We gorged on Tokyo’s and Osaka’s big-city hedonism then ran away to a peaceful fishing town in Fukuyama city. Tomonoura is Japan’s only complete, preserved Edo period (1603-1868) port. It’s a ukiyo-e print, but alive with salt air, fish swaying on racks and slinking cats.
In its prosperous heyday, boats teemed in the harbour. After the mid-1800s, trains and sturdier ships whisked trade away along speedier routes and the town froze in time. Today, however, the old stone lantern, cargo dock and boat repair space are still used. Wooden buildings fan like seaweed fronds from the clam-shaped bay. Tourists drift in, lured by nostalgia.
The cute cat quotient looked promising.
We fawned over this nonplussed cat. Sadly, it was our only cat sighting because it rained so much.
Built around 1690, Taichourou reception hall once welcomed foreign envoys on the way to the capital Edo (today’s Tokyo) with mesmerising views of Sensui and Benten Islands. This is Tomonoura’s version of Hokusai’s screen print series,“36 Views of Mount Fuji”. The iconic silhouette is visible throughout town. For centuries, the positions of stars and planets in relation to these domes were used as a cosmic calendar.
Tomonoura inspired Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s 2008 film “Ponyo”. It’s a tale of a boy and a fish-girl who wants to be human. Miyazaki rented a villa while crafting the story. “I’d like to feel like a runaway,” he said. Miyazaki is a national treasure in Japan. We traced his steps and spotted “Ponyo” homages along the way.
We climbed the hills. Blue and grey roof tiles glinted like fish scales. Here’s my (rainy day) shot next to the “Ponyo” artwork.
In 2012, the biggest catch arrived. Big Kahuna Hugh Jackman came to film “Wolverine”. It’s jarring seeing Hugh pictures everywhere as you stroll through “Old Japan”, but I sense the town loved the celebrity endorsement. Fukuyama’s city flower is the rose and local botanists created a new breed called the Wolverine Fukuyama.
This Hugh sculpture was in our hotel lobby. Check out the lovingly rendered six-pack.
We stayed at the Tomo Seaside Hotel. With the Seto Inland Sea lapping outside, the hallway’s large water stains looked ominous, but we loved our room with sea views. The hotel also brews lemon and salt beer. It felt like a pyjama party at the dinner buffet as guests lounged in yukata robes.
From the ninth floor café, I watched the ferry to Sensui Island over cheesecake and rose petal tea served with a teaspoon of rose jam.
At Kayaker’s Café, we relished crab burgers with local Fukuyama sake. Owner Yasuhiro Murakami moved from greater Fukuyama to lead kayak trips in the bay. He watched a documentary on Tomonoura with us. The town’s stories tumbled from the TV.
There’s a 7th-generation shipbuilder, over 80-years-old. Incredibly sprightly, he says he credits his health to eating “the local small fish.”
“He rides his bicycle past my café every day,” Murakami said.
The over 300-years-old Sawamura shop sells seafaring goods like buoys and lanterns and trinkets like anchor key chains. Michiko Sawamura married into the family business. Her husband passed away and she loves chatting to tourists to fend off loneliness.
The Ota Residence sells homeishu liquor, invented in the 17th-century by the Ota family. This elixir from rice and 16 herbs once brought great wealth to Tomonoura.
To meet the locals, find the okonomiyaki savoury pancake restaurant run by a lady over 90-years-old. Or Narutodo, the only candy shop, where kids and the elderly hang out.
This is shopping Tomonoura-style. There’s one supermarket and this is the only convenience store we found:
We found a stall selling a few trays of fish:
You can blast through Tomonoura’s main sights in two hours or dig deeper to find its secrets.
The completed “Ponyo” is a totally hand-drawn work of art. Fire and water are considered big challenges in animation. Miyazaki first asked his staff to draw the ocean. He ended up doing it himself. Every day for two months in Tomonoura, he’d studied the waves from cliff tops. Every ripple and swell flowed from his hand.
Kayak guide Murakami started tours in this isolated pocket. Today, the world comes to him. He can show you the island where umihotaru sea fireflies turn the shore phosphorescent blue. Photos of international visitors cover Kayaker’s Café’s walls.
Japan has a history of making way for industry in the quest for better lives. Particularly during its 1960s and 70s huge economic growth, illegal waste dumping, forest destruction and water pollution left their scars.
In 2012, a project to reclaim part of the port and build a car bridge in Tomonoura was scrapped. This ended almost three decades of struggle, including a lawsuit filed by the community against the Hiroshima prefecture government, to preserve the town’s cultural heritage.
Imagine finding a message in a bottle, battered and faded, but a revelation. Though it’s a bit worn and neglected, Tomonoura is a gift from a time capsule.
In Edo times, boats moored in its half-moon bay, waiting for receding tides or seeking refuge from storms. Japan needs its hideaways. Whether it was us fleeing concrete and asphalt, an animator communing with nature, or an adventurer forging a new life—we’re all runaways of some kind.
Fukuyama is about three hours and 40 minutes by shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo. Tomonoura is a 30-minute bus ride from Fukuyama Station. Official Tourism Website
Tomonoura: The Old Folks and the Sea, (documentary), NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), 2014
Ghibli no Fukei (The Scenery in Ghibli), (documentary), BS Nippon Corporation/TV Mass Union Inc, 2009
Tomonoura: Lost in a Storied Landscape, The Japan Times, 15 November 2014