For someone like myself claiming a serious addiction to Japan, there are countless areas in this amazing country that I treasure. For example, the northern Tohoku region will always hold a special place in my heart. Home to sacred sites like the Dewa Sanzan and Mt. Osore, this area of Japan is definitely worth exploring if you enjoy stepping off of the beaten path. Still, as amazing as northern Honshu (Japan’s main island) is, most of its main allures are spread out across huge swaths of the region. As a result, it’s not always the best option for those looking to stuff all that they can during their stay in Japan.
On that note, I’d like to introduce the topic of today’s article, the Seto Inland Sea (or “Seto Naikai” in Japanese). Found mainly sitting between the islands of Honshu and Shikoku, this body of water has served as a major economic center throughout much of Japan’s history. Home to many an attraction, Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, Okayama, Hyogo, Osaka, Wakayama, Kagawa, Ehime, Tokushima, Fukuoka, and Oita prefectures all share coastlines that brush the Seto Inland Sea.
Now, this might sound a bit confusing for non-Japanese speakers but the entire region surrounding the Seto Inland Sea is typically referred to as Setouchi. Essentially, the term is used to describe all of the various prefectures that have a coast touching the Seto Inland Sea. While this definition would technically include Oita down in Kyushu, I’d retort that most people here in Japan don’t consider the prefecture to be a part of Setouchi. Alas, Wikipedia seems to disagree…
Regardless if you opt to include Oita Prefecture or not, there’s a dizzying amount of adventures to experience in this sector of Japan. While the Tohoku region is home to many of my all time favorite allures, Setouchi has a density of attractions that few other locations within Japan can compete with. All in all, you’ll find the following options to offer the ultimate experience in Setouchi. Honestly, it’s almost alarming how much there is…
Let me begin by saying that the biggest city in Setouchi is by far Hiroshima. Home to the tragic Atomic Bomb Dome and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima is a city that almost all international visitors to Japan know about. While I would never discourage anyone from visiting these historic spots, there’s more to Hiroshima than its legacy following World War II.
By far, the most popular island in the Seto Inland Sea is Miyajima. Home to the venerable Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima is extremely popular with overseas tourists. Because of this, I recommend that you stay overnight on the island as explained in the guide linked above. This will allow you to skip the throngs of visitors. Note that Iwakuni, over in neighboring Yamaguchi Prefecture, is also an easy add-on and falls within Setouchi.
Those who aren’t interested in Japan’s military history would do well to skip Kure; however, historical travel buffs absolutely ought to brave a visit. Home to the Kure Maritime Museum, this facility documents Kure’s legacy as a vital port and shipbuilding city that served as the imperial navy’s headquarters. Oh, did I mention that Kure was also responsible for building the Yamato, the biggest battlecruiser to ever exist?
Long time readers know that I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Okayama given my bad luck with the prefecture. That said, the coastal regions make for an easy add-on to any standard Hiroshima itinerary. From Koraku-en and Okayama Castle to the charming Edo period (1603–1868) architecture of Kurashiki, numerous adventures await here in Okayama if you’re not cursed like I am.
- Island Hopping
Frankly speaking, there’s just too many islands within the Seto Inland Sea to list them all. Moreover, each of the many isles has their own niche appeal. These days, art islands like Naoshima as well the various animal isles like Okunoshima have started to gain a lot more popularity internationally. Unfortunately, there’s still many spots like Osaki Kamishima that have yet to pop up on the radars of overseas visitors so be sure to do your homework and dig for an island that speaks to you!
- Northern Shikoku
In addition to the various islands recommended above, know that all of Shikoku’s northern regions also are part of Setouchi. While there’s a ton of attractions in this neck of the woods, I’d recommend visitors check out Matsuyama and Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture. This public bathhouse was allegedly one of Miyazaki Hayao’s sources of inspiration when creating Spirited Away.
- Shimanami Kaido
Also known as the Nishiseto Expressway, the Shimanami Kaido links Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture with Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. The 70 kilometer course is extremely popular with cyclists; bicycle rental and drop off locations are available all along the route. If you want to experience the gorgeous Seto Inland Sea while burning some serious calories, this scenic option is one you’ll want to consider!
Seeing the above selection represents only the tip of the iceberg, allow me to close out this rant by restating that few other areas in Japan are as chock full of wondrous allures as Setouchi. If you’re looking to have a nonstop adventure that doesn’t require you traverse huge sections of the country, look no further than this area of Japan. Note that if you’re interested in traversing as much of Setouchi as you possibly can, you’d be wise to make Hiroshima the main hub for your journey. From here, all other destinations can easily be reached.
Until next time travelers…