Island Hopping in Japan’s Setouchi Region

I had the unique opportunity to be hosted by the Setouchi Tourism Board for an educational trip to the culturally rich and picturesque area of Western Japan.

Japan, comprised of eight regions and forty-seven prefectures (similar to the U.S.’s 50 states) is approximately the size of California and populated with 126 million residents.

The Setouchi region includes seven of Japan’s most charming and authentic prefectures and offers excellent air, rail, and ferry links to the various destinations.

I was able to experience ancient shrines, majestic castles, World War II sites, intriguing historical districts, lively cities, picturesque landscapes, and get a better understanding of the time-honored customs of this fascinating part of Japan.

Setouchi has a cultural lineage shaped by its diverse geography and abundant traditions and makes this an ideal destination for those travelers who want to delve deeper into the Japanese way-of-life outside the larger cosmopolitan cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto.

Based on my travels, I recommend you plan a 7-10 day itinerary to capture the essence of this region depending on your cultural and recreational goals for your trip. From cutting-edge contemporary art, to the ancient Shinto imperial castles and shrines, to seaplane tours, and spectacular cycling routes, this region offers something for every type of traveler.

The Japanese word “Tatoubi” means the beauty of many islands, and I was privileged to see exactly that in the Setouchi region.

YAMAGUCHI PREFECTURE

Surrounded by mountains and sea, Yamaguchi prefecture lies in the western most part of Honshu. Less visited than other areas of Japan, it enjoys a mild year-round climate and has over 900 miles of coastline with around 240 islands scattered offshore.

The capital city, Yamaguchi, is rich in beautiful gardens and temples, while rural areas offer pristine beaches and nature trails in many national parks. A must-see is Akiyoshidai Quasi-National Park, where one of Japan’s longest caves can be found.

Notable Experiences

Yamaguchi is the ideal destination to explore Japanese history and traditions with a wealth of artistic and cultural treasures. With temples as impressive as those more popularly found in Kyoto and Nara, the prefecture deserves its nickname as the “Kyoto of the West.”

Although steam trains were phased out in Japan in the 1960s, today you can ride the SL Yamaguchi – nicknamed the ‘The Lady.’ This handsome, solid-iron train offers a nostalgic two-hour journey from Shin-Yamaguchi Station to Tsuwano Station through scenic countryside. Another scenic train journey, the Marumaru no Hanashi, runs along the JR San’in Line. I also recommend trying the authentic local bento boxes available on board, which should be reserved before travel.

Close to the Iwakuni’s Kantai Bridge, I visited a traditional clothing shop named Jidaiya Karankoron which sells handmade Japanese and western clothing and also rents traditional-style outfits such as kimonos with advance booking. On the second floor, you can visit a museum that displays vintage Japanese clothing dating back to the Meiji Era; lasting from 1868 to 1912.

For history buffs, another not to miss venue is the Joeiji Temple in Yamaguchi city, a religious site with a fascinating past. This Zen Buddhist temple is famous for its serene garden built around 500 years ago by the monk and painter Sesshu.

Yamaguchi is also rich in beautifully landscaped gardens and impressive bridges. Located in the city of Iwakuni, the Kintaikyo Bridge is a historic structure made up of five graceful wooden arches which has since 1673 spanned the Nishiki River.

Nature and art blend seamlessly at Motonosumi Inari Shrine, where a line of 123 red tori gates climbs dramatic cliffs overlooking the Sea of Japan.

Culinary Specialties

Surrounding the sea in three directions, Yamaguchi is renowned for Japan’s best seafood, including the famous fugu, or better known as blowfish.

Shimonoseki City in Yamaguchi is Japan’s largest exporter of fugu, so it is no surprise the once-banned dish is a famous local specialty, and locals often call it ‘fuku’, which means luck. Prepared by chefs specially trained to remove the fish’s poison, fugu is served in many ways such as sashimi, fugu nabe (cooked in a hot pot), fugu cooked in rice porridge and braised in Japanese sake.

Another local specialty is Kawara soba noodles, cooked on a hot roof tile, with fried egg, stewed beef, green onions and grilled liver. It is said that this dish was created in 1877, when soldiers used hot tiles to cook dishes during battles.

Places to Stay

From charming, traditional ryokan inns to Western-style hotels featuring the latest amenities, Yamaguchi has high-quality accommodations in both rural and cosmopolitan settings.

Yamaguchi is blessed with many of the hot spring-fed onsen baths Japan is famous for. In the north, the Hagi area’s numerous onsens have given rise to many charming Japanese-style inns including Ganjima Bessou, known for excellent cuisine and waterside views. Meanwhile, the Nagato area boasts Bettei Otozure, a sleekly designed luxury hot spring hotel tucked away in forested mountains and overlooking the scenic Otozure River below.

HIROSHIMA PREFECTURE

Most famous for its World War II history, Hiroshima Prefecture offers an array of other popular destinations including coastal islands, ancient shrines and temples, and picturesque valley villages.

Further afield, Hiroshima’s diverse geography can be appreciated in spectacular canyons such as Sandan-kyo and Taishaku-kyo gorges where emerald rivers run, or the many islands of the Geiyo archipelago, including Okunoshima, known for its thriving wild rabbit population.

Hot, humid in this prefecture summers give way to mild winters, with enough snow falling in the northern mountains to give skiers a choice of fourteen ski resorts. Those looking for a fantastic culinary experience will enjoy the prefecture’s excellent cuisine, especially the local take on okonomiyaki crepes and the abundance of oysters.

Just 90 minutes by Shinkansen bullet train from Osaka and three hours from Kyoto, you can visit just Hiroshima city as a long day trip. However, given the variety of experiences the overall region offers; I highly recommend you consider a three-night stay in Hiroshima City with two-day trips outside the city to make the most of your time.

Notable Experiences

For many, the defining historical event has been the 1945 atomic bomb explosion in Hiroshima City, now marked with several fascinating venues dedicated to world peace. The miraculously surviving Atomic Bomb Dome, was the epicenter of the tragic blast and the poignant Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum are both must-visits.

Another powerful landmark in Hiroshima City where I experienced a contemplative moment is the Hiroshima Orizuru Tower. Completed in 2016, the thirteen-story, peace-dedicated structure stands next to the Atomic Bomb Dome and provides sweeping views across the city’s key sites. While in the tower, you have the opportunity to make an origami crane at a craft kiosk. During my visit, I was able to participate and set it free from the tower symbolizing world peace.

On nearby Miyajima Island, you can visit the UNESCO World Heritage site, Itsukushima Shrine. This renowned shrine seems to float on the peaceful waves of the Seto Inland Sea, with its iconic orange otorii gate rising from the waters.

There are also several captivating festivals in Miyajima that are worth experiencing such as June’s Kangen-sai Festival where ceremonial boats depart from the shrine with deities on board, accompanied by a procession of musicians.

Later in the summer, you can attend the Miyajima Water Fireworks Festival, which fills the evening sky with brilliant colors that reflect in the Seto’s waters and light up the shrine’s famous otorii gate.

Every February, various delicious dishes based on a much-loved local staple, oysters,  take the spotlight at the Miyajima Oyster Festival. On the many charter boats and ferries that I used to island-hop, I saw an array of oyster beds in the sea and watched as the “oystermen” brought their bounty to shore when docking.

Another highlight is Okunoshima, known as ‘Rabbit Island’ for its population of more than 1,000+ wild rabbits. The island has a dark past, as it was a former center of military poison gas production. I visited a small museum about this since I am a World War II history enthusiast. To see friendly, fluffy bunnies hopping around the ruins of abandoned fortifications was truly a unique experience.

Innoshima Island is another recommendation for those who enjoy hiking. With more than 500 stone Buddhas, who have apparently retained “nirvana”, lining the path to the top of Mount Shirataki. The story behind the temple is that it was created by the leader of pirates who occupied this region in 1569.

If you’re looking to get your adrenaline racing, I recommend a marine encounter by a local seaplane operator where its sightseeing flights give guests breathtaking aerial views of the Seto Inland Sea and the Geiyo islands.

Art lovers are spoiled with several choices with Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art; a must-see. Designed by the late Japanese architect  Kisho Kurokawa, this striking building houses an international collection and hosts temporary exhibits.

A more surprising discovery is Art Base Momoshima, on the tiny, eastern island of Momoshima. Founded by artist Yukinori Yanagi in an abandoned school in 2012, this space is filled with fascinating contemporary works and installations.

Culinary Specialties

Culinary travelers will find much to please their palates in Hiroshima Prefecture given the proximity to the sea and you are guaranteed exceptional oysters due to the abundant coastline.

More than half of Japan’s supply of oysters comes from Hiroshima, so it is no surprise that restaurants have made oyster dishes an art form. I was able to experience an oyster barbeque on the beach and can assure you that these are the best oysters I have ever eaten due to their freshness and succulence!

Another culinary experience not to miss, is Hiroshima’s signature version of okonomiyaki, Japanese savory pancakes. This is a delicious combination of noodles, eggs, meat, and vegetables layered on a crepe on a teppanyaki grill plate. The dish is served at more than two thousand restaurants across the prefecture. Another regional specialty is Onomichi Ramen, a noodle dish made with fatty roasted pork and a thick broth.

Where to Stay

Given its location on Japan’s ‘golden travel route,’ the Hiroshima Prefecture has various accommodation options in nearby regions, ranging from international five-star luxury properties to rural inns.

Hiroshima City’s train station is the hub for several major lines, and the city offers many hotel options. The Sheraton Grand Hiroshima Hotel is just steps from the station and is highly recommended due to the city center location. If you would like to stay at a city resort with spectacular views of the Seto Inland Sea, I recommend the Grand Prince Hotel, which offers a complimentary shuttle to and from Miyajima Island daily.

Home to the iconic Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima Island offers a variety of lodgings. More than 160 years old, Iwaso Inn offers the quintessential ryokan experience, with its hanare-style (detached) cottages, outdoor hot springs and tranquil grounds planted with maple trees.

To the east, the hilly port city Onomichi also offers multiple options, while picturesque Tomonoura village affords visitors a glimpse into rural history. A great base in this area is Ochi Kochi Ryokan, whose rooms feature balconies overlooking the Seto Inland Sea.

To continue following Beth on her journey…

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