studio Ghibli film, Onomichi is it. It is a seaside port town along the coast of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, with a mountain at its back and a famous love for cats. If you’re looking to get away from the tourist heavy popular spots to actually experience a little of the quiet and simple living that characterises a lot of the lifestyle in smaller Japanese cities, Onomichi is a wonderful, quaint town for it.
Here are some key things we recommend you do:
TAKE A WALK
Onomichi is a city of winding roads and layered buildings, built into the side of a mountain so the best way to absorb everything is to start at the Senkoji Park Observatory at the top of the mountain (perhaps also ducking into Onomichi City Art Museum designed by famous Japanese architect Ando Tadao while you’re at it) and wind your way down. This path is referred to as the ‘Temple Walk’ and it can be as long or as short as you’d like.
We began through the ‘path of literature’ where poems by famous Japanese poets have been carved into the gigantic moss-coloured boulders and to Senko-ji temple, where you can get a beautiful lookout over the city, the misty islands of the Seto Inland Sea in the distance. This is definitely a bit of a workout, but so rewarding!
Onomichi’s streets are narrow, photogenic and full of traditional old houses, beautifully layered and paved with cobblestone. You may spot the stray cat sunning itself on the eaves of a traditional Japanese roof, or pay your respects at a series of small temples and shrines that dot the path on the way down.
I particularly enjoyed the room absolutely full of wooden bodhisattvas at a temple on the way down. Bodhisattvas are individuals who are following the path of buddha but who have not yet achieved nirvana and so still struggle to control their human impulses like emotions and facial expressions, as you can tell. There’s even one who’s distractedly turned in the other direction!
Closer to ‘street’ level, you’ll find the open train track crossing (such a novelty for Australians!) and tiny boutique shops full of interesting homewares, local produce and jewellery. In the afternoon golden light, you can also take a walk along the shoreline and enjoy some ice cream.
VISIT A CAT CAFE
We popped into a cat cafe on our way down the Temple Walk, which was located inside a traditional Japanese home. For roughly 1000Y, you can have roughly an hour to relax and play in a traditional tatami room with a bunch of cats and then head downstairs to enjoy a cool drink, definitely necessary on a hot day. There was a decidedly ‘family run’ feeling about this particular cafe which was incredibly endearing – hand drawn signs, little cat foot covers for the chairs. It’s the eye for detail that sets Japanese cat cafes apart.
HAVE SOME RAMEN
Did you know that your ramen noodles, soup stock and ingredients will vary greatly across different regions in Japan? Onomichi’s characteristic ramen soup base is a fish-based soup stock, which actually just has a light, slightly sweet soy-based taste to it. Unlike Tokyo style ramen that uses cha shu pork slices, Onomichi’s pork topping were slow-braised pork cubes that absolutely just melted in your mouth – honestly, it’s probably my favourite style of ramen pork topping to date. This ramen, found at Restaurant Sumiyoshi in Onomichi Royal Hotel is a definite must-try.
2-9-27 Tsuchido | Onomichi Royal Hotel 2F, Onomichi, Hiroshima, 722-0035, Japan
Phone: +81 848-23-2111
VISIT A TEMPLE, MAKE CHARMS & HAVE A TEA CEREMONY
Jodo-ji is one of the main temples in Onomichi, found at the top of a long flight of stairs from street level and overlooking the train track. If you manage to hustle together a large group of people (8-10 plus), you can book a temple experience of making omamori and also enjoying an abbreviated tea ceremony. For people who are not Buddhist or follow Japan’s shinto religion, this is a great way to learn a little more about Japanese culture and how spirituality and religion is integrated into their daily lives.
Omamori (Japanese lucky charms) are essentially small wooden charms that have certain kanji characters representing wishes burnt into them with a hot iron stamp. We began by choosing what ‘type’ of omamori we wanted – you can create a ‘custom’ wish or pick general charms for good health, academic success, luck in romance and relationships, even for traffic safety! After we had stamped our own blocks, they are placed inside a special pouch, to be kept in there forever.
We then got to walk through the temple grounds and into the main ceremony room where our ‘head priest’ blessed our charms. Having expected chanting, I was surprised and amazed to see him start to play the drums while chanting, so the entire ceremony ended up feeling like a performance as well as a spiritual ritual.
Formal tea ceremonies in Japan can be lengthy affairs but we experienced an abbreviated version, where we were able to enjoy a Japanese sweet and make our own matcha tea by whisking the matcha powder at high speed.
Pro-tip: When you lift your hands to drink matcha (ideally in 3 exact sips), you should turn the cup 45 degrees clockwise before taking a sip, and turn it back again after drinking to set the cup down.
20-28 Higashi-Kubo-cho, Onomichi-shi, Hiroshima, Japan
Admission: 500 yen (Garden) | Houmotsu-kan (Treasury Hall): 400 yen
I Ate My Way Through travelled as a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organization.