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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Yamaguchi and Yuda Onsen

The beautiful five-story pagoda of Rurikō-ji

Food, glorious food. If you stay in a ryokan 旅館, prepare to eat - a lot. This was our breakfast spread on the morning of Christmas Eve at the Nishi-no-Miyabi Tokiwa Ryokan 西の雅常盤 in Yuda Onsen 湯田温泉. While I admit I couldn't eat a Japanese-style breakfast every morning, for a few days at least there's no better way to start the day off than with rice, fish, miso soup 味噌汁 and even nattō 納豆:

The view from our sixth-floor room:

Santa Claus with a menacing case of five o'clock shadow. Not quite how I visualize Father Christmas:

The plan for this Sunday before Christmas was to take a bus out to Akiyoshi-dō 秋芳洞, the largest limestone cave in Japan. However, it turned out the timetable on weekends wasn't as convenient as on weekdays, so instead we decided to take the train from Yuda Onsen Station 湯田温泉駅 to Yamaguchi 山口市, the capital city of Yamaguchi Prefecture 山口県. The origins of the 800-year-old Yuda Onsen spa resort lie in a legend about a white fox that healed its injured leg in the curative hot spring waters. The town's mascot is naturally a fox, symbolized by an 8-meter-high (26 feet) statue next to the train station:

The local train to Yamaguchi a-comin':

Yamaguchi, with a population of around 200,000, is the smallest prefectural capital in Japan, and the area around the train station feels more like a small town. In the 16th century it served as an alternative capital to Kyōto 京都 during the country's civil war period - in 1550 the Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier stayed there for two months on his way to see the emperor in the capital, only to return in frustration when he couldn't locate the monarch. Yamaguchi was a major center for Christian missionary activity in Japan before the religion was banned in 1589. The St. Francis Xavier Memorial Church ザビエル記念聖堂 now stands in Kameyama-kōen 亀山公園, first erected in 1952 to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the missionary's arrival. The church burned down in 1991, but was replaced with a strikingly contemporary structure in 1998:

The church is home to a Christian museum covering Xavier's life and the early history of the imported religion in Japan:

This small statue, seemingly of Kannon 観音, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, was actually a representation of Mary and the baby Jesus, and was used by Japanese Christians in an attempt to disguise their faith from prying eyes:

A letter written by Xavier in 1548, addressed to the Portuguese king and asking for his financial support for the missionary's trip to Japan:

A view of Yamaguchi from the hill in front of the church:

We headed downhill from Kameyama-kōen and made our way to the Komeya-chō 米屋町 shopping arcade, just off the main drag, Eki-dōri 駅通り. Time for lunch:

Afterward, we walked off the meal, heading north for about twenty minutes along the Ichinosaka-gawa 一の坂川 to the Rurikō-ji 瑠璃光寺 temple complex, home to a five-story pagoda erected in 1404 and now a National Treasure:

We also took time to explore the temple and its atmospheric graveyard:

A row of Jizō 地蔵菩薩 statues line a path going uphill from the temple:

Rurikō-ji is situated in Kōzan-kōen 香山公園, which is also home to the graves of Mōri Takachika 毛利敬親, the daimyō (feudal lord) 大名 of the Chōshū Domain 長州藩 during the Edo period 江戸時代, and his family. The lord was one of the key figures involved in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shōgunate 徳川幕府 in 1867:

Back to the Komeya-chō arcade and a welcome coffee and dessert break at the Yamaguchi IZUTSUYA 山口井筒屋 department store:

A warm-water foot bath 足の湯 located on the route going from Yuda Onsen station to our ryokan:

Back in our room at the Nishi-no-Miyabi Tokiwa Ryokan:

Another fantastic dinner, kicking off with fresh sashimi 刺身:

In an unexpected twist, a bowl of sukiyaki すき焼き was topped with, of all things, cotton candy. Tea was poured over the spun sugar to dissolve into the nabemono 鍋物, and giving the hot pot dish a sweet flavor. My daughter was fascinated by the entire process:

Dinner was followed by a relaxing soak in the ryokan's hot spring baths and then it was time to bed. As we'd already opened our presents prior to our departure for Japan, we knew Santa wouldn't be leaving us anything in our tatami 畳 room on Christmas morning. We checked out of the ryokan, and took the train again to Yamaguchi Station 山口駅, where we stowed our bags in a couple of coin lockers, then took a taxi to our Christmas Day destination. The Sesshū-tei 雪舟庭 garden at the Jōei-ji 常榮時 temple was designed by the noted priest and painter Sesshū 雪舟, who had moved to Yamaguchi at the end of the 15th century. He was commissioned by the daimyō Ōuchi Masahiro 大内政弘 to create simple, stone-dotted Zen garden on the grounds of the lord's mother's summerhouse. The traditional garden remains intact today behind the temple:

While my wife rested, Amber and I took a walk uphill behind the garden, eventually coming to a small temple:

After returning to the garden, we also made time to explore the main temple building:

Instead of calling another taxi for the four-kilometer drive back to Yamaguchi Station, we walked downhill about one kilometer to Miyano Station 宮野駅, and took the train from there back to where our bags were stored. Lunch was had at the simple noodle restaurant in front of the station:

With still time to kill before our 1:58 pm train to Tsuwano 津和野, our next destination, I took a walk back along Eki-dōri to, you guessed it, the Komeya-chō arcade:

It may not be the most dynamic of Japanese cities, but Yamaguchi, with its green hills, waterways and relaxed pace, does have its charms. Purchasing a packet of the local speciality uirō ういろう, a glutinous sweet made from pounded rice, we boarded the train (punctual as always in Japan) for the 78-minute journey through the countryside to Tsuwano.

To be continued...

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