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KS Cover no. 71 2006 April

APR 2006 :: 071


Way out west

Golden Week in Yamaguchi-ken

KS proposes a Golden Week tour of a corner of Japan blessed with steam trains, musket-wielding samurai, temptations of poisonous fish, great natural scenery, and lots of colourful festivals.

Golden Week is perhaps the best time of year to explore the western frontier. Drawing on personal experience, KS's intrepid explorer has put together a six-day tour that takes the traveler in a circuit of Yama-guchi by train and car, and which includes the best sights and events of the far west.

Day One: April 29

Arriving mid morning in Hiroshima on the bullet train, a quick and easy transfer to the westbound JR Sanyo line will take you on a scenic sea-side journey and into Yamaguchi prefecture. After about an hour, the train pulls into Iwakuni. The US Marines air force base is not on the itinerary, but the historic part of the city west of downtown is, and can be reached in a short bus ride from the station. Kintaikyo, a Ming Chinese-style five-span wooden bridge, crosses a shallow but broad river, while Iwakuni castle perched on a hilltop overhead keeps a watchful eye.

On April 29, around midday, a long procession of people in historical costume, including some shanghaied US Marines, make their way over the bridge and into the samurai quarters on the west bank. In past years Kintaikyo Festival has also included demonstrations of antique guns being fired by nostalgically clad samurai. It is not every day you get to experience gunfire in Japan.

Day Two: April 30

After staying the night in Iwakuni, get back on the train and keep head-ing west. You have a busy day. A short way along the coast, take a pit stop in Yanai. Close to the city centre there is a nice place for a leisur-ely stroll through the well-maintained, white-walled Edo era merchants' quarters.

You could take another brief stop further west in Hofu to check out the city's biggest temple. Hofu Tenman-gu is just a short walk north from the station and offers a good view of the city and the Sea of Suo-nada beyond. Just mind the pigeons.

Next, transfer at Ogori from the JR Sanyo-main line to the JR Yama-guchi line and end the day in Yamaguchi at the Yuda Onsen festival.

It is also a great place to enjoy some of the many hot baths and then wander around the street in your bathrobe with other sensibly dressed bathers.

Day Three: May 1

Actually situated across the prefectural border in Shimane, the quaint mountain valley town of Tsuwano is the ideal place to spend May Day.

Here you can take a ride on an antique steam train — be warned tickets are in high demand, so don't set your heart on it. The sound of the train's whistle rever-berating off the lush green hillsides takes you back in time. If sold out, enjoy the same scenery and a smoother ride on the local train.

Tsuwano is one of those extremely rare towns that do not abound with pachinko parlours, konbini stores, and car dealerships. The streets are a throwback to simpler days that seem unimaginable in Kansai.

Schools of carp throng the town's streams and storm drains. Climbing through hundreds of torii to the top of Taikodani-Inari-Jinja will guarantee a great view of the town nestled in the valley below.

Day Four: May 2

After having taken a bus from your base in Yamaguchi city, spend the day wandering around the open fields of rocks upon rocks, upon rocks, big and small, jutting straight out of the ground at Akiyoshi-dai. There are several walking paths easily found near the central observatory. The nearby cave Akiyoshi-dou is an exce-llent adventure into the dank world of weird and wonder- ful underground rock formations.

Day Five: May 3

Early in the morning is the best time to leave Yamaguchi city and head for Shimonoseki. The journey is lengthy but after transferring again in Ogori the rest of the journey is yet another picturesque seaside affair. After arriving in the historic port city get on a bus heading along Route 9 for Akama-Jingu. Here, from May 2-4 at the Senteisai Festival, several young women dressed in very elaborate Heian period courtly robes make their way along a catwalk through the shrine's main entrance to the main hall and back again. The procession starts at 10am and is repeated throughout the day. Photo opportunities abound!

Over the same three days Shimonoseki also boasts the Shimonoseki Strait Festival, weather depending, in which a vast array of decorated boats clog up the Kanmon-Kaikyo strait. If the weather is uncoopera-tive, head over to the city's aquarium or the fish market. Here is your chance to try the infamous fish that south-ern Yamaguchi is famous for: fugu. From the outdoor food stalls along the waterfront, ¥200 will buy a bowl of soup brimming with large pieces of the potentially poisonous fish. You may even live to tell the tale.

Day Six: May 4

The next day, giving thanks for surviving the fugu, you head along the northwest coast all the way to Hagi. The coastline is one of the most beautiful in Japan and is blessed with beaches and cliffs. This leg is best done by car, as driving allows access to the beaches and small peninsulas with spectacular views of rocky cliffs and tiered water-filled rice paddies.

Farmhouses with huge flying koinobori in honour of Boy's Day add a real splash of colour. In this remote part of Japan it is sometimes possible to enjoy the sound of silence — impossible in Kansai. Over the bridge to Tsuno-jima is a good place for a sightseeing detour, and it is also accessible by Blue Line Kotsu bus from JR Tokkoi station. Be prepared to wait around though. The JR Saiin line follows the coast enough for rail riders to enjoy the area's natural charm.

Finally arriving in Hagi, check out the town's samurai district, including the old residence of 1860s anti-sho-gunate hero Shinsaku Takasugi. Hagi is also littered with other classic houses, walls and gates, and there are several temples and shrines worth visiting. Perhaps most importantly, Hagi is the best in the west when it comes to ceramics. Hagi-yaki makes an excellent souvenir and is available at prices from inexpensive to you-don't-want-to-know-how-much.

With your tea cups and whatnot purchased and packed, get on the JR bus bound for Shin Yamaguchi station. Ninety minutes by bus and then a little over two hours by bullet train gets you back to Kansai by day's end with one day of Golden Week left over.

Text & photos: Chris Fawcett

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:: Listings


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:: ART

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Best events + listings


Best gigs + listings


Parties not to miss + listings

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Six days in the Sahara
Alan Ryan on the world's toughest footrace


Art of living
Meditation course of the most wanted peace


Anthony Pappa
A man who made his name from Melbourne to Moscow


Best festivals + listings


New releases and top ten paperback books


Reel reviews of the silver screen


Domestic and international news

Golden Week in Yamaguchi Top Five

1. Gunplay at the Kintai-kyo festival in Iwakuni, April 29.
2. Stately processions at the Sen- teisai Festival in Shimono-seki, May 2-4.
3. Steam train ride to Tsuwano
4. Exploring the northwest coast between Shimonoseki and Hagi.
5. Eating fresh fuku in Shimonoseki

Words of Advice

• Rooms for the night will be a challenge, especially in Shimo- noseki and Yamaguchi. Try to book in the weeks ahead or stay in neighboring towns (Kitakyushu is just across the straight from Shimonoseki).
• Renting a car in Yamaguchi from May 2-4 would allow a better access to secluded places of interest in the northwest. Return it after visiting Hagi.
•  Head to the fish market in Shimonoseki early in the morning. It is not as lively later in the day.
•  Tickets for the steam train from Ogori and Yamaguchi to Tsu- wano should to be purchaded well in advance from JR.


• Yamaguchi Tourist Information Center 083 933 0090, 9am-6pm
• Yamaguchi Car rental website
• JR West in English
• Hotel booking website