July 7 – Onomichi, Ikuchijima, Setoda

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DSC_0031 denim Onomichi

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DSC_0040 Onomichi

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Rain and thunderstorms through the night and into the morning – we made the decision early on not to jump on bikes and island-hop our way from Honshu to Shikoku but to take the bus to Ikuchijima, our booked accommodation at a ryokan, Tsuitsui, in Setoda. This gave us some hours in Onomichi, with less luggage since we dispatched our big bags – as per the cycling plan – to Kurashiki, at the minimal cost of 2300 yen, from the station store.

The rain put us off heading into the hills and following the shrine trail initially and made the decision easy to stroll Onomichi’s Hondori, covered shopping arcade (same name as Hiroshima’s – not until you see the lay of the land and sea around the Seto does it become clear how much Hiroshima is this area and not this city). A rundown arcade, with at least half the shops closed and many empty, but still charming and the people friendly: one warned us of the coming typhoon… which now as I write this has been elevated to a super typhoon with waves potentially reaching 18m and winds over 150 miles per hour.

The shopkeeper who sold us the Japanese albums – so sweetly helpful; the knife man, who said “My design. Original.” And: “Walrus tooth. Hippo tooth. Mammoth tooth. Whale tooth. Camel [a blue handle on the knife].” The lantern, mask, junk merchant who flashed his tongue-out necklace: he loves the Rolling Stones, saw them once at Tokyo Dome and once somewhere else. Strange the piped music was at that time Rolling Stones. But the oddest of this odd collection were the two working on the Onomichi Denim Project: a designer store, industrial-styling. What attracted me inside were the beautiful black-and-white blowups of scenes of local industry. He was smoking outside, a slim polo-neck-wearing existentialist; she greeted me and bubbled over with enthusiasm for the jeans arranged like repetitive Warhol prints on the long raw plywood table that runs the length of the denim gallery. She explained that this is the work of Yoshiyuki and showed a postcard of an old guy wearing jeans laughing with a friend. The concept is: the jeans have to have been worn for a year inside some trade or factory setting in Onomichi, whereupon they are donated to the project and rebranded as part of it and sold at over 320,000 yen. Yoshiyuki always was obsessed with Levis, she explained. So now he steals them and rebrands them? I asked. Yes, she answered. So how’s business?

So so, she said.

And is this project in other cities, Tokyo…?

Not yet. But we hope to open branches, next in Tokyo, Osaka, and all over the world for Onomichi jeans.

Her smoking partner ran after us when we left with a funky flier for a downtown Onomichi hotel, obviously another Yoshiyuki design project, and a bakery and … the empire expands.

The highlight however of Onomichi came when we departed Hondori and ventured into the rain and up the steep slopes, walking by chance into Tenneiji Shrine. A Japanese couple preceded us. Noone else around. Leaving the next building they gestured to us to look inside. We slid the doors open to hundreds of figures of Buddhist saints, a banked audience reaching up to the ceiling – at least 500. These guys are awesome – in the literal sense. Setting off a sort of spiritual clamour, as each vied for attention.

Further up the hill, another stacked pagoda tower and further up, a famous shrine, where I lit incense and should have asked for protection but my mind went blank. Before catching the bus, we grabbed some sushi and sashimi prepacks from Fukuya. Bus departed stop 7 at 1:50pm and took an hour and cost 1030 yen each to the last stop, here … where the news just gets worse about this typhoon. Now it’s going to rake the whole of Japan says business insider.

The bus route if drawn would look like an insane scribble of loops and doublings-back and epic bridge-crossings – a sight only seen in dreams, as the brochure puts it, while Onimichi has the scent of culture. We followed the signs on buildings to match the Japanese with those in the print-out J. had brought with our booking to a low-rise block flat-faced to the channel between Ikuchijima and its little cousin, another smaller island connected by a stand-out yellow bridge. This didn’t look like the ryokan we’d imagined but the people are pleasant, the style homely, the rooms tatami, and the yukata I’m wearing now flattering and comfortable – a garment I feel entirely at home in.

This evening we walked in the rain up another set of temple steps and did a circuit down past Kosanji Shrine – if the storm doesn’t get us, we’ll check this out properly tomorrow. A rundown seaside town is how it’s striking us now. … But the meal set was superb – a large Japanese traditional meal served by our housemaid and two young boys: sashimi, pickles, morsels of squid, meat and vegetable, a raised self-cooking dish with a clever self-extinguishing candle – which in the event overdid the fish and scallop a little – yam sauce for the self-cooked foods; a tempura course with another dish of cooked fish parsnip and tofu; rice and rich miso with fish and nori; watermelon to finish. The watermelon is waiting to be eaten behind me. We didn’t get there in the run of the meal. “Ring nine when you have finished eating”, the youngest boy got the job of saying. The whole multi-dish affair was cleared away into the bin-sized black lacquer boxes whence it came and the boys put out our futons. While we panic.

Not really. But super typhoon coming our way makes us want to get the hell out. Third floor here and easily in reach of projected wave heights.

Thunder-claps shake the building for several hours during the night and the entirety of the sky ignites with sheet lightning. By morning all is still, serene and warm. The rain has ceased, for now.