Iwakuni (岩国)  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.
JR Iwakuni Station, 1-1-1 Maribu-cho, ☎ +81 0827-21-6050. Tu-Su 9AM-5PM.
Iwakuni Volunteer Tour Guides, 2-6-51 Yokoyama, ☎ 082-41-1477, . 9:30AM-5PM. Available from March to mid-October.
JR Iwakuni Station is on 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. It's also accessible via Shin-Iwakuni Station, on the San'yo Shinkansen, but only on the all-stops Kodama (about 20 minutes).
The airfield is now open to commercial flights and the U.S. military, it was opened to commercial flights in December 2012. Other close 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.
Iwakuni area maps
Kintai-kyo (錦帯橋). Originally, the arches of this long, magnificent bridge could only be crossed by samurai. 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 210m original was built in 1673 using only wood — no metal nails — but the present structure is a 1953 reconstruction.¥300 adults, ¥150 children. After the ticket office is closed, you're on the honor system to leave the admission fee in the box out front.
Kikko Park. A 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.
At the south end of the park, you'll see the dramatic Nagaya Gate of the home of the Kagawa family, who were the Kikkawa's principal samurai retainers. Also near the park is the Mekata Residence, the home of another family of Kikkawa retainers. (Don't try to enter either, though; they're still private residences.)
Iwakuni Castle (岩国城 Iwakuni-jo). Although the original castle only stood for seven years, that was excuse enough for a reconstruction during the 1960s. The foundations of the original lie a short distance behind the new one; the builders apparently decided to move it closer to the cliff for scenic purposes. It's about a five-minute walk from the cable-car station on Shiro-yama. Inside the castle is a small historical museum (9AM-4:30PM, ¥260).
A cable-car takes visitors up Shiro-yama to the castle. It's ¥540 for a return trip, but a combination ticket can be purchased at the foot of the bridge for admission to Kintai-kyo, the ropeway, and the museum inside the castle for ¥840. The top of Shiro-yama is a nature preserve, so it's worth a short hike after you're done with the castle.
There are two museums in the park for visitors interested in samurai culture and feudal Iwakuni. The Choko-kan (Tu-Su 9AM-5PM, free) is a library with historical documents and scroll paintings; the Kikkawa Museum (Th-Tu 9AM-5PM, ¥500) is dedicated to the aforementioned family of warlords, and includes some of their weapons.
Iwakuni Art Museum, 2-10-27 Yokoyama, ☎ +81 0827-41-0506, . F-W 9AM-5PM, to 4PM Dec-Feb. Art and artifacts about samurai life, including some remarkable sword exhibits. The admission is a bit steep, but you'll find better English information here than elsewhere.¥800 adults, ¥200 children.
White Snake Museum, ☎ +81 0827-43-4888. 9AM-5PM. Dedicated to exactly that: the white snakes that are native to the Iwakuni area. (Not the hair metal band.) As they are messengers of Benten, the Japanese goddess of wealth, an encounter with the white snakes is considered good luck.Admission is free, but zealous attendants tend to ensure that foreign guests make the ¥100 donation for an English pamphlet.
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 (tel. 082-728-2877) for ¥3500 adults, ¥2600 children. Boarding is 6:30PM next to Kintai-kyo, and fishing is from 8-9PM.
Kintai-kyo Festival. April 29. This 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 Day, . May 5. At 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 Festival. first Saturday of August. Fireworks in the skies over the bridge.
Iwakuni Festival. third weekend of October. A 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 ningyo, 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.
There is a covered shopping arcade near JR Iwakuni Station, Naka-dori.
Marine Corps Exchange, Bldg #446, ☎ 082-253-5641, . M-Sa 10AM-8PM, Su 10AM-6PM. If 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.
More recently, 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.
Hangetsu, 1-27-17 Iwakuni, ☎ +81 0827-41-0021. 10:30AM-10PM. Built 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.Lunch sets from ¥2500, dinner ¥4000.
Kohama (こはま), 4-3-4 Marinuno-machi, ☎ +81 0827-22-8044. 11AM-10PM. Serves the finest dish of them all, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.¥1000.
Totoya, 6-3-9 Marifu-machi, ☎ +81 0827-23-0820, . 11AM-2PM, 5-11PM. A great lunch option for seafood lovers, with sashimi and tempura sets as low as ¥680. At night, there's more of a pub-food and booze menu, but private dining rooms are available for dinner.
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 Dining, 6-4-1 Marinuno-machi (Sumida Building, 5F), ☎ +81 0827-23-3030. Tu-Su 7PM-6AM. Good bar with a great menu of snacks, particularly crepes and other desserts.
Ogasawara Tea Garden, 2-4-31 Yokoyama, ☎ +81 0827-43-3617. 9AM-6PM. Have a cup of ocha amid bamboo trees at this popular spot near Kikko Park. It's available iced in the summer.¥525.
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.
City Hotel Andoh, 2-3-8 Marifu-machi, ☎ +81 0827-22-0110, . Most 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.Rooms from ¥4900 single, ¥8000 double.
Iwakuni Business Hotel & Spa, 3-1-12 Marifu-machi, ☎ +81 0827-22-1341, . Another business hotel with a mix of Japanese and Western-style rooms, a nice public bath, and an open-air beer garden on the roof (as weather permits). Take note: the spa is open to non-guests (10AM-8PM — ¥550 adults, ¥350 children).Rooms from ¥5985 single, ¥11,500 twin.
Iwakuni Youth Hostel, 1-10-46 Yokoyama, ☎ +81 0827-43-1092, . Offers an "Iwakuni Sushi Experience Classroom", although only by reservation.Beds ¥2835.
Shiratame Ryokan, 1-5-16 Iwakuni, ☎ +81 0827-41-0074. Traditional 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.Rooms from ¥11,000 with breakfast, ¥17,250 and up with dinner.