JAPAN: Tsuwano the Little Kyoto

Don’t get upset if you don’t have the cash to go to Kyoto. A great place to visit if you’re in the military (or if you are just in the area) is Tsuwano. Locally known as the “Little Kyoto” it gives you a taste of history and elegance without the trip on the shinkansen and the associated wallet drain and drama. It’s also a great place to visit if you’re the type of Japanophile that enjoys tracing the turbulent history of Christianity in Japan.

Location: Tsuwano, Japan

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Tsuwano valley

How you get there: At 2 hrs or so from  Iwakuni, this place is best located using GPS. However, if you get lost, remember that your local 7 Eleven in Japan is the place to get directions, even for those who only know a few words of Japanese. Americans could learn a thing or two from the patience of Japanese convenience store employees.

Time for trip: Plan on the whole day. If you are going during apple season, plan on a leisurely train ride too.

Best season to do this hike: My sister says during apple season (read: Fall) you can ride a historic steam train up to the town. She says it’s well worth the experience, especially if you’re from out of country. Avoid August, which is the month for the most miserable hot steamy weather in Japan, but otherwise this place is beautiful year around.

Overview of Places You Have to See

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Shrine to the  martyrs of Tsuwano, stature commemorating the appearance of the Virgin Mary to a martyr left to die of exposure in an iron cage

The Historic Christian Locations

Christianity was not a tolerated religion in Japan up into the mid 1800s, (those in power feared that it would undermine traditional Japanese social structures, for instance, by not allowing ritualized suicide, among other less dramatic issues). When the last jesuit was kicked out of the country, though, some “hidden Christians” remained, continuing to practice the christian faith, (and some of these communities managed to persist until the reintroduction of Christianity to Japan hundreds of years later). Shogunate officials attempted to root out these Christians through various means, most of which were not exactly nice, (by crucifixion, starvation, death through exposure, etc.). Tsuwano is the site of the martyrdom of 25 (or 30 something, the numbers seem to vary) hidden Christians, mostly through starvation and exposure to cold. When the Buddhist temple that owned the land went defunct the Catholic church purchased it and placed a shrine there in honor of the martyrs and in particular in honor of a martyr who saw a vision of the Virgin Mary that gave him the strength to endure and not renounce his faith.

To reach this location you will need to look for a skinny, poorly marked trail going out past the walls of some houses on the outskirts of Tsuwano before you get into the main part of town. The trail weaves through the houses, then up a classic Japanese skinny concrete staircase, eventually reaching the little clearing with the chapel and shrine. This shrine is on the north end of town, at GPS coordinates 34.472759, 131.770760. There are modern Christians living in Tsuwano now, and they have their own church and worship facilities in the main part of the town.

The Inari Shrine

The local Inari Shrine has its own flight of twisting stairs covered in vermilion torii gates, reminiscent of the more famous string of gates in Kyoto. However, the shrine itself is still pretty famous despite not being in Kyoto.  Known as 太皷谷稲荷神社, (Taikodani Inari Jinja), it is considered one of the five greatest Inari shrines in the country. Drop by for a visit to enjoy the beautiful shrine grounds and maybe pick up a talisman or two for the folks back home. Make sure you keep an eye out for the stone foxes around the shrine – these unusual beasts are the traditional guardian of all Inari shrines. For a more traditional experience of shrine going in Japan, try O-mikuji. O-mikuji are strips of paper containing a fortune retrieved from a box after typically a 5 yen coin donation. If the fortune is good, you take it home with you. If the fortune is bad, leave it tied to the nearby rack (see photos), so the bad luck stays at the shrine and doesn’t follow you home! Alternatively, purchase an offering of fried tofu, (rumored to be the favorite of the sacred foxes), and a candle to light.

The Sake Breweries and Old Town

If you’re going with someone from the military, (or from the northeast), take time to visit the local sake breweries located in the old town. Free samples are available and brewery employees are used to dealing with tourists who only know a few words of Japanese. The old town itself is beautiful, (and very picturesque), with its stone streets, white washed walls, and koi filled water channels.

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Old Town

BE WARNED!

  1. There really aren’t many restrooms in town open to the public. If you go to a restaurant make sure you use it then!
  2. This is Japan. For those used to the Appalachians, expect more climbing, twisty, safety rail devoid stairs than any one island should ever contain. If you have a bad knee, bad lungs, or must avoid exercise for some other reason realize that there are no short flights of stairs in Japan – when you start up you are committing to a prolonged, steep climb. Know before you go!
  3. The heron dance (summer) and the horse back archery (spring) attract a lot of tourists. If you want a more leisurely experience of Tsuwano avoid coming on the dates these events are held.
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The thing American’s most associate Japan with (other than anime or sushi) could be koi. These guys reside in channels running down Tsuwano’s historic streets, and there are vending stations for koi feed on the south end of town if you just have to fatten them further.

In sum: It takes days to explore Kyoto, but just one day to enjoy this gem.

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