TSUWANO / HAGI / YAMAGUCHI / AKIYOSHIDO / SHIMONOSEKI / MOJI
– A journey around the westernmost part of Honshu (the main Japanese island) and northern Kyushu (the southernmost of Japan’s main four islands)
Tsuwano is a beautiful town with red roofed, white walled houses reminding tourists of similar scenes seen in paintings by Mitsumasa Anno – of towns in Italy and Holland. Mitsumasa is a Tsuwano native.
+++Tsuwano Bits & Pieces
Tsuwano is set in a small land basin surrounded by mountains. Atop the westernmost mountain are the remains of the old castle walls while the mountain to the east is called Mount Aono. The famous novelist Mori Ogai was born in Tsuwano and Japanese paper made in Tsuwano is considered a traditional form of artwork which at one time could only be produced by the Tsuwano clan as paper produced here was taken as a tribute in place of rice. The paper made in Tsuwano was stronger than average and was thus popular for use in merchants’ account books.
+Tsuwano Castle Ruins
From the stone walls of the old castle ruins, few and far between in Japan, those making the trek up the mountain can look over and appreciate the view of the town with its beautiful red tile blanket.
+Tonomachi dori and Honmachi dori Streets
The two streets of Tonomachi dori and Honmachi dori are particular points at which the atmosphere of the old castle town remains. A large number of old fashioned gates and earthen walls can be seen around one time warrior residences and some of the stores today using the old merchant houses are an interesting mix of the old and the new: The Takatsuya Ito Yakkyoku Pharmacy, Kasen Shuzo Sake Brewing Company and Ebiya Interior Shop especially so. Strangely perhaps, the flooring of the local Tsuwano Catholic Church is now tatami.
+Anno Art Museum
Mitsumasa Anno’s watercolors are gentle and compared to some forms of art – relatively pale. Many of his paintings are displayed in The Anno Art Museum in the town and besides the exhibits themselves the ‘Namako-kabe’ exterior wall of the museum with its square tiles held together by raised plaster, is rather eye-catching. A few old style classrooms and a library can also be entered and help to create a few of the nostalgic feelings of yesterday. More up to date is a planetarium – also open to the public.
+Tsuwano Katsushika Hokusai Museum
One of the first ‘Hokusai manga’ sketchbook prints was found in Tsuwano and today the museum to such items in the town houses about 1000 pieces including block prints, print books, original paintings of the artist himself and those of his disciples.
+Taikodani Inari Shinto Shrine
The vermilion-lacquered buildings of the shrine are possible to access via the ruins of the old castle and to those who appreciate such things can only be seen as outstanding. Another method of access is via Yasaka Shrine and the passing through of countless torii that blend to form a tunnel of sorts.
+The Old House of Mori Ogai / Mori Ogai Memorial Museum
Mori Ogai (1862-1922) was born in Tsuwano and after graduating from the former Tokyo University’s School of Medicine became an army doctor and then went to Germany to study. With a great interest in and knowledge of literature, he translated into Japanese a large number of Western books as well as writing novels of his own. The museum here houses 2000 items related to the man such as novels, copies of autographs and personal letters.
+SL Yamaguchi (Steam Locomotive C571)
Steam Locomotive Yamaguchi, a joint car transport / people carrier runs over a 69.2 km stretch of track linking Shin-Yamaguchi and Tsuwano in about 2 hours. Owing to her graceful shape, the C571 is nicknamed ‘Lady’.
Sagimai Dancing has its origins embedded in the famous Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto and was introduced to Tsuwano via Yamaguchi some 600 years ago. Today it is performed annually on July 20th, 24th and 27th.
Hagi is a famous old town with its back to the mainland and facing the Sea of Japan. Producing scores of Japanese leaders at the time of the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, Hagi was a key location in the struggle to modernize Japan and has long been the headquarters of the Mori family of the Choshu region. Although the Mori family sided with the western Japan forces of Toyotomi Hideyoshi at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, they were later discovered to have made a pact with the eastern forces under Tokugawa Ieyasu that guaranteed succession rites to the Mori’s eight domains in the Chugoku district if they did not enter the fray and the Tokugawa forces emerged victorious. History records that the Mori forces did not fight at Sekigahara, however, after the war, the pact was infringed upon and eight domains became just two. The Hiroshima-based Lord Mori went from a 1.12 million koku estate and a post as one of the five highest-ranked advisors to Toyotomi Hideyoshi to a relative outsider with a stipend of merely 369,000 koku. Insult was added to injury when the Mori clan chose Hofu in the Suo domain as its new base only to be turned down by a Tokugawa government fearful of permitting the Mori to occupy such a strategically important location. A second choice, Yamaguchi, was also rejected and, as a result, the Mori were forced to build a castle in the then largely insignificant town of Hagi.
A strange New Year ceremony continued to be held annually at Hagi Castle and involved people gathering in formal dress on the morning of New Year’s Day. The representative of those gathered asked the ‘Lord’ “How about this year?” The lord each time answered “Not ready” in a dialogue taking several tens of seconds.
So, what does this dialogue mean? The question itself refers to whether or not the clan would attack the Tokugawa Shogunate any given year. In 1864, during the 264th such ceremony, the dialogue was not held and subsequently the anti-Tokugawa movement of the Choshu clan in part led to the Meiji Restoration taking place.
++Hagi Bits & Pieces
Hagi once flourished as a castle town and after being ‘zoned’ around 400 years ago, each area developed its own unique characteristics. Hagi is famous now for its natsumikan – or Chinese citron and the fruit can be seen all over the earthen walls of the town.
+The site of Hagi Castle and Horiuchi
Hagi Castle was built by Terumoto Mori in 1604 and was the base of the Mori clan for the next 260 years. Today, only stonewalls and moats remain. Horiuchi meanwhile was a residential district for high-ranked warriors and still retains its old earthen and white walls. The street in front of Masudake-monomiyagura and Kyu-suuke-nagayamon retains much of the peaceful atmosphere of yore.
+Jokamachi (Castle Town)
The middle and lower class warriors lived in the Castle Town as did Takasugi Shinsaku and Kido Takayoshi, both famous individuals around the end of the Edo era and both of whom lived in structures still standing. Kikuyake-jutaku, with its white walls is the former home of the once great Kikuya merchant family and is one of the oldest such merchant premises in Japan. The area around the house once thrived as a place for merchants to conduct business and trade. The birthplace of Kido Takayoshi, one of the three most famous individuals in Japan during the period of the Meiji Restoration (alongside Saigo Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi) is in Edo-yokocho.
+Shoin Shrine and Tokoji Temple
Shoin Shrine enshrines the spirit of Yoshida Shoin and Shokasonjuku and the house that imprisoned Yoshida Shoin can still be seen here today. Tokoji Temple on the other hand is the family temple of the Mori family. During the yearly festival of Mantoe, on August 15th each year, some five hundred stone lanterns standing ramrod straight in long rows in the precincts are illuminated after dark.
Hagi ware was first produced around 400 years ago and is known to posses a soft, earthy texture. Over time, as it is used, water penetrates the cracks in the glaze (called ‘kannyu’) and changes the ware’s color from within. The longer these pieces are used, the finer the texture becomes leading some to claim that Raku (ware) is No.1, Hagi is No. 2 and Karatsu is No.3. The No. 2 Hagi ware has long been loved by Japan’s tea masters.
The greatest feudal clan in Western Japan, the Ouchi family commanded the Kanmon Straits and trade with Korea and China when at their peak so were unequalled financially or in terms of influence in the region for centuries. Huge amounts were spent on having Yamaguchi appear as much like Kyoto as possible as well as on their own military buildup. The town of Yamaguchi itself, sometimes called ‘the small Kyoto in western Japan,’ flourished in peace and harmony for 200 years following the end of the 14th century.
Due to the Onin-no-ran War (1467-77), the capital city of Kyoto was devastated and many scholars and artists fled to Yamaguchi. Sesshu, a prominent suiboku master (ink painting) (1420-1506) was among them. He had initially made a journey to Min (China) just before the Onin War aboard an Ouchi ship, staying in China for three years. Upon his return he decided to go to Yamaguchi rather than Kyoto as the capital was then in the midst of a war.
++Yamaguchi Bits & Pieces
The Ouchi family yearned for the lifestyle of the aristocratic Kyotoites and this yearning heavily influenced the layout and final zoning of Yamaguchi.
+Yamaguchi St. Francis Xavier Memorial Church
Famed Christian missionary Francis Xavier once visited Yamaguchi where then lord Ouchi Yoshitaka let him preach and carry out his missionary duties. The current church is a 1998 reproduction of earlier versions.
+The Five-Storied Pagoda of Rurikoji Temple
The pagoda at Rurikoji was first erected in 1442 to help perform religious rites for the repose of the deceased Lord Ouchi Yoshihiro and is a relatively simple affair with less decoration than other similar pagodas built during the mid-Muromachi era.
According to legend, an injured white fox once bathed in the hot spring in Yuda, in doing so curing its wounds. According to more recent history, at the end of the Edo era, warriors would gather at the Matudaya Hotel to plan operations.
+++Akiyoshido Cave and Akiyoshidai Plateau
Approximately 600 years ago, a vast, dark cave was discovered beneath the Akiyoshidai Plateau. The cave today is home to a roaring torrent of water.
Akiyoshido Cave formed when coral reefs were forced to the surface by regional tectonics in eons past. Over time, the coral turned to limestone to create a unique landscape shaped further by melting rainwater. The total length of the cave is an amazing 10km and tourists are permitted to walk a 1km long stretch of this, the largest limestone cave in Asia.
Akiyoshidai is the largest karst tableland in Japan. 130 sq. km in area, numerous limestone rocks are visible across the vast rolling plain.
+++Shimonoseki / Moji
Shimonoseki and Moji Port are divided by the Kanmon Straits and at the narrowest point the width of the straits is less than 1000m. Over time, many legends and historical stories originated in the area including stories about the Heike family at Dannoura and the Bombardment of Shimonoseki (a series of attacks by the combined fleets of France, the Netherlands, the UK and the US in 1864).
++Shimonoseki / Moji Bits & Pieces
Shimonoseki is an old port town and flourished as a gateway to the Asian mainland during the Meiji era. The straits at Kanmon can be walked ‘under’ with the help of the 780m long Kanmon-jindo-footpath. The Kanmon-kisen (ferry) is another way to cross the straits connecting Karato pier in Shimonoseki and Moji pier in around 5 minutes, along the way offering the far reaching local landscape of Kanmon Bridge and the towns of Shimonoseki and Moji.
+Western buildings in Shimonoseki
Shimonoseki, in its former role as a flourishing port town was targeted for business early on by the nations doing business with Japan and still retains a certain amount of Western-style buildings including the former British Consulate and the former Akita Co., Ltd. Building (now the Shimonoseki-kanko-joho Center).
For local fish auctions and seafood dishes this is the place to come, particularly on weekends and holidays when the 1st floor of the market is much like a festival. Shops sell sushi and various seafood dishes with customers using the tables nearby to sample the freshest Karato has to offer.
Akama Shrine enshrines the spirit of the Antoku Emperor who died in the Battle of Dannoura – known in Japan as the battle that put pay to the power of the Heike clan.
+Shimonoseki Aquarium – Kaikyokan
The massive ‘Kanmon-kaikyo-choryu-suiso’ tank in this aquarium holds everything the Kanmon Straits do – tidal currents, waves and swirling currents all included. Exhibitions of blowfish (puffer fish) from around the world and the skeleton of a blue whale are must sees – the skeleton display in particular as few such specimens exist anywhere in the world. Performing dolphins and a sea lion are also on hand to entertain.
Chofu was once a prosperous castle town as its narrow paths and kneaded clay walls will serve to remind.
Blowfish can be eaten throughout the year, but it is most delicious in winter. Shimonoseki lays claim to being the port at which 80% of Japan’s blowfish catch is landed each year. Various fugu dishes such as sashimi, fried blowfish and fuguchiri (blowfish stew) can be sampled. The toasted blowfish fin dish has hot Hire sake poured over to taste.
+Mojiko Retro Area
Mojiko (Port of Moji) used to be a key junction on Japan’s overseas trade routes – mainly from the latter half of the 19th to the early part of the 20th centuries. The whole Mojiko area and its many elegant Western-style buildings that include the Mojiko JR station and Old Moji Mitsui Club, Old O.S.K. lines Ltd. Buildings and Old Moji Customs Building create a modern day retro atmosphere of sorts.
There are many ways to access this part of Japan but flying to Yamaguchi-Ube, Kitakyushu or Fukuoka airports is the most convenient and time efficient method. If by Shinkansen, disembark at Shin-Yamaguchi Station.