What do you get when you combine hills, temples, cats, and bicycles?
Either a monk in serious need of some band-aids, or Onomichi City — the port town in Hiroshima Prefecture.
My partner and I came here today to explore the quiet scenery and beautiful hillside vistas promised by Onomichi. As a place famous for its “Temple Walk” — a hilly, strolling course connecting 25 Buddhist temples, some of which date back to the 7th century — Onomichi boasts plenty of scenic beauty on tap.
Admittedly, most visitors to Onomichi hit up Senko-ji Temple first and foremost, a highly acclaimed temple on the west side of downtown. We’ll definitely pop over there today, but let’s be honest here — you don’t come to a place like Onomichi because you want to tread the beaten path. So we’re going to start by heading to Jodo-ji Temple on the east side which, occupying the tallest peak in the area, boasts the very best views.
No sooner did we roll into town than it became clear we’d unearthed a hidden gem. Technically speaking, the town of Onomichi City was founded comparatively recently in 1898, but don’t let that fool you — the port here opened more than 700 years prior in 1168, and the town has been growing around it ever since. But that’s Onomichi for you — a place where you’ve gotta look past the title page to find the real story.
Spared from bombing in WWII, Onomichi contains a fantastic number of old buildings, but you’ll find many of them aren’t as old in spirit as they appear since young folks in Onomichi have a tendency to retrofit their town’s antique edifices into cafes, shops, galleries, and more.
ONOMIHIC U2, for example, presents a perfect display of the Onomichi “upcycling” trend — only with a particular emphasis on the “cycling” part of the equation. Occupying an old warehouse on the dock, ONOMICHI U2 functions as a cycler’s paradise, with a cafe, bar, restaurant, hotel, and Giant brand bicycle store all on site — perfect for those embarking on, or returning from, a spoke-tacular trip across the Shimanami Kaido, the bike-lane-equipped highway which connects Japan’s major islands of Honshu and Shikoku via Onomichi in the north and Imabari in the south.
By the same token, Art Base, the art collective housed in a repurposed schoolhouse on Momoshima Island, provides yet another facet of the hip, yet oh-so-laid-back style unique to Onomichi.
Strolling through the old, narrow alleyways, it quickly becomes apparent to us that Onomichi was built to be explored. Laid out essentially as a strip of old, winding streets and alleys wedged between a line of mountains and an arm of the sea, Onomichi is delightful to wander through, but hard to get lost in — at least in the literal sense.
Arriving at Jodo-ji Temple, we’re immediately struck by the simple quietude of the place. It’s delightfully uncrowded, with more pigeons in attendance than tourists — in fact, the only other people we saw were a local couple who just popped by to feed the birds. Nice!
We head ’round back of the pagoda, and soon find ourselves on a largely unpaved hiking trail intermittently adorned with old stone steps to assist at the steeper spots. Circling through silent woods, we continue our way up until at last we reach an observation tower at the summit. A quick hop up the steps, and we’re met with one of the most fantastic vistas I’ve ever laid eyes on.
The view literally seems to overflow with points of interest, each alone worth gazing upon, and together presenting an almost painterly masterpiece. Stretching beneath us we see the valley of Onomichi, traversed by its rich blue ocean passage; the town of Onomichi itself, studded with shrines and temples centuries old; the hills, clothed with woods, faintly rising from the narrow plain; the margin of the channel, lined with docks and shipyards; and at last the distant rolling mountains which, receding to ever paler shades of blue, gently etch their forms into the horizon.
We take a deep breath and scan our eyes again and again across the prospect below, almost forgetting to snap a photo, stunned as we are with the flawless blend of urban and natural beauty before us. Regaining our senses we bring forth our cameras — and in so doing experience the landscape all over again through their lenses.
Descending from the hilltop, we begin the trek toward Senko-ji, the path to which brings us through what locals call Neko no Hosomichi, or “Cat Alley,” a narrow lane famed for its abundance of cats, both real and decorative. The furry fellows who frequent the path are clearly acclimated to people, we find, as many of them let us waltz right up and snap photos from just a few feet away.
The temple of Senko-ji, as a larger and more heavily frequented destination, certainly offers a lot to look at, including statues of the seven gods of good fortune, and a spot where you can purchase a heart-shaped lock and clasp it onto an offertory board at a kitty-cat love shrine. I’m not aware that cats tend to form particularly long romantic partnerships, but the shrine is pretty darn cute in any case.
Additionally, the walk up to the summit presents a trail entitled “The Path of Literature,” featuring stones engraved with poems from the many celebrated writers who have, over the centuries, called Onomichi their home.
As for the view from Senko-ji, it’s pretty nice — but the “wow factor” definitely goes to Jodo-ji. But hey, if you get an early enough start, or stay the night in Onomichi, there’s no reason you can’t have it both ways.
At last, we head back down the hill, winding back through the old, narrow streets. My partner and I exchange knowing glances.
“What will we find this time?” we wonder.
Whatever it is, we know it’ll have more to it than meets the eye.
Photographs & Text by Peter Chordas