While Pim stood by the baywalk’s railing, an old woman, all smiling, passed by and said something in Japanese and gestured towards the camera. With my poor Japanese vocabulary bank: suka, honto ni, wakaranai, kawaii—words I learned from years-long of reading manga, watching anime, and interacting with the Japanese on Skype, I reckoned she was asking if we wanted her to take our photo. I smiled and uttered thank you; and she went on, all smiling.
I did not expect her friendliness.
Crumbs of details on places from my previous conversations with the Japanese stuck in my head: Hokkaido is known for winter sports; Kyoto for geishas and temples; Hiroshima for World War II and Little Boy; Tokyo for Skytree and Tokyoites on the verge of karōshi: death from overwork. The Japanese, unlike the Filipinos, are unfriendly yet overly civil.
The oversimplification of traits was embarrassing.
When we talk about places and people, often we resort to reductive details that we thought would interest the other: often I would find myself describing Cebu as a beach paradise to strangers when at the back of my head I wanted to rave about Carbon Market and the seedy neighborhood around Colon Street.
So having that job I squeezed between trips around the Philippines—a country more archipelagic, more disintegrated than the first developed soil I did not expect to set foot on to last year—afforded me to form my own prejudice about Japan and the Japanese.
Yes, everything changed.
Right from our first night in Onomichi [there were fifteen of us from Thailand (5), Vietnam (1), Indonesia (1), Canada (2), France (2), Hong Kong (2), Mexico (1), and Philippines (me)] I knew that Onomichi was about to change my perspective of this country that is supposed to be sad, heartless, and cold
This small city completely unknown to foreign travelers and to its Asian sisters is not the busy, work-centered Japan I have known. From my room window, I saw empty streets, ambient lights. I saw Onomichi that just had another relaxed, unhurried day.
This city is beautiful and unpretentious. This city, I knew right there and then, would be remembered and would beckon me to come back.
When the event organizers said that we have hours to roam the city by ourselves, I could not wipe the grin off my face. To know a city is to walk. To observe the locals do their everyday chores. To find a seat and see the old and the young pass you by on their bicycles. To peek through shops and marvel at the sheer quaintness of their goods. To get lost and be rewarded for it.
I take pleasure from people-watching and walking, unfamiliar places and otherwise.
In everything we did, I—always the slowest—often heard the organizers, Jona, faster! I often stop for the silliest and simplest reason, which makes me the worst person to travel with.
On the slope of Mt. Senkoji, I often found myself slowing down and uttering “Aaaah,” an expression of surprise and admiration. So many things to love on the slope: old houses transformed into quaint cafes, persimmon trees heavy with fruits, figs growing fat cats lazing around, and wildflowers drooping on stonewalls, Japanese gardens manicured to perfection, potted flowers like pansies lined up outside wooden houses.
When we had several hours by ourselves, I walked back to the slope, this time without using the famous Mt. Senkoji ropeway. Because I felt I was not slow enough, I was not observant enough.
To know a city is to walk. To observe the locals do their everyday chores. To find a seat and see the old and the young pass you by on their bicycles. To peek through shops and marvel at the sheer quaintness of their goods. To get lost and be rewarded for it.
Once, I asked the energetic Yuji-san, our interpreter and guide, about the shogun-like palace on the top of the mountain and why it was not part of our walk the other day. Despite the grandeur of the place, he said, it was just an imitation. A man at the peak of his business decided to build a royal place for himself. The building indeed reminded me of Edo Period. But the Japanese always pride themselves for authenticity, a character I admire a lot; so despite its attention-grabbing architecture, the palace was ignored and never treated as a cultural treasure.
I walked towards it, nonetheless; but its rusty gate was locked. Up close, it did not feel grand. It was what it was: abandoned and empty. A setting for a horror movie, even. I pushed upward and found Senkoji Park, just several meters away where the ropeway has ended and where we turned right to Senkoji and Tenneiji Temple.
All sakura trees wore autumn with pride. From the view deck, the bay, under the afternoon light, was more than beautiful. Here, Onomichi felt different: the city felt busy; when in fact, walking its very streets made me feel otherwise.
My way of writing is as slow as my cycling. It has been two months since my visit to Onomichi; yet all I have are fragments that are too loose to form a narrative fit for a decent read.
Hide-san, the designated tail of the team, often covered his eyes, pretending he did not see me stopping once again to take photos and say hello to flowers and hassaku (seedless orange Onomichi is known for; the best orange I have ever tasted, I swear!)
I haven’t seen a cycling route as systematic as Shimanami Kaido; but I haven’t been to any decent ones either. Most parts—if not the rest—of Asia has always been infamous for our non-existent traffic rules and cowboyness on the road. When my boyfriend and I go motorbiking around Southeast Asia, our first hope is to not have a flat tire.
But here in Onomichi, it is not worrying at all. By the orange tree-lined road, Joe, one of the head organizers, had a flat tire. In a few minutes’ time, he overtook me and kidded I was rather slow. Throughout the route, there are people designated to fix any bike problems.
But indeed, I was rather slow. I did not see the whole cycling tour as survival for the fittest. I took it as an alternative for my slow walk around Mt. Senkoji’s slope. I stop. Take photos. Admire the field of spring onions, leek, and carrots and orange orchards to my left and the bay and outcrops filled with autumnal trees to my right.
I was slow. So be it.
Betcha Festival, held on November 1-3 every year, is something that locals look forward to experiencing. Here, I’ve learned about omikoshi and the demons named Soba, Beta, Syouki, and the dragon Shishi. Being hit by the demons’ iwaibou and sasara and being bitten by the dragon is said to bring you luck and good health throughout the year. Often, I saw parents offering their kids to the demons for a whack. Some kids got scared of the masks; some found them funny and cute.
I, myself, got hit by Beta’s iwaibou. While I was rubbing my head, Shishi bit my leg.
I will have a lovely and healthy year ahead.
The lesson was learned six years ago. Two students—an old Japanese couple—stayed in Cebu for a month and asked us, their teachers, to teach them English at their apartment. Lunch on them. One time, the husband slurped his noodles so loudly and said afterward that we might find him rude, but in their culture, slurping your food is a sign that the dish is delicious.
It is not entirely new to me, a Filipino, who slurps my soup and burps out loud after a good meal and says grasya. But these are only done in the company of family and close friends.
The Filipinos, at large, are too white-washed when it comes to table etiquette especially in social functions. Burping. No. Slurping. No. Loud chewing. No. Eating like a glutton. No.
But the Japanese are proud of their ways. They do not compromise them in the company of strangers. Joe slurped his ramen in Mitsubachi and emptied his big bowl in no time. Pook, a Thailand delegate, ate his soba at Sobako like a local. I left nothing on my tray at Anago.
Japanese food does not only taste good but also looks good. Their aesthetics in everything is something to emulate.
During our tempura and sashimi dinner at Ten-Saku, some meters away from Green Hill Hotel, I could not help but ask for another rice serving because unexpectedly pumpkin and eggplant tempura tasted so good. I even tried cooking the same thing at home, but mine was saggy and oily, unlike the crispy and nongreasy ones I devoured in Onomichi.
Dairy products are marvelous too, and I am not even a fan. The fresh milk served at our hotel’s breakfast buffet was awesome that I had three glasses every morning. I could not stop talking about it to friends; I even bought different fresh milk brands in Cebu, but nothing could replace it.
I finally tried the onomichiyaki at Sumichan, Onomichi’s version of okonomiyaki: a Japanese dish that has an identity crisis—it is caught between pizza and pancake, at least the look of it. What makes Onomichiyaki different from the other okonomiyaki, which my students prepared for us in Cebu, was the presence of noodles. If okonomiyaki is confused, onomichiyaki is double-confused. I loved it and badly wanted to have beer with it.
Burping was inevitable.
In front of Ministry of Commerce and Industry, old locals ran a bazaar of used clothes and local finger food. By Toshio Yodoi’s Beach sculpture, five grandpas looked after a three-year-old boy who pointed at the marigolds, yellow and orange, young and blooming.
There were several instances that I walked the same streets alone. Twice, I woke up early, bundled up, and went out for a walk. The scenes by the bay, the back alleys of the famous shopping district warmed my heart. Maybe because I love watching people doing their things. Old men angling with their dogs curled up by their feet. A girl fixing another girl’s hair. A family walking. A man arranging flowers. Scenes that might be ordinary, but they make Onomichi Onomichi.
As we boarded the bus that would bring us to the airport, an old woman—oblivious of the commotion (the chaos of good-byes) around her—painted the harbor scene before her.
Onomichi is a place of nostalgia, they said. Between living and dreaming is the longing to come back.
As I flipped through the brochures I gathered from our trip (materials to glean through for the lengthy narrative that I must write), I have realized that there are so many things that I haven’t seen or walked through. There is the Path of Literature that I badly wanted to experience. There are museums to visit. There are more temples to hop. I have not seen enough cats.
Onomichi is a place of nostalgia, they said. Between living and dreaming is the longing to come back.
Green Hill Hotel Onomichi
This was our home during our trip. Each room at this hotel is air conditioned and has a flat-screen TV. You can either have a view of the city or the harbor. The restaurant is overlooking the harbor. All rooms are fitted with a private bathroom wiht ulta-modern toilet Japan is known for. For your comfort, you will find slippers, free toiletries, tea, and little snacks. There is a 24-hour front desk at the property. The nearest airport is Hiroshima Airport, 25 km from the property. This is a walking distance from the famous shopping district, Mt. Senkoji, temples, and the starting point for Shimanami Kaido. BOOK NOW.
Onomichi Guest House Anago
For travelers who want to take in the sights and sounds of Onomichi, Onomichi Guest House Anago is the perfect choice. Located in the quaint and artistic shopping district of Onomichi, this budget hotel, with its artistic and charming old look, blends so well with the city’s vibe. This is one of the many old hotels With its convenient location, the hotel offers easy access to the city’s must-see destinations. It offers impeccable service and all the essential amenities to invigorate travelers. While lodging at this wonderful property, guests can enjoy luggage storage, Wi-Fi in public areas, car park, restaurant, newspapers. BOOK NOW.
When visiting Onomichi, you’ll feel right at home at Hotel Cycle, which offers quality accommodation and great service. From here, guests can enjoy easy access to all that the lively city has to offer. With its convenient location, the hotel offers easy access to the city’s must-see destinations. Hotel Cycle also offers many facilities to enrich your stay in Onomichi. A selection of top-class facilities such as free Wi-Fi in all rooms, 24-hour front desk, luggage storage, Wi-Fi in public areas, restaurant can be enjoyed at the hotel. BOOK NOW.