Welcome to Hofu. Home sweet Hofu. Well, maybe not quite home, but this city of 117,000 citizens is big enough to keep one from going too crazy, yet small enough so that people still stare at you like they don’t have eyelids. It’s a typical small Japanese city: lots of cement, plenty of glittering pachinko and love hotel signs, cluttered car dealers, fast food joints, and badly planned suburban sprawl. It also features a Japanese Self Defense Force base and lots of noisy propeller planes buzzing the skies. But most of all, Hofu has AEON (formerly Saty), the department store by the station. On any given day, lots of suspicious, half-crazed people loiter around the station, making weird sounds and staring at foreigners. The city is nearly surrounded by mountains and rice fields: from Migita’s rocky slopes in the north to Ohira’s ropeway in the east and on the southern seaside an island mountain. The cemented Saba River cuts through the city from further inland toward Tokuji town (officially part of Yamaguchi City) and flows to the cemented Seto Sea. East of Hofu Station is a bustling “entertainment district” where the naughty and drunk feed their sinful habits, and where you may find yourself many a weekend. It can be hard to meet people your own age in Hofu—better than more rural locales of course, but everyone seems to be in high school or over forty or just dresses funny. But don’t worry—there are tons of young people. They’re just hiding. The most famous sight is Hofu Tenmangu Shrine, the goal for hoards of half-naked men in the Naked Man Festival in November—but much better and far more peaceful than this is the lonely and beautiful Amida Temple, halfway up Ohira Mountain. For locations ask at the info desk in Hofu Station. Some more gritty details can be found after the break.
Three words: go to Fukuoka. No time? Like I said, there is AEON (SATY) right behind the station. You’ll see lots and lots of students there (and they’ll see you too, I bet!). On the first floor is a big grocery store, food court, camera shops, liquor store, etc. On the second floor is Warner Mycal Cinemas, the nicest movie theater in Yamaguchi (a great place to see overpriced movies—normally 1800 yen, but on Ladies Day girls are 1000 yen, and the last showing is always 1200 yen. One day a week [Friday, as of this writing] is Couples’ Day, where two people can go for 2000 yen. Plan accordingly!) and lots of various clothing outlets. On the third floor is a bookstore, CD shop, appliance area, and a video arcade as well as a 100 yen store for those of you who like cheap crap. Further north is YouMe Town, the same kind of thing as AEON minus the theater. NAFCO is a good place to buy anything from bleach to toothpaste (don’t mix those up!) to curtains to chairs. Also has cheap photo developing. It has two locations, but the more easily reached one is west of the station near the train line. The Ginza shopping arcade—yawn!—toward Tenmangu has almost nothing in it of interest except an internet cafe. Which you won’t need, and which often has shady characters hanging about it. And last, the souvenir shop across the street from Tenmangu is a good place to find sweets and knickknacks to send home to family. The people there are friendly. Once a year there is a big flea market “downtown”.
Your best bet for variety is AEON, although it is maybe not the cheapest. Cheaper is the new MaxValu in southern Hofu by the sports center, or BIG, about a 7-minute bike ride from the station. YouMe Town also has a grocery store on the first floor. Aruk has a few locations as well.
Hofu has all the regular fast food outlets: Nagasaki Chanmen (3), Yoshinoya beef bowls, Mos Burger, McDonald’s, Kinryu Ramen, CURRY HOUSE CoCo ICHIBANYA and other cheap places.
Hungry for dead cow? By the station with the flaming torches is Karubi Tairiku, a good yakiniku restaurant featuring a 500-yen salad bar. There is also Gyumaru and Gyukaku northwest of the station. The locals rave about Kotobuki.
A good smokey, rowdy izakaya is Murasaki, west of the station past the police box and a shoe store. The menu is good and prices reasonable. It can accommodate a fair-sized crowd of drunken foreigners.
Do you like Chinese? Make a reservation at the restaurant by Tenmangu. Some Chinese people work there and the atmosphere is cool. A cheaper, more Japanese alternative is in southern Hofu. Got a date? Tomato is a small place near the ramen shop, quaint and with a variety of dishes, Italian and Japanese all mixed together. Free ice cream/dessert for the ladies, I think.
How about Italian? There’s a place in Rursus (on the non-AEON side of the station) called Osteria Ancora, kinda pricey but delicious. Ryo’s (良’s) is another great place! Easily the best Italian food in Hofu… maybe in the world. As well, there is an expensive Italian joint called Roma near the entertainment district and an Italian man works there. And don’t forget the over-priced Pizza-La, awesome for those nights when you don’t wanna leave your house and just want delivery pizza.
Those hungry for some okonomiyaki can hop behind AEON to Tampopo. It’s cheap and the woman there is nice. There is a place called Konnichiwa across from the station which is good, too.
And lastly, don’t forget the food court in AEON.
Yes, if it isn’t enough that you can shop, eat, and be stared at in Hofu, well, you can drink, too! Basically just head east to the entertainment district and follow the funny-walking people. Near the station and Nagasaki Chanmen is Indian Ocean Bar. Like a cramped nuclear bunker in the basement, the owner speaks some English and is very toastily laid back. Usually it is just you, the bartender and some smoke, but sometimes there are loud live rock concerts here. Many people come. It is hot. The bathroom is really clean! Back in the entertainment area Bagus is a genuinely cool place. It’s small, but the dreadlock-haired owner cooks up Indonesia/Bali/Thai/Vietnam/Jamaica-style food in the cool reggae background.
The most popular bar may very well be Laughable. It is easy to find, as it is at the mouth of Hofu’s only covered shopping arcade (the street that leads straight up to Tenmangu Shrine). Laughable is open everyday from 8p.m. until the last person leaves. (3a.m. on slow days, sunlight on Fridays, Saturdays and holidays). All drinks are an even 500 yen, and if the bartender gets drunk, which often happens, you are likely to secure one or more free shots of Jagermeister.
Karaoke Maneki Neko is probably the cheapest legitimate karaoke around. But when I say around, I don’t really mean around. It is a bit far from the city center. Let’s just say it’s on the wrong side of the Sabagawa. But Maneki Neko has awesome deals. For example, on a weeknight, girls can get all-you-can-drink free time for 1500 yen. You can sing into the morning if you want for one flat, low price. But you will have to taxi home, because walking would take a while.
Karaoke DUX is much more convenient, right in the city center near Bagus. But the price reflects the convenience. Why not pay for just an hour or two, so as not to break bank, and then walk 5 minutes up to Laughable for the after party?
There are a few fitness centers around. There is Hofu Sun Life, across from YouMe Town, where you can work out or rent the gym for group sports like volleyball. The big green-roof sports center in southern Hofu is a massive complex. Here you can do karate, judo, aikido, kendo, archery and other martial arts. There are baseball fields, running tracks, swimming pools, and a basketball arena.
Very far from the city center is a new premiere sports arena called Salt Arena. It is much larger and more fancy than Sun Life. It was the arena for all of the indoor sports during the 2011 National Athletic Meet, held here in Yamaguchi Prefecture for the first time in 47 years! Very convenient if you have a car, although a bit more expensive than Sun Life. The air conditioning easily makes the price difference meaningless.
Hey, It’s Japan, After All!
For you tourists out there, your first stop (and last?) will be to Hofu’s acclaimed Tenmangu Shrine, one of the three top Tenmangu shrines in Japan. The big veranda will give you a nice view of the city. The shrine maidens (“miko-san”) are really nice. If Hofu has an event, it is held at Tenmangu. The biggest two of these are the Half-Naked Man Festival (裸坊祭) and New Year’s. On Saturday in November thousands of men dressed in diapers and Band-Aids (okay, that’s what it looks like!) brave the autumn chill and thunder around the city, heaving portable shrines and stopping to slam back cups of sake. They converge on Tenmangu to throw their portables into the main shrine. If you are lucky you may see someone get hurt in the rush, but in recent years things have been more tame. It all depends on liquor intake and the presence of mafia members. As for New Year’s, you better get there at 11 pm to line up or you may not get to pray until 1 am! Thousands of young punks and freaks and normal folk crowd up the cold stone steps. Watch out for flying coins! Also recommended is the Setsubun Festival in February and the Dance Festival in early August. Out with the devil, in with good luck! If you are wondering what happened to the top of Tenmangu Mountain, if was burnt by a misplaced firework in 2001. Now that was exciting. There are a few other minor temples and shrines around Tenmangu, including one west with an eerie green statue of Kanmon. Next head east to Mori Garden for a quick look (not free, of course) at a Japanese garden with a pleasant pond and stone bridge. It is expensive to get into Mori Mansion, so it is probably not worth it.
Much further east, but do-able on a bicycle with gears—as you will be going uphill—is Amida Temple. This quiet complex is built on the side of Ohira Mountain. It is very quiet and peaceful, and boasts some nice scenery amongst the bamboo trees. You can walk around in the main building and look at the interesting picture stories on the ceiling and walls. As well, there are some Buddha statues and a big bell to gong. Come in autumn to see tree colors or in June to see the blooming hydrangea flowers during the Ajisai Festival. As well, if you prefer a more peaceful New Year’s, Amida Temple is a nice alternative to Tenmangu. A bus runs from Hofu Station to Amida Temple. Don’t miss the last one back.
There is a ropeway to the top of Ohira Mountain. It is very popular on New Year’s Eve. Show up at about 5 am and walk up the mountain with hoards of people to see—if you are lucky—the first sunrise of the new year, rising over the Seto Sea. Or the first clouds of the new year, lounging like lazy fat people over the Seto Sea. It is very cold waiting at the top, but fun. Any mountain climbers out there? Tackle the rocks of Migita-dake for a good workout. There are numerous trails, some rock carvings and a spooky temple. Migita is great, as it the small mountain on the other side of the road.
If you don’t like the disgusting pollution of Tonomi’s beaches, try the disgusting pollution of the beach on Mukou Island. At least there is some sand to run on and the pleasant sound of surf. The small beach is isolated on the far side of the jungle-like fishing island. Come at night for a good view of the stars. There is other stuff in Hofu like a rock garden with a harakiri room (samurai suicide room) and some old salt factory, but really that’s about it. You can discover the rest for yourself. So why not visit Hofu? If you come from a small village in Japan, you’ll love it! If you don’t, well, er, um, aw hell—you’ll love it, too! Maybe.
Contributors: Stephen Goobie, Christina Theodorou, Steffanie Young