Discover the otherworldly beauty of Yamaguchi’s natural wonders and the storied past of its iconic cultural sites.
Few places are a better example of Japan’s blend of beauty and rich history than Yamaguchi. The city sits on the westernmost edge of Honshu—Japan’s Main Island—right up against some of the most stunning emerald-green waters in the country. Yamaguchi’s limestone fields and otherworldly limestone caves draw visitors from far and wide, and the castle town of Hagi reveals the life and times of Japan’s feudal lords. In fact, Yamaguchi was the scene of one of Japan’s most important revolutions. To visit Yamaguchi is to experience the soul of Japan.
The ethereal mystery of Yamaguchi’s limestone formations
Yamaguchi is best known for Akiyoshidai, the largest limestone karst in the country. In the spring and summer Akiyoshidai is a lush green plateau, though it was once a coral reef long ago. Now, the landscape is sprinkled with white limestone formations that dot the green plains like large stone sheep. Hiking trails allow for scenic walks through the area, and the terrain is mild enough that no special hiking gear is needed. A good pair of walking shoes is all it takes to enjoy this unique natural phenomenon.
At the southern end of the plateau, the Akiyoshidou cave—a nine-kilometre limestone tunnel—is open to the public up to the first kilometre in. Inside the cool limestone cave there are a host of amazing natural creations to explore, like the underground river and waterfall. The beautiful swirling colours on the limestone invoke the sensation of stepping into a secret world hidden away under the earth. The cave is well lit, allowing for easy viewing of the majestic limestone formations. Some of the cave’s most popular features are the hyakumai-zara, or “hundred plates” rock formation, which looks like many rocky plates stacked high; and the ao-tenjou, or “blue ceiling,” named for the way sunlight reflects off the water, giving the ceiling a mystical blue glow. A tour through Akiyoshidou will take 40 minutes to an hour, and a light jacket is recommended even in summer, as temperatures are lower inside the cave.
Yamaguchi’s most notable contribution to history is as the site of a revolution. At the Chinryutei tea house, located on the peaceful grounds of Ruriko-ji Temple, revolutionaries met during the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate to “practice” the tea ceremony. In actuality they were making plans to overthrow the government and, as history can attest, they were ultimately successful, ushering in the Meiji restoration.
Ruriko-ji, built in 1942, is also known for its regal, five-storied pagoda, considered one of the three greatest pagodas in Japan. Kozan Park makes up the temple grounds and is the burial site of the Mōri family, who ruled the area during the Tokugawa period.
Hyakumai-zara in Akiyoshidou
Just an hour north of Yamaguchi City, Hagi is a beautifully preserved castle town dating back to Japan’s feudal era. The city has quite a bit of historical significance. Hagi has been lucky enough to avoid any major disasters since the Edo period, and as a result has maintained centuries-old structures in remarkable states of preservation. A walk through this historic town reveals life in old Ja- pan through well-kept samurai residences which are open to the public. Hagi is also known for its highly prized Hagiyaki pottery, used especially for tea ceremonies. A unique characteristic of Hagiyaki pottery is that it changes colour with use and time, due to tea remnants entering tiny openings in the pottery’s surface.
Continuing west along the sea coast from Hagi, gorgeous Motonosumi Inari shrine is another of the Yamaguchi area’s cultural icons. The entrance to the shrine is marked by 123 red torii gates that stretch down green cliffs toward the ocean like a sinuous red dragon—a stunning sight from above. Another unique feature of the shrine is the placement of the offertory box. It’s stuck high up on top of the gate marking the entrance path to the shrine, and for the lucky few who can toss their coins into the box, it’s said their heart’s desire will surely come true.
Photo © Atsushi Inoue
Seaside sights and dangerous delicacies
Tsunoshima Island is a small island featuring white sand beaches, quiet fishing villages and idyllic pastures. It can be reached by the Tsunoshima Bridge—the second-longest bridge in Japan. The bridge provides a scenic drive over a tranquil stretch of turquoise ocean, and the parks on either side of the bridge are excellent places to snap photos.
Travellers to Japan would be remiss to skip Shimonoseki, also known as the “fugu capital” of Japan. Fugu, or pufferfish, is notorious for its deadly toxins, which can be fatal. But the chefs of Shimonoseki go through years of strict training, and then a licensing exam, in order to prepare this potentially lethal dish. Fugu is a delicacy so dangerous a ban was erected on selling it during the Tokugawa shogunate, and when it was lifted during the Meiji restoration, Shimonoseki was the first place to start selling the killer fish, thus this town in southern Yamaguchi is the largest harvester of fugu today. The Karato Fish Market rivals Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji (Toyosu), with the main differences being that Karato is open to anyone—and, of course, its healthy selection of fugu, although only licensed chefs can buy poison fugu raw.
For breathtaking scenery and a brush with Japan’s exciting past, don’t miss out on Yamaguchi.
Yamaguchi’s eats and treats
Yamaguchi’s history has played an integral part in shaping the cuisine in the region, from the prominence of fugu to dishes concocted during times of war.
Though fugu was once banned for being dangerous to consume, the ban was lifted by Ito Hirobumi, the first prime minister of Japan, because he thought it was just too delicious to prohibit.
This unique dish came out of Japan’s first civil war. Noodles, beef and vegetables were cooked and served on kawara roof tiles out of necessity, and the tradition persists today.