Japan 2015: Tomonoura – A Port Town that Leads to Chance Encounters

It was Tuesday 15th December when I found myself getting spirited away once more and having a real adventure. After taking the ferry from Miyajima to Miyajima-guchi, the train to Hiroshima, and a bullet train to Fukuyama, I then took a bus in to what felt like the middle of nowhere, to Tomonoura (鞆の浦).

Tomonoura

Tomokou Bus Stop – Tomo Port

Tomonoura is a port town (I love a port town!) in Fukuyama City (福山市), Hiroshima Prefecture (広島県), facing the Seto Inland Sea (Setonaikai / 瀬戸内海). It is part of the Setonaikai National Park (瀬戸内海国立公園), which is a national park comprising areas of the Inland Sea and the ten bordering prefectures. Tomonoura is a pretty little atmospheric town, which makes you feel like you have stepped back in time.

Tomonoura

Tomonoura

I had two reasons to visit Tomonoura. One was to see if it was a good destination to recommend to my customers visiting Japan, and the other, personal reason, was to step into the land of Ghibli. Tomonoura has been used as a filming location for several international and local movies (including The Wolverine, starring Huge Hugh Jackman) and was the inspiration for the town in the Hayao Miyazaki (宮崎 駿) Studio Ghibli (株式会社スタジオジブリ) movie Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (崖の上のポニョ).

View from Ioji Temple (including Ponyo's house!)

Ponyo’s House (with the red roof)

Hayao Miyazaki spent two months in Tomonoura getting inspiration for Ponyo, and whilst he was there he helped with the restoration of the Onfunayado Iroha where I stayed that night.

Onfunayado Iroha, Tomonoura

Onfunayado Iroha

The Onfunayado Iroha is an incredible building, which is a restaurant downstairs and a three-room hotel upstairs. I had the run of the place, and was allowed to have a good poke around. It really was one of the most unique places I have ever stayed!

Onfunayado Iroha, Tomonoura

My room!

Onfunayado Iroha, Tomonoura

Lounge area

Onfunayado Iroha, Tomonoura

Hayao Miyazaki’s desk

Onfunayado Iroha, Tomonoura

Miyazaki’s sketches

Onfunayado Iroha, Tomonoura

Breakfast area

It was quite a miserable day, weather-wise, but I ventured out and explored the town anyway. During my month-long trip this was by far the wettest day, but given the gorgeous weather I had most of the time I couldn’t really complain. It was just a shame that my one wet day was the day I really didn’t have anywhere to go and hide. So, I stuck up my brolly and plodded on! The rain actually added to the atmospheric cobbled streets, making them shine and giving everything a slightly magical quality.

Ota Residence

Ota Residence

Tomonoura

Tomonoura

Tomonoura

As I wandered, I tried to tick off the main sights in the town…

The Joyato Lighthouse: an eleven metre tall lighthouse built during the Edo Period, which stands prominently on the waterfront.

Joyato Lighthouse

Joyato Lighthouse

The Ota Residence: a building which belonged to a family who started brewing the popular ‘homeishu’ drink in the town in the late 17th century. Sadly, the Ota Residence is closed Tuesdays, so I couldn’t go in.

Ota Residence

Ota Residence

Fukuzenji: a temple with great views across to the nearby islands Bentenjima and Sensuijima (in good weather!), said to have been founded in 950. The main hall was built in the 1690s.

Fukuzenji

Fukuzenji

Ioji: a temple with views of the bay area, which is part of the Shingon Sect founded by Kobo Daishi during the Heian Era. The main temple building here is said to have been rebuilt in 1685 and the bell tower was built in 1642.

Ioji Temple

Ioji

Ioji Temple

Ioji Bell Tower

View from Ioji Temple

View from Ioji Temple

Nunakuma Shrine: a shrine consisting of two shrines (Watasu and Gion), which are dedicated to the deities of the sea and marine safety and health. The shrine features an old noh stage which was used by Toyotomi Hideyoshi inside the Fushimi Castle. The stage was presented to the founder of Fukuyama, the Governor Mizuno Katsunari, by the second generation Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada and was placed here in 1738. Apparently the stage is collapsible and is so compact that it was even taken to the battlefields!

Nunakuma Shrine

Approach to Nunakuma Shrine

Nunakuma Shrine

Nunakuma Shrine

Nunakuma Shrine - Noh Stage

Noh Stage

An incredible thing happened as I was wandering the streets of Tomonoura. I was getting tired, and really wanted to find a cafe and a hot drink, when suddenly I saw this sign:

Tea Saloon

Tea Saloon

I hovered outside, unsure what a ‘tea saloon’ would be, and before long the door slid open and I was invited in to the friendliest place! I met three lovely people (Keiko, Shuhei and Tomoyo) who welcomed me in, gave me hot tea and told me they were delighted to meet a visitor to Tomonoura! They made me feel so welcome and happy, and after chatting for a while they even took me around a few local sights. I felt so grateful to have a chance encounter like that, and to meet a group of people who are trying to make Tomonoura more accessible to foreign tourists. As well as running the Tea Saloon, they have a website called Tomo Monogatari which is full of local information such as festivals, where to visit and where to eat.

Tea Saloon!

Keiko, Tomoyo and Shuhei at the Tea Saloon

Tomonoura Pier

Tomonoura Pier

Tomonoura

A ray of sunlight!

Later, as I was wandering along the coast I saw a sign about ‘The Town of Tomo’ – ‘A Port Town that Leads to Chance Encounters’:

The Town of Tomo - A Port Town that Leads to Chance Encounters

The Town of Tomo – A Port Town that Leads to Chance Encounters

I smiled, because it was true. I’d had a chance encounter in Tomo, and made some new ‘tomos’ (‘tomodachi’ is Japanese for friend, and it can be shortened to ‘tomo’). Walking with a new warm feeling inside of me, despite the rain, I chanced upon all sorts of curiosities, from multiple Ponyos, to interesting statues, to the autograph of Hayao Miyazaki himself!

Ponyo

Ponyo

Tomonoura

Unusual statues

Hayao Miyazaki's autograph

Hayao Miyazaki’s autograph

The restaurant at the Onfunayado Iroha was unfortunately closed that evening, and dining options were limited. Whilst I was waiting for the recommended alternative restaurant to open up, I decided to sample some of the local brew. ‘Homeishu‘ (保命酒) is a medicinal liquor dating back to 1659, made of shochu and 16 types of herbs. It is said to promote longevity. I have to say, it was rather nice! Some of the shops selling homeishu around the town were run by people who seemed quite nervous to see a foreigner wandering about, but the shop I ended up in was run by a lovely man who first asked me if I spoke Japanese, and then when I said I did proceeded to speak slowly and clearly to me in a very kind manner. He allowed me to sample some different flavours, and of course I bought a small bottle as a souvenir!

Homeishu

Homeishu shop – Okamoto Kametaro Main Store

Homeishu

Different types of Homeishu

Homeishu

Sampling Homeishu – Yum!

Finally it was dinner time, and I headed to a small restaurant called Otebi.

Otebi Restaurant

Otebi Restaurant

The owner seemed a little nervous to see me, but again once I made it clear I could speak Japanese everything was fine. I ordered the set meal, which consisted of the basic (rice and miso soup) with some different types of fish, vegetables and pickles. Of course, I had a beer with that!

Otebi Restaurant

A simple dinner

The restaurant, too, seemed to be from a different era. It was so small and local, but I didn’t feel too out-of-place there.

Otebi Restaurant

A restaurant from another era

After dinner I took a short walk back down to the port to see the boats once more, and then headed back to my room at the Onfunayado Iroha.

Tomonoura

Pretty port

Tomonoura

Slightly creepy streets!

All that walking about and fresh sea air, plus the beer and the early night, added up to a fantastic, long sleep. The hotel was silent, and apart from the owner (who I assumed was there somewhere) I think I was the only one in the place. I had been told breakfast would be at 8am, so I had a lazy start to the next day. Breakfast consisted of a fish head (complete with eye, which I did not eat!), rice and a raw egg. It wasn’t the most pleasant of meals, but I was hungry, so I ate it – raw egg and all!

Aside from the rain and the slightly shocking breakfast, I enjoyed my time in Tomo. It’s a curious place which not only feels like it’s from another time, it actually feels like Hayao Miyazaki could have dreamt up the entire town. But I liked it…

Ponyo

Ponyo suki!

7 thoughts on “Japan 2015: Tomonoura – A Port Town that Leads to Chance Encounters

  1. Ooh. Super neat. I’m hoping to visit Tomo next year sometime – really excited to see you found so much great stuff to see and do, and friendly welcome and so forth 🙂

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  2. Awkwardness towards foreigners in small communities is common but more from unfamiliarity than distrust. A smile, a few words of Nihongo and evidence that you understand and respect local culture quickly remove barriers and opens the door to charming experiences, even when a little “out of your depth”. I find stopping at small traditional manufacturers gives the opportunity to show recognition of craftsmanship and even with a small gift (flag sticker, doll) will be reciprocated with kindness and patience.

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  3. Amazing! When I saw a video about how Miyazaki based Ponyo on the legends associated with the ocean in Tomonoura, I knew I wanted to visit. I haven’t been yet, but your photos assure me that it is as amazing as I thought it would be. The rainy atmosphere gives a sort of mystery to the town, and the fact that it wasn’t crowded also makes it seem like the town was completely from Miyazaki’s imagination. I think that’s a testament to his power as a storyteller! Thank you for sharing your adventure ^^

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