Taking in Tomonoura’s many delights

by Alon Adika

Special To The Japan Times

“The most beautiful scenic view in Japan,” was how the woman in the temple in Tomonoura translated it when I asked her the meaning of some calligraphy carved into a wooden sign mounted on the wall.

And as views go it was so pleasing that I sat in silence on the tatami mats for a long time taking in the panoramic vista of the deep blue Seto Inland Sea dotted with lush-green, tree-covered islands.

Directly in front of me, as my eyes roamed over rocky little Benten Island with its torii gate and small pagoda, I could well understand what had inspired a Korean envoy to express such a fulsome sentiment through that calligraphy some 300 years before.

A couple of years ago, this old fishing village was in the news when a lawsuit filed by residents succeeded in blocking the proposed construction of a bridge that would have blighted the beautiful natural surroundings.

Strange as it may seem, Tomonoura — which I’d first come across years ago when I was captivated by a picture of it I saw at a JR station in Osaka — had been at the top of my list of places to visit in Japan since then. I kept on telling myself that I had to make the trip — but for one reason or another, I never did. After reading about the lawsuit, though, I decided that I’d better hurry and go see it before it was too late.

The village is located in Hiroshima Prefecture on the Numakuma Peninsula, and its combination of unspoiled natural surroundings and well preserved structures from the Edo Period (1603-1867) lend to it the ambience of an older Japan. A Japan, indeed, that is getting harder and harder to find.

Tomonoura has a long and rich history. It is first mentioned in the eighth-century “Manyoshu,” the oldest known collection of Japanese poetry.

Though it afterward developed into an important port on the Seto Inland Sea, it was to take its place on the stage of Japanese history in the 14th century, when several battles were fought in the area during the Nambokucho period, when the Imperial court was split into northern and southern branches. Later, it became a stronghold of the Murakami Suigun, a clan of piratical maritime warriors.

Then, after Japan was unified in 1603 under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Tomonoura became a port of call for Korean delegations on their way to the political capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo). In more modern history, Tomonoura was the inspiration for the town in Miyazaki Hayao’s animated film “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.”

It was a hot summer day in August when I finally made it to Tomonoura. The sea was shimmering in front of me and its scent filled the air. I passed a small fishermen’s market where fresh tai (sea bream) and prawns were on sale. Then I looked up and saw the sloped roof of a temple on a hill — it was Fukuzenji Temple.

Taichoro, a building within the temple precincts, was constructed in 1690 especially to house the Korean delegations stopping off at Tomonoura. And it is this temple that preserves the calligraphy of the Korean envoy who lauded so highly the view from there.

In more recent times, visitors to Fukuzenji have also sought to leave their mark. The temple has a collection of currency from all over the world that’s been handed over by foreign visitors. I spent some time looking through a couple of albums full of bills and coins from various countries, complete with the names of the people who left them.

After leaving Fukuzenji, I was in the mood to snap some pictures. So, as I searched for good spots I walked down the narrow streets lined with aged wooden houses that eventually led me to the harbor.

It was then that I saw the old stone lighthouse that is the symbol of Tomonoura — the lighthouse I had seen in the picture at the train station in Osaka years before. It was nothing like a Western lighthouse — more like one of those very large lanterns of a kind often seen at temples and shrines.

By the lighthouse were the Edo Period stone steps leading down to the water. Behind it was an old-fashioned warehouse. I stood there admiring the scene for a while, then proceeded to take more than two dozen pictures.

The building nearest the lighthouse has been converted into a small museum explaining the connection between Tomonoura and Sakamoto Ryoma, that famed but ill-fated key figure in the build-up to the toppling of the shogunate and the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

While under charter to Ryoma’s trading company in 1867, a steamship named the Irohamaru was struck and sunk by a large vessel in the vicinity of Tomonoura. More than 100 years later, the wreckage was finally discovered and the salvaged remains are now on display in the museum.

I stepped back out into the heat of the day, taking out a small towel with which to wipe my sweaty brow. I needed a drink, so I started looking for a convenience store — a task never difficult in Japan. Here, however, I couldn’t find a single one. I then realized that I had not seen a single convenience store since I arrived. Amazingly, Tomonoura had managed to avoid the encroachment of modern Japan.

Still thirsty, nonetheless, I walked along the small main road and found an old mom-and-pop grocery shop. Entering the musty and poorly lit premises, I said hello to the elderly woman inside. She returned my greeting and made a remark about the heat. There were some old wooden shelves cluttered with grocery items in the middle of the shop, which really did look like a relic from an older, simpler time — though I wasted no time buying a bottle of water and an ice cream. Then I sat by the shop and enjoyed the cold treat.

After a short rest, I continued my leisurely walk through the town. Here and there I saw prawns set out on racks to dry in the sun. Colorful Tanabata Festival decorations were everywhere. For Tanabata, people write their wishes on colorful pieces of paper and tie them onto bamboo poles. I climbed the stairs to the small shrine on the hill at the farthest point of the harbor from the village and gazed at the boats.

Tomonoura is famous for its fresh fish. Sea bream is one of the most popular local delicacies. One way it is served is as sashimi over a bowl of rice with broth poured on top.

If you happen to visit in May, you may be able to see an event known as taiami, in which a traditional way of fishing is demonstrated. This involves a fleet of boats sailing to Benten Island, where the fishermen offer prayers to the god of maritime safety, Benzaiten. They then proceed to extend between their boats an extremely large net in which they catch many fish from among the countless tai that arrive after winter’s end to lay their eggs.

I then retraced my steps and continued my stroll through the town’s temple district, which is another aspect of this place that contributes marvelously to its special atmosphere and character. I counted more than 20 temples and shrines on my map, and the cries of cicadas pierced my ears as I walked past several before reaching the gate to Nunakuma Shrine, the most important one in the village.

According to shrine legend, it was founded more than 1,800 years ago by the Empress Jingu when she stopped to pray for safe passage over the sea. Upon her safe return, she left her tomo, a kind of protector that archers wore on their forearms, as an offering of thanks. Since then the place has been called the Bay of Tomo, or Tomonoura — though no one seems to know what happened to the tomo.

Satisfied with my day in this beautiful and richly fascinating place, I turned toward the main road and walked back to the bus stop. Minutes later, one arrived to whisk me away. But after boarding, I looked out the window and felt myself very fortunate to have seen with my own eyes the most beautiful scenic view in Japan.

Tomonoura is a 30-min. bus ride from Fukuyama Station, which can be reached in less than 90 min. by shinkansen from Shin Osaka Station or about 30 min. from Hiroshima.