Translates into “the entrance to the mountain,” Yamaguchi is the prefectural capital, the academic and cultural heart of Yamaguchi Prefecture. During the 14th century, Yamaguchi prospered under the rule of the Ouchi clan with international trading routes mainly towards China. Modelled after Japan’s old capital, Yamaguchi City was then known as “The Kyoto of the West”. One can still perceive the essence of that golden era in the elegant silhouette of Rurikoji Temple’s five-storied pagoda, the complex forms of the rocks in the Japanese style garden at Joeji temple, and the graceful branches of the cherry trees along the riverbanks of Ichinosaka river. Today, the city is filled with a widespread of important cultural properties including temples and shrines. The most notable religious sites of Yamaguchi belong to the Rurikoji Temple and Saint Francis Xavier, which was regarded as one of the first areas responsible for the widespread Christianity in Japan. Yamaguchi has a surprisingly laid back atmosphere considering its historical prominence and is an ideal base to explore the nearby historic towns such as Hagi, Tsuwano, and the limestone caverns of Akiyoshidai.
The five-storied pagoda of Rurikoji Temple is the 10th oldest pagoda in Japan and possibly the most stunning historical site in Yamaguchi City. Alongside Horyuji Temple near Nara and Daigoji Temple in Kyoto, this pagoda is ranked as one of the three most famous pagodas of Japan. The temple grounds of Rurikoji are also known as Kozan Park. Other buildings on the grounds include the main hall, a temple storehouse, a bell tower and a small but well-done museum with pictures and models of the fifty-plus five-storied pagodas found across Japan.
Activities: Temple visit Fee: None; JPY 200 (Pagoda Museum) Time required: 45 minutes – 1 hour
St Francis Xavier Memorial Church
Francis Xavier (1506–1552), a Roman-Catholic missionary and Jesuit priest, first introduced Christianity to Japan in 1549 and Japan's first Christmas mass was celebrated in Yamaguchi in 1552. The new religion was initially accepted, and many in Japan began to practice Christianity. However, the feudal lords resented this outside incursion, and the persecution of Christians soon began. Despite this, the practice of the religion continued in secret. Francis Xavier Church, built here in 1952 on the 400th anniversary of Xavier's death, is dedicated to the memory of this missionary, who travelled around Yamaguchi from 1550-51.
Activities: Temple visit Fee: None (donations encouraged) Time required: 30-45 minutes
Joeiji is a Zen temple famous for its garden, Sesshutei (Sesshu’s Garden). The history of this remarkable Japanese garden dates back to about 500 years ago. Masahiro Ōuchi, the then feudal lord of Yamaguchi, asked the famous artist and zen monk Sesshu Toyo to design the landscape around his leisure residence. Sesshu was renowned for his ink paintings, wonderful examples of the Japanese Zen aesthetic. His creativity was applied to the Joeiji Temple gardens, creating an elegant and harmonious Zen rock garden. Surrounded by a mountain of wood on three of its sides, the garden can be explored through a pathway.
Activities: Temple visit Fee: JPY 300 Time required: 45 minutes-1 hour
Yamaguchi Daijingu was built by the local lord in 1518 after he had visited the famous Ise Shrines in central Japan. He returned home wishing to have a shrine that houses the same deities as those at Ise. Henceforth, the locals who were unable to travel to Ise in person had the opportunity to visit Yamaguchi Daijingu instead, and the shrine became known as the "Ise Shrines of the West". Like the Ise Shrines, Yamaguchi Daijingu consists of an outer and an inner shrine, which are rebuilt every 20 years. Unlike the Ise Shrines, however, the shrines of Yamaguchi Daijingu are located just next to each other.
Activities: Jingu visit Fee: None Time required: 45 minutes
One-stop west on the train from Yamaguchi Station is the famous Yuda Onsen. Legend has it that this onsen was discovered when an injured white fox bathed its leg in the waters and was miraculously healed. The white fox is the sacred guardian spirit of Yuda Onsen, and a huge statue of a towering white fox greets you with its benevolent smile outside Yuda Onsen Station. Yuda onsen is also home to some of Yamaguchi’s best museums that discuss Yamaguchi prefecture’s role in the Meiji Restoration.
Activities: Onsen, Stroll around, Photo stop Fee: None (onsen depends on place) Time required: Minimum 1 hour
The Ichinosaka River runs through the centre of Yamaguchi. It is said that the Ouchi clan that ruled Yamaguchi during the Muromachi period (circa 1336–1573) likened the Ichinosaka River to Kyoto’s famous Kamogawa River when they were developing the town. Cherry trees bloom in full glory along both banks in springtime, and they are lit up for enjoyment at night. From late May to early June, genji-botaru, a species of firefly that is nationally designated as a protected species, can be seen flitting around the river. As it babbles along, Ichinosaka River offers a pleasant view throughout the year.
Activities: Photo stop Fee: None Time required: Minimum 30 minutes
Best known for its nicely-preserved former castle town and its local Hagiyaki Pottery which ranks among Japan’s finest. The town has been fortunate to have avoided major disasters since the Edo Period (1603-1867), thereby maintaining an appearance generally in accordance with town plans from centuries ago. Several beautiful old samurai and merchant residences survive and are open to the public.
Located about an hour from Yamaguchi City by public transport is the Akiyoshidai Plateau, one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in the country. A coral reef existed at the bottom of the sea 300 million years ago on Akiyoshidai. After the sea receded, only the limestone remained, and over time the wind and rain carved the rock into dramatic spires and rocky protrusions. The Akiyoshidai Plateau and the limestone caverns of Akiyoshi Cave, which sit beneath form the largest example of karst topography in Japan.
***All images via Yamaguchi City