View a National Treasure, stop off at a former school for samurai sons, and stamp on a stone pavement that “sings”.
We’re getting out and about in Yamaguchi Prefecture for the next few days, as part of a trip arranged by the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is working to introduce off-the-beaten track destinations to international visitors ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games.
So if you’re in Japan, or planning to visit soon, and looking to explore a different side to the country unknown to most travellers, you might want to take a trip to Yamaguchi, which is less than two hours away from Tokyo by plane, or just two hours from Osaka on the Shinkansen.
There’s so much to see and do in the prefecture, and lots of delicious local specialties to try, so join us for day one of our adventure as we take you through some of the best things to see, eat and do in and around the castle town of Hagi, which come highly recommended by locals in the know.
Immerse yourself in the mystery of Tokoji Temple
Tokoji Temple is a beautiful place to visit, as it’s home to several Important Cultural Properties: the main gate, the bell tower, the treasure house, and the Sanmon triple gate.
▼ The Sanmon gate separates the world from the sacred grounds of the temple.
▼ Built by the powerful Mori clan in 1691, the main buildings here are especially unique for their Chinese-influenced style.
Behind the grounds, though, is where the real magic lies, as a hidden cemetery is tucked away in the quiet stillness of a dense forest. This is where some of the lords from the Mori clan are buried, and with stone torii gates and 500 stone lanterns creating a mysterious landscape, this sacred site has an intriguing, otherworldly atmosphere.
Go for a rickshaw ride around Hagi Castle Town
One of the best places to visit in Hagi is its beautifully preserved castle town area. Walking the streets here — or touring them by rickshaw — is like going back in time, with former samurai residences and merchant houses standing as they have for centuries, and white walls from the feudal era still lining the quiet roads.
During the Edo Period (1603-1868), Hagi was a bustling town, with samurai, craftsmen and merchants living in the area, and the roads and town plan remain identical to how it was when it was ruled by the powerful Mori Clan so many centuries ago.
Rickshaw rides start at 3,000 yen (US$27) for one person, or 4,000 yen for two, and come with a detailed explanation of the area from the friendly rickshaw runners, who have a wealth of knowledge of the area.
Step back in time at the Kikuya Residence
The Kikuya Residence was built in the early 1600s and is one of the most impressive buildings open to the public in the area. Descendants of the original owners, who were who were once members of the samurai class, are still actively involved in the preservation of the building.
▼ Kikuya-san’s husband is a descendant of the original owner, and sometimes helps to conduct tours of the residence.
With more than 400 years of history behind it, the residence is filled with thousands of original artefacts that provide an insight into how people lived their everyday lives during different centuries.
▼ This Hyakunin Isshu card set dates back to the Edo Period.
The grand residence has many entrances, so guests of varying importance can be welcomed into different areas of the house. This large corner room overlooking one of the inner gardens was forbidden to members of the merchant class, instead reserved for only the most important guests of shogun or Mori Clan ranking.
The house and grounds are both beautifully preserved after so many hundreds of years, and a stroll through the private garden reveals some beautifully manicured areas.
And when you leave, be sure to take a moment to admire the exterior walls of the residence, which are all original and date back to the Edo Period.
Go back in time to a samurai-era school at Hagi Meirin Gakusha
Continuing with the immersive samurai history experience, Meirin Gakusha is a great place to take a break or get some information about the surrounding areas. The fascinating tourist centre is housed in Japan’s largest wooden schoolhouse, which was built in 1935 on the site of a former school created for the sons of local samurai.
The long, wide wooden corridors are beautifully preserved, while the old schoolrooms now contain a wide variety of exhibits and historic items.
▼ Interactive exhibits allow visitors to draw fortunes while learning more about local historical figures.
▼ And outside you can view the former schoolhouse gate.
It might be a 50-minute drive away from the centre of Hagi, but seeing as this special temple is located in a picturesque area of the prefecture commonly known as the “Kyoto of the West”, Rurikoji is well worth the trip.
Designated a National Treasure, the five-storied pagoda at Rurikoji temple is ranked as one of Japan’s three greatest, and it’s easy to see why when you admire the skill and precision of the structure up close.
Located in a beautiful temple setting, it’s a relaxing place to visit. One highlight you shouldn’t miss is the Uguisubari Stone Pavement, which has an echo that “sings” like an uguisu, or Japanese bush warbler, when you clap your hands or stamp your feet on it.
Stay at Hagi No Yado Tomoe
There are plenty of budget hotel accommodations to choose from in Hagi, but those wanting a traditional Japanese experience should definitely put Hagi No Yado Tomoe at the top of their list of places to stay.
Rooms at Tomoe are spacious and come with beautiful traditional touches and views out to the central Japanese garden. You can choose to bathe in the bathroom inside your room or in the beautiful communal onsen, making for a memorable stay that’s much more spacious and relaxing than a night at a hotel.
And when it comes to dinner, Tomoe makes it a meal to remember. Served in a private dining room, women in kimono place dish after dish of carefully prepared meals in front of you, in the traditional kaiseki style. Each course is delicious and beautifully presented, using high-quality seasonal ingredients like Japanese mountain yams and matsutake mushrooms.
And before you check out, you’ll be served the most delicious and beautiful bento-style breakfast platter, with generous servings that will fill you up until lunchtime.
We hope you enjoyed this virtual trip around Yamaguchi’s best hidden gems, all done in a day’s exploring around the historic Hagi castle town region. Stay tuned for more top tips featuring other areas around Yamaguchi, coming over the next few days!
Tokoji Temple / 東光寺
Address: Yamaguchi-ken, Hagi-shi, Chinto 1647
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Kikuya Residence / 菊屋家住宅
Address: Yamaguchi-ken, Hagi-shi, Gofukumachi 1-1
Hours: 10:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Hagi Meirin Gakusha / 萩明倫学舎
Address: Yamaguchi-ken, Hagi-shi, Emukai 602
Rurikoji / 瑠璃光寺
Address: Yamaguchi-ken, Yamaguchi-shi, Kozan-cho 7-1
Hours: 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Hagi No Yado Tomoe / 萩の宿 常茂恵
Address: Yamaguchi-ken, Hagi-shi, Hijiwara 608-53
Photos © Oona McGee for SoraNews24