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Friday, Oct. 3, 2008

Nice to nestle at Japan's hometown

Welcome to Onomichi: The old days, the new days, and a 'burst of red-orange glory'


Staff writer

One could be fooled into thinking Onomichi was an island, where the ocean air whisps about the often deserted streets and the locals thrive from eclectic arts and hospitality industries. That would all be true, except the island part.

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Scaremonger: Every November in Onomichi, monsters take over ther streets of the old town chasing and beating children with assorted sticks to bring them good health for the winter. JACKIE HOFFART PHOTOS

Literally translated as "tail road," Onomichi is just that. Tucked into a coastal nook of the Seto Inland Sea (about halfway between Okayama and Hiroshima city), it is the point where the body of Honshu whips up its tail, curving away from the sameness of the rest of Japan in one short, playful wag.

At the same time it remains something of a relic; a throwback to an imagined yesteryear, where the the town festivals still mean something to the average child. From the moment you step off the train, a gentle nostalgia tugs at you.

Legendary film director Yasujiro Ozu used Onomichi as the archetypal Japanese hometown in his classic 1953 film "Tokyo Story" ("Tokyo Monogatari"). Fifty-five years later, Onomichi still feels like Japan's hometown — with a few refreshing twists.

For the regular visitor spiel, hit up the tourist information booth, which consists of just a few old men in fluorescent green jackets sitting under an umbrella in the station square with pamphlets and maps of Onomichi's famous sites. For information you are unlikely to find in those pamphlets, read on.

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Onomichi rests in a valley between Senkoji Park and the Seto Inland Sea

Take a walk around the "grassy knoll," the name some English-speaking locals have given the relaxed stretch of public, green space that hugs the coastline. Pull up a wrought-iron chair and reset your internal clock to Onomichi time, measured by the gentle slapping of the crisp turquoise waters against the pier or the putt-putt rhythm of the little ferry boats as they lumber back and forth to the aptly named Mukaishima (literally, island across the bay).

At the top of the mountain rising up behind the station is Onomichi Castle. Don't bother going there, it's empty. Orient yourself with the castle on your left (west): Along the top of the mountain is Senkoji Park; Senkoji Temple is on the right side of the mountain (east); on the hillside are about 25 temples strewn about; and in front of you is the old town, with a shotengai (shopping street) running through it.

"Bottle cafe" YES occupies the third and fourth floors of a building shared with an offbeat clothing store and an antique trinket/cafe at the beginning of the shotengai. YES owner Eiji Tokunaga incorporated his rejection of a world of plastic into his cafe, which only serves drinks in glass bottles.

Blending New Mexico, Africa and Japan in its handmade decor, YES typifies the kind of creative experience possible for young people in Onomichi. Tokunaga entered into a joint project to refurbish a run-down building and, by hand, rebuilt everything.

"I used old things to respect the old space and reflect the old town," he explained in mixed English and Japanese as he served up an ice-cold, locally bottled fruit drink called "Home."

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The Onomichi observatory

"I refinished and repolished everything. When I was done, a monk came in here and said he thought it was a tea room!" he said, laughing, more out of humility than jest. It's easy to lose a few hours in the hammock on the top floor, or deep in conversation with the chilled-out Tokunaga.

Off a shotengai side street is Chai Salon Dragon, easy to spot because it's painted bright orange. Here, you can enjoy hot chai tea all year round, or, in summer, a hybrid drink made from matcha (Japanese green tea) and cider (Japanese lemonade), called "Chaider," brainchild of owner Hirofumi Murakami.

Dragon, run by Murakami and his wife, Tamako, seats three comfortably — six or seven with some effort — and effuses a kitchenlike warmth.

Murakami is a veritable Onomichi cheerleader, with an eye for business. Surrounded by his mini-empire of Onomichi-goods — I-heart-Onomichi T-shirts, buttons and postcards; fake subway maps (there are only buses); and stickers and cards encouraging customers to "Feel Japan!" by drinking his trademark Chaider — it's easy to understand why they do well. When asked how small shops like his, or some of the other much older shops, can stay in business in a town with around 100,000 people, he waxed optimistic: "Many people in Onomichi still survive from the '50s port-town boom; they rent properties and open their shops more as a hobby. But tourism is gaining ground here. Since we were designated as part of the Yokoso Japan campaign (a Japanese tourism ministry initiative to encourage foreign tourists to visit the country), we can see more and more interest in the creative, traditional image of Onomichi," he explained. Of note: Murakami speaks multiple languages — Japanese, English, German, and at least a smattering of others — somewhat of a rarity in Onomichi.

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The Onomichi Bridge begins the Shimanami Expressway, which connects Honshu with Shikoku.

Attention anime otaku (obsessive): There is an original vintage kids' ride based on the 1960s anime character Obake no Q-taro parked unceremoniously in front of an electrical shop between the first and second section of the shotengai. Don't blink or you'll miss it.

Shu-Ka-En ramen shop is the most famous place for a hot bowl of Onomichi ramen. People line up around the block (even in winter!) for a taste of this rather lardy, chicken-, pork- or fish-based noodle soup. If you can't stomach the lineup, try Miyachi ramen shop. Technically on the shotengai, the entrance is in a very narrow alleyway that cuts away toward Kaigan-dori (Coast Road). The chef, who looks like a samurai hippie, serves up his own style of cheap, delicious ramen.

Yamaneko cafe is quite possibly the best cafe in town.

On Kaigan-dori, look for the red awning. With adorable staff, rotating local art and inexpensive but impressive lunch specials (¥600-900), Yamaneko demands a visit. Try the latte: it nears perfection.

Take the minty-blue-green Ropeway, built in 1957. This cuts out the hassle of climbing up the mountain and only costs a few hundred yen one way.

The 130-meter ascent can be quite breathtaking as you pass over Senkoji Temple in all its bursting red-orange glory, but save your camera batteries for the observatory. Reminiscent of a flying saucer, this is the highest point in town and offers an insane panorama. On a clear day, you can easily see Shikoku.

Senkoji Park offers various distractions, the oddest of which is Monkey Land, where real, sad monkeys live out their real, sad lives. There used to be a small amusement park here too, but because of those pesky failed safety inspections, the city recently tore the whole thing down.

The Path of Literature is overrated. Unless you are familiar with Japanese poets and authors, it's just a bunch of rocks with poems etched in kanji. Spend your time weaving back into town through the maze of seemingly ancient, sometimes abandoned houses (though some are quasi-squatted — rent can be as low as ¥10,000 a month).

Of the hillside temples, Saikokuji is noteworthy for its gigantic hanging waraji (straw sandals). If you're into cats, stop by the Maneki-Neko Museum (next to Tenneiji Temple), which houses no fewer than 1,500 paw-saluting cat figurines in a tiny two-story house.

Onomichi, for all its curious charms, is a humble place. However, German director (and Ozu disciple) Wim Wenders was so inspired by the town that he held a photography exhibit in 2006 titled "Journey to Onomichi" in tribute.

If you journey to Onomichi, stay a day or two. You may find yourself suddenly wanting to abandon your day job, move to the mountain and start that novel you've been meaning to write. It's been that kind of town for . . . centuries.

From Tokyo, take the Shinkansen south to Fukuyama Station and transfer to the local JR Sanyo line for the last 20 beautiful minutes south to Onomichi. There IS an Onomichi Shinkansen stop, but that station is in the middle of nowhere — just take the local for the last stretch!


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