Also known as Chūgoku, meaning “middle country”, Western Honshū used to be at the centre of the Japanese nation, lying between the country’s earliest settlements in Kyūshū and the imperial city of Kyoto. The region is split geographically into two distinct areas. The southern San’yō coast is blighted by heavy industry but borders the enchanting Inland Sea, while the rugged and sparsely populated northern San’in coast boasts some delightful small towns and a generally pristine landscape. The southern coast is easy to travel around, with Shinkansen lines, good local railway services and highways, while the northern coast takes more planning to tour by public transport, but easily repays the effort.
Though western Honshū is rich in history, with burial mounds on both coasts dating from the first century, it’s a more contemporary event that brings most visitors to the region. Lying midway along the San’yō coast, Hiroshima, site of the first atom bomb attack and the region’s largest city, is the one place you’ll want to stop off en route to or from Kyūshū. At the eastern end of the San’yō coast, Okayama has one of Japan’s most famous gardens, Kōrakuen, and makes a good base for visiting the beautifully preserved Edo-era town of Kurashiki or the island art project on Inujima. As you head west along the coast, one of the treasures of Hiroshima-ken is the timeless fishing village of Tomonoura with its gorgeous views across the Inland Sea. The port of Onomichi, just to the north, is also the jumping-off point for the Shimanami Kaidō, or Sea Road, which connects Honshū via a series of breathtaking bridges and islands to Imabari on Shikoku, taking in the laidback island of Ikuchi-jima en route.
The one island of the Inland Sea you won’t want to miss is Miyajima, just west of Hiroshima and site of the ancient shrine Itsukushima-jinja. On the southern coast of neighbouring Yamaguchi-ken, pause to admire the elegant Kintai-kyō bridge at Iwakuni and the spectacular view across the narrow Kanmon Straits to Kyūshū from Hino-yama in the port of Shimonoseki, at the tip of Honshū. Inland, the highlights of the prefecture’s small capital, Yamaguchi, are an impressive pagoda and classic Zen rock and moss garden.
East along the frequently deserted San’in coast, the old castle town of Hagi boasts a lovely cluster of samurai houses and atmospheric temples. Perhaps even more beautiful is Tsuwano, another small castle town nestling in a tranquil valley inland, further east in Shimane-ken. This prefecture is the heartland of Japan’s eight million Shinto deities, who are believed to gather each year in November at the ancient shrine Izumo Taisha, near the appealing capital of Matsue. Matsue has the region’s only original castle tower, as well as some old samurai houses and interesting museums. In neighbouring Tottori-ken you’ll find Mount Daisen, the highest peak in the Chūgoku region, with great hiking in the summer and skiing in winter.
If you only have a few days, aim to take in Kurashiki and Matsue, as well as Hiroshima and Miyajima. In a couple of weeks, you could make a circuit of both coasts taking in most of the region’s highlights.