Knowing Tranquility Part XVII: Tomonoura, (鞆の浦) & Sensuijima (仙酔島)
Edward J. Taylor
Tomonoura, south of Fukuyama in Hiroshima Prefecture, is a scenic port town with several historic temples and shrines and has featured as a backdrop for a number of movies including Ponyo, directed by Hayao Miyazaki and The Wolverine starring Hugh Jackman. Sensuijima, mostly uninhabited, is just five minutes from Tomonoura on a replica of an Edo era ferry and is known for its colorful rock formations and fine, sandy beaches, ideal for swimming in summer.
The train pulls me southwest toward Tomo no Ura, long a favorite destination of mine. I need first to change transport in Fukuyama, and since I've never really explored the city, I decide to stretch my legs.
The Hiroshima Prefectural Museum is a very short walk away, within the grounds of the former castle. The displays of everyday life in the Inland Sea prove interesting, particularly the ones dealing with trade with mainland Asia.
I eye the toys from the 1930's, and wonder what happened to the boys they belonged to, boys who had the unfortunate timing to be young men during the war years.
What ultimately brought me here is a mock-up of the old town of Kusado Sengen, a Kamakura era commercial port that was forgotten for centuries. It was rediscovered in 1931 during attempts to re-route the Ashida River, yet aside from the collection of some artifacts, it was allowed to return to the sandbank under which it had long slept.
True excavation took place three decades later, before ultimately the town was reclaimed once again by the waters. The model town built within the museum was quite delightful, giving one the sense of a simple, yet flourishing life the residents once had. I stroll around, ducking into a few of the huts and pondering how well preserved the artifacts are, after all those years beneath the sand and silt.
A taxi takes me out to the site itself, but there is nothing at all to see but for some boys playing baseball on a reclaimed stretch of river. From the perspective of the bridge you'd never imagine that there was an entire town beneath. I find my bus stop around the corner, and follow those same waters south to their source in Tomo-no-ura.
There I find my wife and my daughter waiting for me. The latter is a big fan of Ponyo, set here in this small fishing village. Director Miyazaki Hayao spent two months in an old inn on a hill at the water's edge, sketching and getting the town's basic vibe.
The inn itself made it into the film, in the form of the main character's house. But sightseeing can wait, for it is lunchtime. We walk along the concrete wall above the water, atop which people fish, despite the signs forbidding it. In the center of the port we find a small cafe that does nice chicken burgers and curry.
A projector is screening Ponyo on a bare white wall, and my daughter settles onto a sofa to watch. The cafe has been converted from an old kura storehouse, and many old artifacts are decoratively strewn about. The owner has a good feel for the modern as well, as the cafe also serves craft beer and provides hookahs for those who like their tobacco flavored.
With a six-year old, it is a day not meant for moving fast, but that suits us. We stop again just across the water, to sit for coffee and a shaved ice at outdoor tables. It is a perfect day for sitting out, early autumn in the air. I watch the world go by awhile before going in to pay.
The proprietor is a funky bohemian type, and the interior of his shop reflects the wonderful chaos of an engaged mind. As I admire the sketches of the famous writers who had spent time in town since the days of the ancient Manyoshu poetry collection. I look away from the wall to notice a character sitting further back of the shop.
He too had an artistic look to him, tempered by hints of what must have been a tough life. I say hello, and he asks me if I can read what I'd been looking at. When I affirm that I can, he begins to tell me a bit about himself, how he had studied German literature while young, and had a great affinity for Europe and its ideas. This is the type of conversation I love to have, and could happily spend an hour or more with him. But I have people with me and need to move on. As it is, over a few minutes the conversation lurches from Hesse to the Meiji Period to the Chinese Zodiac.
We too lurched away, but only to the Irohamaru Museum next door, beckoned in by the life-sized photo of famed reformist samurai Sakamoto Ryoma within the door. Beyond was a scale model of the remains of his ship, which went down beneath him in 1867.
Divers hover on wires examining the wreck. Artifacts pulled from the waters decorate the walls, while upstairs is a replica of the room where Ryoma had hidden from the authorities after the sinking. The actual house where he did so lies across town, and we pass it and many other houses from the period weaving the narrow lanes, stopping occasion to taste a bit of dried squid, or some of the town's famous life-enhancing alcohol made of 16 herbs.
We climb to the old castle ruins, which now house the folklore museum, quite appropriate for a town that has so many fine festivals. But the town's real treasure, Fukuzenji Temple, stands on the adjacent hilltop. A Korean envoy had called the view the best in Japan, and while that is obvious hyperbole, he's not too far off. This port was a well-known stop off for diplomatic missions to the continent, known as a safe harbor to wait out storms. Little wonder so many renowned figures spent some time here, moving at a pace slightly slower than out own.
As the light begins to go out of the sky, we cross the waters to Sensuijima, where we'll stay the night. This island has a special place for me as I stayed out here for a couple of days a decade ago, moving little except for wandering the trails above the waters, including the one that took me up and over the peak. Today I stay closer to the water itself, wading out a ways before returning to skim stones with my daughter. Above the forest behind us, dozens of kites and crows swirl and dive as they do battle.
Others take to the beach after dinner, in search of florescent kelp that are famous this season. I am not too interested as I have my own wonderful memories of swimming amidst them up in the Sea of Japan, and taking part in a group event of 70 people will not top those.
The cry of a heron wakes me at dawn. The three of us have the beach-front walk to ourselves early the next morning, and we head into the rising sun. The trail leads us pass some curiously colored stones. and my wife tries to guess the mineral content behind each hue. My daughter is taken with the crabs spooked by our passing shadows, which flit into the nearest tide pools. We climb up to an observation point to look out over the sea and its many islands, life on each starting the day anew.
Access - Getting To Tomo-no-ura
Boats to Sensuijima depart from Tomo Port every 20 minutes for the five minute journey across and sail from 7.10am to 9.35pm.
Tomo-no-ura has no shortage of western style hotels as well as more traditional Japanese inns. Hotel Ofutei is strongly recommended.
Other accommodation options include the three star Tomo Seaside Hotel.
The main place to stay on Sensuijima is Kokumin Shukusha Sensuijima: (http://www.tomonoura.co.jp/sen/02shukusha.html)
If you wish for us to reserve accommodation for you anywhere in Japan (for a small fee) please contact us.
See here for a complete listing of hotels in Fukuyama.
About the Author
Based in Kyoto, Edward's work has appeared in a variety of print and online publications. Co-editor of the Deep Kyoto Walk anthology, he is currently at work on a series of books about walking Japan's ancient highways. Edward is the author of the blog notesfromthenog.blogspot.jp