Today’s adventure will take me around the cities of Shimonoseki and Mine in Yamaguchi Prefecture to enchanting ponds and old-fashioned villages. Shimonoseki is best known for its seafood, like puffer fish, as it is surrounded by water on three sides, and Mine for its stunning natural waters. Off-the-beaten-path destinations, spots of scenic beauty, fresh local cuisine, and gorgeous onsen, enriched my time in Yamaguchi Prefecture!

Ichinomata Sakura Park: A Mystical Submerged Forest in a Koi Pond

My morning starts at a park in the mountains of the Toyota area called “Ichinomata Sakura Park.” I am visiting in October, so there are no “sakura” cherry blossoms currently, but white flowers are in bloom around the park and the lush-green trees beautifully sparkle in the sunshine. In late November the trees will turn a burnt orange and red, which will also be a sight to behold. It would also be a joy to see the park in April, when the pale pink cherry blossoms stand out amongst the tall, emerald trees.

Though the green mountains and bright blue skies are already breathtaking enough on their own, what really catches my eye are the trees growing out of the waters of “Aokiri Koi Pond.” There appears to be a submerged forest, reminding me of the Shirogane Blue Pond in Hokkaido.

The surface of the pond appears to change color depending on the time of day and the direction the sun is facing. While it may sometimes appear gray, those who are lucky will witness a stunning greenish-blue. While I am here, the water is a grayish-green with slight hints of blue, so I will be sure to visit again in hopes of catching the dreamy turquoise. For an even more mystical feeling, I recommend visiting Ichinomata Sakura Park early in the morning before the fog clears up.

Swimming all around the withered trees are dozens of “koi” carp fish. The large fish actively chase each other, almost like they are dancing around the trees. Koi can only survive in pristine water, so Aogiri Koi Pond surely has very pure, healthy water. Still, it surprises me to see such vibrant creatures moving all around the lifeless tree stumps. It really adds to the intrigue of the park.

Although there are no park attendants, there is a small stand selling fish food for 100 yen. It is very common to see this type of honor system in rural areas, where a money box is left unattended and patrons are trusted to leave the correct amount of money. You get quite a lot of koi food for that small price, and it would be easy to split the food amongst friends to all feed the fish together.

Although Ichinomata Sakura Park is very quiet when I first arrive, it is actually a very popular place amongst locals, so within a few minutes of my arrival, I am pleasantly surprised to see a bus pull up carrying a couple dozen people. After disembarking, most make their way to the pond, excited to feed the koi. The fish have been treated to a feast today!

Roadside Station Hotaru Kaido Nishinoichi: Memories of a Traditional Rural Town

After a bit of driving, I find myself at Roadside Station Hotaru Kaido Nishinoichi. Roadside stations, or “michi no eki,” are the perfect places to find locally made and grown products that showcase the best of what a town has to offer. This particular roadside station was designed based on the rural scenery of Toyota, which is most famous as a “hotaru” firefly village. In early summer in June, there are boat cruises with shuttle buses departing from the roadside station, and along the river, millions of fireflies can be seen at night.

Another highlight at Roadside Station Hotaru Kaido Nishinoichi is the Taisho era (1912 – 1926) steam train, surrounded by seasonal flowers. The train has over 100 years of history and was in operation as part of the Nagato Railway from 1918 until 1947. For a long time, the train was displayed in the Kansai area, a completely different region of Japan. Just recently in 2021, it was returned to Shimonoseki and put on display here at Roadside Station Hotaru Kaido Nishinoichi. Locals are elated to have part of their history back and it really adds charm to the roadside station, fitting in perfectly with the traditional rural village architecture.

After viewing the train, my eyes were naturally drawn to the pink door standing beside it. This is a special door inspired by anime that will, according to the story, transport you anywhere you’d like to go. While I’d personally never watched the show but I love the concept of a door with this capability. Presenting the old locomotive within a cute pink frame, it’s also a great photo opportunity!

The roadside station also has a restaurant and cafe on the premises offering seasonal foods, bread, and ice cream. At the restaurant, many meals include locally-hunted “inoshishi” wild boar. I recommend trying the set meal that includes venison and minced inoshishi meat alongside miso soup, pickles, and salad. Wild boar tastes similar to pork, but is higher in protein and has less fat and cholesterol. It is lean but still juicy, which makes for a very unique but enjoyable taste.

There is also a hot spring at the roadside station called Nishi no Ichi Onsen Hotaru no Yu, available for day use from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm. The bathing fee is just 670 yen for adults and 310 yen for elementary school students. The water here is very gentle and moisturizing, and is said to beautify the skin. There is a large indoor bath, an outdoor open-air bath, and also a sauna.

At the roadside station’s souvenir shop, I am met with a large selection of local produce, fish, meat, sake, snacks, and even local crafts. I am most intrigued by the sake flavored with “fugu” puffer fish fins. Yamaguchi Prefecture is well known for fugu, and the best time to eat this delicacy is in winter, when they are in season. Only trained chefs can handle fugu because they can be poisonous if mishandled. Though I am curious about this sake, I’m not brave enough to commit to a whole bottle, so I end up buying a “manju” (steamed bun filled with red bean paste) in the shape of a blowfish instead. Manju are a great snack because they are not overly sweet but still feel like dessert.

Beppu Benten Pond: Enchanting Waters and Spiritual Energy

Full from lunch but ready to see more of Yamaguchi, I get back in the car. There is another mysterious cobalt blue pond in the nearby city of Mine, about a 30 minute drive from Toyota, called Beppu Benten Pond, located within the precincts of Itsukushima Shrine.

Itsukushima Shrine is a “power spot;” a place with high spiritual energy. This shrine is unmanned, which adds to its other-worldly feel. Surrounded by lush forests with open fields in the far distance, the area is incredibly quiet and secluded.

Within the shrine sits the mystical Beppu Benten Pond. Its shallow depth and clear waters allow me to see straight to the bottom, while the minerals in the water give it an exquisite greenish-blue hue.

There is a building next to the pond called “Benten Meeting Hall,” which is reflected perfectly in the pond’s water, where they grill fresh rainbow trout from the nearby trout farm. Had I not been full from the wild boar at lunch, I would have loved to try the trout!

Aside from its stunning colors, Beppu Benten Pond is also well known for its pure, drinkable water, earning it a ranking as one of the Top 100 Waters in Japan. Those who prepare their own bottles are more than welcome to bring the spring water home. As I watch a few people filling up several bottles, I wish I had brought my own so I could have gotten a taste of what many consider the freshest spring water in the country. Should you decide to visit Beppu Benten Pond, don’t forget to pack a bottle!

As the sun was preparing to set, it was time to head back to the train station and return to my normal life once more. Through my trip, I discovered the Shimonoseki and Mine areas to be the perfect destinations for nature-lovers to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. From the stunning blue-green waters of Aogiri Koi Pond and Beppu Benten Pond to fresh local cuisine and natural hot springs, this lesser-known slice of Yamaguchi cannot be missed!