Sanyo-Onoda, hidden gem of Yamaguchi Prefecture

SANYO-ONODA, Japan- I'm probably a typical Japanese who tends to be sympathetic to the weak, and as such, I wanted to support a low-profile tourist spot. Thus, I chose Sanyo-Onoda as my travel destination in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

The city, however, is somewhat high-profile - among the cities whose names are all written in kanji, it boasts having the longest name in the country with five characters.

Of course, the city's fascination goes beyond its long name. Kuguri Iwa, a huge, strange-shaped rock, has an overwhelming presence at Cape Motoyama, which looks like it's sticking out into the Sea of Suo.

The rock has three narrow, vertical openings. I assume its name, which means to go through rock, comes from the fact a person can pass through all three gaps.

The surrounding area of the Yakeno Kaigan coast near the cape has been chosen as "one of the 100 most beautiful sunset spots in Japan." The orange tinge from the sunset looked beautiful to me from the rocks.

About a 10-minute drive north from the cape brings people to the summit of Mt. Ryuo. Conquering the mountain is not difficult as it is only 136 meters above sea level, which makes it well suited for hiking.

I heard visitors here can see 10,000 cherry trees in full bloom in spring, numerous himebotaru fireflies dancing around in early summer and the arriving asagimadara (a migrant butterfly known as the chestnut tiger) in autumn.

"Although the mountain isn't very tall, it's one of the best spots to see various wildflowers and upland plants throughout the year," said Norikazu Shimada, 66, chairman of a group of guides who introduce the local history, nature and folklore. Shimada is particularly familiar with the nature in the area.

Shimada added: "From the observatory on the summit, we can clearly see the six provinces" in the region, which are Nagato, Suo, Chikuzen, Buzen, Bungo and Iyo, in their old names.

I would recommend climbing the mountain after sunset to see neighbouring Ube and its cold-looking illuminations of a group of factories, Kanmon Bridge and other facilities, which are quite impressive.

The view at night is also registered as one of the 100 most beautiful nightscapes in Japan and one of the heritage nightscapes in Japan.

In addition to the abundance of nature, there are many other attractive spots worth visiting.

One of them, Tokkurigama (literally, sake bottle kiln), is an important cultural property designated by the central government.

It is also a legacy of Jumpachi Kasai, who founded the former Onoda Cement Manufacturing Co., which was the first private cement company in the nation. As its humorous name indicates, the shaft kiln certainly looks like a tokkuri, a stout sake container.

I wondered why a cement factory was founded here.

"A considerable part of the city area used to be under the sea. Thanks to rapid reclamation work, [Kasai] could get a huge plot of land for the factory," said Junichi Mizoguchi, 35, a curator at the Sanyo-Onoda Museum of History and Folklore.

"This place also was close to the production bases for clay, limestone and other materials for cement, so it must have been easy to obtain them."

I was also impressed with a folktale about Netaro (Sleeping Taro), which has been passed down among local residents.

According to the folktale, a young man, who was called Netaro because he was always taking naps, went to Sado Island in faraway Niigata Prefecture and brought a huge fortune back home thanks to the use of his wisdom.

This story, about a man who was born and bred in this area with its relaxed atmosphere gained prominence beyond the city, overlapped with the success of Kasai's cement company, in my mind.

I went to JR Asa Station to see a large statue of Netaro standing before it. Seeing it, I suddenly remembered I had made reservations for Nitanda, a restaurant near the statue that serves local dishes of Yamaguchi Prefecture.

After rushing to the restaurant, I saw an array of whale bacon, seashell soup and kencho. Kencho is a local dish comprising daikon, carrots and broken-up tofu that are all fried together, seasoned with soy sauce and sake, and simmered until the liquid has evaporated. It's a dish that tastes "just like what Mom would make."

"This is an indispensable family dish in winter, when daikon becomes very tasty," said Miyuki Sugiura, 42, proprietress of the restaurant. "I think its taste is gentle compared to similar dishes in other prefectures."

She was right. After traveling around on a severely cold day, the hot dish truly warmed me up even after the meal.

Rather than choosing a popular Yamaguchi Prefecture site such as Hagi or Shimonoseki, I was satisfied with my visit to the tasteful Sanyo-Onoda.

Travel tips

From JR Tokyo Station, about a 41/2-hour ride on the Nozomi Shinkansen takes you to Shin-Yamaguchi Station. Then transfer to a Kodama Shinkansen, and about a 10-minute ride takes you to Asa Station.

Minami-Onoda Station, the closest station to Tokkurigama, is about 20 minutes by train from Asa Station.

For more information, call the Sanyo-Onoda Tourism Association at (0836) 82-1313. For the Nitanda restaurant, call (0836) 72-0271.Speech