Setouchi Japan

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Thanks to iconic destinations like Hiroshima, Kobe and now Naoshima, Japan’s Setouchi region is no stranger to international travelers.

Made up of the prefectures that touch the Seto Inland Sea, Setouchi is both on the well-worn path for tourism and home to many hidden gems.

With Japan welcoming 25.06 million visitors in 2023, overtourism is becoming a real problem. Luckily, adding something else that is a little less crowded is simple in Setouchi.

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Beyond the Mainstream Attractions of Setouchi, Japan

The majority of visitors to Setouchi flock to mainstream attractions such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Miyajima. These days, thanks to gaining international fame, Kobe, with its succulent beef, and the art islands of Naoshima and Teshima, are also increasingly attracting travelers.

Still, there is much more to Setouchi than these perennial mainstays and those looking for a reprieve from the crowds would do well to explore some of the lesser-known locales.

Okayama Castle as seen from the nearby Okayama Korakuen Garden,
Okayama Castle is seen from the nearby Okayama Korakuen Garden, one of Japan’s Top Three Traditional Gardens. Photo courtesy of The Inland Sea Setouchi Tourism Authority

Okayama

If you’re heading to Hiroshima, one easy add-on in Setouchi is Okayama. Home to one of Japan’s best gardens, as well as an epic castle, Okayama can easily be explored as a half-day pitstop en route or as a multiple-day adventure.

Likewise, the port city of Kobe facilitates both short stopovers for some Kobe Beef and longer stints. In fact, the city itself is home to the legendary Arima Onsen, one of Japan’s best hot spring towns.

On the far side of Hiroshima is also the former castle town of Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Only about half an hour away from the ever-popular island of Miyajima, Iwakuni boasts one of the three most celebrated bridges in Japan.

Especially during the springtime, this part of the country is serenely beautiful when the cherry blossoms in Japan are at their peak. There are even a number of wonderful museums to explore in Iwakuni, too.

A pair of cyclists look out at one of the many bridges that connect the islands along the Shimanami Kaido
A pair of cyclists look out at one of the many bridges that connect the islands along the Shimanami Kaido. Photo courtesy of The Inland Sea Setouchi Tourism Authority

Islands of Setouchi

Of course, no mention of Setouchi would be complete without speaking of the many Japanese islands that dot the Seto Inland Sea. Too numerous to count, the proverbial rabbit hole goes quite deep here and those looking to truly explore a different side of Japan have ample opportunities to do so here.

Though the Shimanami Kaido has been rapidly gaining popularity with cyclists lately, there are many other noteworthy spots along the way to Shikoku and on other islands in the Seto Inland Sea.

Speaking of Shikoku, this part of the Setouchi region may be the last bastion of unexplored territory left in Japan. With most well-traveled individuals now on their umpteenth visit to Japan (upwards of 80% come back for a second trip), many seasoned travelers are now looking for new, unexplored territories to add to their next itineraries.

Here, Shikoku delivers in spades. Even better, it’s comparatively free from the crowds in Kyoto.

The extremely rural Ochiai Village in Tokushima Prefecture’s Iya Valley on a misty morning.
On a misty morning, the rural Ochiai Village in Tokushima Prefecture’s Iya Valley.
Photo courtesy of The Inland Sea Setouchi Tourism Authority

Shikoku

Regarding destinations worth considering in Shikoku, there are simply too many to count. While many main allures, like Kagawa’s Ritsurin Garden or Matsuyama’s Dogo Onsen, reside close to the coastline, the inner parts of Shikoku secret away the best spots.

Iya Valley

Here, you’ll find the Iya Valley, a haven so remote it is often called the “Tibet of Japan.” Pictured above, this is a rural part of Japan that many locals have never managed to see.

There are many ways to get to Shikoku. When coming from Tokyo, it’s often easiest just to fly. However, those traveling in Setouchi will want to look into ferries.

Seto Inland Sea

Not only is this a convenient means of transportation, but it also allows you to appreciate what ties the entire region together—the Seto Inland Sea. In fact, this can be an activity unto itself, and you can spend a day or two island hopping to Naoshima and Shodoshima.

The cityscape of Yamaguchi Prefecture’s town of Hagi
Samarai and craftsman roots can still be seen in Yamaguchi Prefecture’s town of Hagi. Photo courtesy of The Inland Sea Setouchi Tourism Authority

Honshu Hidden Gems

On Japan’s main island of Honshu, the Setouchi region also has several hidden gems. In addition to the aforementioned town of Iwakuni, there are many yet-to-be-discovered wonders stashed away in the countryside.

As you venture further into the mountains of Hyogo, Okayama, Hiroshima, and Yamaguchi, you’ll stumble across all sorts of spots, such as the Sera Kogen, that are secreted away from the hordes of travelers you’ll find elsewhere.

Hagi

Perhaps nowhere is more exemplary of Setouchi’s clandestine side than Hagi. Formerly a castle town belonging to a powerful family of samurai lords, Hagi sits on the far side of Yamaguchi along the Sea of Japan.

Boasting centuries of history and some of Japan’s best ceramics, Hagi will surely delight anyone who makes an effort to reach it. Travelers visiting Hagi will also enjoy the iconic sights of Motonosumi Inari Shrine and Tsunoshima Bridge along the way.

In Setouchi Japan this famous Joyato lighthouse dates from the Edo period (1603-1868) and has guided ships into the port of Tomonoura for many years.
This famous Joyato lighthouse dates from the Edo period (1603-1868) and has guided ships into the port of Tomonoura for many years. Photo courtesy of The Inland Sea Setouchi Tourism Authority

Traveling by Train in Setouchi

Especially in light of the recent price hike for the countrywide Japan Rail Pass, travelers looking to eke out a return will need to make a more concerted effort to ride more bullet trains. Here, there might very well be no region in Japan better suited to this style of travel than Setouchi.

With 16 of the 19 Shinkansen stops falling in the region, jetting over to a place like Fukuyama to see Tomonoura (a seaside village that was the setting for Ponyo and The Wolverine) is easy.

Whether it’s a multi-day adventure or just a short stop en route to somewhere else, Setouchi can accommodate any and all itineraries.

Author Bio: Donny Kimball is a travel writer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you rarely see in the mainstream media. He aims to bridge the awareness gap between places in Japan that people would love if they only knew they existed.

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