Tsuwano – Little Kyoto in solitude

Tsuwano embodies many aspects of Japanese heritage and history without the huge crowds of other famous cities. The diversity of history and atmosphere in this town is impressive and easily explored by foot from the railway station. Very few foreigners visit Tsuwano, probably because it is not on the main Shinkansen (bullet train) line, but it is still free to visit if you have a Japan Rail Pass. It’s easily accessible, but you get a sense of untouched local Japanese culture.

Large torii gate on the edge of the town at Yasaka jinja shrine (彌榮神社 拝殿)

I’m quite meticulous in maximising my use of the JR Railpass when I visit Japan, as it’s essential to explore new areas within your 7, 14 or 21 day time limit. The visit to Tsuwano was part of a bigger JR railpass extravaganza from Osaka to many parts of Kyushu and then back up to Tokyo via Tsuwano and the northern coast of Honshu island within a 14 day limit. Tsuwano is situated in the furthermost western region of Honshu on the JR Yamaguchi Line (about an hour from the bullet train at Shin-Yamaguchi).

JR Tsuwano Railway Station

The JR Yamaguchi line dramatically descends down the valley before you arrive into Tsuwano, going though many tunnels on the way through the mountains. When you emerge from the tunnels, the rooftops of many houses are covered in bright red terracotta tiles (called called Sekishu Gawara or Sekishu roof tiles). They are resistant to the highly variable temperatures from winter to summer. Tsuwano is geographically fascinating as the map of the town looks like it was specifically designed for a high school geography textbook. The city is situated in an isolated valley with scenic hills that have amazing views over a river with white water rapids. It has steep hills, narrow winding roads, a busy high street, temples, shrines and a World Heritage site.

Nishiki River (aka Tsuwano River) running through the town of Tsuwano – taken from the Taikodani Inari-jinja Shrine (太皷谷稲成神社)

In some respects, Tsuwano feels like it stopped in time in the 1800s, probably due to its relative isolation from other major centres in Japan. This makes Tsuwano special now. Much of the architecture is very old and undisturbed. Many major sites of preservation include Inari Shrine, the old town, Tsuwano Castle ruins and Maria Seido Chapel.

Old town scene in Tsuwano

Our overnight visit began at the train station which is at one end of a very old commercial area. Walking from north to south from the JR railway station, you can cover most places that make this town unique within a busy day. Adjacent to the train station, Tono-machi main street is lined with Edo era buildings, many of which are interesting little shops, restaurants or public buildings that are open to visitors. Worth noting is the Japan Heritage Center as it has a wealth of information and maps to help you find the highlights of the town. At the time of our visit, there were English speaking guides who had excellent knowledge and insight when we explained that we liked hiking and visiting historical sites. The centre also houses a collection of exquisite Japanese drawings from the Edo period (up to the late 1860s). These drawings depict life through “100 views of Tsuwano” (or “Tsuwano Hyakkeizu”) with some scenes seeing little change since this period, as the town is quite preserved.

Koi fish and bubbling streams in the old town of Tsuwano, Japan

The old town centre is really quaint I really loved the fact that it seemed real, as it sees very few tourists when compared to Kyoto or other historical castle towns. Many streets are lined with streams that are full of colourful koi fish, but you also see local life – people buying fresh food from the local shops. The little streams on the side of most streets bubble away to the sound of mountain clear water washing its way down to the Takatsu River. Most of the houses are very old and made of traditional wood. It’s like a setting from a historical Japanese movie.

Quiet shrines and gardens in Tsuwano – Little Kyoto.

Tsuwano also has an uncomfortable World Heritage Site relating to Christian persecution. European missionaries pushed Christianity onto the Japanese in the 1600s, resulting in a clash of cultures in some areas, particularly in the south (Nagasaki). Many vulnerable poverty stricken communities were enticed by Christianity, and there was a subsequent backlash from the invested interests in Japan at the time. The ruling shogunates outlawed Christianity, but somehow small communities around Nagasaki kept the faith from the 1600s to the 1860s, practicing their faith in private homes. in the late 1800s, the Meiji Restoration was modernising Japan, but it didn’t necessarily mean that Christians would be accepted into Japanese society. When Japanese Christians “came out” they were persecuted quite rigourously.

Christian heritage site in Tsuwano.

Ironically, a bad atrocity took place in Tsuwano, in a most beautiful setting in the mountain forests. Japanese Christians from Nagasaki were transferred here in 1868, before being tortured and executed. One of them claimed that they saw the Virgin Mary in the forest while they were locked up in a cage, and this has been transformed into a poignant memorial. It’s a short 15 minute walk from the old town centre through a peaceful forest on the mountain side, before you reach a modest chapel and memorial site that conveys the horrors that humans can inflict on each other. It’s quite moving to sit and reflect by yourself in such a beautiful setting, thinking about the people who suffered here for their ideas and opinions at the time – makes you realise that you need to be a bit flexible in life and look at the bigger picture – no point being a martyr for ideologies.

“Silence” by Shūsaku Endō is a thoroughly engaging book that gives an insight into this dark side of Japanese history, while also exploring more profound issues of faith and how life can be so pointless. However, we need to carry on. This book was given to me by a good friend. It explores the idea of faith in an incredibly powerful, stark manner, because European missionaries were supporting deeply devoted Japanese Christians during a time period where these communities were being slaughtered and persecuted. The book explores the concept of Christian faith in an era where prayers were not heard, as communities were being decimated and Eastern/Western cultures were clashing. The story is very simple but it raises so many questions about faith and the human condition, whether or not you believe in a Christian god or other concepts like Buddism. The simple memorials in Tsuwano have been built by local communities and supported by a World Heritage listing – its really good to visit a place like this, so we can reflect on errors that have happened in the past, and hopefully learn to be a bit more tolerant.

Memorial stone carving in Tsuwano.

Heading further south along the railway line, you eventually reach a densely packed series of bold red torii gates that ascend up the mountain slope to Inari Jinja Shrine, which is also red. Torii gates are meant to be a passing point between the normal and the sublime as you go into a Shinto Temple, with some commercial reality in the process. Each individual gate is built when a local business is looking for some extra divine intervention to improve their business. The steep walk up to the shrine takes about 15 minutes, where you are completely enclosed in a deep red tunnel of gates – apparently there are 273 gates, not that you’d want to count them as you climb. The pathway is sympathetically lit at night time with traditional Japanese lanterns within the forested slopes. We had the whole place to ourselves, when walking up the atmospheric pathway on a very cool spring evening.

Dense torii gates on the hillside at Tsuwano’s Taikodani Inari Shrine

Taikodani Inari Shrine (太皷谷稲成神社) is at the top of the hill with commanding views over the town and river. It’s an amazing vista and also one of the five greatest Inari shrines in Japan. Inari is a popular deity associated with foxes, rice, household wellbeing, business prosperity, and general prosperity.  The word “Inari” is an abbreviated term for “Ine Nari” or “Ine ni naru”, which translates to “reaping of rice”.

Taikodani Inari Shrine

Tsuwano also has old castle ruins on the top of a mountain, which we did not have time to visit. Overall, the best aspect of the town was it’s relatively quiet atmosphere within a traditional Japanese setting that has not changed for many centuries.

Waking along the riverside in Tsuwano.

After descending down the mountain to the other end of the town, it was great to see the JR Yamaguchi steam train that runs along the line from JR Yamaguchi to Tsuwano quite regularly on holidays and weekends throughout the year. It’s one of Japan’s most popular steam train rides.

JR Yamaguchi steam train crossing the river in Tsuwano.

Useful Links:

Japan Guide to Tsuwano – a comprehensive guide to the town and great things to see here.

Google map of key places on our walk in Tsuwano:

Good website resource from Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, which also includes details on the famous paintings from Tsuwano: TSUWANO: THE PAINTED PAST, VIVIDLY PRESENT

Accommodation: We stayed at Hoshi Ryokan, which has spacious rooms and helpful hosts, located right next to the railway station. The excellent evening meal was included in the overnight, with Japanese style food being sourced locally.

Persecution of Japanese Christians – an interesting newspaper article on the book “Silence” and subsequent movie.

Website for Inari Shrine in Tsuwano

Getting there and away: Take JR rail from Yamaguchi, which is serviced by the Tokkaido bullet train line. Full details here.

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