To the west of Kyoto, not far from Himeji castle, facing a string of tiny paradisiac islands along the inland sea, lies the bay of the ancient region of Harima. This region is easy to access but is off the beaten track and still preserved from mass tourism. It is one of the jewels of the Japanese archipelago. Renowned for its breathtaking scenery and rich local history, it is also a destination for food-lovers: the Japanese come from far and wide to taste the famous oysters of Harima-nada.
Where is Harima-nada?
- Located on the south-west coast of the main island of Honshû, between Okayama and Himeji, Harima bay or Harima-nada is on the Inland Sea. The name “Harima” comes from the former province which was situated in the south-western part of the modern-day Hyôgo Prefecture.
- Akô, the main city, is located in the Hyôgo Prefecture 30 kms away from Himeji, 45 kms from Okayama, 100 kms from Osaka and 130 kms from Kyôto.
Harimanada in Japanese history
Since prehistoric times
- Paleolithic human remains and remains from the Jômon era (-13000 -300 BC) both testify to a very ancient human presence in the region. In the 8th century, many songs praising the beauty of Harima, or the lands belonging to the Hôryû-ji temple of Nara, appear in the poems Man’yo-shû anthology.
The region of the 47 rônin
- It was only at the end of the Kamakura era that Harima entered the annals of history, when one of its lords, Akamatsu Norimura (1277-1350), joined forces with the emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339) who was attempting to restore the imperial power. Despite the emperor’s failure to do so, the Akamatsu lords managed to extend their influence until the early 18th century. And one hundred years later, the Akô samurai, the famous 47 rônin, caused an unprecedented scandal by defying the shogun laws to avenge their master’s honour.read the story The revenge of the “forty-seven rônin”
The sea as a source of wealth
- Throughout its history, Harima’s rugged coastline and many islands have sheltered ships from storms, and made it a safe haven. As a result, the transportation of goods prospered until the 19th century, when the first trains put an end to the monopoly of sea-bound transport. Today, Harima-nada is primarily known for the quality of its oysters and is among the leading oyster producers in the country.
- Akô, a small provincial city nestled at the heart of an estuary, is famous for its castle remains and the heroic legend, the “47 rônin”, which has been a never-ending source of inspiration for the Japanese since the 18th century.
- Getting there: JR Banshu-Akô station is connected to the Shinkansen high-speed train line with one change at Aioi station. Banshu-Akô is less than 30 minutes from Himeji and less than 40 minutes from Okayama.
- Information: Akô tourist information office is inside the station, Tel: 0791-43-3201.
- Getting around: The town centre of Akô is quite small and easy to walk around. During the tourist season, a bus leaves Akô station and serves the main attractions up to Akô Misaki and Sagoshi (fee: 100 ¥).
- This ancient well was formerly used by the members of the Asano clan and served to quench the thirst of the messengers from Edo who brought the news of Asano Naganori’s sentence and the dissolution of his clan. Today, this well has become a cult relic for Akô’s inhabitants.
- 5 minutes from JR Banshu-Akô station.
- Built in 1645, this temple houses the Asano clan’s graves and the tombstones dedicated to the « 47 loyal warriors of Akô. » A small museum exhibits the document signed in 1702 by the conspirators along with a collection of statuettes in their image dating back to the Edo era (1600-1868).
- 10 minutes on foot from JR Banshu-Akô station, open every day from 9am to 4pm, entrance fee 400 ¥ (under 15 year-olds: free), Tel: 0791-42-2068.
- Built between 1648 and 1661 by Asano Naganao, this castle was endowed with twelve gates and ten turrets. As a sea-front castle, it was equipped with its own inner docks located within the castle walls. This castle gained fame in the early 18th century when it became the setting for the oath of the “47 rônin”.（read the story The revenge of the “forty-seven rônin”）.
- After the Meiji Restoration (1868), it was partially dismantled, and only the foundations of its outer walls were preserved. After the Second World War, archeologists worked to build a faithful reconstruction of some of its structures. Visitors cross over the moat and arrive at the imposing main castle gate, famous throughout Japan for its use as the film set of countless movies and television dramas about the “47 rônin”. It is possible to explore a network of canals behind the castle walls by rowing boat.
- 15 minutes on foot from JR Banshu-Akô station.
- This shrine is devoted to the “47 loyal warriors of Akô” and their chief Ôishi Kuranosuke. A walkway, lined with stone statues, leads to the gate opening onto a garden where the main pavilion is located. The shrine museum houses many sculptures, most of them by the renowned sculptor Hiraguchi Denchû (1872-1979). This collection of 47 highly expressive statuettes*** is a real masterpiece worth visiting in itself. A beautiful collection of 18th century paintings portray the kabuki theatre plays about the 47 heroes.
- Just next to the castle, 15 minutes on foot from JR Banshu-Akô station, open every day from 8am to 5pm, entrance fee 420 ¥, Tel: 0791-42-2054.
Akô historical Museum
- This small museum is very instructive with videos and facilities which give a detailed overview of how salt was produced in the 18th century.
- 20 minutes on foot from JR Banshu-Akô station, open every day except Wednesdays from 9am to 5pm, entrance fee 200 ¥, Tel: 0791-43-4600.
Akô Misaki National park
- Located on a craggy peninsula overlooking Harima bay, footpaths lined with cherry trees (in blossom in April) lead to open-air baths, a thermal spring or onsen and seafood restaurants.
- 10 minutes by bus from JR Banshu-Akô station.
- Akô gishi Festival: every year on 14 December, the whole town celebrates the 47 rônin legend with shows and a traditional costume parade.
- Toyoko Inn Banshu Akô Ekimae: Tel: 0791-46-1045, adjacent to the station, 15 minutes away on foot from the main attractions, this business-hotel is well-kept, and is a practical, good-value way of exploring Akô and the region; single rooms from 4980 ¥, double rooms from 6980 ¥ (including breakfast).
Food and onsen
- Kakuiso-Akô : Tel: 0791-42-11-30, from 11am to 9pm except Tuesday. In Akô Misaki, excellent seafood and exquisite kaiseki cuisine (from 1000 to 5000 ¥), onsen hot springs with a seaview (700 ¥).
- Away from the bustle of the city, this small port is surrounded by forested hillsides. On both sides of its charming ancient cobbled streets stand picturesque wooden houses dating back to the Edo era.
- Getting there: JR Sakoshi station is connected to Shinkansen high speed train with one change at Aioi station. Sagoshi is less than 30 minutes from Himeji and less than 40 minutes from Okayama. During the peak season, a bus serves Sakoshi from JR Banshu-Akô station (100 ¥).
- Walks: The bay can be explored from a footpath which starts in the hills. The walk will take roughly 2 hours.
- This ancient street leading to the sea is lined with traditional wattle-and-daub houses with typical wooden-latticed shutters, dating back to the Edo era.
- 10 minutes on foot from JR Sakoshi station after crossing the bridge over the river.
Okuto brewery Museum
- Founded in 1601 by a wealthy salt producer, this brewery is still in activity and is equipped with a quaint little sake museum with a varied collection of curiosities dating from the Edo era.
- On the left of the main street leading away from the station, open every day except Sunday, from 9am to 5pm, Tel: 0791-48-8005, entrance free of charge.
Former town hall
- Built in 1831 for the local government, this beautiful ancient house was also the tea room used by the samuraï of the Akô clan.
- At the end of the main road, on the left facing the sea. Open every day except Tuesday, Tel: 0791-48-7755.
- Funamatsuri: on the 2nd Sunday of October: a colourful procession leaves the Ôsake-jinja shrine and leads the followers to the deserted island of Ikushima aboard traditional boats.
- Since the 8th century, these three small deep inlets have allowed Murotsu to become a safe haven for the trading of goods coming notably from Korea. Murotsu’s stunning scenery made it the favorite port of call for such famous historical figures as the great unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), and even some emperors. And yet, in the 19th century, with the advent of rail transport and the new competition it brought, Murotsu fell into oblivion. Today, it seems almost frozen in time, which gives it real charm and authentic character.
- Getting there: Sanyo Aboshi station (20 minutes from Himeji via Shikama) then 25 minutes by bus (every 2 hours), or JR Aboshi station, then 10 minutes by taxi (approx. 3000 ¥).
Port and narrow streets
- A concrete ramp, as the only concession to modernity, gives cars access to the port. All along the quayside, small boats unload their fishing catch, while the fishermen perched on the ground repair their nets along the wooden or tin-roofed boathouses. This authentic port, nestled between the deep blue of the sea and the verdant green hills, is full of simplicity and an exquisitely “mediterranean” charm. Narrow streets with traditional wood houses lead to the museum and the shrine.
Murotsu Minzoku-kan Folklore Museum
- This museum, housed in a converted marine merchant’s ancient residence, overlooking a garden, has kept the charm of times gone by. It displays notably a large-scale model of a fishingboat of the Edo era. On the second floor, everyday objects from the 19th century are exhibited in a maze of rooms and corridors where new mysteries seem to lurk behind each sliding door.
- In the main road, open every day except Monday from 9.30am to 5pm, Tel: 079-324-0650, entrance fee: 200 ¥.
- This shrine perched on a tree-covered rocky headland lapped by small waves, was allegedly founded in the 7th century BC during the legendary reign of the Emperor Jinmu. However, it is attested to have been erected only in the 8th century AD and its architecture dates back to the 9th century, even if it was largely reconstructed in the 16th century. The statues of two large bronze horses watching over the sacred precincts and the pavilions. With their bronze-adorned chiselled gables, these constructions are typical of shinto architecture. This shrine was memorialized in the writings of the German doctor and naturalist Siebold (1796-1866) who, on a visit in 1826, considered it to be one of the most beautiful in Japan. Follow the footpath up to the rock platform where Siebold contemplated the beauty of the place.
- （“read the story Siebold, pioneer of Japanese studies in Europe“）
- Specialities of fish, sushi and seafood. 3 minutes away from the Folklore museum, Tel: 0739-324-0015.
- Bizen is one of the six large historical centres of Japanese ceramics. The town is dedicated to the art of ceramics, with a high concentration of cratfsmen and pinewood kilns. It is easy to access with all the main attractions located within walking distance of Imbe station. Don’t miss the façade of this station which is covered in tiles made from the ceramics of Bizen.
- Getting there: From JR Okayama station or JR Aioi station, take the Ako-sen line and get off at Inbe station (45 minutes or 60 minutes from Himeji).
- Four floors devoted to Bizen ceramics from an ancestral tradition dating back to the 5th century
- （“read the story The discrete charm of Bizen ceramics”）
- Ground floor – Instructive, historical presentation of ceramic techniques.
- 2st floor – Collection of ancient ceramic masterpieces.
- 3rd floor – Works of the five ceramic artists Toyo Kaneshige, Kei Fujiwara, Toshu Yamamoto, Yu Fujiwara and Jun Isezaki. Natives of Bizen, these artists have all been conferred the status of “national living treasures”, the highest cultural distinction awarded in Japon.
- 4th floor – Contemporary artists.
- Opposite Imbe station, open every day except Monday, from 9.30am to 5pm, Tel: 0869-64-1400, entrance fee: 700 ¥, students 400 ¥, children: free. The shop sells ceramic ware at prices starting at 2100 ¥.
Bizen ceramics industries hall
- Managed by the association of Bizen craftsmen, this huge shop sells hand-signed ceramic pieces for prices starting at 2000 ¥. It is the best place in the town to buy Bizenware if time is short.
- On the second floor of Imbe station, open every day except Tuesday from 9.30am to 5.30pm, Tel: 0869-64-1100/1101, entrance free of charge.
- 2 minutes away from Sôgo station, Tel: 0869-74-02-22, www.hinase.ne.jp/~tama ; open from 11am to 8pm except Tuesday. Winner of the Grand Prix B1-Gourmet 2011, this friendly restaurant is renowned for its delicious okonomiyaki oyster pancakes (prices from 900 ¥).
- Between Akô and Murotsu, the whole port of Maruto is devoted to the culture of oysters and the conditioning and processing industry. The exceptional flavour of these world-famous oysters allegedly results from a combination of the phytoplankton in the Harima bay water and the nutritious sediments of the cristal clear water coming from the forest streams. A special cooking process of steaming then freezing the oysters has been pioneered by the Maruto Suisan company, so as to refine the subtle flavour of the oyster.
- （Link with English Maruto Suisan website : http://www.marutosuisan.jp/en-index.html ）
- 20 minutes away by taxi from Shinkansen JR Aioi station. 5133-32 Aioi-Tsubone Aioi-shi, Hyôgo-ken, 678-0141, Tel: 0791-22-1887.