Last September, the town of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture became a headline-grabbing topic around the world with its Cat Street View project. In its first two weeks online, this Google-style map of the town, filmed from a cat’s perspective, went viral, racking up 1.7 million views. CNN, Huffington Post and Business Insider all ran the story.

Why a cat?

Well, Onomichi is nicknamed the “Town of Hills and Cats,” and “cats are well-acquainted with its back alleys and other hidden charms,” says Maiko Awane of the Hiroshima Prefecture Tourist Division.

Certainly, the cat map is a fun way to get a feel for the town. But for a firsthand taste of Onomichi’s backstreet charms, nothing beats a stay at the Minatonoyado. That’s the collective name for two splendid historical houses lying on Mount Senkoji, up one of those secluded pathways so beloved by the local cats. After standing uninhabited for several years, these two properties have been renovated and converted into self-catering accommodation.

One of the houses, Shimazui Manor, was built in 1931 for a wealthy local businessman and ex-Diet member. The other, Izumo House, dates back 200 years, and remains an Edo Period (1603-1868) jewel, with a tiny three-tatami-mat tearoom and moon-viewing porch. These houses offer visitors an authentic Onomichi experience, right down to the 104 stone steps you need to climb to reach them.

“It’s a little inconvenient, but it’s typical Onomichi,” says Noriko Kobayashi of DiscoverLink Setouchi (DLS), the local consortium behind the renovation project. “About 30 percent of people cancel when they find that out!”

Undeterred, however, we discovered that, once inside the spacious Shimazui Manor, its uncluttered serenity soon makes us forget our small exertion. There are no staffers on the premises, so it’s like being in your own home. A welcome bowl of local fruits awaits in the kitchen. And, just like Disneyland, there are no clocks.

The house has obvious Western influences, such as Spanish-style roof tiles and arches on the veranda, while the main bedroom has two queen-sized beds. But from the hi-tech Toto washlets to the two seven-mat tatami rooms and the fragrance of the bare wood beams, it’s thoroughly Japanese, too. All the kitchen appliances are concealed in discreet cabinets, adding to a traditional minimalist feel.

The broad second-floor veranda affords splendid views of Onomichi Channel, while to the left, Mount Senkoji ropeway looks almost close enough to touch as it glides silently up and down the hillside, over a roofscape comprised largely of temples.

Mount Senkoji is considered sacred, so until after World War II, private houses were not allowed to be built here, which explains the abundance of temples on Onomichi’s Temple Walk. The profound silence that envelops Shimazui Manor at night, with just crickets for background music, make us appreciate having temples for neighbors.

Minatonoyado is emblematic of Onomichi’s drive to reinvigorate the local economy through tourism, while also preserving the area’s cultural identity.

So, “Who and what are DLS?” we ask.

“It started with five ex-schoolmates,” Kobayashi tells us. “They all had jobs in traditional local industries — shipbuilding, textiles. They saw how the local economy was declining as these industries moved abroad. So, with jobs becoming scarcer and young people moving away, they resolved to revitalize the local economy by using Onomichi’s cultural heritage to promote tourism.”

In an age where development is synonymous with tearing down and starting again, it’s refreshing to see that progress can be consistent with conservation. This conservationist spirit led DLS to their second project, one that has already garnered international interest: converting a disused maritime warehouse into the U2 Hotel Cycle, Japan’s first hotel designed especially for cyclists.

The idea makes perfect sense. Onomichi is the starting point for the Shimanami Kaido — the 60-km road and bridge route joining Honshu to Shikoku, with cycle lanes the whole way. Spanning six smaller islands, it has been hailed as one of the world’s most stunning bike routes. Yet the tourist boom that was expected to follow the route’s completion in 1999 hasn’t quite materialized. U2 (the ‘U’ stands for umaya, or warehouse) hopes to draw more cyclists to the area by offering them a touch of comfort.

Of course, a hotel aimed solely at cyclists would have limited appeal. So the U2 aspires to attract noncyclists, too, as a place where locals and international guests can meet and mingle. Accordingly, the hotel building also houses a restaurant, bar, cafe, shop and bakery-delicatessen. Outside, only a wooden boardwalk separates the U2 from Onomichi Channel, so you can sit and watch the boats go by.

From the construction materials to the restaurant menu, everything at U2 is inspired by local produce and traditional industries. For lunch, we had a scrumptious, locally caught, grilled tai (sea bream), accompanied by a salad of local vegetables with an exquisite grapefruit dressing (the islands of the Inland Sea are renowned for citrus fruit).

The architecture, too, was designed by hip young locals: Hiroshima-born Makoto Tanijiri and Ai Yoshida of Suppose Design Office. The building is post-industrially modern, while retaining its original industrial character — lots of steel girders, exposed concrete and bare wood — evoking Onomichi’s shipbuilding past. One of the restaurant’s tables is a massive block of solid mortar, inspired by the local stone-cutting industry.

As a nod to the Onomichi’s textile trade, U2 staff wear denim outfits, while the hotel’s Shima Shop sells sail-cloth bags and typical kasuri (fabric woven from dyed fibers) accessories. A young craftsman also displays chairs and stools made from found objects: driftwood, wrought iron and road signs.

“Our mission is not just to open a restaurant, but to continue Onomichi’s historical legacy,” says Kobayashi of DLS. “That’s why we like to renovate or re-use old things. U2’s materials all come from local industries, so the design resonates with local people. They feel at home here. Good things should be preserved.”

The entire complex is cycle-friendly, with ramps everywhere (coincidentally making it virtually barrier-free). There are bike racks in the reception area and in the rooms, and a cycle store for all your bike needs. The complex’s Yard Cafe also has a cycle-through window for grabbing a takeout snack without dismounting. For the truly cycle-obssessed, one of the bar stools in the Cog Bar is even made out of a saddle and pedals, which if pedaled lights up a sign above the bar.

Back at the Shimazui Manor, after a hard day’s sightseeing, it’s time to try the bath, a large box made of fragrant hinoki Japanese-cypress wood. Using a concealed control panel that resembles the flight deck of an Airbus, you can set the temperature, press the start button and technology does the rest, filling the bath to a preset amount. A calming robotic female voice keeps you updated on the bath’s progress. Outside the window, shrubs bob in the evening breeze as the 43-degree water soaks away even the most stubborn vestiges of stress. You’ll never want to bathe in an enamel (or plastic) bath again.

At eight o’clock the next morning, as the sun streams through the round porthole-like bedroom window, the doorbell rings and a young man with tousled hair delivers breakfast: a two-tiered wooden box containing some marvelous inarizushi (sushi in a fried tofu pouch) and a metal canister containing fish soup.

Later that morning, walking along Onomichi’s shōtengai — its long, covered shopping arcade — we notice that some shops only open on weekends; a few seem shuttered up for good. But the street still exudes a friendly charm: an elderly lady scaling fresh fish on a kind of mobile fridge-cart; an old toy shop with a giant Ultraman figure outside; dried fish shops selling sembei rice crackers with whole fish inside.

One place in particular catches our attention: a long narrow alley that looks centuries old. It turns out to be the entrance to yet another praiseworthy local initiative: the Anago no Nedoko, a guesthouse in a former Meiji Era (1867-1912) fabric store. It’s the property of Akiyasaisei, a nonprofit organization committed to the renovation of vacant housing. The unusual, elongated design was once common in Onomichi, but the Anago no Nedoko is one of the few that’s been conserved in its original state. With a cozy cafe in front, it’s “a new space with an old atmosphere” say the owners, who aim to provide affordable accommodation and a place where international backpackers, cyclists and locals can hang out and meet.

There are signs that all these efforts in Onomichi may be working.

“This week, the Hotel Cycle has had guests from South Africa, the U.K., Australia, Hong Kong and Switzerland,” says Kobayashi. Foreign tourists now make up 20 percent of the U2 hotel’s guests, and the number is bound to increase as word gets out about Onomichi’s re-branding as Japan’s cycling hub.

Equally important, continues Kobayashi, “more young people are beginning to stay in the town. And young people from outside Onomichi are becoming interested in the island lifestyle as a peaceful, low-stress way to live.”

Getting there: Shin-Onomichi can be reached from Tokyo by the Kodama service of the Tokaido Shinkansen (change at Fukuyama or Okayama stations). It takes about three hours and 40 minutes. Onomichi can also be reached by bus from both Tokyo and Osaka, or by ferry from Imabari.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.