If you’re an avid fan of traveling to Japan (which is now thankfully again possible as of Oct 11, 2022), you’ve probably heard of the amazing Shimanami Kaido. Running from Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture all the way to Imabari in Ehime, this cycling route has become extremely popular in recent years both in Japan and overseas. That said, there’s a lot more to Onomichi than just the start of the Shimanami Kaido. Alas, many foreign visitors who intend to cycle their way to Ehime completely miss out on Onomichi’s charms.
In the following sections, we’ll dive into the handful of worthy allures that are located in the seaside town Onomichi. For the most part, I’ll be leaving the Shimanami Kaido out of this article. As great as it is, a full account of what to expect when cycling across the islands of the Seto Inland Sea would require its own article. As such, I suggest that the cyclist out there do some digging in Google for more details. Just be sure not to miss out on what Onomichi has to offer before embarking on the journey to Imabari.
Now, historically speaking, Onomichi was an important port city on the Seto Inland Sea for much of Japanese history. The records we have show that the quaint town first popped up in the year 1168. Thereafter, Onomichi was an important shipment center for rice for the next 500 years. Though its importance waned during the Edo period (1603–1868), Onomichi was still a vital node that helped to interlink the region via shipping lanes that run throughout the Seto Inland Sea.
While I’ll mostly be featuring the areas around Onomichi Station, the city limits actually extend far off of the mainland and include many of the coastal islands. In most cases, these can be accessed via small ferries that operate between Onomichi’s downtown areas and the nearby islands. As with many of the other port cities on the Seto Inland Sea, this only adds to Onomichi’s nostalgic vibe. Honestly, I found the atmosphere to be the best part of the town.
Anyway, whether as an easy add-on for those doing the Shimanami Kaido or as a stand-alone destination, Onomichi is a part of Hiroshima Prefecture that more foreign visitors to Japan ought to experience. Consider adding it to your itinerary when you next find yourself on the western half of Japan’s main island of Honshu!
How to Get There
Technically speaking, Onomichi is located on the bullet train line that runs from Tokyo to Hakata down in Fukuoka Prefecture. That said, Shin-Onomichi Station is rather far removed from the heart of the city. Moreover, the stop is only serviced by the slower Kodama Shinkansen. Because of this, travelers are far better off approaching Onomichi via Okayama Station or Fukuyama Station. As always, use a service like Jorudan to calculate the most expedient route. Your final destination will be Onomichi Station.
While Shin-Onomichi Station (where the bullet train stops) is far away from all of the action, the regular Onomichi Station is right in the heart of the port city’s main areas. Thanks to this, access to most of the attractions is actually quite good. In fact, you can reach almost all of the main spots on foot. Just note that Onomichi is a town that is characterized by its many slopes and as you might imagine, the local allures are all going to require getting some sort of elevation.
Note that hotel infrastructure in Onomichi is rather lacking (at least when it comes to websites like Agoda and Booking.com). There are a handful of notable accommodations but given that the location is so popular for the Shimanami Kaido, I was rather surprised by the few facilities on the menu. In comparison to Japan’s other locations, the sparse options were one thing that really struck me as odd during my visit to this part of Japan. Be sure to reserve your stay well in advance.
The Port City of Onomichi
By far, the best thing to do in Onomichi is the town’s temple walk. Beginning on the eastern edge of the main areas and heading all the way back to where Onomichi Station is, this 25 temple-long course cuts through all sorts of narrow lanes and residential areas. All in all, the entire circuit will take around a half of a day for you to complete. If you have the time for it, I highly encourage you to give it a go. It’s really a great way to explore the historic parts of Onomichi City.
While the Onomichi temple walk is indeed fun, it also will require a lot of up and down trekking. Should you be visiting during the sultry months of summer, you might want to avoid overheating and instead take the easy way. Rather than hike your way up to where the temples are perched, it’s easier to instead take the Mt. Senko-ji Ropeway. From atop the hill, you can access Onomichi’s top temple, Senko-ji, as well as an amazing observation deck that affords views of both the port as well as the bridges to the other islands.
While Senko-ji is the main reason to take the ropeway up, there are a few other points of interest on Mt. Senko-ji to visit. These are the Onomichi City Art Museum and the so-called Path of Literature. As the name suggests, the former curates a number of masterpieces produced by local artists whereas the latter pays homage to a number of authors who hail from Onomichi. Along with the epic vistas from the Senko-ji Observation Platform, these other attractions round out the allures on top of Mt. Senko-ji.
Getting back down to the central areas of Onomichi is a lot easier than hiking up. You can either elect to take the ropeway down if you’re feeling tired or you can do what I did and snake your way through the winding alleyways of Onomichi. Unless you’re extremely unlucky, you’ll probably encounter one of the stray but friendly cats that inhabit these narrow lanes. There’s even the Neko-no-Hosomichi (lit. “Narrow Cat Alley”) here for fans of felines to check out should that tickle your fancy.
Assuming that you are not looking to do the full temple walk during your trip to Onomichi, one other spot that I’d encourage you to check out is Saikoku-ji. Found on another hill near Mt. Senko-ji, this sprawling complex sits at the top of a flight of 108 stairs. Though you’ll certainly work up a sweat making your way to the main hall, the 1,300-year-old temple compound is certainly worth a bit of your time. Note that Saikoku-ji is a famous spot for cherry blossoms and during spring, the grounds are lit up at night.
Once you’ve had enough of Onomichi’s temples for the day, you’d do well to head on over to the Onomichi Hondori. Here on this decidedly Showa period (1912–1989) shopping street, you’ll find a number of restaurants and cafes. Beginning near Onomichi Station, the strip runs for about 1.6 kilometers. Sandwiched between the hills where the temples are and the coastline, you’ll find many a tourist store here as well as shops for local residents. Just waltz your way down the path and you’re sure to find something that suits your style.
Should your tummy be grumbling, one regional speciality on the menu that I encourage you to try during your trip is Onomichi ramen. Made from a soy sauce-based soup and sporting surprisingly springy noodles, this famous take on ramen has some unique properties that you won’t find in other bowls. The dish makes use of the high quality fish from the nearby Seto Inland Sea and is topped with the typical flare that you’d find in other parts of Japan. Allegedly, the locals actually considered it to be a health food due to the fats used.
Lastly, in addition to Onomichi Hondori, one other part of Onomichi that I suggest you visit is the waterfront area near Onomichi U2. Here you’ll find a number of great restaurants as well as bike shops and one of the better hotels in town. Additionally, there’s also coin showers outside of the Onomichi U2 building for sweaty cyclists returning from the Shimanami Kaido. While I didn’t bike during my visit, I did quickly cleanse myself here for only 100 yen after a long day exploring during the Japanese summer.
Out on the Seto Inland Sea
As noted before, Onomichi is a city that spills out onto the nearby islands. Thus, there are a few more attractions that are technically within the town’s limits that I’d like to note below. Unfortunately, unless you have a rental car or are cycling the Shimanami Kaido, the location of these hidden gems might be too far off of the beaten path for most travelers. While I am sure there’s a bus or something, I’d recommend you spend your time elsewhere as a tourist should you not have your own set of wheels.
Located out on the island of Ikuchijima, this temple belongs to the Jodo Shinshu or “True Pure Land Sect” of Buddhism. Founded relatively recently in 1936 by a successful entrepreneur, many of Kosan-ji’s buildings are modeled after Japan’s other famous cultural centers. As a result, the colorful temple complex produces a strange sense of deja vu. If you go to Kosan-ji, be sure not to miss an area called Miraishin-no-Oka (lit. “The Heights of Eternal Hope for the Future’’) . Made entirely from Italian marble, this part of the grounds is quite intriguing.
- Hirayama Ikuo Museum
Situated on the same island as Kosan-ji, this facility is dedicated to the work of one of Japan’s most famous painters, Hirayama Ikuo. The museum is quite modern and classy and has a total of three exhibition halls to enjoy. Additionally, there’s also a tea lounge and the gift shop to check out too.
In addition to the above suggestions, there are all sorts of other hidden gems on the islands that run between Onomichi and Imabari along the Shimanami Kaido. The one that I want to recommend most is deeply tied to piracy on the treacherous Seto Inland Sea. That however, is a topic for its own article.
Other Nearby Attractions
Assuming that you’re not hopping from island to island via the bridges of the Shimanami Kaido and heading over to Imabari in Ehime Prefecture, I have a few final recommendations for those staying in Onomichi. Once you’ve checked out the shops and had a savory bowl of Onomichi ramen, consider adding a few of the following spots to your itinerary.
- Fukuyama Castle
This medieval stronghold was originally constructed in 1622 at the behest of one of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s cousins. Historically, it was supposed to be the clan’s westernmost base of power and the first line of defense should those who Ieyasu bested at the Battle of Sekigahara (like the Mori and Shimazu clans) ever start acting up. The present castle is but a mere ferro-concrete reconstruction but the grounds are still quite beautiful, especially during the cherry blossom season.
- Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of History
This awesome facility chronicles how the inhabitants of the area survived throughout the various periods of Japanese history. Thus, it provides a different take on feudal Japan than most other museums that tend to focus more on land-based narratives. The Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of History sports a life-sized reconstruction of what a town along the coast would have looked like centuries ago. Seeing as the property is right by Fukuyama Castle, you’d be a fool not to also visit this amazing museum!
This port town is located on the southernmost end of the city of Fukuyama. Jutting out into the bay of the Seto Inland Sea, the picturesque village sports an endearing vibe that will whisk you back in time to a more simple age. In the days of yesteryear, Tomonoura flourished as a mercantile center where sailors would seek refuge while waiting for favorable tides. Tomonoura has become popular in recent years after appearing in both “The Wolverine” and Studio Ghibli’s “Ponyo on the Cliff.”
Until next time travelers…