A 3-Day Wellness Tour of Hiroshima and Yamaguchi
The 2020s have already been a tumultuous decade, to say the least. It's no wonder that when many travelers get the opportunity to choose their next vacation, they seek destinations or experiences where they can find peace, spiritual rejuvenation, and mental wellness. A road trip through the soothing landscapes of Setouchi's Hiroshima and Yamaguchi Prefectures offers you the chance to live in the moment, savoring each experience as you visit unique natural landscapes, important historical landmarks, and places where you can get a little help recentering your life on what's really important.
etSETOra Sightseeing Train
The etSETOra Tourist train travels along the coastline from Onomichi to Hiroshima. It’s a renovated two-car diesel designed to represent the best of the Setouchi area. From its beautiful décor using warm wood to the blue-and-white painted exterior reminiscent of the waves of the Inland Sea, this handsome train grabs your attention as it cruises from station to station along its journey. A fully stocked bar is on board, with sake and snacks from local towns and cities along the etSETOra’s route that you can enjoy along the way. Sure, there are faster ways to get to Hiroshima from Onomichi, but this trip is about rejuvenation and wellness. Along the way, the incredible views of the Inland Sea from the train’s specially designed seating arrangements will heal your soul.
Japanese Tea Ceremony With a View - Asageshiki Trekking
I started my morning by rising early and meeting my Asageshiki guide, Nana, outside Hiroshima Station. Nana's cheerful attitude was the perfect wake-up call, as she introduced herself and the experience of the day: a hike up nearby Mt. Futabayama. The mountain was surprisingly just a short walk from the station, identifiable by the uniquely shaped Futabayama Peace Pagoda at its peak.
Standing in front of the stone torii gate of Toshogu Shrine at the foot of Futabayama, Nana explained that our trek would take us through the shrine grounds along a seldom-used trail that eventually led to the Futabayama Peace Pagoda. The trail was in poor shape when Asageshiki began their tours a few years ago, so the company organizes volunteer groups and donates a percentage of their fees to maintain the shrine grounds and keep the trail safe.
Donning a large wooden box strapped to her back, Nana led me up the steep trail, passing seven small Inari shrines where people can pray for health, wealth, and easy childbirth, among other things. We also stopped for a brief shinrinyoku (forest bathing), where Nana gave a short lesson in mindfulness, inviting me to use my five senses to appreciate the mountain forest. Listening intently to the chorus of summer insects chirping, smelling the subtle fragrances of the soil and plants, and feeling the refreshing breeze on my face, even for a moment, was an eye-opening experience.
Finally, we arrived at our destination, where I learned the content of the wooden box Nana had been carrying up the mountain: the equipment and utensils needed for a casual Japanese tea ceremony. As she deftly boiled the water, purified the utensils, and whisked me up a bowl of matcha, I enjoyed a stunning view of Hiroshima, as far as beautiful Miyajima Island in the distance. Afterward, Nana invited me to learn to make a bowl of matcha using traditional tea ceremony utensils.
After a trek through a spiritual hotspot, forest bathing, and tea ceremony (or breakfast, if you prefer) overlooking the bright morning cityscape, I was set for an enjoyable day in Hiroshima.
Learn Hiroshima’s Tragic and Inspirational History - Sokoiko! Peace Cycling Tour
Remembering Hiroshima's tragic history through the Peace Memorial Park and Museum is foundational for a visit to Hiroshima, but the somber magnitude of this event can often leave visitors feeling disturbed or even profoundly saddened. So when Satoshi "Toby" Ishitobi launched the Sokoiko Peace Cycling Tour, it was with the intention of showing visitors a different side of the atomic bomb tragedy: the optimism and fortitude that helped the people of Hiroshima to rebuild their city into one of the world's most beautiful.
Rather than exploring just the monuments of the Peace Park, Toby takes visitors by electric bicycle to other sites around the city. These locations show not only the extent of the destruction of the atomic bomb blast that leveled the city in a nearly 2-kilometer radius from the hypocenter, but also provide a sense of hope for a better future, as Hiroshima recovered over the decades following the war.
For example, Toby took us to the train yard to see the Hiroshima "Hiroden" streetcars, which served as the primary mode of public transportation even before the war. Toby explained two things Hiroden did to inspire hope among the citizens of Hiroshima. First, the company restored tram service just three days after the bombing. Although the service was minimal, the familiar sounds of the street cars and tram signals traversing a city brooding under a shroud of eerie silence helped people feel that life could return to normal in Hiroshima. Second, the company restored two streetcars that survived the blast as symbols of resilience and recovery for local residents. Both cars continue to be in service today, and if you are lucky, you'll ride or spot them during your visit.
I won't steal Sokoiko's thunder by giving away too many details of the tour, but suffice it to say that you will be introduced to a completely different perspective on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and perhaps realize how it was possible for the city to be reborn through one of history's greatest tragedies.
Visit Yamaguchi’s Ancient Architectural Wonders - Kintaikyo Bridge and Iwakuni Castle
Leaving Hiroshima Prefecture for Yamaguchi, I stopped in Iwakuni to admire two architectural wonders of Japan's Edo Period: the uniquely engineered Kintaikyo Bridge and, watching over it from the mountain above, Iwakuni Castle.
Kintaikyo Bridge was first constructed in 1673, but lived a short life of less than a year before a storm caused its collapse. Reconstruction commenced nearly immediately, and with careful consideration of the foundational pillars, this version lasted 276 years with regular maintenance until 1950, when a combination of wartime neglect and a powerful typhoon washed it out again. Three years later, the third iteration of the bridge was completed using the original building methods, which have since received some modern reinforcements.
In 1922, Kintaikyo was officially recognized for what it is: a National Site of Scenic Beauty. To behold the graceful arches of Kintaikyo in spring with thousands of cherry trees in bloom, surrounded by the fiery colors of autumn maple trees, or coated with a layer of pure white snow in winter are unique ways to enjoy the seasonal beauty of Setouchi. Even in summer, when I was surprised by a sudden cloudburst, the bridge provided me shelter for the few minutes it took the rain to pass.
But the bridge isn't the only historic contribution to the beautiful scenery of Iwakuni. Perched high above the river on Mt. Shiroyama, the regal Iwakuni Castle watches over the bridge and surrounding area. Built by the Lord of the Kikkawa Clan in 1608, the castle has more value as a tourist attraction than it ever did as a functioning castle.
In fact, the castle existed for only seven years as an official castle before the Shogunate's "one province, one castle" policy demanded that it be demolished. Lord Kikkawa only begrudgingly followed his orders (can you blame him?), leaving many of the stone walls and foundations intact, and they can still be viewed today. The present castle keep, built in 1962, didn't use the old foundations; instead, it was moved 50 meters south to be better viewed from the bridge below. Indeed, a castle built for tourists.
Still, taking the cable car from the base of Shiroyama and slowly rising above the Iwakuni landscape is an experience to be savored, as is viewing the extensive collection of weaponry and armor on display inside the keep. Standing on the top floor with a view stretching to the Inland Sea, you'll forgive the planners for their slightly revised historical take on the castle's location and simply revel in the moment.
Zen Meditation and the Dog Priest of Toshunji Temple
Along the edge of the mountains not far from Yamaguchi Station, Toshun-ji Temple sits in the literal shadow of Ruriko-ji Temple, whose picture-perfect Japanese garden and breathtaking Five-Story Pagoda consolidate its status as a Japan National Treasure. The modest Toshun-ji Temple stands next door, easily missed if you don't search it out.
But it is a Zen Buddhist temple, after all, and Zen Buddhism doesn't put much stock in flashiness. The monk Fukano-san came to greet me in the tattered robes of a man who cared little for material wealth but with a welcoming smile and a tremendous effort to use as much of his English language as he could muster. Fukano-san offered a quick tour of the temple, a behind-the-scenes look at the life of Zen monks. In the ceramics studio, a potter made beautiful ceramics on a daily basis. In the room to the side of the main temple, the monks enjoy an occasional movie night (a documentary, Fukano-san explained, not the latest Indiana Jones flick). Due to a number of animals abandoned during the COVID-19 pandemic, the temple was also hosting a growing menagerie of adopted animals, including goats, rabbits, chickens, and, arriving soon, a horse.
Now, it was time for the zazen meditation experience. The monks of Toshun-ji meditate for 30 minutes each morning, along with sutra copying, which helps clear their minds for the day ahead. Since I had no practice in Zen meditation, we agreed that 10 minutes would be appropriate for me, but Fukano-san is flexible based on the participants' desires. Sitting at the front of the temple in the lotus position, Fukano-san struck the bell that signaled the beginning of the meditation, and we sat together in silence, with a chorus of summer insects drowning out all other sounds. It wasn't easy to still my mind and think of nothing, but the shrill buzzing of cicadas finally established a rhythm that I could rest upon until the bell rang to signal the end of the meditation.
Before I departed, Fukano-san let me strike the temple’s huge, 200-year-old o-daiko drum, as well as take a closer look at the paintings, both ancient and new. One recent painting depicted a white dog against the background of the universe, which turned out to be the predecessor of Maru, the current white dog living at the temple. Would I like to meet her?
Soon, Fukano-san returned with a bounding Maru, who gave me a thorough licking in greeting. Fukano-san refers to Maru partly in jest as the dog priest of Toshun-ji, and constant companion to the monks. Maru is the main attraction of Toshun-ji on social media, and many visitors who come ask specifically to greet her.
After one last lick from Maru and a warm farewell from Fukano-san, I departed the temple. I felt refreshed by the short meditation session, wise words from a long-time Zen monk, and the love of a new canine friend.
Eons of Stunning Geological History - Akiyoshidai Karst and Akiyoshido Caves
Less than an hour from Yamaguchi city, the Akiyoshidai Karst plateau and Akiyoshido limestone caves offer a unique experience to get up close and personal with hundreds of millions of years of geological history, as well as a relaxing hike through a site of stunning natural beauty.
The geography was formed under the sea as a vast coral reef, but as tectonic plates shifted, the formations were pushed to the surface and eventually to the 300 meters above sea level where the area now stands. The limestone formations remain after thousands of years of erosion by wind and rain. These odd forms are scattered throughout the plain, turning from a vibrant summer green to a golden brown as winter approaches.
Five walking courses wind through the karst, connecting various points of interest, but a simple one-hour trail from the Akiyoshidai Karst Observatory gives visitors a taste of the ancient scenery. I encountered few other souls as I strolled through the landscape, giving me plenty of time to reflect on its natural history and peaceful silence.
Yet, about 100 meters below the surface of the karst, another completely different alien landscape exists. Akiyoshido is a network of limestone caves extending over 11 kilometers underground. About 1 kilometer of the caves are accessible to visitors, but contain enough natural landmarks to satisfy anyone venturing into the darkness.
To be honest, it's not all that dark. Well-positioned lighting and paved pathways keep the cave safe for visitors of all ages and physical abilities, yet allow people to get very close to ancient formations growing underground here for hundreds of thousands of years. For me, the most stunning formation was the Hyakumaizara (One Hundred Dishes): cascading puddles of water containing dissolved limestone dripping down the sloping wall of the cavern.
At the southern end of the cave complex, I exited from its cool 17C air out into the humid summer day, like a mole emerging from its burrow. Here, the underground river tumbles out of the cave into a deep blue pond rich with calcium.
Back in the outside world, the ancient geological phenomena of Akiyoshidai and Akiyoshido had effectively reset my perspective of my own existence, aptly concluding my wellness tour of Hiroshima and Yamaguchi. As I pondered what I had experienced over the past several days – the natural beauty of the Seto Inland Sea, the inspirational rebuilding of Hiroshima from literal ashes, the wisdom of a Zen Buddhist monk – I concluded that this journey was exactly what I had needed, without even realizing it.
Photographs and text by Todd Fong
You can get more information about the route followed in this article by checking out our itineraries in the "Plan Your Trip" section of this website.
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A 3-Day Wellness Tour of Hiroshima and Yamaguchi
Hiroshima is the central city of Chugoku region. Hiroshima Prefecture is dotted with Itsukushima Shrine, which has an elegant torii gate standing in the sea; the Atomic Bomb Dome that communicates the importance of peace; and many other attractions worth a visit. It also has world-famous handicrafts such as Kumano brushes.