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.
Some 65km west from Okayama along the industrialized San’yō coast is the old castle town of Fukuyama (福山), now the key industrial city of Hiroshima-ken’s Bingo district and a jumping-off point for the lovely seaside town of Tomonoura.
There are few more pleasant ways to spend half a day or more in Japan than exploring the enchanting fishing port of TOMONOURA (鞆の浦), at the tip of the Numakuma Peninsula, 14km south of Fukuyama, and the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s 2008 film Ponyo. The town has one of the most beautiful locations on the Inland Sea, and its narrow, twisting streets and surrounding hills are easily explored on foot or by bicycle. Boats unload their catch daily beside the horseshoe-shaped harbour, which has hardly changed since the town’s Edo-era heyday, when trading vessels waited here for the tides to change direction or rested en route to mainland Asia. Today, you’re just as likely to see locals dreaming the day away on the sea walls, rod in hand, waiting for the fish to bite, or selling catches of prawns, squirming crabs and other seafood on the streets.
Heading east from Shimonoseki along the San’in coast, the landscape becomes much more rugged and sparsely populated. Here the savage Sea of Japan has eroded the rocks into jagged shapes, and if you take the train you’ll see some marvellously bleak shorelines. The next town of any consequence is Hagi (萩), some 70km northeast of Shimonoseki, which dates back to 1604 when warlord Mōri Terumoto built his castle at the tip of an island between the Hashimoto and Matsumoto rivers. Hagi’s castle is long ruined, but the atmospheric graveyards of the Mōri daimyō, the layouts of the samurai and merchants’ quarters – Horiuchi and Jōkamachi – and the temple district of Teramachi remain, with several significant buildings intact. These attractive plaster-walled streets are the town’s main attraction, together with its renowned pottery, Hagi-yaki, considered Japan’s next-best style of ceramics after Kyoto’s Raku-yaki – you can hardly move around Hagi without coming across a shop selling the pastel-glazed wares. The town is also famous for the role that some of its citizens played in the Meiji Restoration, such as Yoshida Shōin, who was executed by the Tokugawa Shogunate for his radical beliefs and is now enshrined at Shōin-jinja.
Sharing the relaxed, friendly atmosphere of other Yamaguchi-ken towns, Hagi is certainly worth visiting. If you rent a bike, you can easily take in the most important sights in a day and still have time to crash out on Kikugahama, a fine stretch of beach beside the castle ruins.
Born into a Hagi samurai family in 1830, the charismatic Yoshida Shōin believed that the only way self-isolated, military-ruled Japan could face up to the industrialized world – knocking at the country’s door in the insistent form of Commodore Perry – was to ditch the Tokugawa government, reinstate the emperor and rapidly emulate the ways of the West. To this end, he tried to leave Japan in 1854 on one of Perry’s ships, together with a fellow samurai, but was handed over to the authorities who imprisoned him in Edo (Tokyo) before banishing him back to Hagi.
Once at home, Yoshida didn’t let up in his revolutionary campaign to “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”. From 1857 he was kept under house arrest in the Shōka Sonjuku (now within the shrine grounds of Shōin-jinja), where he taught many young disciples, including the future Meiji-era prime minister Itō Hirobumi. Eventually Yoshida became too big a thorn in the shogunate’s side and he was executed in 1860, aged 29, for plotting to assassinate an official.
Five years later, samurai and peasants joined forces in Hagi to bring down the local Tokugawa government. This, and similar revolts in western Japan, led to Yoshida’s aim being achieved in 1867 – the restoration of the emperor to power.
Among the Geiyo archipelago of islands clogging the Inland Sea between Onomichi and the northwest coast of Shikoku, IKUCHI-JIMA (生口島) and ŌMI-SHIMA (大三島) are both worth a visit. Of the two, Ikuchi-jima is the place to stay and has the best attractions, including Kōsan-ji, a dazzling, kaleidoscopic temple complex, and the exquisite Hirayama Ikuo Museum of Art. Its sun-kissed citrus groves, attracts plenty of tourists each summer to its palm-fringed beaches, in particular the sweeping man-made Sunset Beach on the west coast. The island can comfortably be toured by bicycle in a day, as can the islet Kōne-shima, which is linked by bridge to Ikuchi-jima’s main settlement, the quaint Setoda (瀬戸田) on the island’s northwest coast. Around the island, look out for the fourteen bizarre contemporary outdoor sculptures, including a giant saxophone and a stack of yellow buckets, which form part of Ikuchi-jima’s “Biennale” modern art project.
While part of the fun of visiting these islands is the ferry ride there, you can also get to Ikuchi-jima by bus or bicycle from Onomichi along the Shimanami Kaidō. Both islands are best explored by bicycle.
Topping Kōsan-ji’s treasures takes some doing, but the Hirayama Ikuo Museum of Art (平山郁夫美術館), next door to the temple’s art gallery, eclipses it with a superior calibre of art. Hirayama Ikuo (1930–2009) was born in Setoda and was a junior-high-school student in Hiroshima when the bomb dropped – his famous painting Holocaust at Hiroshima can be seen in the Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art. Despite travelling the world and becoming famous for his series of paintings on the Silk Road, he continually returned to the Inland Sea for inspiration. Hirayama used a traditional Japanese painting technique for his giant canvases, working very quickly with fast-drying paint – the resultant swift brush strokes give the finished paintings a distinctively dreamy quality. Because the special paint (iwaenogu) needed for this method is much less flexible and dries faster than oil paint, each picture has its own series of preparatory sketches. These full-sized blueprints for the final painting are known as oshitazu, and this museum contains many such sketches of Hirayama’s most celebrated works, as well as original paintings and watercolours.
After the Hirayama museum, you can take in the view that inspired one of the artist’s most beautiful paintings by hiking up to the summit of the hill behind Setoda. A small park here overlooks the attractive three-storey pagoda of Kōjō-ji, breaking out of the pine trees below, with the coloured tiled roofs of the village and the islands of the Inland Sea beyond.
A giftshop-lined street leads directly from the waterfront just west of Setoda’s ferry landing to the unmistakeably gaudy entrance of Ikuchi-jima’s most famous attraction – the technicolour temple complex of Kōsan-ji (耕三寺), the creation of steel-tube manufacturer Kanemoto Kozo, who made much of his fortune from the arms trade. When his mother died, the bereft Kanemoto decided to build a temple in her honour, so bought a priesthood from Nishi-Hongan-ji temple in Kyoto and took over the name of a minor-league temple, Kōsan-ji, in Niigata. He resigned from his company, grew his hair, changed his name to Kōsanji Kozo, and began drawing up plans for the new Kōsan-ji – a collection of copies of the most splendid examples of Japanese temple buildings – which includes about ten halls, three towers, four gates, an underground cave and an enormous statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. Although many of the re-creations are smaller than the originals, Kanemoto cut no corners when it came to detail, even adding his own embellishments – most famously to the already over-the-top replica of the Yōmei-mon from Nikkō’s Tōshō-gū, earning Kōsan-ji its nickname Nishi-Nikkō, the “Nikkō of the west”.
The entrance gate is modelled on one from the imperial palace in Kyoto. To the right of the main temple building is the entrance to the Senbutsudō (“Cave of a Thousand Buddhas”) and the Valley of Hell. An underground passage leads past miniature tableaux showing the horrors of damnation, followed by the raptures of a heavenly host of Buddhas. You then wind your way up to emerge beneath the beatific gaze of a 15m-tall statue of Kannon. From here you can walk up to the Hill of Hope, a collection of unusual modern marble sculptures with names like “Flame of the Future” and “Stage of the Noble Turtle”.
Kōsan-ji’s five-storey pagoda, modelled on the one at Murō-ji in Nara, is the last resting place of Kanemoto’s beloved mother, whose holiday home, Chōseikaku (潮聲閣), is right by the exit (included in admission to the temple). The home is a fascinating combination of Western and traditional styles, with two of the rooms having beautiful painted panels on their ceilings and a Buddha-like model of Mrs Kanemoto resting in one of the alcoves. Opposite the mother’s retreat is Kōsan-ji’s art gallery, a plain building housing sober displays of mainly religious paintings and statues.
"They rise gracefully from this protected, stormless sea, as if they had just emerged, their beaches, piers, harbors all intact…Wherever one turns there is a wide and restful view, one island behind the other, each soft shape melting into the next until the last dim outline is lost in the distance."
Donald Richie, The Inland Sea, 1971.
It’s difficult to improve on Richie’s sublime description of the Inland Sea (Seto Naikai) and, despite his fears that it would all be ruined in Japan’s rush to the twenty-first century, this priceless panorama has changed remarkably little. Boxed in by the islands of Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku, and dotted with more than three thousand other islands, the sea is one of Japan’s scenic gems, often likened to the Aegean in its beauty.
Several islands are now connected by bridges and fast ferries to the mainland, reducing their isolation and much of their charm, but on many others you’ll be struck by the more leisurely pace of life and the relative lack of modern-day blight. The best islands to head for are Naoshima, Inujima, Ikuchi-jima, Ōmi-shima, Miyajima and Shōdo-shima, all popular for their relaxed atmosphere and beautiful scenery.
If you don’t have time to linger, consider a boat trip across the sea or heading to a vantage point such as Washū-zan or Yashima to look out over the islands. There are also several sightseeing cruises, though these are expensive for what they offer; you’re better off putting together your own itinerary using individual ferry services.
Heading south along the coast from Miyajima, you’ll soon cross the border into western Honshū’s last prefecture, Yamaguchi-ken. The first place to pause briefly is the pleasant old castle town of IWAKUNI (岩国), 40km southwest of Hiroshima and home to an American military base, as well as one of Japan’s top three bridges, a scattering of samurai houses and a mildly interesting museum; it’s also one of the best places in the country to watch the ancient practice of cormorant fishing.
If you decide to stay the night, the cheapest option is Iwakuni Youth Hostel (岩国ユースホステル; dorm beds ¥2835/person), in the peaceful southwest corner of the park, ten minutes’ walk from the bus stop by the bridge; it has shared Japanese-style rooms with TVs. The best ryokan is the pretty Shiratame Ryokan (白為旅館; ¥30,001−40,000), with rooms overlooking the bridge; even if you can’t afford to stay, try to go for lunch. The Iwakuni Kokusai Kankō Hotel (岩国国際観光ホテル; ¥20,001−30,000) has branches on both sides of the river.
There are several eating options on the east side of the bridge; try the local fish dishes, such as Iwakuni-zushi, a block of vinegared rice topped with bits of cooked fish and vegetables, at Yoshida, which lies just beyond some interesting antique shops leading up to the Kintai-kyō. Kikkō, across from the cable-car station, has picture menus of Iwakuni-zushi sets and deep-fried renkon (lotus root), another regional speciality. In the summer be sure to try the ayu, a sweet fish caught by cormorants, available at many of the restaurants near the bridge. Otherwise, pack a picnic and enjoy it in the park.
Straddling the strip of land between the lagoons of Nakaumi and Shinji-ko is MATSUE (松江), the appealing prefectural capital of Shimane-ken, 180km east of Tsuwano, and one of the highlights of the San’in coast. Although the city’s main sights – one of Japan’s few original castles, Matsue-jō, an area of samurai residences and the museum and one-time home of nineteenth-century expat writer Lafcadio Hearn – are so closely grouped together that they can all easily be seen in half a day, it’s worth lingering here. The lakes, rivers and castle moat lend this modern city a soothing, faintly Venetian atmosphere, and it’s still possible to catch glimpses of the old Japan that so enchanted Hearn a century ago, such as fishermen casting their nets in Shinji-ko, or prodding the lake bed with poles, searching out shellfish.
There’s also plenty to see in the area around Matsue, including the stunning landscapes at the Adachi Museum of Art, the shrines and burial mounds at Fudoki-no-Oka, and Izumo Taisha, one of Japan’s most important shrines, holiday home of the Shinto pantheon of deities, and the reason that Matsue was dubbed “chief city of the province of the gods” by Hearn. Some 130km east of Matsue, Mount Daisen, the cluster of hot-spring resorts around Kurayoshi and the coastal sand dunes around the Tottori prefecture’s eponymous capital all offer stunning scenery.
While in Matsue, don’t miss taking a trip to the stunning Adachi Museum of Art (足立美術館), some 20km east of the city near the village of Yasugi, en route to Yonago. The large collection of Japanese artworks, dating from 1870 to the present day, includes masterpieces by Yokoyama Taikan and Uemura Shoen. The surrounding gardens are also exquisite, covering 43,000 square metres.
The museum’s founder, Adachi Zenkō, was an enthusiastic gardener, and his passion for the artform shows through in the beautiful landscapes that envelop the galleries and steal your attention at every turn. The museum is designed so that as you move around, the views of the Dry Landscape Garden, the White Gravel and Pine Garden, the Moss Garden and the Pond Garden appear like living picture scrolls when viewed through carefully placed windows. A couple of the gardens have traditional teahouses where you can take macha and sweets (from ¥1500). Juryū-an is a copy of a teahouse in the former Imperial Palace, Katsura Rikyū, in Kyoto, and looks over a peaceful moss-covered garden; in the smaller Juraku-an visitors are served a bowl of green tea made with water boiled in a kettle of pure gold, said to aid longevity. The two coffee shops in the museum are less atmospheric but cheaper, and the views just as fine.
Give yourself plenty of time here because, once you’ve dragged yourself away from the gardens, the art itself isn’t bad either. The museum has the largest collection of paintings by Yokoyama Taikan, whose delicate ink drawings and deep colour screens set the standard for modern Japanese art. There is also a section on kitsch art from children’s books, and a ceramics hall which includes works by Kawai Kanjirō – a brilliant local potter who participated actively in the mingei (folk art) movement begun by Yanagi Sōetsu – and Kitaōji Rosanjin, a potter and cook, whose pieces were designed to complement and enhance the food served on them.
There is some charm unutterable in the morning air, cool with the coolness of Japanese spring and wind-waves from the snowy cone of Fuji…
- Lafcadio Hearn, My First Day in the Orient
The journalist Lafcadio Hearn was enchanted by Japan, and of all expat writers is by far the most respected by the Japanese. Celebrated by Matsue as an adopted son, his books, including Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan and Kwaidan, are considered classics.
The offspring of a passionate but doomed liaison between an Anglo-Irish army surgeon and a Greek girl, and named after the Greek island of Lefkada on which he was born on June 27, 1850, Hearn grew up in Dublin, a contemporary of Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. A schoolyard accident in 1866 left him permanently blind in his left eye, and in 1869 the young and penniless Hearn decided to chance his fortune in the United States. Over the course of the next fourteen years Hearn worked as a reporter and writer in Cincinatti, New Orleans and the West Indian island of Martinique (where he penned his first novel, Chita), with a brief marriage to an African-American girl along the way.
Commissioned by Harper’s Monthly to write about Japan, Hearn arrived in Yokohama on April 4, 1890. By the end of the day he had decided to stay, get a teaching job and write a book. The teaching post brought Hearn to Matsue, where he met and married Koizumi Setsu, the daughter of an impoverished samurai family.
Hearn would happily have stayed in Matsue, but the freezing winter weather made him ill and in 1891 they moved south to Kumamoto, in Kyūshū, closer to Setsu’s relatives. The couple had four children and in 1896 he adopted the name Koizumi Yakumo (Eight Clouds) and secured Japanese nationality. By the turn of the century, Hearn’s novels and articles had become a great success; he had started teaching at Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University, and was invited to give a series of lectures at London University and in the United States. But, on September 30, 1904, at the age of 54, Hearn suffered a series of heart attacks and died. His gravestone in Zoshigaya cemetery near Ikebukuro in Tokyo proclaims him a “man of faith, similar to the undefiled flower blooming like eight rising clouds who dwells in the mansion of right enlightenment”.
Hearn’s books stand as paeans to the beauty and mystery of old Japan, something he believed worth recording because it seemed to be fast disappearing in the nonstop modernization of the early Meiji years.
The main rail and road routes along the coast east of Matsue cross into the neighbouring prefecture of Tottori-ken and through the uninteresting industrial city of Yonago (米子); trains from Okayama on the JR Hakubi line terminate here. Yonago is the gateway to Mount Daisen (大山), at 1711m the highest mountain in the Chugoku region, and home to beautiful beech forests and ancient temples.
Daisen has the largest ski slopes in western Japan and sees heavy snowfall from November to April; it’s also known for the Daisen Ice and Snow Festival, which takes place over three days at the end of January, with fireworks lighting up the night sky and an amazing display of ice sculptures. A couple of minutes’ walk east from the bus stop, the tourist information booth has plenty of maps of the area and staff can help book accommodation.
The main reason for stopping off in the capital of Okayama-ken, OKAYAMA (岡山), 730km west of Tokyo, is to stretch your legs in its famous garden, Kōrakuen, considered one of Japan’s top three. It’s overlooked by the castle, Okayama-jō, around which the city developed in the Edo period, but aside from the intriguing Okayama Orient Museum there’s little else of note in this modern town.
Okayama is also the transport hub for trips out to surrounding attractions. Kurashiki has a well-preserved enclave of picturesque old merchant houses and canals. From there you can head inland to Takahashi to discover Japan’s highest castle, Bitchū Matsuyama, looking down from its mountain-top over a town of old temples. For a spectacular view of both the Inland Sea and the Seto Ōhashi bridge, aim for the mountain of Washū-zan on the southern tip of the prefecture, while fragments of the area’s ancient history can be seen along the Kibi Plain bicycle route, which runs past fifth-century burial mounds and rustic temples and shrines.
The 15min-long Kibi Plain bicycle road (吉備路サイクリングロード), accessed from either Okayama or Kurashiki, is an enjoyable way to see an area of countryside studded with ancient burial grounds, shrines and temples. Running from Bizen-Ichinomiya Station in the east to Sōja Station in the west, the route takes about four hours to cycle, or a full day to walk. Bikes can be rented at either station (¥200/hr, or ¥1000/day) and dropped off at the other end.
In the fourth century this area, known as Kibi-no-kuni, was the centre of early Japanese civilization. Lords were buried in giant keyhole-shaped mounds known as kofun, one of which can be visited along the cycle route. Starting from Bizen-Ichinomiya Station (備前一宮駅), three stops from Okayama on the JR Kibi line, cross the tracks and follow the cycle path to Kibitsuhiko-jinja, an ordinary shrine beside a pond notable only for its huge stone lantern, one of the largest in Japan. Around 300m further southwest is the much more impressive Kibitsu-jinja (吉備津神社), dating from 1425 and dedicated to Kibitsu-no-mikoto, the valiant prince who served as the inspiration for the legend of Momotarō, the boy who popped out of the centre of a giant peach rescued from a river by a childless farmer’s wife. This shrine nestles at the foot of Mount Naka and has a magnificently roofed outer sanctum, with twin gables.
Several kilometres further west is the Tsukuriyama-kofun (造山古墳), a burial mound constructed in the fifth century in the characteristic keyhole-shape (only really appreciated from the air). Measuring 350m in length and 30m at its highest point, this wooded mound in the midst of rice fields is the fourth-largest kofun in Japan. Around 1km east of here is a cluster of sights, including the foundation stones of Bitchū Kokubun-niji, an eighth-century convent, another burial mound and the five-storey pagoda of Bitchū Kokubun-ji (備中国分寺), a temple dating from the seventeenth century.
It’s another couple of kilometres to the train station at Sōja (総社), from where you can return to either Okayama or to Kurashiki. Before leaving, check out Iyama Hōfuku-ji (井山宝福寺), a pretty Zen Buddhist temple, 1km north of Sōja Station along a footpath that follows the railway line. The celebrated artist and landscape gardener Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1506) trained here as a priest.
About 25km south of Okayama, KOJIMA (児島), with its sprawling shopping centres and newly laid roads, has boomed since the opening in 1988 of the nearby 12.3km-long Seto Ōhashi (瀬戸大橋), a series of six bridges and four viaducts hopping from island to island across the Inland Sea to Shikoku. One of the most memorable ways to view this engineering wonder is to take a 45-minute-long boat tour from the sightseeing pier immediately to the east of Kojima station.
If you’d prefer to view the Seto Ōhashi and islands from dry land, head 4km south of Kojima to Washū-zan (鷲羽山), a 134m-high hill jutting out into the Inland Sea. Regular buses run to the lookout point from Kojima station. Stay on the bus past the fishing hamlet of Shimotsui and Washū-zan Highland, a tacky amusement park, and get off at the car park by the official lookout spot. From here you can climb to Washū-zan’s summit and take in what has to be one of Japan’s most glorious panoramas. If you have time, stop off in Shimotsui and check out the interesting Mukashi Shimotsui Kaisendonya (むかし下津井回船問屋), a museum of fisherfolk life, and wander around the old streets, taking in the castle ruins, the covered wells from which passing boats stocked up on fresh water and the Gion-jinja shrine.
Back in Kojima the Bridge Museum (瀬戸大橋記念館), a fifteen-minute walk west of the train station, is an unusual attraction, displaying scale models of bridges from around the world. You can actually walk over the arched museum building, inspired by a taiko-bashi (drum bridge), and enjoy the small park over the road containing eleven amusingly miniature bridges, a chessboard-like square decorated with bizarre silver statues (supposedly symbolizing the seasons) and a model of Stephenson’s famous steam engine, the Rocket. Inside the museum, the eye is drawn immediately to the ceiling, painted with a lively mural of Edo-era travelling performers, craftsmen, merchants and priests.
Okayama’s star attraction, Kōrakuen (後楽園) was founded in 1686 by Lord Ikeda Tsunamasa. This landscaped garden is notable for its wide, lush lawns, which are highly unusual in Japanese garden design. Otherwise, all the traditional elements, including teahouses, artificial lakes, islands and hills, are present, and the black keep of Okayama-jō has been nicely incorporated into the scenery. The strange bleating sound you’ll hear on entering the garden comes from a flock of caged red-crested cranes. Fortunately, Kōrakuen is large enough to soak up the kinds of crowds that deluge other famous gardens, such as Kenroku-en in Kanazawa and Ritsurin-kōen in Takamatsu.
Only dedicated lovers of ceramics will want to linger in drab IMBE (伊部), 30km east of Okayama and home of Bizen-yaki, Japan’s oldest method of making pottery, developed here over a thousand years ago. The ceramics’ distinctive earthy colour and texture are achieved without the use of glazes by firing in wood-fuelled kilns, whose brick chimneys you’ll see dotted around Imbe Station. Beside the station is a tourist information counter (9am–6pm; closed Tues), where you can pick up an English leaflet about Bizen-yaki and get directions to the local pottery museums, the best being the Bizen Pottery Traditional and Contemporary Art Museum (9.30am–4.30pm; closed Mon), in the grey concrete block immediately north of the station; it displays both old and new examples of the ceramics, providing an overview of the pottery’s style and development. There are plenty of kilns with attached shops in which you can mooch around, and at some there are studios where you can sculpt your own blob of clay, for around ¥3000. This is then fired and shipped to your home (for overseas deliveries you’ll need to pay extra). The most convenient place to try your hand at making pottery is the Bizen-yaki Traditional Pottery Centre, on the third floor of Imbe Station, where workshops are held each weekend and on holidays.
Some 40km northwest of Okayama, in the foothills of the mountain range that divides western Honshū, TAKAHASHI (高梁) is a small and charming time-warped castle town. Few visitors venture here despite the fine old buildings and temples in the Ishibiya-chō Furusato Mura (“Hometown Village”) area, a name evoking images of a long-lost Japan. Except for the steep hike up to the castle – Japan’s highest – all of Takahashi’s sights are within easy walking distance of Bitchū Takahashi Station and can be covered in half a day. Finding your way around is simple, since there are plenty of direction signs in English.
Most travellers pass through the port of SHIMONOSEKI (下関) at the southern tip of Honshū, 65km west of Yamaguchi, as quickly as possible en route to Kyūshū, or to Pusan in South Korea on the daily ferry. However, this unpretentious city is not without its attractions. The narrow Kanmon Channel, which separates Honshū from Kyūshū, is best viewed from Hino-yama, the mountain park that rises above the port. The channel was the scene of the battle of Dannoura, the decisive clash between the Taira and Minamoto clans in 1185, and the colourful shrine Akama-jingū is dedicated to the defeated Taira. If you have enough time, make the short trip to the neighbouring town of Chōfu, with its authentic enclave of samurai houses and streets, sleepy temples and lovely garden.
Shimonoseki revels in its role as Japan’s centre for fugu, the potentially deadly blowfish or globefish, which provides inspiration for many local sculptures and souvenirs of spiky, balloon-shaped fish. It is known in Shimonoseki as fuku, homonymous with the character for fortune and wealth, in order to attract good luck and happiness. About half the entire national catch (3000 tonnes a year) passes through Haedomari, the main market for fugu, at the tip of the island of Hiko-shima, some 3km west of Shimonoseki Station.
Chomping on the translucent slivers of the fish, which are practically tasteless, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. However, it is the presence of tetrodotoxin – a poison more lethal than potassium cyanide – found in the fugu’s ovaries, liver and a few other internal organs, that make this culinary adventure both dangerous and appealing. Fugu chefs spend up to seven years in training before they can obtain a government licence to prepare the fish. Even so, a small number of people do die, the most famous fatality being kabuki actor Bandō Mitsugorō – a national treasure – who dropped dead after a globefish banquet in Kyoto in January 1975.
Some 80km east of Hagi, in the neighbouring prefecture of Shimane-ken, is the older and even more picturesque castle town of TSUWANO (津和野). Nestling in the shadow of the 908m-high extinct volcano, Aono-yama, around which mists swirl moodily each autumn, this is yet another small town that touts itself as a “Little Kyoto”.
Head first to the old streets of Tonomachi (殿町), southeast of the station. At the north end of the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Tonomachi-dōri, pause at the small Katsushika Hokusai Museum of Art (葛飾北斎美術館) to view its refined collection of woodblock prints, illustrations and paintings by the famous nineteenth-century artist Hokusai Katsushika.
Tonomachi’s streets are bordered by narrow, carp-filled canals; the fish (which outnumber the town’s nine thousand residents by more than ten to one) were originally bred as emergency food supplies in the event of famine. The town’s prosperity, born of peace and enlightened rule by local daimyō, is evident from the handsome buildings. Look out for sake breweries and shops selling traditional sweets, including genji-maki, a soft sponge filled with sweet red-bean paste.
Easily spotted behind the white, tile-capped walls is the grey spire of the Catholic Church, built in 1931, which combines stained-glass windows and an organ with tatami flooring. Further along, near the banks of the Tsuwano-kawa, is the Yōrōkan (養老館), the former school for young samurai, now containing an uninspiring folk art museum.
Make a short detour across the Tsuwano-gawa to the Musée de Morijuku (杜塾美術館), a restored farmhouse fronted by raked-gravel gardens that has been converted into a smart modern gallery showing works by local contemporary artists, plus a small collection of etchings by Goya. Upstairs, the attendant will show you the pinhole camera in the shōji screen, capturing an image of the garden outside.
The coastal route west of Iwakuni is blighted by heavy industry, but head inland to the hills and you’ll find an old-world atmosphere hanging over the sleepy prefectural capital, YAMAGUCHI (山口), It’s a modern city, but one can see why it’s also known as the “Kyoto of western Japan”. Highlights are the beguiling temple garden of Jōei-ji, designed by the fifteenth-century artist and priest Sesshū, the handsome five-storey pagoda at Rurikō-ji and the recently reconstructed St Francis Xavier Memorial Cathedral, an ultra-contemporary church commemorating the first Christian missionary to Japan.
The closest of the surrounding attractions is the hot-spring resort Yuda Onsen, just one train stop to the west of Yamaguchi, and practically a suburb of the city. Some 20km northwest are the intriguing caverns and rocky plateau of Akiyoshi-dai Quasi-National Park.
Many of the temples spread around Yamaguchi, not to mention its artistic sensibilities, date from the late fifteenth century, when war raged around Kyoto, and the city became an alternative capital for fleeing noblemen and their retinues. The tolerant ruling family of Ōuchi Hiroyo, who settled in the area in 1360, allowed the missionary Francis Xavier to stay in Yamaguchi in 1549. By the Edo period, the Mōri clan had gained power over the whole of western Japan, and several of the Mōri lords are buried in Kōzan-kōen, including Mōri Takachika, who was a key figure in the overthrow of the Tokugawa government in 1867.