From popular tourist spots to small picturesque villages, travelling by bike or by ferry to the Seto Inland Sea (瀬戸内海) area is a great place to stay in any season. Most itineraries of the Setouchi region (瀬戸内地方, Setouchi Chihō) would include Hiroshima, Miyajima and Naoshima, but less well-known spots are also worth a visit. Among these gems, the port town of Onomichi (尾道市) is a perfect stopover for half a day to stroll through its alleyways where time seems to have stood still.
Onomichi, the Historical Port Town of Hiroshima Prefecture
Before it became the peaceful coastal town we know today, Onomichi established itself as the business hub of Hiroshima in the 12th Century. During the Edo era and the period of national isolation, the port of Onomichi vibrated with the rhythm of trading boats calling in on the way between Osaka and Hokkaido. The coastal scenery was also featured in the video game, Yakuza 6, complete with fishermen on piers, the neighbourhood streets and the main Senko-ji Temple.
Now better known for its quaint streets and dozens of temples spared from the bombings of World War II, Onomichi is a must-see destination during your trip to Japan, especially for cycling enthusiasts. Onomichi is where the Shimanami Kaido (しまなみ海道, Shimanami Kaidō) begins, a 70 km cycle course connecting the main island of the Japanese archipelago, Honshu, to its neighbor, Shikoku (四国). On this cycling course, you can travel across the Seto Inland Sea and view the unspoiled natural landscapes through numerous small islands.
Port Area and Shopping Waterfront
Not being a seasoned cyclist, I arrived in Onomichi by boat. My visit started in the port area surrounded by impressive moored ships. The place seemed very industrial at first glance and a world away from the postcard-perfect alleyways. But I soon found out it is worth spending some time here.
A promenade along the waterfront leads to a completely renovated former warehouse: U2 Onomichi. The renovated building includes a hotel, bar, restaurant, coffee shop, and bakery, as well as some souvenir and cycling equipment shops. It is a substantial commercial complex with contemporary and refined decoration and is an ideal place to have a rest before or after visiting the town.
I took advantage of the large terrace facing the port to watch people and boats go by.
Small Shops and Shopping Arcade
To go to the famous quaint and narrow streets in the higher part of the town from the port of Onomichi, follow the main road lined with small shops.
Far from the buildings of megacities, these alleys exuded a discreet and old fashioned charm as I walked past the colorful shopfronts of florists and antiquated cafes.
If you wish to get away from the traffic, you can enter a covered pedestrian shopping street which stretches almost 2 km: Hondori Shotengai (本通り商店街).
It is a combination of a marketplace and a shopping center where local products are sold alongside cozy cafes, souvenir shops, and other small grocery stores.
The Charm of Setouchi in the Narrow Streets of Onomichi
As soon as I crossed the main road onto the other side of town, the scenery changed. The streets and lanes are narrow and steep, with traditional architecture and a relaxing ambiance.
Traditional buildings, temples and shrines dot the climb up, and every turn offers a beautiful view on the port below.
My visit was during the off-season in February, so I met only a few walkers, which made the ambiance even more calming.
Tourists are relatively rare at this time of the year, so I was quickly spotted by students at the local school who waved at me through the windows. On the way, I met a few residents as well as some friendly cats – the real masters of this area in Onomichi.
While it is possible to explore Onomichi methodically along a route that visits 25 different temples, I chose to let myself meander along according to my mood and desires. It is essential to wear comfortable shoes, as the path is seldom flat!
Cable Car and Senko-Ji Temple
Another option to explore the area is to take the cable car that leads directly to the city’s main attraction, Senko-ji Temple (千光寺). Renowned for the different flowers which bloom depending on the seasons, this famous temple retains all its charm even in the middle of winter when nature is asleep.
The trees were bare the day I visited, but the atmosphere was charged with a unique energy, punctuated by the heady chanting of the monks I could hear in the temple.
After strolling along for several hours, I stopped in one of the small cafes in the neighborhood on the way back to the port. Don’t hesitate to push open the doors of bed & breakfasts or youth hostels, as most of them have a cafe bar where you can have a drink.
Among them is the Guesthouse Hostel Miharashi-tei (ゲストハウス「みはらし亭」), located right next to the Senko-ji temple. The hostel is the ideal place to savor a home-made lemonade or a cup of coffee with an unobstructed view of the coastline before heading on to your next destination.
How to Get to Onomichi
Onomichi is accessible by train from the main cities of the archipelago. It takes about 4 hours from Tokyo, 2 hours from Kyoto, and a little less than an hour from Hiroshima. You can travel there using your Japan Rail Pass if you have one.
You can also reach the town by boat if you are already in the Setouchi region. To give you an idea, it took me around an hour by boat coming directly from the neighboring island of Ikuchijima to Onomichi port (尾道ポートターミナル). The region is made up of dozens of small islands close to each other, and so a boat trip is often the fastest way to get from one destination to the next. My advice would be to get the information on-site at the tourist information center or directly at the port for the time-tables of these small boats as they can be infrequent, especially in the off-season. You can find more information about the town and its tourist attractions on the Onomichi Tourism Association’s official website.
With charming narrow and quiet streets, wonderfully preserved temples and its scenic location on the Seto Inland Sea, Onomichi is a magnificent destination that should be included in your travel itinerary of Japan, especially if you plan to visit Hiroshima prefecture. It is also an excellent base from which to explore the many islands that lie alongside the Shimanami Kaido cycle path. You may also want to take the opportunity to visit the impressive Kosanji temple on the island of Ikuchijima.
Translated by Naoko Sakamoto