For the longest while now, the city of Iwakuni has been on my radar. Though located a mere stone’s throw away from the sacred isle of Miyajima over in the neighboring prefecture, circumstances just never conspired to allow for a visit. Recently, I was finally able to cross Iwakuni off my bucket list as part of a trip for Tokyo Creative’s #HostTownRelay project. In retrospect, I am a bit ashamed that it took me this long to get my behind down to this amazing hidden gem. Whether as a side trip from Miyajima, or a two-day adventure, Iwakuni is a local jaunt that deserves far more attention than it presently draws.
For the record, I first encountered Iwakuni and its iconic Kintai Bridge while doing my initial sweep of Japan for off the beaten path attractions that I wanted to feature. Thereafter, my intrigue was further piqued when I discovered that the famous swordsman, Sasaki Kojiro, originally hailed from Iwakuni. This early Edo period (1603–1868) badass was one of a handful of warriors who could remotely hold a candle to the legendary duelist, Miyamoto Musashi. The entire saga is artfully chronicled by the amazing Yoshikawa Eiji in the epic “Musashi.” While the novel is nearly 1,000 pages long, I can’t more highly recommend giving this story a read.
In addition to Iwakuni’s ties to Sasaki Kojiro, the city also shares a strong bond with my now-abandoned home country of America. Iwakuni holds the potential of serving as a host town for some of the American teams in 2021. Iwakuni is also home to one of our military bases known as Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni (or MCAS Iwakuni). The base site can be found on the southern outskirts of the city’s central sections. Thanks to this, Iwakuni retains much of its Japanese vibe and is not overly westernized like the area surrounding Kanagawa Prefecture’s Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka base.
If you’re planning on visiting Miyajima and Hiroshima, and are hankering for a historical add-on to the region, I highly recommend you explore the Iwakuni area. Due to the city being conveniently located around the Kintai Bridge, you can easily knock off many of the main allures in under half a day. What’s more, a visit to Iwakuni need not greatly alter the overall arch of your time in Japan. While you’ll need to budget for additional time when visiting this western part of Japan’s main island, it’s one-hundred percent worth it!
How to Get There
As alluded to, Iwakuni is a city that is not all that far removed from Hiroshima Prefecture’s popular island of Miyajima. In fact, the entire journey from Miyajimaguchi Station to Iwakuni Station will only take you a mere twenty-two minutes. Alternatively, if you’re coming from Hiroshima City proper, know that you’re still only looking at a ride of a little under an hour. Given its proximity to these mainstream attractions, you’d be hard pressed to find a hidden gem in Japan with easier logistics than this.
Though the trek to Iwakuni Station itself isn’t all that hard, know that you’ll need to make navigate the buses to get to where all the action is at. You see, the station itself is pretty far away from where the Kintai Bridge and the rest of the options for sightseeing. Luckily for overseas tourists though, this need not be much cause for concern. Not only can you pay for your fare with an IC card such as a Suica but thanks to the presence of the base, most signage is also in English. All you need to do is board one of the buses departing from stop number one that are bound for the Kintai Bridge.
Note for those coming down all the way from Tokyo. Iwakuni actually does have its own bullet train stop. While it’s only serviced by the slower Kodama trains, you can actually do the entire trip via only the bullet train. If you’re looking to milk your JR Rail Pass for all it’s worth, it might make sense to just Kodama it all the way down to Iwakuni. Thereafter, you can make you way back towards Hiroshima via Miyajima for Itsukushima Shrine, Mt. Misen, the Atomic Bomb Dome, etc.
What to See in Iwakuni
Thus far, I’ve referenced the ever-iconic Kintai Bridge as if it’s a familiar location; however, I realize this likely won’t hold true for many overseas visitors. So, in the interest of getting us all on the same page, allow me to quickly introduce this central attraction before going on to detail additional options of interest to check out. Put simply, Kintai Bridge serves as a symbol of Iwakuni and is one of the three most beautiful structures of its kind in all Japan. As can be seen above, the wooden landmark is supported by sturdy stone pillars which shoulder five arches that span the Nishiki River below.
While an overpass of some design has resided in this region for a while, Kintai Bridge stands in a class of its own. Originally erected in 1673, the walkway was constructed to withstand any force Mother Nature could throw at it. Fed up with losing previous predecessors to strong currents and flooding, the third Edo period (1603–1868) lord of Iwakuni commissioned a bridge that would endure the test of time. Of course, given the Kintai Bridge is made of wood, the current arches have not witnessed a lasting history; nevertheless, the present design remains faithful to the past.
One primary reason for Kintai Bridge being recognized as a vital engineering achievement is that the structure connected Iwakuni’s working class sections to the administrative heart. You see, the former castle town area was divided down the middle into two areas by the Nishiki River. On the Yokoyama side of the brook resided in the castle and the high ranking samurai. On the other, dwelled the merchants and less esteemed warriors. Without the accessibility provided by the Kintai Bridge, these two halves of Iwakuni would remain utterly disconnected from each other.
Accessing Kintai Bridge will cost you 310 yen which is quite rare for a pedestrian crossing. This fee helps to subsidize the upkeep of the structure so overall, it’s money well spent. Once on the other side of Kintai Bridge, you’ll find yourself in Kikko Park. Thereafter, you’ll immediately encounter a statue of Kikkawa Hiroyoshi, the lord who commissioned the construction of Kintai Bridge. In fact, the entirety of Kikko Park is built utop the former grounds of this mighty man’s domicile. These days though, Kikko Park is instead home to a number of vendors selling delectable goodies and assorted museums.
Now, frankly speaking, one extremely odd allure in Kikko Park is the number of frozen soft serve flavors on offer. In all my life, I have never seen so many different flavors and varieties of ice cream. Pumpkin flavor? Got that. Ten different variants of vanilla? Yup, got that too. Hell, there’s even an ayu flavor (small Japanese sweetfish) that comes complete with a little fishtail terrifyingly poking out of the side. Honestly, whatever kind of weird pallet you may have, you’ll find something savory and divine at Kikko Park.
In addition to its infinite options for soft serve, Kikko Park is also home to an inexhaustible collection of museums, historical attractions, and options for local delicacies (that aren’t soft serve). The following are just SOME of the many spots I visited during my three-day stint in Iwakuni. As always, I’ll include links to Google Maps to make navigation easier…
Iwakuni Art Museum
I’ve experienced A LOT of currations in my travels and I must say, this one is a strong contender for Number One. Split across three floors, the Iwakuni Art Museum houses one of the best collections of samurai arms and armor that I’ve ever seen. Several of the pieces on display have been previously lent to esteemed establishments on occasion such as the New York Metropolitan Museum. Many of these weaponry pieces have been designated as national treasures.
Iwakuni Antiquities Museum
Fans of ancient artifacts will want to pop into this entirely free facility. Located on the outskirts of Kikko Park, the Iwakuni Antiques Museum has a number of historic items on display from the former castle town’s past.
While not as expansive as the amazing Iwakuni Art Museum, this facility houses a number of artifacts that once belonged to the Kikkawa family. Unfortunately, for overseas visitors, all of the descriptive placards are only written in Japanese.
Iwakuni Shirohebi Museum
Not for the ophidiophobiacs out there, this complex is dedicated to the famed white snakes of Iwakuni. These reptiles only exist in the vicinity of Iwakuni and are considered to be a good omen by the locals. Note that within the Iwakuni Shirohebi Museum, there are actually a bunch of live snakes so don’t venture inside if you have any phobias!
This lovely little shrine is the family shrine of the Kikkawa family. While not a must visit like the Iwakuni Art Museum, Kikko Shrine is conveniently located just outside of the perimeter of Kikko Park. If you have a few minutes to spare, I highly suggest you stop by!
Sasaki Kojiro’s Statue
If you’re a fan of swordsmanship, you should pause and pay your respects to one of Japan’s best brawlers at his statue. You’ll find it standing next to the Kikkawa Archives.
This pink-topped dish is a local speciality and differs from traditional sushi in that it is assembled in large, layered batches. You can enjoy this unique recipe at a number of restaurants in the area however everyone seems to rave about Hirasei.
Lastly, Kikko Park is also home for the Iwakuni Castle Ropeway station. As the name would suggest, this gondola will take you up the slope of Yokoyama mountain. There, you’ll discover the ferroconcrete reconstruction of Iwakuni Castle. Though a modern concoction that dates from 1962, the facility houses a number of historical artifacts including an incredible assortment of samurai weaponry and armor. What’s more, you’ll get a great view of Kitai Bridge and the surrounding area from the observation deck on the top floor (see the opening shot of this piece for reference).
The fee for Iwakuni Castle is only 270 yen but this does not account for the additional fare you’ll need to pay to ride the ropeway. Given that everyone who visits Iwakuni will also want to cross Kintai Bridge, it’s best if you purchase a combined ticket that will cover the cost of all three adventures. For just a little under 1,000 yen, you can kill three birds with one stone by opting for the combined ticket. Unless you plan to tackle the arduous hike to the top of Yokoyama, it’s definitely worth the price!
Other Nearby Attractions
Throughout this article, I’ve alluded multiple times to the fact that a visit to Iwakuni combines quite well with a trip to Miyajima. That said, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t elect to overnight on the sacred island. While things are a little different right now due to the coronavirus and ongoing restoration work on the great torii, Miyajima is an eternally popular location. With that said, there’s almost always a crowd yet this scene can be avoided by spending the night in one of the isle’s many ryokan.
If you are looking for more to do in the vicinity of Iwakuni and Kintai Bridge, I highly suggest that you check out Irori Sanzoku. From what I can tell, this restaurant has a total of three sites but the closest to Iwakuni is the one in neighboring Kuga. This venue was the first in the trio of Irori Sanzoku restaurants and consists of three different dining facilities. The decision of where to eat basically comes down to whether you want to be indoors or outdoors but otherwise there’s little variation in the menu.
On that note, what makes Irori Sanzoku so appealing is that a trip there feels like you’ve stepped into another world. The atmosphere is based on an overly exaggerated version of what one might expect from the lair of sanzoku (lit. “mountain bandits”). As you might expect, the grub is similarly styled to match the ambience. At Irori Sanzoku, you’ll be able to feast on sanzoku-yaki (grilled chicken on a bamboo stick), sanzoku-musubi (giant rice balls filled with salmon, kombu and umeboshi) and other select fare that Japan’s mountain-dwelling crooks may have eaten.
In all honesty, the only downside to Irori Sanzoku is that it’s a bit of a chore to reach. Should you be commuting via a rental car, it’s a mere 20 minute drive away. Schleps like myself who rely on public transportation will first need to take the Gantoku Line to Kimmeji Station. From there, Sanzoku Irori is a 10 minute hike. Sadly, given the infrequency of the departures on the Gantoku Line, a trip to Irori Sanzoku via the train can easily account for half of the day so be sure to reference Jorudan. If you’re considering making a go for it, aim to eat dinner at Irori Sanzoku so that you don’t detract from Iwakuni.
Finally, for my fellow Americans out there, should you be feeling homesick, know that you can get some familiar chow near the MCAS Iwakuni base. As always, I encourage you to enjoy a local favorite instead like Iwakuni-zushi. Additionally, you’ll also find a great Tex-Mex restaurant somewhere between Iwakuni Station and the airforce compound that serves up some hearty sustenance.
Until next time travelers…