Allow me today to take you to the seaside town of Tomonoura. Located down on the southeastern edge of Hiroshima Prefecture, this homely hamlet is a picturesque port on the Seto Inland Sea. In the days of yesteryear, Tomonoura was a welcomed haven for those waiting for the tides of the Seto Inland Sea to change in their favor. Even today, much of the infrastructure from Tomonoura’s hay day (such as the Joyato Lighthouse seen above) still exists. Thus, the town is perfect for people like yourselves that are seeking to experience a different side of Japan.
To really get Tomonoura, you first need to understand the Seto Inland Sea. Located between Japan’s main island of Honshu and the smaller isle of Shikoku, the Seto Inland Sea has one of the largest variances between high and low tide on the planet. Due to the sheer amount of water rushing into the 400 km-long stretch of water between Osaka and Kita-Kyushu, the tides in Japan’s most picturesque body of water can differ as much as 2–3 meters. Thus, it is nigh impossible to fight against the current, even with modern technology.
Of course, the great variance in the tides never stopped people from getting to and fro. To navigate the ebbs and flows of the Seto Inland Sea, merchant ships traveling around the area would use the currents to their advantage. These small boats would go as far as they could and then pull into somewhere like the port town of Tomonoura to wait for a more favorable tide. As a result, these locales developed industries to cater to patiently waiting travelers. Thanks to this legacy, visitors to Tomonoura’s old town center can see all sorts of traces of history and what life would have been like centuries ago.
In more recent years, Tomonoura has become an even more popular destination due to being used as a reference location in Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo on the Cliff. Moreover, this part of Japan was also used as a setting for the 2013 Hollywood blockbuster The Wolverine starring Hugh Jackman. Alas, not a great many people know this fact as the location’s iconic views were largely not used in the film (yes, I watched some of it just for this article). Moreover, due to the storyline, Tomonoura was referred to as a village on the outskirts of Nagasaki. Thus, the port town did not get the exposure it should have.
All things considered though, Tomonoura is a great addition to the itineraries of visitors to Hiroshima Prefecture. Especially if you have a JR Rail Pass, you can easily hop off at Fukuyama Station and make a half-day excursion to Tomonoura before continuing on west. Next time you head down to western Japan, consider seeing what life would have been like for the locals in this historic part of Hiroshima. I promise you that the port town of Tomonoura will not disappoint you!
How to Get There
Tomonoura is actually not all too difficult to get to. To begin with, you’ll need to make your way to Fukuyama Station. For those of you coming from Tokyo or Osaka in the east, the easiest way to do this is to take one of the bullet trains. Should you already be in the local area though, the JR Sanyo Main Line will be more affordable. As always, a service like Jorudan will help you divine which route is the most efficient for you. I honestly don’t know how I’d traverse the countryside without something like it.
Once you’re at Fukuyama Station, you’ll want to exit and find the bus stop. From here, you’ll need to catch a Tomotetsu Bus bound for Tomonoura. One thing to note though is that there is no English to be had so keep your eyes out for the Japanese characters 鞆の浦. The port town is located a ways away from the downtown areas of Fukuyama City so you’ll have to ride a fair way. During my stint in the area, I was traveling with the Setouchi DMO staff so I can’t exactly comment on how long the bus ride is but I’d wager it’s around half an hour.
The bus stop that you want to keep an eye out for is Tomo Port (鞆港). Again, you should probably be expecting that everything will be in Japanese so either have Google Maps open or jot down the characters so that you can reference them en route. I’ll leave a link here to where the bus will let you off but you should be able to spot the town’s quaint scenery as soon as you step off of the vehicle.
What to See in Tomonoura
To be honest with you, there are a ton of things to do in Tomonoura. That said, in contrast to sight seeing in the major cities, one of the main allures of coming to a seaside hamlet such as Tomonoura is the town’s vibes. Yes, Tomonoura does have an insane amount of history to it thanks to being an important port town on the Seto Inland Sea. At the same time though, it’s the slower pace of life that the locals lead that really makes this place so charming. I suggest you spend some time just wandering about the town center taking in the atmosphere.
Below, I’ve included a list of locations that you might want to swing by when meandering about the streets of Tomonoura…
- The Joyato Lighthouse
Possibly the most iconic structure in all of the port town, Tomonoura’s lighthouse is a historic structure that dates from the Edo period (1603–1868). Standing 11-meters-tall, the spire can be found at the Tomonoura port waterfront — you literally cannot miss it!
- Irohamaru Museum
Located adjacent to the lighthouse, this museum gets its name from a merchant ship that once ferried Sakamoto Ryoma, an important historical figure. The boat sank with him on it but sometime after, local residents discovered the wreckage and the Irohamaru Museum now exhibits a number of artifacts relating to the man and the Irohamaru.
- The Ota Residence
This domicile once belonged to the Ota family. These merchants massed their wealth by brewing homeishu, a type of medicinal liquor with a high alcohol content that uses 16 types of herbs and is said to promote longevity. Today, the complex and its many storehouses are something of an open-air museum that offers a glimpse of Tomonoura’s mercantile history.
- The Tomonoura Museum of History & Folklore
If you’re a reader of Japanese and want to dig deep into the local history of the region, I suggest you hoof it up the stone steps and check out the The Tomonoura Museum of History & Folklore. The compound is built atop the former walls of Tomo Castle and chronicles all you would ever want to know about Tomonoura… in Japanese only.
Offering stunning views of the small island of Benten-jima (as well as the larger Sensui-jima) through its veranda, Fukuzen-ji is a must see for all visitors to this part of Hiroshima. Be sure not to miss the statue of Maria Kannon. This effigy is actually the Virgin Mary in disguise and hails from an age when Christianity was banned in Japan!
In addition to the spots noted above, I also suggest you sample some of the locally caught red sea bream. These fish have been hauled directly out of the Seto Inland Sea with a traditional fishing method known as Tai Ami. If you’re visiting during the month of May, it looks like you can actually take part in helping the people of Tomonoura fish!
Don’t Miss Abuto Kannon
While you can find a few more shrines and temples on the outskirts of the port town of Tomonoura, I suggest you instead head on over to the awe-inspiring Abuto Kannon. Officially known as Bandai-ji, this temple compound is situated about 5 kilometers to the west of Tomonoura. It was originally founded in the late 900s and then later refurbished by the regional warlord Mori Terumoto in the year 1570. The main point of appeal is the Kannon-do pictured above. The gravity-defying hall sits precariously atop of a rock protrusion and is not for the faint of heart.
Note that Abuto Kannon is quite popular with those looking to have children. The temple building has a reputation for blessing those who pray there with a smooth and complication-free birth. Though you’ll need to overcome your fear of heights with the calmness of a monk during deep Zen meditation, braving the Kannon-do may be just what expecting months need. Should you be giving birth in the coming months and happen to find yourself on a final, pre-parenthood trip to Japan, definitely consider swinging by Abuto Kannon.
Seeing as you’ll likely need a rental car to reach Abuto Kannon, one other spot that I also recommend you check out is Shinsho-ji. A relatively needed construction inasmuch as as temples are concerned, this complex was completed in the year 1964. The space was designed to give a Zen-like experience through a number of different mediums that include a tea house, meditation halls and a mindfulness experience. The whole place has a unique and contemporary art-style vibe to it. While challenging to get to via public transportation, those with rental cars who are visiting Abuto Kannon should be able to reach it with ease.
Back at Fukuyama Station
Following an adventure in Tomonoura, most travelers will need to head back to Fukuyama Station. While there are not too many things to do in the urban areas of Hiroshima’s second largest city, one option to check out is Fukuyama Castle. Found just on the other side of Fukuyama Station, this stronghold is a reconstruction that was completed in the 1960s. The spacious grounds are also a great spot for cherry blossoms so if you’re rolling through during the middle of March, definitely consider budgeting for some extra time to sit and savor the pink beauties of Fukuyama Castle.
The former castle grounds are also home to a variety of other allures too. Chief among these is the Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of History. Here, you can see how inhabitants of the Seto Inland Sea region lived through the ages of Japanese history. Moreover, the facility also provides a good overview of Hiroshima’s greater role in the struggles for power during the Warring States period (1467–1603).
There are also a few other properties nearby too but I think readers of this blog would be most interested in the Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of History…
Other Nearby Attractions
Anyone coming down this far into western Japan really needs to check out Hiroshima City. While most people only ever visit the locations related to World War II, there’s a lot more to do than just the Hiroshima Peace Museum and the Atomic Bomb Dome. For more information on what to see and do in the city of Hiroshima, refer to this guide as I go way more into depth about the lesser known sides of this ever-popular destination. To get there from Fukuyama, all you’ll need to do is take the bullet train a couple of stops and you’ll arrive at Hiroshima Station. It really couldn’t be any more simple!
Should you want to explore another port town on the Seto Inland Sea, consider hopping over to Onomichi. Unlike with Hiroshima City, you can reach this part of the prefecture via the local JR Sanyo Main Line and you’ll be there in a matter of minutes. I’ve written at length about Onomichi before but this borough is both the start of the famed Shimanami Kaido as well as the site of a famous temple walk. Though many people have gone there in the past for cycling, few ever really give Onomichi’s historical side the time that it’s due. Definitely check it out if you want to see a different side of Japan.
Finally, know that the beloved “Rabbit Island” of Okunoshima is also not too far from Fukuyama. Should you want to make a day trip excursion out to the isle and play with the hundreds of rabbits that call Okunoshima home, you’ll want to check out this piece on the island. To be frank with you, it’s a hilarious and soothing experience that will be one of the standouts from your trip to Japan. Though I am usually not really a fan of places like Okunoshima, even I couldn’t help but smile the entire time I was there.
Until next time travelers…