IwakuniIwakuni (岩国市 Iwakuni-shi) is a castle town shaped by two eras of military presence — the samurai who walked the mighty Kintai-kyo bridge, and the U.S. Marine Corps base in the city today.
As with much of the Chugoku region, the history of Iwakuni begins with the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The Iwakuni han chose the wrong side, and were banished to the wilds of western Japan as punishment. One family, the Kikkawa, built a castle to mark their new seat of power, but it was torn down by imperial edict only seven years later. Nevertheless, the feudal lords of Iwakuni continued to enjoy power and prosperity for nearly three centuries, surrounded by loyal samurai retainers.
The Japanese Navy built a military air station in Iwakuni in 1940, which also marked its official incorporation as a city. After World War II, the air station was occupied by the Royal Australian Air Force; American forces began using it during the Korean War, and it became an official U.S. military base in 1952.
While the military base works to maintain good relations with the community, it's still a source of some tension — mostly noise complaints and a few ugly incidents with Marines stationed at the base. But its presence as a bulwark against North Korea means that nobody is exactly keen to see it go, either.
address: 1-1-1 Maribu-cho
phone: +81 82-41-1477address: 2-6-51 Yokoyama
JR Iwakuni Stationaddress: Marifumachi 1-1-1On the San'yo Main Line. It's about 45 minutes from Hiroshima by local train, and makes a nice onward stop after a night at Miyajima. The fare for a one-way trip from Hiroshima is ¥760. The city can also be reached from Hiroshima in about 20 minutes via Shin-Iwakuni Station, on the San'yo Shinkansen. However, the only bullet train to stop at Shin-Iwakuni is the all-stops Kodama and there are few hotels and restaurants around the new station, which is a long ride from the old station.
address: Asahimachi 3-15-1This airport reopened in 2012 after a 48-year hiatus. ANA operates flights from Tokyo Haneda and Naha. The airfield was only available for use by the U.S. military. It's still a cause of some controversy, as residents have clamored for it to be converted into a public international airport. Other nearby public airports are in Hiroshima and Ube.
Buses run to Iwakuni from the Hiroshima Bus Center. Most overnight routes from Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka that are bound for Hagi will include a stop at Iwakuni.
The tourist attractions are all within walking distance of each other, near Kintai-kyo and the Nishiki River. Buses run from JR Iwakuni Station (¥240, 15 minutes) and Shin-Iwakuni (¥280, 15 minutes). A cheery cartoon map near the station makes it look like an easy walk, but the route is considerably longer and less direct than drawn. If you'd like to walk, though, head west on Route 2 from JR Iwakuni Station toward the Nishiki River.
Kintai-kyoaddress: Iwakuni 1-2Only samurai used to be able to cross the arches of this long, magnificent bridge. These days, the river it spans has been reduced to a trickle, and anyone willing to fork over the admission can go back and forth as they please. The 210-m original was built in 1673 using only wood — no metal nails — but the present structure is a 1953 reconstruction.
Kikko Parkaddress: Yokoyama 2-6-51A pleasant green spot on the other side of the bridge, with some lovely flower gardens, large sprinklers for a soak on a summer day, and a popular cherry blossom viewing spot in April. Expect to meet some chatty locals here. The entrance to the park is overseen by a statue of Hiroyoshi Kikkawa, the feudal lord who directed the construction of the Kintai-kyo; the park was built on the grounds of the Kikkawa family home. There are two museums in the park for visitors interested in samurai culture and feudal Iwakuni.
Chōko-kanA library with historical documents and scroll paintings.
Kikkawa MuseumDedicated to the aforementioned family of warlords, and including some of their weapons.
Nagaya GateAt the south end of the park, you'll see the dramatic gate, the home of the Kagawa family who were the Kikkawa's principal samurai retainers.
Mekata ResidenceThe home of another family of Kikkawa retainers. (Don't try to enter either, though; they're still private residences.)
The ancient Japanese art of cormorant fishing (ukai) is a popular summer pastime; every night in June, July, and August, teams of fishermen in traditional dress use trained cormorant birds to catch fish. (The birds get to eat the small fry, but a ring around their necks keeps them from swallowing big ones.) With torches lighting the way, it's a memorable spectacle, and Iwakuni is one of the best places in Japan to see it due to the relatively smaller crowds. If you're not content watching from the banks of the river, you can join a boat () for ¥3500 adults, ¥2600 children. Boarding is 6:30PM next to Kintai-kyo, and fishing is from 20:00-21:00.
Kintai-kyo FestivalThis is the busiest day of the year around the Kintai bridge area of Iwakuni, with more than 40,000 visitors. It's held annually on Showa Day, at the beginning of the Golden Week national holidays. The centerpiece of the festival is the mid-day Daimyo Procession, featuring a traditional dress march across the bridge; there's also food, festivities, and samurai demonstrations around Kikko Park.
Friendship DayAt the other end of Golden Week, the Marine Corps puts on a public air-show attended by up to 250,000 curious Japanese nationals. Follow the crowds out of JR Iwakuni Station for the best viewing spots.
Nishiki River Water FestivalFireworks in the skies over the bridge.
Iwakuni FestivalA lively autumn celebration with food, a flea market, and goofy events like a public tug-of-war.
The most distinctive Iwakuni souvenir is the ishi ningyō (石人形), a doll made from stones under the bridge. The stones, in turn, are made of smaller pebbles glued together by excretions from a species of cricket. (Honestly.) If you'd prefer not to creep out your children, you might omit the fact that the dolls are meant to represent the souls of workers who died in the construction of the bridge.
Naka-dōriA covered shopping arcade
phone: +81 82-253-5641address: Bldg #446If you're on an extended trip and you miss something from home that you can't find overseas, the Marines know how you feel — there's a store on base with American brands of daily essentials like deodorant and toothpaste, along with electronics, Japanese souvenirs, and CDs/DVDs. However, it's only open to U.S. active duty personnel, reservists, and retired members of all service branches; everyone else will have to make a friend on the base to get in.
Iwakuni's main claim to culinary fame is a special kind of sushi, which is made with a square mold — not rolled in seaweed — and has some special flavorings such as chrysanthemum.
Iwakuni has become renowned for having an insane variety of ice cream. Within this small courtyard there are no fewer than 3 different ice-cream stores specializing in unusual flavors of soft-serve. One has 25 to choose from, another 50, and the smallest yet most famous of the lot has a whopping 100 flavors of ice cream including such classics as blueberry, chocolate, and garlic. You've probably seen this place on TV before, and if you haven't, well, you have now because the 100 flavor store plays the segment from their last encounter on loop on a monitor out the front. Loudly. The area is rather pretty and tends to attract a lot of stray cats (and if you're lucky, kittens) so feel free to let your inner child out for a bit and sit down licking ice cream whilst petting a happy feline. Joy. It's about 50 meters northwest of the bridge.
There are a few food tents near the bridge and Kikko Park, serving hot dogs, chicken, and other summer favorites.
phone: +81 827-41-0021address: Iwakuni 1-17-27Built in 1869 to serve as an Officer's Club of the Japanese Navy, this restaurant specializes in ayu, a kind of sweet fish that's often caught by the cormorant fishermen of Iwakuni. If you enjoy the food and the atmosphere, ask about overnight lodgings.
Kohamaphone: +81 827-22-8044address: Marinuno-machi 4-3-4Serves the finest dish of them all, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.
There isn't much in the way of nightlife in Iwakuni; many foreign residents head to Hiroshima to drink on weekends. There are bars in and around the military base, but the spectre of drunk Marines (real or imagined) tends to keep most Japanese at a distance.
As weather permits, there is a rooftop beer garden at the Iwakuni Business Hotel & Spa.
Bar Manatee Diningphone: +81 827-23-3030address: 6-4-1 MarifumachiGood bar with a great menu of snacks, particularly crepes and other desserts.
Ogasawara Tea Gardenphone: +81 827-43-3617address: 2-4-31 YokoyamaHave a cup of ocha amid bamboo trees at this popular spot near Kikko Park. It's available iced in the summer.
Iwakuni can be easily visited as a day-trip from Hiroshima, where there are more plentiful accommodations. However, there are a few options in town.
phone: +81 827-22-0110address: 2-3-8 Marifu-machiMost of the rooms in this business hotel are Western-style, but a few rather nice Japanese-style rooms are available for slightly more. Rooms have Internet access, and there are PCs in the lobby.
phone: +81 827-41-0074address: 1-5-16 IwakuniTraditional Japanese rooms with a great view of the bridge. The seasonal seafood meals are excellent — they can even swipe a page from the Shimonoseki chapter and serve fugu with advance notice.