Day 6 — 3 August 2010
I think it must take a lifetime to get used to Japanese style breakfasts. The squid sashimi and grilled mackerel I can cope with, the rice and miso soup: fine. But the endless egg, tofu and pickles? Not for me I’m afraid.
Our sixth morning in Japan was a bit of a downer, Liz wasn’t feeling well and we had a bit of a journey into the unknown ahead. Our next stop was the small town of Iwakuni (岩国市) — a former castle town founded by a banished lord in the early 17th century and situated a short train journey south-east of Miyajima. Before setting-off we decided to have a stroll around Miyajima and pick up some souvenirs, but once again came up against that venerable foe: 太陽 (the Sun).
After around half an hour I began to resemble a shade-seeking missile: dashing from marginally cooler patch of ground to marginally cooler patch of ground. We even resorted to having our feet nibbled by some hungry fish, partly to see what it felt like (rather nice) but mostly to be able to sit somewhere out of the sun and immerse our feet in cool water.
Having had enough of this nonsense and with both of us now feeling a little unwell (I steadfastly refuse to blame the chicken sashimi for this) we made our way back to the mainland and took the local train to Iwakuni.
Having learnt our lesson in Hiroshima, we took a taxi from the train station to our ryokan (the thoroughly charming and highly recommended Hangetsuan) where we were treated to a fabulous example of warm Japanese hospitality. Having spent the previous night in a luxurious ryokan, Hangetsuan was very much a case of coming back down to earth with regards to expensive adornments and expansive surroundings, but certainly not when it came to being looked after.
The ryokan manager was extremely keen to practice his English with us — I don’t think many gaijin come to Iwakuni, and those that do probably don’t stay at his ryokan — so he proceeded to tell us all about the town and its attractions (with all respect to Iwakuni, it was a fairly short conversation). The Okami took us to our room and prepared tea with a worried look on her face: when pressed, she tried to explain that the tea was very bitter and we probably wouldn’t like it. But maybe we should try it anyway, just to see.
It was probably the best tea we had during our whole stay, a delicate balance of bitterness and that unmistakable aroma and flavour of sencha. Wonderful stuff. After a short stroll around the ryokan’s immediate locale we returned to be greeted once more by the manager: he had some pamphlets for us. After thanking him for his effort but deciding to forego any prearranged tours and just relax for the evening, I decided to practice my Japanese a little in order to tell him how much we’d enjoyed the tea: he was delighted by this and proceeded to explain how his establishment was originally set up by his ancestors over 140 years ago as a tea house, only morphing into a ryokan more recently. This was evidenced, he told us, by the fact that the third kanji in the written form of the name Hangetsuan (半月庵) was the Chinese symbol for ‘tea house’.
I can’t get enought of little facts like that.
There are few reasons to come to Iwakuni (assuming you’re not a member of the US military, who have a base there), but the one that intrigued me the most was their history of cormorant fishing. Every evening during the summer, several small boats of fishermen take to the waters of the Nishiki river, each equipped with nothing but a flight of cormorants and an enormous basket of fire hanging from the front of their boats. The birds are sent on diving missions into the water where they return time-after-time with small ayu (sweetfish) and other fish, which the wranglers relocate to a basket.
It’s a pretty dramatic sight (and would have been without the traditional accompanying music being pumped out of a giant loudspeaker on the bankside) particularly the fire swinging around on a precarious looking fishing rod. The little cormorants work tirelessly, hauling fish after fish out of the water and occasionally being allowed to keep one for themselves.
After watching the boats for an hour or so — chasing them down the riverbank and back with a few local kids — we decided to get an early night as we had a lot of travelling to do the next day and neither of us were feeling 100%. Things were about to get a hell of a lot worse….