The Seto Inland Sea lies between Japan's largest island Honshu and the smaller islands of Shikoku and Kyushu. Surrounding this serene body of water is the Setouchi Region, which features historic cities, castle towns and islands devoted to religion or art. These include the cities of Hiroshima, Okayama, and Himeji (all on Honshu); Matsuyama (on Shikoku); and the tiny islands of Miyajima and Naoshima. The Setouchi Region is a tranquil part of Japan, offering a more laidback and less crowded experience than Tokyo or Central Japan, but with just as many historic and cultural attractions. Here's why you should plot a course for the islands today.
A city reborn from tragedy
Hiroshima is tragically famous for having had one of history’s only two atomic bombs dropped on it at the end of World War II. It suffered terrible destruction and loss of life, yet in the years since the city has rejuvenated and is now an attractive and bustling regional business hub.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park commemorates the atomic bomb victims. The Atomic Bomb Dome – the preserved shell of a former exhibition hall – is the park’s most striking sight. The park also includes a cenotaph; the Rest House, a restored building that was damaged by the bomb; a children’s monument and other sculptures and memorials. There is also a museum with poignant exhibits of the damaged possessions of victims, including toys and clothing.
There are also other attractions to see. Hiroshima Castle is an elegant castle with wooden panels and surrounded by a wide moat. Shukkeien Garden is a beautiful landscape garden with a lake, bamboo groves, a small forest, and even a miniature hill. There are also several art museums such as the Hiroshima Museum of Art and the Prefectural Art Museum. For shopping or eating, visit Hondori, a huge one-km-long covered pedestrian street arcade, and its surrounding lanes.
The Atomic Bomb Dome at Hiroshima's Memorial Peace Park © Hilton Yip
Cross the sea to Shikoku
Across the Seto Inland Sea from Hiroshima is Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. A mid-sized city that faces the sea, Matsuyama has two famous sights. Matsuyama Castle is a hilltop castle that was first built in the early 17th century. It is one of Japan’s 12 “original castles,” meaning it was not destroyed in World War II. However, it is not quite original since it was extensively rebuilt during the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Matsuyama Castle has a sprawling design with turrets that provide great views of the hilltop and the surrounding cityscape. Located right in the middle of the city, it’s a short hike up Mt Katsuyama to get to the castle, or you can choose to take a cable car. At the base of Mt Katsuyama is Ninomaru Garden, which served as the castle's outer line of defence.
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Dogo Onsen is a famous hot spa that was used by the emperor in the past. The Dogo’s main bathhouse, the Honkan, is a beautiful black-roofed wooden building. You can take a soak inside the Honkan (pay more and you can even view the facility set aside for the emperor) or in Dogo’s other more modern bathhouses. Do note the Honkan will undergo a seven-year renovation from January 15, 2019, so not all of its facilities will be open.
Matsuyama can be reached from Hiroshima by fast or slow ferry – taking one and two and a half hours respectively.
Matsuyama castle, built in the 17th century © Hilton Yip
Visit Japan’s best-loved castle and landscape garden
Okayama is an unassuming city midway between Hiroshima and Osaka, but it boasts the Korakuen Garden, one of Japan’s topt landscape gardens. Built in 1687 by the local lord to host Japan’s ruling family, Korakuen was opened to the public in 1884. The garden is unique for its large sprawling lawns, which most Japanese gardens lack. Around the lawns are ponds, bamboo groves, plum and cherry trees, a small rice field, and even a crane aviary. Other sights to see include Okayama Castle, located next to Korakuen, and several museums.
Close to Okayama is Himeji, a former castle town, home to Japan’s largest and most spectacular castle. Himeji Castle is a beautiful white complex with winding paths designed to obstruct invading forces. Having been built in 1333 and called the “White Heron Castle” due to its appearance, Himeji Castle is considered the finest intact example of Japanese castle architecture, having survived both earthquakes and World War II. The castle complex features a massive main building and the former princesses' residence (Nishinomaru).
Himeji can be visited on an easy day trip via train from Okayama or Osaka.
Views over the Seto Inland Sea from Mount Misen in Miyajima © Hilton Yip
The sacred and artistic islands of the Setouchi Region
Near Hiroshima is the holy island of Miyajima, or Itsukushima, which is filled with shrines that date back over 1,000 years. The oldest of these shrines, Itsukushima, features a giant floating torii gate, often seen in photos. The torii gate doesn’t really float; its pillars stand atop the seabed, something you can see up close at low tide.
Other interesting temples in the area include Daishō-in Temple and Senjokaku (Toyokuni Shrine), built in 1587 and featuring an open wooden hall. You can also hike up or take a cable car to 535m Mount Misen to enjoy splendid views of the sea. Nature lovers will enjoy a visit to Miyajima, where wild but gentle deer that wander freely.
Naoshima is another small isle near Okayama that is almost wholly devoted to art. It is home to numerous art museums and sculptures, and it also hosts part of a regional triennial art festival with other nearby islands. The next Setouchi Triennale will take place in 2019.
The famous floating Tori gate in Miyajima © Hilton Yip
Top image: © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock