Like this post? Help us by sharing it!
We’re often asked the best way to get off the beaten track and experience the evocative Japan that everyone pictures in their head. The answer? Pick a region, and explore it in depth! Japan’s regions often have everything you could ever need, all wrapped up in their cities, culture, blissful rural areas and unique foodie scenes – and all unmarred by mass tourism.
In this series, we’ll introduce you to our favourites. If you’re hankering for slow travel and the ‘real’ Japan, this is for you! First up: Setouchi.
Introducing the Setouchi region
Setouchi’s geography couldn’t be more diverse if it tried, comprising the island-dotted Inland Sea, mountainous central Shikoku, the rice fields of rural Hiroshima and the rocky plateaus of Yamaguchi’s Akiyoshidai area. If that’s not enough variety for you, there’s also history (castles), religion (pilgrimage routes), culture (festivals) and plenty of extraordinary foods to try. Yep, the Setouchi region may well just incorporate everything you loved about your first Japan trip – but crucially, with much more of a chance to do things your way. From all the transport options you could ever want, to activities and destinations that cater to all sorts of interests, this part of Japan is perfect for a second-timer wanting to delve even deeper; to find out just what makes Japan tick beyond the Golden Route trail.
With its historic cities (most famously, Hiroshima, Takamatsu and Matsuyama), pretty seaside towns, and laid-back pace of life, the Setouchi region is (in a very broad sense) like a Japanese version of the Mediterranean. And, much like the Med, this lesser-travelled area of Japan is somewhere you can really slow down and take your time – though being easily accessible from Kyoto and Osaka, you can bookend it with some of that fast-paced city life that Japan does so well.
Our favourite ways to experience Setouchi
Cycle the Shimanami Kaido
If you’re looking for world-class cycling with incredible sea-and-island views, look no further than the Shimanami Kaido: a 70-kilometre cycling route that connects Honshu with Shikoku, passing through six islands along the way. You don’t have to be a hardcore cyclist to enjoy the ride, though – you can rent and drop off a bike at any bike terminal along the way, so you can experience the joys of travelling slowly and soaking in the views without committing to the whole ten–hour (two-day) shebang.
Visit the Japan Art Islands
Naoshima, Teshima, Inujima. Once just a cluster of sleepy islands in the Seto Inland Sea, these three islets are now famous as the home of surreal art installations, museums, and architectural wonders (not to mention a certain ‘Giant Pumpkin’ by contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama). Ferry-hop between them, cycle around them… it’s like a serene and striking treasure hunt made for art-loving grown-ups!
Explore the region’s seaside towns
As you make your way from Kyoto to Hiroshima (or back again), there’s simply no excuse not to stop in on some of the picture-perfect towns dotted along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea. Tomonoura, an old-fashioned fishing town that’s part of the Setonaikai National Park, may well be the most charming we’ve visited. A Korean envoy once said it had the ‘most beautiful view in Japan’, so no wonder it was chosen as a location setting for Ghibli animation Ponyo!
Try your hand at Bizen pottery
This is no ordinary pottery class. In Yunogo Onsen, you get to learn the art of Bizen pottery – famous all over Japan for its iron-like hardness – from master Kyo Isezaki, who comes from a long line of expert potters. Under his careful direction, you’ll have the chance to shape your own Bizen ware keepsake and fire it in a wood-burning kiln, just like Isezaki-san’s family has been doing for generations.
Getting to (and around) Setouchi
How do you get around Setouchi? Let’s just say you have options! It all depends whether you want to do things the easy way… or the scenic way.
Shinkansen: Less haste, more speed. If you want to get to Setouchi as quickly as possible, you can take the shinkansen from Kyoto to Hiroshima and be there in under two hours. Plus, all the stations are well-signposted in English.
Smaller trains: If getting to Setouchi is all part of the adventure, why not soak up some of that incredible scenery on some of the smaller trains connecting the region to Kyoto? It may (read: will) take you longer, but mingling with the locals as you watch the Japanese countryside slide past your window will be an experience you’ll never forget.
Drive: Now this is the epitome of slow travel – and the perfect way to really get under the skin of this naturally beautiful region. For all those in-between places that you’d otherwise miss, driving is the way to go.
High-speed ferry: Prefer to cruise? High-speed ferries connect the port cities of Hiroshima, on Honshu, and Matsuyama, on Shikoku island. There are also numerous smaller ferries that criss-cross the Seto Inland Sea, linking up the art islands of Naoshima, Teshima, and Inujima – as well as Okunoshima, the notorious ‘bunny island’.
Regional food and drink
Perhaps the most internationally famous of Japan’s regional dishes, Wagyu beef from Kobe is of the very highest quality. Its coating of marbled fat prevents all the flavours and juicy goodness from escaping as it cooks, resulting in meat that’s so tender it’ll melt in your mouth.
The Setouchi region encompasses not one, but two of Japan’s most famous sake-producing areas: Hiroshima prefecture, and Nada in Kobe. In particular, Saijo in Hiroshima is a mecca for sake connoisseurs – with a grand total of eight closely packed breweries. Where better to take a sake sampling tour?
Not just any udon, mind you; we’re talking chunky sanuki udon, Kagawa prefecture’s square-shaped, flat-edged noodle of choice. What’s special about this dish is that there are so many ways to enjoy it – from how it’s cooked to the toppings you choose to garnish it with.
The shimmering waters of the Seto Inland Sea are chock-full of nutrients – leading to the tastiest local seafood you could possibly imagine. Take Hiroshima oysters, for example, which are prized all over Japan. Other fresh-from-the-sea specialities include fugu (blowfish) and iwakuni zushi: sushi prepared in square moulds.
Stay at a rural farmhouse in the Iya Valley and you’re sure to encounter hirara-yaki – a traditional countryside dish that’s cooked to perfection on a stone over a fire. Construct a wall of tofu to keep your dinner from escaping off the sides of the slate, then fill it with seafood and vegetables for the ultimate in rustic dining.
Where to stay…
If you want the whole place to yourself: farmhouse stay, Iya Valley
Ever wondered what traditional Japan was like before the tourists started coming? It might have been something a little like this! Squirrel yourself away at a thatched farmhouse in a remote mountain village, where the staff are ever welcoming, the views are captivating, and all the food is wholesome and home-grown, and you’ll discover the true meaning of slow travel. Trust us when we say this is one quintessentially Japanese experience that you’ll never forget!
If you want to treat yourself: Sekitei, Miyajima
With only twelve guest rooms – all of which overlook a beautiful Japanese garden, complete with Koi carp pond – the Sekitei is a pretty exclusive place to stay. It’s fun to explore, too: each guest room is unique, with rabbit warren-style doors and staircases leading to tucked-away sitting rooms and balconies. A walk around the garden’s perimeter will lead you to plenty more cosy nooks and crannies (libraries and reading rooms, for example), which are not only filled with stunning articles of retro furniture, but are also free to all guests. And did we mention the sea views?
For lovers of traditional ryokan: the Migiwatei Ochi Kochi, Tomonoura
Charming setting? Check. A beautiful outlook? Check. A warm welcome, delicious traditional cuisine, and excellent on-site facilities? Looks like we have a full house! Tomonoura’s Migiwatei Ochi Kochi is everything you could want from a ryokan – with the added bonus of being located in one of the most charming fishing villages in all of Japan. Spend just a few minutes in the private hot spring bath on your balcony overlooking the Seto Inland Sea, and you’re sure to fall promptly under its spell. Blissful!
For an in-depth temple experience: Shukubo temple stay, Koshin-ji
Visited Mount Koya on your first trip to Japan and want to try a second time-round temple stay? This shukubo (literally ‘sleeping with the monks’) experience is for you. Nestled into the mountains of Hiroshima prefecture, Koshin-ji temple seems all but cut off from the outside world – and all bookings are private (with no other guests), offering a much more personal experience. Spend your day learning to rake a garden, make matcha or ring bells, and then spend the night star gazing or practising outdoor Zazen meditation.
Starting point: Kyoto
- Travel by train and ferry to Naoshima art island.
- Cycle around the island to see the art installations, visit Benesse House museum and Chichu Art Museum, and enjoy world-class art in the most charming setting imaginable. Benesse House museum even has its own hotel that you can stay in!
- Take the ferry over to Takamatsu and drop by the meticulously maintained Ritsurin Garden.
- Don’t miss a bowl of sanuki udon for lunch – or try making it at a cooking class (we can arrange it!).
- Rent a car and drive south into rural Shikoku en route to the Iya Valley, in Tokushima prefecture. Stay for two nights at the Tougenkyo Iya farmhouses in Ochiai village.
- Spend a full day exploring the Iya Valley, including the famously dizzying Kazurabashi vine bridges – and take a boat trip past the ancient rock formations of the Oboke Gorge.
- Drive through the mountain countryside to Shikoku’s largest city: Matsuyama.
- Visit the castle, and Dogo Onsen – one of the oldest bathhouses in Japan, which is famous for inspiring the bathhouse in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away.
- Stay a night in the city, or splash out on a night at the architecturally impressive Setouchi Aonagi (designed by Tadao Ando), located just half an hour outside of Matsuyama.
Top tip – we recommend adding on an extra night here to visit the charming town of Uchiko – the ‘Takayama of Shikoku’ – and Ozu castle town. You can even stay in your very own traditional townhouse in Uchiko.
- Take the train up to Imabari and set out on the Shimanami Kaido cycling route.
- Over the course of two days, cycle the 70km cycle route over bridges connecting Shikoku island with mainland Honshu. It’s fairly flat, but e-bikes are available for people who want to focus more on the scenery than the exercise!
- Stay overnight at a homely minshuku (bed and breakfast) on one of the islands along the route. Try: the brand-new luxury ryokan, Azumi Setoda, on Ikuchijima Island. Sunset views here are not to be missed.
- Cycle the second half of the Shimanami Kaido in the morning.
- After arriving in the quaint town of Onomichi, take a breather for lunch at a café, wander up to Senkoji temple and observation area for views back over the Seto Inland Sea, then hop on a train east along the coast to Tomonoura.
- Check in to your ryokan (we recommend Migiwatei Ochikochi) and relax with views out over the sea. A traditional kaiseki meal and an onsen bath await!
- Back on the train, and east to Kyoto.
- Stop off at Okayama to visit the beautifully landscaped Korakuen Garden – one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan.
End point: Kyoto
Inspired to travel regional Japan? We can design a trip to suit your interests and budget. Get in touch to begin planning the holiday of a lifetime!