Visitors to Iwakuni's famous Kintai Bridge should consider traveling just a bit farther south to Yanai. The city of Yanai is famous for its small, picturesque district filled with historic white-walled merchant homes, all of which are decorated in red paper goldfish lanterns. It is a perfect destination for those who want a quiet 'time-slip' into Japan's past.
After a short five minute walk from Yanai Station down Retro-dori and across the Yanai River, visitors soon find themselves at the Shirakabe-no-machinami, a 200 meter-long street reminiscent of the Edo Era. Walking to the left, the recommended first stop is a tour of the residence of the Kunimori Family. Eighth generation Kunimori-san still lives in the back of the home. His lovely wife leads visitors around in a combination of English and Japanese - her explanations are some of the best I've ever encountered in a historic home in Japan.
Detour off the main street and walk up to the Sagawa Shoyu-gura where soy sauce has been made the old-fashioned way for almost 200 years. Take a close look at the giant vats where shoyu is being made, try some samples, and be sure to take some home with you!
Across from Sagawa is the Yanai Nishigura, a giant warehouse-turned cultural space. In addition to free, ever-changing art exhibits, visitors can try their hand at a variety of traditional workshops - making paper goldfish lanterns, weaving cloth coasters, or dyeing handkerchiefs.
Stop for cake & coffee at Namba-an, a cafe hidden down a narrow alley in another traditional warehouse; or visit Hiramoto for a tasty bowl of ramen or their specialty, chanpon - noodle soup filled with vegetables and a touch of pork & seafood.
Back to the right and just across Retro-dori is Muroya-no-sono, which was once the residence of the wealthy Oda family. This property is now a huge folklore museum filled with treasures. Although there are no English explanations, most items are self-explanatory and the compound itself is really impressive.
Shopping is something to save for the end of your visit. Stop in Kijiya to purchase some popular Japanese & Western-style cakes and sweets. The shop also has a wide selection of souvenirs, including pottery. Also be sure to pick up some nure sembei (hand-baked rice crackers) at Murakami Shoten before checking out Kisaka Showbundo's collection of wonderful goldfish-themed souvenirs and Tsutsumiya's handmade paper goods.
If at all possible, stay in Yanai into the evening. Everything closes, the street goes completely quiet, and the red goldfish lanterns light up. If you are ready for dinner, be sure to eat at the 'Dining & Bar Kiraku'. Yoshimi-san, the proprietor, is very friendly, speaks great English, and is an excellent cook. The menu offers a variety of choices including seafood, pasta, and some tasty chicken dishes.
Yanai is about 35 minutes from both Iwakuni and Tokuyama Stations on a scenic, seaside train line.