Photo/IllutrationBuddhist statues are set up in a spot overlooking the Seto Inland Sea on Innoshima island in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture. (Koichi Ueda)

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ONOMICHI, Hiroshima Prefecture--From atop Mount Shiratakisan on Innoshima island, visitors can get a stunning view of slow-moving ferries leaving white wakes in the blue waters of the sprawling Seto Inland Sea, dotted with large and small islands.

Innoshima is famed for the countless number of stone Buddhist statues set up on top of the 227-meter mountain.

Climbing a flight of stairs with about 300 steps leading from the parking lot on the eighth station, the stone statues with expressive faces come into view.

Some wear soft smiles, while others have their eyes closed. The sizes of the sculptures also vary, with some as tall as several tens of centimeters and others taller than a human.

The stone statues are referred to as “Gohyaku Rakan” (500 arhats). However, it is said there are about 650 sculptures.

“They are called ‘Kannon-san’ by locals who cherish them,” said Takashi Murakami, 66, head of a civic group in charge of managing the area. “You can enjoy cherry blossoms in the spring and autumn leaves in fall. And the first sunrise of the year on New Year's Day. The landscape is beautiful in every season.”

Legend has it that the Murakami Suigun pirates, who ruled the waters of the Seto Inland Sea, founded a hall for Kannon Bodhisattva here 450 years ago. Subsequently, Kashihara Denroku, who founded a religion called “Ikkankyo” in the area, assembled Onomichi-based masons to create clusters of stone Buddhist statues in 1827. It took more than three years for them to finish the job.

Seen in the far distance is a bridge running through the straits, supported by large white towering columns. It is Innoshima Ohashi bridge, one of the bridges that form the Nishiseto Expressway, which is better known as "Shimanami Kaido."

“Everything changed on the island after the bridge was completed,” Murakami said with a smile.

Although many people started to visit the island after the bridge was completed in 1983, he added. “Still, the beautiful landscape seen from here hasn’t changed.”

It has been exactly 20 years since the Shimanami Kaido was fully opened for traffic. In recent years, many foreign tourists have been seen heading to the mountaintop by bicycle, he said.

Visitors heading to Innoshima can take the Shimanami Kaido expressway. From the Honshu main island, it is about 10 minutes by car to drive to the parking lot at the eighth station of Mount Shiratakisan from the Innoshima-Kita Interchange.

From Shikoku island, it is about 15 minutes from the Innoshima-Minami Interchange. It takes about 10 minutes on foot to walk to the Gohyaku Rakan statues from the parking lot.

For more information, call the Onomichi city hall at 0845-26-6212.