Inland Sea Charm
My list of places to visit in Japan never gets shorter. The country is endlessly fascinating.
This was reinforced during a recent visit to Kure and the Seto Inland Sea. I was dazzled by its beauty, history and innovative local entrepreneurs.
Twenty kilometers from Hiroshima, Kure is a built on a hillside. As a port, it has a long history as a naval hub and center of shipbuilding and steel production. These maritime links are on display at the Yamato Museum, which presents the history and a model of the Yamato, the largest battleship ever built. It was ultimately sunk by US forces in April 1945.
History buffs should also visit the Irifuneyama Memorial Museum, a collection of century-old buildings that include the residence of the commander of the former Kure Naval Station.
Like many towns throughout a country with a rapidly declining population, Kure has been amalgamated with smaller towns nearby. As many of them are on surrounding islands, travel to them is rewarded with breathtaking vistas.
One such town is Ondo, which we reached by rickety ferry across the narrow Ondo no Seto strait. Wandering along the main street, we watched two women intently molding clay in a lovely pottery studio, sampled delicious sake at a local sake shop and admired the statue of Heian-era general Taira no Kiyomori, whose story is recounted in the Japanese classic The Tale of the Heike.
Seeking shelter from the rain, we entered Tenjinan, a café and gallery with a beautiful wood interior and exquisite garden. As we sipped our luxury Mariage Frères tea, we learned that the family-run store’s focus on quality was honed during its years as a kimono shop. In 2012, on its 130th anniversary, the owner, Yuchi Kazuta, converted the space into its current incarnation.
Ondo was the first of many surprises. The following morning, we visited the Shotoen Museum in Shimokamagari. The museum showcases the history of Korean diplomatic missions to Edo that stopped off here. A diorama portrays Korean officials with their Japanese attendants and there is a replica of a typical feast that would have been prepared for the foreign emissaries. Korean historians regularly visit the museum to gain insights into this period. There is also an exhibit of both Korean and Arita porcelain that rivals many Tokyo exhibitions.
The drive across the next set of bridges afforded us captivating views of azure skies and deep-blue waters dotted with islands. I didn’t know places like this existed in Japan.
Our destination was Mitarai, the type of quaint town that foreign visitors expect to see in Japan. Many of its buildings have been carefully restored and the main thoroughfare’s eyesore power lines have been buried.
We had lunch with Akira Inoue, a Kure resident who has renovated a number of old buildings in Mitarai. He has overseen projects to convert a hospital into a hostel, a sailors’ lodging house into a teahouse and a 100-year-old ryokan inn into a restaurant and guesthouse.
Kangetsuan Shintoyo has just two bedrooms and one bathroom, so perfect for a family or group of girlfriends. And its harborside location offers unrivaled views of the sea, the star of this beguiling pocket of Japan.
Words: Efrot Weiss
Illustration: Tania Vicedo