The coastal route west of Iwakuni is blighted by heavy industry, but head inland to the hills and you’ll find an old-world atmosphere hanging over the sleepy prefectural capital, YAMAGUCHI (山口), It’s a modern city, but one can see why it’s also known as the “Kyoto of western Japan”. Highlights are the beguiling temple garden of Jōei-ji, designed by the fifteenth-century artist and priest Sesshū, the handsome five-storey pagoda at Rurikō-ji and the recently reconstructed St Francis Xavier Memorial Cathedral, an ultra-contemporary church commemorating the first Christian missionary to Japan.
The closest of the surrounding attractions is the hot-spring resort Yuda Onsen, just one train stop to the west of Yamaguchi, and practically a suburb of the city. Some 20km northwest are the intriguing caverns and rocky plateau of Akiyoshi-dai Quasi-National Park.
Many of the temples spread around Yamaguchi, not to mention its artistic sensibilities, date from the late fifteenth century, when war raged around Kyoto, and the city became an alternative capital for fleeing noblemen and their retinues. The tolerant ruling family of Ōuchi Hiroyo, who settled in the area in 1360, allowed the missionary Francis Xavier to stay in Yamaguchi in 1549. By the Edo period, the Mōri clan had gained power over the whole of western Japan, and several of the Mōri lords are buried in Kōzan-kōen, including Mōri Takachika, who was a key figure in the overthrow of the Tokugawa government in 1867.