If towns were family members, Japan’s Onomichi would probably be your eccentric aunt — the one who has cats, and an antique store that is only open on Thursdays, and sings along with Puccini arias, and drains her small bank balance to host elaborate dinner parties.
Onomichi doesn’t conform to the stereotypes about Japanese culture. It doesn’t feel precise or nuanced. It’s not corporate or anime, and we get more smiles than bows. It’s a little proud about being a little run down and a lot proud about encouraging what is a offbeat and personal and modestly free-spirited.
On our first day in town, we leave our guest house early in search of coffee and something to eat. The air is filled with the briny fragrance of the Seto Inland Sea that is Onomichi’s front door. A gray-haired man on a bike breezes by, waving and calling out “Ohayo! Good morning!” before becoming a blur in the next block. Music from Brazil trickles out of small speakers along this outdoor “mall,” where glaring CFLs hang over wooden benches of handmade pottery and an older woman is filleting a dozen fish at something that looks like what we used to call a tv tray. Bikes are parked unlocked. The sandwich boards are only in Japanese.
We find and drink coffee and then head for the special path behind downtown that connects 30 ancient temples through the green hillsides. Each temple has something to draw us in — a flowering garden, a tori gate, a string of sitting Buddhas wearing knit caps. There are coffee houses and ice cream shops on the path, and local residents volunteering information about which way to turn at the next corner.
Part of the temple path is called “cat alley,” really more of a cat path, meandering through the deciduous forest and pine trees. Along the walls and fences there is a lot of cat art, delightful and funny. I don’t see any cats, which, I tell myself, is to be expected if you are looking for them. Still, the whimsy of this woodland gallery energizes us, so instead of taking the rope tram, we climb for another half an hour to the temple at the top of the hill. There, we are rewarded with breath-taking views of the sea and the inland islands.
In the evening, we find ourselves sitting with a small group of engaging young people from all over the world in a bar called Yes. It’s too small for a table but you can choose from among 50 brands of bottled beer. We choose the only one that is Japanese. A papier mache giraffe fills one of the corners from floor to ceiling. Rafa from Paraguay invites us to his art show in Tokyo next month. His friend from Colombia gives us some advice about a special bike ride on one of the islands.
So far, really good.