I woke up the day after cycling sore and groggy. But it was our last full day in Onomichi, and there was still a lot to see and do.
Under an overcast sky we set out as a group through the small city streets, passing a large lot of unlocked bicycles where students and workers park for the day.
We made our first stop at the Kitamara Haberdasher’s Shop where we met Masako Toyado. Masako is responsible from saving this abandoned older building and converting it into a vintage shop and artist space with the help of volunteers.
Since the younger generation of the city is often looking for houses accessible by cars, many are moving to the suburbs and shopping at big malls outside of the city. Because of this there are now around 500 abandoned buildings in Onomichi.
Masako bought the shop along with another restored building behind it - Sangenya Apartment House - an old apartment from the Showa era. Here there were more vintage items for sale, a small cafe, game rooms and a manga shop.
After these two projects Masako had no money left and had to ask for help. We followed her up the steep hills to see more of her collaborative projects including a former family villa and a two story concrete building that has been converted into a cafe with artist workshops and activities. We stopped here for hot drinks and snacks before hiking up to Miharashitei, a beautiful old house being renovated into a hotel directly under the Senkoji Temple with a stunning view of the city.
Our translator explained to me that Masako used to be a tour conductor. She moved to Europe and was amazed at how well kept the older buildings were, and when she heard about what was happening in Onimichi she knew she had to return.
After all of the steep hills, we were ready for lunch. We returned to the shopping arcade where we sat down for lunch at the Anago No Nedoko Guesthouse. This small hostel is also a school themed restaurant on the main floor. It is also another one of Masako's projects, and before we knew it she had slipped on a serving gown and was handing us trays of school themed lunches.
After eating we went upstairs to see the dormitory, where the rooms have been restored by Masako and volunteers with traditional looking bunk beds.
With happy bellies we walked down the street to the souvenir shop, where we met with the owners and local manufacturers to talk about where they can make improvements for foreign travellers. I became very passionate as I love marketing, especially when it comes to small businesses I want to succeed.
Afterwards I walked home alone, taking in the last of Onomichi at night. The lanterns lit outside small restaurants, school girls sharing ice cream and cycling home, the fruit stands selling giant apples and persimmon.
After quick change it was time for our dinner with the mayor. We gathered in a large room, clinked glasses of cold tea and orange juice, and exchanged business cards with locals involved in tourism.
We all gave short speeches about ourselves, our experiences, and how Onomichi can improve. I told them Onomichi doesn't need to change - but the world needs to know about it. This can be done through English websites, social media platforms, and by inviting people from the media and travel industry like ourselves.
The night ended with a dance lesson. We pushed the tables together and went around in a circle, following directions from an eldery woman in a kimono and laughing.
The next day we had a final meeting to exchange ideas and give our closing thoughts.
From here we took the bus ride to Hiroshima airport, flew to Tokyo, and gave each other big squeezes before we each went of to our terminals and separate parts of the world.
It didn't take me long to miss our group and the bonds we formed over an unforgettable experience in Onomichi.
Japan remains one of my favourite places in the world, and I can't help but want to uncover more of it.