Yawatahama is a sleepy port town in the armpit of Japan’s longest peninsula, the Sadamisaki Peninsula that juts out of the western side of Shikoku, into the sea known as Uwakai. This is the sea that lies between Shikoku and Kyushu, and Yawatahama serves as one of the ports linking these two southern islands.
If you enter Shikoku from Kyushu, you may be tempted to enquire at the tourism information booth that greets you in Yawatahama Ferry Terminal. When I asked what might interest the tourist in Yawatahama, they told me “Nothing. There really isn’t anything”. Fortunately, this isn’t actually true.
Besides being an area of striking natural beauty, with accessible nature spots such as Cape Suwazaki, the city has an interesting history. It was home to aircraft pioneer Chuhachi Ninomiya whose aeroplane designs gave Japan international superiority in this field in the 1930s, sumo yokozuna Maedayama, as well as a celebrated early physician and a haiku poet.
In the Meiji period, Yawatahama welcomed many European engineers and other experts as advisers, and the Shiraishi Wataro Yokan, a guesthouse in a supposedly English style where they were entertained, still exists in a street of historic buildings in Honai. Such was the vigour of Yawatahama’s industry that it was referred to as the “Manchester of Shikoku”, which also gives some indication of how international it was many years ago. As Ehime’s leading industrial centre, the first bank in Ehime opened in Yawatahama in 1878, and in 1889, it became the first city in Shikoku to use electric lights.
Yawatahama has a good natural harbour which allowed the city to prosper from fishing. The city is currently building a new fish market due to open in April 2013. In addition to a wide variety of fresh fish, Yawatahama also specializes in fish products including kamaboko made from pureed white fish, and jakoten, a deep-fried patty made of pureed whole fish. These products are often used in chanpon, the simple kind of ramen that Yawatahama has chosen as its signature meal. For those who would like to try their hand at fishing there's the Sea Road where you can catch farmed fish and open water fish.
The harbour also has the aforementioned ferry terminal, offering frequent car and passenger ferries to Beppu and Usuki in Oita Prefecture on Japan’s southwestern island, Kyushu. Near the ferry terminal, you can see ospreys diving into the river to catch fish.
Yawatahama is really two separate places, the original port city and the nearby town of Honai which amalgamated with Yawatahama recently. They’re separated by a mountain road and a longish tunnel, but both districts are worth visiting.