The history of the Seto Inland Sea is fascinating. In a feudal system with rigid hierarchies and mostly closed to the rest of the world, Setouchi was a pulsating heart of commerce, trade and flows of ideas and people.
However, the nature of the Seto Inland Sea, with its massive tidal changes, meant, that a lot of the action in the region’s heyday was happening on land while waiting for tides to change. Enter Setouchi’s wheeling and dealing tidal ports, and none more famous than Tomonoura, a small port town 20kms from Hiroshima’s second city Fukuyama.
There is no better example of a still functioning Edo era port city than Tomonoura, with over 80 structures dating back to at least the seventeenth century, the streets seem full of historical buildings. Walking through this commercial port feels like entering a time warp, maybe, just more familiar.
My guide for the day flashes a knowing smile. “Do you recognize this view?” He tells me Tomonoura served as the backdrop for Hayao Miyazaki’s hit animation film Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. “Ah, yes I see it now.” He continues, “Or maybe you know it from the Wolverine movie?” Not yet I thought, but when I do I will definitely recognize it.
Mother nature dealt a wonderful hand to this picturesque city, situated at the meeting point of currents of the Seto Inland Sea, and with its circular sheltered harbor, it was perfect shiomachi no minato, literally, a port for waiting on the tide. At its peak during the Edo period its population of 7000 or so people would swell or fall depending on the water flow. The city was alive 24 hours a day, attracting all sorts from pirates to diplomats, and everything in between.
We set out for our first destination, Fukuzen-ji Temple, a 1000-year-old temple with an attached building, the Tomo Taichoro Guesthouse, that boasts an iconic view over the narrow straight to the small islands opposite.
This is no run-of-the-mill sea view. With a garden in the foreground, your eye stretches over the sapphire water to the rocky nugget of Bentenjima with its Shinto gate and pagoda clearly visible, held in an embrace of green by the larger Sensuijima island behind. Simply stunning. Little surprise this simple tatami room has served as meeting place for overseas dignitaries and revolutionary conspirators alike. If you are making history, best to do it with superb scenery in the background.
As a convenient meeting spot Tomonoura was ideally placed, with the ebbing tide heading in either direction allowing for rapid communications back to the respective seats of power.
Our next destination, the Ota House, was famed for its houmeishu, a mixture of shochu rice wine and medicinal herbs, purported to have potent good health to the drinker. Under the protection of the local Daimyo the house held a monopoly on the production of this elixir throughout the Edo era. The success attained in business is reflected in the size and grandeur of this house, a stone’s throw away from the jetty pier.
One of the best preserved Edo-era residences in Setouchi, the house is steeped in history. Secure and elegant enough to serve as the lodgings for lords on route to Edo (Tokyo), it was also a prominent tea house welcoming to all. With its many tatami rooms expandable or contactable at the slide of a shoji door or two, Ota house was the perfect spot for celebrations, business negotiations or just a quiet cup of tea or medical houmeishu liquor while waiting for the tide to turn.
Ota house truly reflects the craftsmanship and aesthetic sense prevalent during the Edo era. The care and detail that can be found in the construction is meticulous. Our guide points out the wood paneling, which is carefully selected to give the impression the grain continues between each panel, forming a long uninterrupted piece of polished timber. Likewise, the dozens of tatami mats are carefully selected by color and pattern, and arranged to give a continuous flow within the interconnecting rooms.
We are shown some of the lesser known facets of the house such as the hidden passage up to the second floor, useful for a quick escape if the house was threatened. Given the free-wheeling nature of a busy sea port this was not being over cautious. Ota house was a successful business, whether as a houmeishu producer or as a tea house and it is natural that large amounts of money and valuables would be kept onsite. Our guide makes this point again by showing as the sunken vault space where the valuables were kept.
Walking through the narrow back streets discovery after discovery await. Temples, shrines, and castle ruins steeped in history, and any number of preserved Edo era buildings will transport you back to a time not yet lost in Tomonoura. If, after all that walking you need a recharge, there are lovely little tea houses where you can while away your time and imagine you too have a vessel waiting on the sea to turn.
As much as I loved ducking in and out these little dens of living history, I was keen to get an overall perspective of the town, so my guide suggested a visit to Ioji Temple nested within abundant nature of Ushiro Yama bordering the town on the west. A short climb up a steep hill saw us to the temple grounds, a lovely little temple with earthen walls and tiled roof and an impressive bell tower. Catching our breath, we turn around to be rewarded with an unobstructed view of the entire city.
As I start to wax lyrical on the beauty of the scenery before me, my guide cracks a wry grin. “We are not there yet. I hope you still have some energy.” Nice time to discover the hard part was still ahead.
We journeyed, slowly, up the steep and winding track behind the main temple building making our way to Taishiden Hall. My reluctance to better my already good view from below evaporated as soon as I stepped into the clearing. I was looking at a stunning panorama of geography and history, and filled what remained of my camera memory card trying to get the best shot.
My side trip to Tomonoura gave me a good taste of life in an Edo port town, but I already have a hankering to return. There is nothing like being in a town that has thrived in the business of comfortable waiting to let you truly relax.
Photographs by Peter Chordas & Steve Jarvis Text by Steve Jarvis