Iwakuni is a small city in the eastern part of Yamaguchi with stunning scenery where you can step back into old Japan without the selfie sticks and crowds of Kyoto. A traditional castle town facing the sea of Aki, the peaceful surroundings make a wonderful relaxed day out. Especially beautiful during cherry blossom season or for momiji in autumn, the scenic views suit every season. With famous white snakes, a sword museum and local specialty sushi though, there are plenty of unusual things to enjoy as well!
Deceivingly steep wooden arches make this bridge one of the most famous spots in Yamaguchi, and rightly so. Built at the base of Mount Yokoyama in 1673, Kintaikyo spans the Nishiki River and was designed by feudal lords to resist strong flood waters which had destroyed its predecessors. The steep wooden arches are supported by stone piers, and parts are replaced periodically for maintenance (you can buy small souvenirs made from the wood too).
During the most recent changes, the bottom step of the central arch cost the city three million yen—so it’s a pricey job. It is one of Japan’s three great bridges and is the symbol of the city. During spring, cherry blossoms line the river, which is beach-like with shallow waters perfect for paddling and fishing. The bridge is host to it’s own festival on April 29th as well as being a great spot for viewing the nearby castle—especially stunning in autumn when surrounded by the changing maple trees (momiji).
Combined tickets for the bridge, ropeway and castle can be bought at the bridge entrance for 940 yen, the bridge is 300 yen otherwise.
Cormorant fishing and festivals
From June-September you can see the traditional art of cormorant fishing take place on the river. Lanterns adorn fishing boats with a tamed cormorant at the head who scoops up fish, which are quickly removed before they can be swallowed. Fishermen wear traditional outfits including straw skirts and the headgear of the traditional noblemen to perform the 300-year-old fishing technique.
The festival in April includes a parade across the bridge called “sankin-koutai” which is a feudal lord procession led by locals in full samurai costume.
Just across the bridge, the park contains samurai homes, museums and some interesting snacks. Filled with festival stalls on April 29th and hanami picnics in spring, the park is a great gathering place which is fun to explore. Home to cormorants, street cats and very tame pigeons—the animals love it too.
Once in Kikko Park you are faced with a very important choice: what ice cream flavor do you want? You may jump to trusty chocolate or maybe venture to matcha – but how about trying ayu? The fishy tail may be a giveaway, but ayu are the small sweet fish which fill the river and attract the cormorants—and actually make really nice ice cream! When fresh from the water they smell like watermelon and the tiddlers from the Nishiki River were awarded 2nd most delicious across Japan (you can’t win them all). If you’re still not convinced, there are hundreds of flavors to choose from at the two competing stores, and English menus are available at the counter. We opted for Japanese plum, ayu and matcha with adzuki bean paste, and all three were delicious (but some were more delicious than others).
The park is great for an ice cream stroll and you can admire the fountains and greenery before visiting the former residence of feudal lord Kikkawa, whose family built the castle while ruling the area in the 17th century. The ditches and plaster-walled buildings with mud fences show how the houses of the samurai would have looked back in the day, and it’s a good area for exploring as there is also a shrine.
Snakes and swords
If you walk through the park, and past the Kikkawa house, you will find yourself in a small square which has some rather interesting options, including the castle cable car (more on that later). To your right however, is the Imazu White Snakes Museum, home to the famous and protected albino snakes of Iwakuni (not great for orphidiophobics, sorry). With white scales and red eyes, they may look nightmarish to some but are harmless and considered to be messengers of Benten, the goddess of wealth. They can be seen near the shrine, but for a more controlled experience, the museum has live-in snakes, videos and lots of information on the slitherers, as well as lucky snake-skin souvenirs.
Straight ahead of you is the Iwakuni Art Museum which houses an expansive collection of samurai artifacts and focuses on Japanese traditional culture and art. There are three main exhibitions: Life and Death Culture which is about the samurai, Cultures of Life and a special exhibition which showcases seasonal items and pieces of special interest. The museum pieces are incredible to see, with original prints of the bridge as well as well-preserved samurai armor and swords.
We were lucky enough to be shown around by the owner, who detailed the history and importance of the pieces, but don’t worry, even without this, it’s fascinating to see the original pieces in their hometown. Pieces have been lent to the New York Meteropolitan Museum among others and include Japanese National Treasures. A personal favorite were the helmets adorned with different animals, each reflecting a distinct quality in the wearer, for example rabbits for speed and a clam, which if gifted meant the people would never be parted.
Iwakuni castle views
The castle is perched high up on Mount Shiroyama and visible from Kintaikyo, but easy to reach in a 3-minute ropeway (cable car) ride. This is also a great opportunity to see the bridge in all its glory, with spectacular views of the city behind it.
Built in in 1608 at the beginning of the Edo period, the castle was positioned carefully with great defenses including a natural moat and has four glorious stories which poke out from the trees. Having taken five years to build, it was destroyed only seven years later and the present reconstruction only dates back to 1962. You can venture inside to see more swords, armor and other items from the era or just enjoy the views!
Lunch plans: Iwakuni sushi is a must
Iwakuni is a really lovely leisurely day out—with plenty to do and all quite close by, you can snack on ice cream, but we do have a lunch recommendation.
Iwakuni sushi is unusual in that it is made in much larger quantities that regular sushi, and is layered. You’ll see the pink-topped rice in keyring form, on posters and more, and it’s a great chance to try some unusual regional food. Right in front of the Kintaikyo, is Hirasei, a traditional teishoku restaurant (serves set meals).
They have an incredible view of the bridge and castle you can enjoy while you eat your sushi, as well as local specialties such as lotus root, which here has many more holes than elsewhere (the more you know).
Iwakuni has an airport, bullet train access and is close to Hiroshima. It even has old school buses to balance it out, so you’ll have no trouble getting there, whichever way you come.
Tokyo: If you’re traveling from Tokyo, you can fly to Iwakuni Kintaikyo Airport from Haneda (1.5 hour flight) and catch a 10-minute bus to Iwakuni Station. From there, you can catch an old-style bus at bus stop #2 to Kintaikyo and enjoy the narrow traditional streets on the way! If you travel by bullet train it is 4.5 hours from Tokyo via Hiroshima to Shin-Iwakuni Station by JR Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen Line.
Hiroshima: If you have a JR Pass you need to make the most of, Shin-Iwakuni is only 15 minutes from Hiroshima on the bullet train, and if not, Iwakuni Station is under an hour away on regular trains.
Osaka: It takes 2 hours and 10 minutes by bullet train to Shin Iwakuni Station (via Hiroshima).
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