Japan Guides: Iwakuni Castle
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Iwakuni Castle - A Day Trip From Hiroshima 岩国
- Iwakuni is 40km west of Hiroshima
- noted for Kintai Bridge and the reconstructed Iwakuni Castle
- home of a strange white snake
- cormorant fishing (ukai) in summer
- town located in Yamaguchi prefecture
- population 110,000
- US military base in town
My trip to Iwakuni started with a bus ride up a narrow street, through miles of quaint shops and old houses. Stepping off the bus, the overwhelming beauty of the mountains and the graceful Kintai Bridge took me in. It was refreshing to be standing on the bank of Nishiki River looking over to Kikko Park and searching for Iwakuni Castle at the top of the mountain.
Kintai (Brocade Sash) Bridge is one of the main tourist attractions in Yamaguchi prefecture, and it is easy to understand why. This 210 meter long, five meter wide bridge is a wonder to see. There is a toll fee to cross the bridge. Tourists gather for pictures along the bank, and on the inclines of the bridge attempting to photograph every angle.
Children run back and forth over the arches, and if you are young at heart, give it a try. The sensation reminds me of riding in the back of the school bus going too fast over bumps and experiencing the feeling of free-falling. When you've learnt the history and architecture behind the graceful, and fun, arches then respect and awe overcome the initial wonder.
It took almost a year to build the bridge and the construction was supervised by the 3rd generation Yoshikawa Hiroyoshi himself in 1673. Large rocks were set as the foundation, and an island of rocks was constructed around each foundation. Then, the wooden arches were built between the foundations using only wires and clamps. There are no nails or bolts in the bridge. The architecture involved was very advanced for the time, and is still used today.
Nishiki River is the longest in Yamaguchi prefecture, and flooded regularly, washing out all of the bridges before the Kintai Bridge . The wooden arches of the Kintai Bridge have been replaced about every 30 years, but the rock island foundations lasted until 1950 when the Kijiya Typhoon washed the bridge away. The bridge was reconstructed using the original methods as a tribute to the advanced techniques used at the time it was first constructed.
Kintai Bridge is illuminated at night, and there is a Kintai Bridge Festival held April 29th. People dressed in samurai costumes parade through the castle town and shoot targets reenacting ancient times. The Iwakuni infantry was organized by Ishida Mitsunari centuries ago. Today, the gunmen are volunteers demonstrating the history of Iwakuni for the townspeople and tourists.
The big festival of the summer in Iwakuni is ukai (cormorant fishing). It is held June 1st through August 31st. Fishermen in traditional costume tow wooden boats onto the river at night with a torch placed at the front of each boat to attract the fish - usually ayu (small trout). A cormorant with a rope attached to its neck is used to catch the fish. The bird wades in the water, and once it catches a fish, the fishermen pull the bird in and make it spit the fish out. This festival dates back over 370 years.
Iwakuni town developed under the rule of Kikkawa Hiroie after the Battle of Sekigahara, on October 21, 1600 . (This battle, it is said, was the unofficial beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate.) Kikkawa Hiroie used the Nishiki River as a moat and built his castle at the top of the mountain. The ancient buildings and streets of this castle town are maintained to give visitors an "old Japan" experience.
Kintai Bridge, Iwakuni at cherry blossom time
The traditional crafts to buy in these old-time shops include Tada Ware (now called Iwakuni Ware) and Stone Dolls. Iwakuni Ware is pottery made in the tradition of the original Iwakuni-han (clan) methods. Stone dolls are created by river insects with stones, sand and mouth secretions; and are said to be images of those who died during the construction of the Kintai Bridge because they are shaped like men.
On the other side of Kintai Bridge, Kikko Park stretches out to the foot of the mountain that houses Iwakuni Castle. The park was once the residence of the Kikkawa family, and the noble families Kagawa and Mekata that served Kikkawa. The park is full of trees, plants, flowers and fountains. The gardens contain azalea, peony trees, iris, blue flag and other blooming plants. The park also houses the Iwakuni Historical Museum and the Kikkawa Family Museum.
There are places to view the White Snake of Iwakuni, as well. This snake grows to be 180 cm long and 15 cm in diameter. It is albino with red eyes and white scales, and is absolutely harmless. A man generously offered to let me hold one. Good luck for me because it is believed that these mysterious creatures are messengers from Benten, the goddess of wealth. They are considered a natural treasure by the Japanese Government. You can also see white snakes at Imazu Tenjinyama Shrine.
Kintai Bridge, Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture
White snake of Iwakuni
When you're ready to head up to Iwakuni Castle, look for the tram. You can spot it by looking up at the mountain, and you'll locate the entrance by just walking in its direction. A tram takes you up the mountain. The scene is magnificent as you ride to the top. It is best not to waste any picture-taking time as the trip only lasts three minutes. Look out over the park, river and get another majestic view of Kintai Bridge.
At the top of Mt. Shiroyama, walk around the castle grounds and take in the views from every side. You can lean over the walls for pictures, or stage photographs standing against the walls with the fantastic view in the background.
Mt. Shiroyama is a nature preserve and boasts more than 200 varieties of trees, over 350 herbaceous plants and more than 100 ferns. In 1975, a "Kimino-tamizuki" tree was discovered. It produces golden fruit in the fall. The mountain, itself, is worth exploring.
Iwakuni Castle took seven years to build from 1601-1608 and is most interesting because the donjon or main structure was influenced by 16th century European architecture. Hiroie Kikkawa built the castle, but when the Tokugawa regime declared in 1615 there could be no more than one castle in each province, Iwakuni Castle was torn down (the castle in Hagi took precedence). In 1962, the local historical society decided to rebuild the castle, and today it is a museum displaying suits of armor, weapons, and art depicting war. There is a charge for admission.
Iwakuni is famous for sweet (or aromatic) fish - the ayu caught by the cormorants. It is prepared and served in a variety of ways and always delicious. Roasted is particularly good. Iwakuni-zushi (Lord's sushi) is special, too. It is not hand formed. A square mold is used to shape the sushi with two types of mackerel are mixed in. A soup of vegetables and chicken (taihei) is another local favorite.
A nice restaurant to try these delicacies is Hangetsu (Half Moon), a traditional Japanese restaurant built in 1869 as an Imperial Japanese Navy Officer's Club. They offer a lunch menu at a set price, but it is not cheap, but well worth the cost considering the ambience and the food quality. Hangetsu (Tel: 0827 41 002).
Another place worth stopping is the Ogasawara Tea Garden. It is only a three minute walk from the Kikko Park entrance and is full of bamboo trees. You can enjoy a cup of green tea and the peaceful scenery for a reasonable price (500 yen). Ogasawara Tea Garden (Tel: 0827 43 3617).
Iwakuni Access - Getting to Iwakuni
Iwakuni is about 35-40 minutes away from Hiroshima on the JR Sanyo main line.
There are almost only local trains between Iwakuni and Yamaguchi (2 hours).
Shinkansen trains use Shin-Iwakuni Station, while other trains stop at Iwakuni Station. Each station is about 5km from the Kintai Bridge.
There are numerous buses from Iwakuni Station to the Kintai Bridge (15-20min). You can buy a return ticket that includes the entrance to the bridge.
Tourism Promotion Office of Iwakuni City
Tel: 0827 41 1477
Fax: 0827 41 2750
Iwakuni City Tourism Association
Tel: 0827 41 2037
JR Iwakuni Train Station Tourist Information Office
Tel: 0827 21 6050