Yamaguchi City — A Hidden Gem and My Top Pick

new york times japan travel

A few months ago, The New York Times approached me for my recommendations on the best places to visit in 2024. Without hesitation, my choice was clear – Yamaguchi City.

Being one of the contributors to the list, I had no idea if my suggestion would make the cut or where it would be ranked. Finally, the “52 Places to Visit in 2024” list was unveiled, and to my delight, Yamaguchi City was placed at an impressive #3 spot, right after the iconic city of Paris. (Coming in at #1 was the “Path of Totality” for the total solar eclipse in North America, which is definitely an awe-inspiring event to witness if you have the chance.)

Now, you might be wondering, why Yamaguchi City? Today, I’ve been receiving numerous calls from Japanese media outlets, all asking the same questions repeatedly. Instead of answering them individually, I thought it would be a great idea to write about it here and share precisely why I am so captivated by this city.

Yamaguchi falls into the same category as my pick from last year, Morioka, which secured the #2 position in the “52 Places to Visit in 2023” list. Both cities are mid-sized regional gems, with Morioka boasting a population of around 300,000, while Yamaguchi City is home to approximately 200,000 residents.

Describing Yamaguchi City in The New York Times, I wrote:

“Yamaguchi is often called the ‘Kyoto of the West,’ though it’s much more interesting than that – and it suffers from considerably less ‘tourism pollution.’ A compact city of about 190,000, it lies in a narrow valley between the Inland and Japan seas.”

It’s important to note that when I refer to Yamaguchi City as “more interesting than Kyoto,” I am not suggesting that it surpasses Kyoto in beauty or significance (as some major Japanese news outlets have wrongly reported). Instead, I believe Yamaguchi City deserves recognition for its unique qualities and should not be reduced to a mere comparison with Kyoto. After all, Kyoto is a bustling metropolis with a population of 2.5 million, whereas Yamaguchi City boasts a more intimate and tranquil atmosphere.

Yamaguchi City is a charming and compact city, similar to Morioka, but with its own distinct allure. As you stroll through its streets, you can feel the vibrant energy and a sense of life being lived. It is part of a growing pantheon of smaller cities in Japan that are attracting young entrepreneurs. The city is designed for walking, with narrow, winding streets that run alongside small rivers, creating a unique and picturesque setting. Furthermore, Yamaguchi City is nestled within a valley, surrounded by serrated mountains that guide you into its central spaces, with the magnificent Ruriko-ji Pagoda and gardens towering above.

My first visit to Yamaguchi was in March 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning to take hold. I embarked on a reconnaissance walk along the Hagi Ōkan with my friend John, and I immediately fell in love with the city. In fact, I wrote about my experience in Ridgeline 061, nearly four years ago, highlighting Yamaguchi City’s charm, cosmopolitan vibe, and cultural gems such as the impressive 15th-century Ruriko-ji Pagoda and the Shigemori Mirei garden at Jyoei-ji.

This initial trip left a lasting impression on me, and when I embarked on my Ten Cities tour in November 2021, I made sure to include Yamaguchi City on my itinerary. Returning to Yamaguchi City on December 8, 2021, I had the opportunity to delve deeper into its hidden treasures.

One encounter that stood out was meeting Gakuji, the master ceramicist at the Mizunoue kiln. There was an instant connection between us, an ease and effortlessness in our conversation that made me feel like we were long-lost brothers. This genuine connection with Gakuji was emblematic of the warm and friendly nature of the people of Yamaguchi City.

Yamaguchi City offers a delightful blend of experiences. From exploring the impeccable gardens and iconic five-story pagoda of Rurikoji Temple, to discovering hidden pottery kilns like Mizunoue at Toshunji Temple, and enjoying a cup of coffee at chic coffee shops like Log and Coffeeboy, this city offers a unique and enchanting ambiance. Additionally, you can savor delicious one-pot dishes at quaint counter-only shops known as oden stalls. And if you venture just 15 minutes south, you’ll find the charming hot-springs village of Yuda Onsen, adding a touch of quirkiness to Yamaguchi City.

Yamaguchi City also hosts the Gion Festival, a historic event that has been held for over 600 years and serves as a more intimate alternative to Kyoto’s Gion summer festival. The festival, featuring parades, costumes, and dancing, takes place in July and is set to return in full swing in 2024 after the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

For me, a city is not just about its landmarks and attractions; it’s about its people. And Yamaguchi City undoubtedly has some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered throughout my travels in Japan. Whether it’s the warm conversations over lunch at kissa Churamu or the genuine connections made with the locals, Yamaguchi City exudes a sense of community and belonging.

Cities like Yamaguchi and Morioka occupy an extraordinary space between the vanishing countryside villages and the bustling metropolises. They offer a unique way of life on a human scale, where one’s small contributions genuinely make a difference in the lives of the people around them. As I’ve traversed thousands of kilometers across Japan, I’ve witnessed the decline of small villages and the somber sight of shuttered towns. In contrast, cities like Yamaguchi inspire hope, showcasing the possibilities of a fulfilling and vibrant life built on the foundations of a close-knit community.

Yamaguchi City holds a special place in my heart, and I am thrilled that it secured a top position on this year’s New York Times list. Congratulations to the city, and I strongly encourage everyone who has the chance to visit Yamaguchi City and experience its unique blend of tradition, warmth, and innovation firsthand.

(Note: The article has been paraphrased and expanded based on the original content provided.)

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