Could Yamaguchi City Become the New Kyoto?

by | Feb 7, 2024

In 2023, writer Craig Mod created quite a stir in the sleepy town of Morioka in Iwate Prefecture by naming it as his pick for places to visit in 2023 for a New York Times article. A media frenzy ensued (especially here in Japan, where Craig’s pick completely bewildered the local press) and suddenly Morioka was on the map of places to visit in Japan. Which is, in Craig’s eyes, a very good thing.

Well, that wily old Craig is at it again in 2024, this time naming Yamaguchi City as his pick of cities to visit (NYT subscription required). His rationale was fairly straightforward and aligned with the reasons he picked Morioka. Yamaguchi is a mid-sized regional city, easily walkable and attractive to young Japanese entrepreneurs.

It has also been referred to as “The Kyoto of the West,” which is why I posed the question in the title. Let’s dispatch with that question immediately; the answer is no. And honestly, why would we want Yamaguchi to be the New Kyoto? I wouldn’t wish that horrible fate on any city, with the hordes of tourists clogging up public transportation, creating environmental burdens, and just plain making Kyoto a less enjoyable place to live.

What Makes Yamaguchi City an Intriguing Destination

Instead, let’s look at Yamaguchi objectively without rehashing what Craig has already said about it. To be fair, I have limited exposure to Yamaguchi City, visiting it exactly twice, both times in 2023, and staying for less than two days total. But can I say I loved what I saw of it? So much, in fact, that I put it on my list of places to go when I can successfully pitch enough work to pay for my trip.

Yamaguchi City is the capital of Yamaguchi Prefecture and its second largest city in population, albeit not by much. It is however the largest city in physical size, which is often a plus when it comes to tourism, as many tourism organizations in Japan would not dare to claim an attraction as their own if it wasn’t officially within the boundaries of their jurisdiction. Honestly, Yamaguchi City is enormous, stretching from the blue-hued Seto Inland Sea to the mountainous border of neighboring Shimane Prefecture, although the city center is in a compact valley nestled within.

But size isn’t everything. So what makes Yamaguchi such an intriguing destination for visitors to Japan? For starters, there is Maru, the white dog of Toshuji Temple.

Maru the dog and Fukano-san the Zen Buddhist monk at Toshunji Temple, Yamaguchi

Toshunji Temple can be found in the shadow of the flashier Rurikoji Temple with its blingy five-story pagoda. (I don’t really know if “flashier” or “blingy” are adjectives that can be applied to Buddhist temples, but hear me out.) I don’t want to namedrop here, but Rurikoji’s five-story pagoda makes the A-list of the 3 Best Pagodas in Japan and is also a Japan National Treasure. So when I say Toshunji Temple is in the shadow of Rurikoji, I mean it like “Name a member of Maroon 5 not named Adam Levine.”

But Toshunji Temple’s superpower is Maru, who greets visitors with his winning smile and wagging tail. Technically, he is Maru II, the first Maru graduating to the heavens some years ago (some soul was moved to paint a portrait of him which hangs in the temple’s main hall). The kind monk Fukano-san introduced me to the new Maru, who keeps him and the other monks’ company in the main hall as they perform daily meditation or copy Buddhist scriptures. Maru has his own dog bed in the temple’s main hall to sleep, er meditate on while the other monks are doing their thing. Fukano-san affectionately refers to him as the Dog Priest of Toshunji.

Visitors can also come and practice Zen meditation at the temple. Some people find it deeply spiritual, others deeply relaxing. I’m of the latter type, but the trouble is I could probably fall asleep being launched into space, so Zen meditation for me is just an invitation for a cat nap. Or dog nap in this case. I was much more intrigued by Fukano-san’s explanation of the temple’s complicated history and the many historical relics contained along the corridors of the main hall.

Incidentally, when Craig Mod describes a small shack with a kiln where his cosmically connected brother Gakuji works, that is on the grounds of Toshunji Temple. About 50 meters south of the chicken coop and horse stable, home to a few more of the temple’s adopted animal residents.

Pottery shack and kiln at Toshunji Temple, Yamaguchi, Japan

Yamaguchi Prefecture Has Potential as a Tourist Destination

The rest of my time in Yamaguchi City was spent just walking the streets aimlessly or nearly aimlessly. I was looking for a place to eat dinner with my colleague. One of the extraordinary shops we encountered sold locally produced frozen foods, sort of like Yamaguchi Hungry Man dinners. Freshly frozen foods like seafood, gyoza, ramen, you name it. Everything looked delicious and was incredibly affordable. But here’s the thing. Nobody was working there. And this was by design, not some scheduling screw-up. It was an unmanned shop, but unlike in Tokyo with unmanned shops using sophisticated scanners and sensors and whatnot, this unmanned shop had a simple metal lockbox where you insert the money for whatever products you were taking with you. On your honor. In 2023. Wow, I could live in a place like Yamaguchi City.

Now I could tell you more about the other treasures of Yamaguchi Prefecture, beyond the borders of the capital city. The insanity going on at Ohmine Shuzo Sake Brewery, brought back from the dead after 55 years like an alcohol-infused Lazarus, whose incredible sake is now being served at Michelin-starred restaurants on the other side of the world. The carnival atmosphere of Irori Sanzoku with onigiri rice balls the size of your fist and teriyaki chicken legs on skewers served in a Ghibli-like mountain forest setting. The samurai museum with a vast collection of murder weapons and a distinguished guide who can explain the best shape for a weapon if you want to drain the largest amount of blood from your enemy in the shortest amount of time. But let’s leave that for another time.

For now, let’s contemplate the wonders of Yamaguchi City. Craig Mod recommends it. I second his motion. So why are you still here? The article is over. Go to Yamaguchi already.

Go.

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