A Trip Through Japan's Chugoku Region: Yamaguchi, Hiroshima,Tottori and Beyond
Abundant with pristine beaches, lush forested mountains, unworldly desert landscapes, and incredible stories - it is a wonder why Japan's Chugoku region is still relatively off the beaten tourist track. The Chugoku region is a place deeply rooted in mythology, overflowing with delicacies from both land and sea, and has unexpected wonders at every turn. Here we'll take you on a trip through the five prefectures of Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, Shimane, Okayama, and Tottori, showing wondrous tourist attractions and explaining local delicacies.
Jan 07 2021 (Jul 29 2021)
What is the Chugoku Region?
The Chugoku region, located in the western part of Japan’s main island Honshu, is made up of five prefectures: Yamaguchi, Hiroshima, Shimane, Okayama, and Tottori. While it is relatively less-traveled compared to many other parts of Japan, there's no shortage of awe-inspiring natural beauty, exciting activities, and great cuisine. Cycle over a crystal blue sea, drift on a gondola through a canal lined with old samurai houses, go on a spiritual quest atop one of the many Chugoku mountains, and gorge on the juiciest grapes that you had just plucked from the vines yourself. The region also has tremendous historical significance in both ancient and modern contexts - from mythologies relating to the origins of the Japanese archipelago, to peace memorials dedicated to the tragedy of the Pacific War.
The Chugoku region is the perfect place to experience a very different side of Japan, or simply to escape momentarily from the crowds and the chaos of the likes of Tokyo and Osaka. The route that we will be going through in this article is perfect if you are coming to the Chugoku region from the Kansai area, as it will start off in Okayama, take you west along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea across Hiroshima, around the western peninsula of Honshu through Yamaguchi, back up north and then east along the Sea of Japan coast along Shimane, and finishing in Tottori. Come and discover this quietly spectacular corner of Japan without the hordes of tourists (...at least before everyone else finds out how amazing the Chugoku region is!)
1. Okayama: The Land of Fruit, History, and Art
The JR Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen takes you directly from Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto to Okayama City. It is a compact city with many of the highlights within walking distance from Okayama Station. Immerse yourself into a historical experience at Okayama Castle, where you can dress up in traditional Japanese clothing for a photo-session, attend a pottery workshop, and admire its unique architecture. The castle’s black facade gives it the nickname “Crow Castle,” and has an interesting pentagon shape foundation that is rare in Japan. Crossing the bridge to the other side of the Asahi River takes you to Korakuen Garden (tip: purchase the Okayama Castle & Korakuen Garden Pass). This 300-year-old award-winning garden is a designated Historical and Cultural Heritage site, with beautifully manicured gardens, ponds filled with Japanese carp, and bamboo lanterns that are lit up in the warm summer evenings. Make sure you stop by one of the traditional teahouses - just as the noble lords did back in the day - to relax with a cup of tea and an enchanting view.
If you happen to be in Okayama in February, and if the idea of 10,000 men wearing only loincloths chasing and fighting over a lucky stick sounds like your kind of gig, make a point to see (or, for those brave or thick-skinned enough, participate in) Okayama’s raucous Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri - Naked Man Festival.
A 15-minute train ride from Okayama Station will take you to Kibitsu, home to the magnificent Kibitsu Shrine, associated with the beloved Japanese folktale “Momotaro.” Rebuilt in 1425, the main building and the worship hall are designated national treasures. But the grandest feature here is the 360m-long corridor, its impressive construction sloping up and down the undulating landscapes of the hill it is built on. Catch the iconic cherry blossoms in spring, azaleas in May, or the most impressive full bloom of 1,500 hydrangeas in June.
Art Islands in the Seto Inland Sea
Art lovers will not want to miss the opportunity to visit the art islands of Naoshima or Inujima, both doable as day-trips from Okayama City.
Naoshima is one of the most renowned art islands as it houses some of the most notable museums in the world. Whether you’re an art buff, architecture enthusiast, or simply culturally curious, you must visit Naoshima at least once in your lifetime. Claude Monet, James Turrell, Tadao Ando, and Yayoi Kusama are just a few of the artists featured on this island. Interestingly, the island has also maintained some of its industrial identity from the dawn of Japan’s industrialization.
Once used as a hideout for pirates who used to roam the Seto Inland Sea, Inujima is not just a renowned art island, it also has a fascinating history - from being a fishing village, to a crowded industrial zone, to being a nearly-abandoned ghost town. Today it is full of impressive art installations placed around the island and features arguably the most remarkable artwork in the region. It also has tranquil beaches for camping and picnics, and campgrounds with facilities for overnight stays.
Both Naoshima and Inujima are reachable by ferry from Okayama.
Traveling further west takes you to Kurashiki, a charming historical town that is also the birthplace of denim in Japan. Take a stroll through the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter, or float down the willow-lined canal on a gondola passing well-preserved Edo period mansions of white-walls and lattice windows. Kurashiki is sometimes described as the Venice of Japan but (thankfully) minus the tourist hordes and towering cruise ships, and with plenty of Japanese-small-town charm. On your way back to the station, sample some delectable sweets or pick up traditional craft souvenirs along the “shotengai” (covered shopping street).
A trip to Okayama is not complete without picking and gorging on local fruits! Okayama is renowned throughout Japan for producing a variety of irresistibly sweet, fragrant, and high-quality fruits. Nicknamed “the fruit kingdom,” Okayama produces different fruits in different seasons - white peaches between July and August, muscat grapes from June to October, and strawberries from December to May. Drive to a farm and fill your bellies with mouthwatering fruit in a timed all-you-can-eat session, and then pick some more to take away! Some farms require reservations and most are only accessible by car.
2. Hiroshima: A Peace-Promoting Prefecture That is Abundant In Culture and Cuisine!
Hiroshima is arguably most well-known for being the first city that was tragically hit by an atomic bomb. The partially-destroyed Genbaku (atomic bomb) Dome, which sits within the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park together with other memorials, serves as a stark reminder of the horrors of war and nuclear weapons, and the fact that the registered UNESCO World Heritage site is preserved and still stands today shows the importance of not forgetting the lessons of the past.
The best way to truly experience this part of the city’s history is to take walking tours through the heritage sites that are often conducted by local Hiroshima residents. Tours give you a more detailed glimpse into the suffering endured by the people of Hiroshima, as well as the resilience of the city and its commitment to peace.
Every year on August 6, the city holds a memorial service to commemorate the victims of the atomic bomb, with thousands of people writing messages on paper lanterns which are lit and floated down the river that flows next to the Genbaku Dome.
Most tourists only associate Hiroshima City with the atomic bomb, but there is actually a lot more to the city than just being a place with a painful history.
Food-lovers will know that Hiroshima has its own version of okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake), the other most famous type being Osaka-style. The best place to try it is Okonomimura, a collection of okonomiyaki stalls that began to assemble in the Shintenchi district after the war, but have since been turned into shops that are all in the same arcade. With 25 restaurants to choose from, you’ll need a guide to pick the best ones - read our top picks for Hiroshima okonomiyaki here!
Walk off your okonomiyaki at Shukkei-en Garden, a beautiful park based on miniaturized renderings of natural landscapes such as mountains, cliffs and lakes. It is a popular spot for viewing cherry blossoms in spring, water lilies in summer, and autumn foliage in the fall.
Fill your lungs with fresh air and take a day trip out to Sandankyo Gorge. Its stunning natural scenery is perfect for nature lovers - there are hiking trails, rental kayaks for exploring the gorge on the water, and ferry boats to take you through the ravines.
For more ideas of things to do around Hiroshima, read this article to discover more, including all the details about the spots suggested above.
Miyajima and Itsukushima Shrine
The island of Miyajima might be small and only has a population of about 1,600 people (plus a few friendly deer), but it is one of the most photographed and visited places in Japan, thanks to Itsukushima Shrine and its iconic torii gate that appears to float on the water at high tide.
Over four million people visit Miyajima to see the shrine and the floating gate each year, which are both listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. You can walk out to the large torii gate at low tide. But don’t just leave it at that - the island has plenty of other fabulously scenic spots to explore. There’s Gojunoto, a beautiful five-storied red pagoda that contrasts strikingly with the surrounding greenery, and Senjokaku, a majestic open structure offering stunning views of the lush surroundings and the water.
Strap on some comfortable walking shoes and hike up one of three trails (each taking about two hours) to the top of Mount Misen for breathtaking views over the island and the bay. There’s also a ropeway for those not keen on the exercise. Daishoin Temple on the top of the island is a rewarding sight especially in autumn, as the maple trees that surround the temple turn a fiery red, but also don't forget to look out for the enchanting "thousand lanterns" and the cute little jizo statues in the temple grounds!
Due to its popularity, the island will start charging a small visitor’s tax of 100 JPY per visit starting in April 2021, which will go towards maintenance of the island and public services such as toilets and free wi-fi.
If you’re visiting in the summer, try to catch the popular Kangen-sai Festival, held sometime between mid-July and early August, where traditional gozan boats sail on the shrine's surrounding waters. The sight of the torch-lit boats and the sounds of traditional court music is enchanting.
Okunoshima (Rabbit Island)
Just off the coast of Hiroshima is Okunoshima, famous for its large population of adorable rabbits that roam freely around the island. In stark contrast to its cute and fluffy residents are the abandoned buildings all around the island - some of which were once poison gas factories, storehouses, barracks, and a power plant. This peculiar island has been designated as a national park, and rabbit-lovers mustn't miss a chance to see up to 1,000 adorable rabbits on this tiny island. History buffs may want to visit the museum that documents the island’s history of poison gas manufacturing, as well as the abandoned military buildings scattered around the island. As the weather is normally warm and mild, a popular activity is to rent a bike and complete a circle around the island in just a few hours, taking in the tropical scenery along the way.
3. Yamaguchi: Duck Into Limestone Caves, Savor Pufferfish, and Discover Samurai Heritage
The center of Yamaguchi prefecture is a richly cultural city, full of history and surrounded by nature. Known in Japan as "Kyoto of the West" (but minus the crowds), it is renowned for its beautiful temples, while also boasting many sites relating to the Meiji Restoration.
A visit to Rurikoji Temple should not be missed, as it houses a major national treasure - a five-storied pagoda that was built in 1442. It is ranked one of the three greatest pagodas in Japan, and the tenth oldest pagoda in Japan. Within the temple grounds you’ll also find Chinryutei, a tea house that visitors can enter for free and learn about the significant Japanese historical figures who led the Meiji Restoration, a pivotal point in Japanese history.
Catch a break and get refreshed at Yuda Onsen, an area popular among locals as it is full of natural hot springs. You can rest your feet in ashiyu (foot baths) that dot the streets, or wander into one of the many day-trip onsens for a relaxing dip. There is also a wide variety of ryokan (Japanese-style inns) for overnight travelers to stay in.
Just an hour outside of Yamaguchi city is Akiyoshidai, a plateau with the most karst formations in Japan and one of the most spectacular natural landscapes in the region. Akiyoshido, which sits beneath the plateau, is the nation's largest and longest limestone cave. Explore this special natural monument by bicycle and soak in the unusual landscapes!
This calm castle town is home to one of Japan’s most impressive structures - the Kintaikyo Bridge. Originally built in 1673, this elaborate and original bridge is said to be an impeccable piece of bridge engineering, and is one of the three most famous bridges in Japan. If you’re feeling energetic, hike up the hill to the beautiful white-walled Iwakuni Castle (otherwise ride the ropeway up), an impressive reconstruction of the 1608 original. The castle grounds and Kikko Park are popular for cherry blossom viewing in spring.
And don’t miss trying the unique Iwakunizushi - a special type of sushi made by layering rice and seasonal ingredients like a layer-cake, which are then pressed and cut into individual pieces.
The white walled-streets and quaint neighborhoods of Hagi are not only beautiful to walk around, but also hold great historical and cultural importance. This castle town is full of fantastically well-preserved samurai residences as well as five World Heritage Sites related to the birth of the Japanese industrialization. There are plenty of spots for visitors to stop by while walking around, such as stores for the town’s namesake Hagi Ware pottery and old folk houses renovated and repurposed into charming cafes.
This remote shrine along the coast with a tunnel of 123 torii gates was picked as one of CNN’s “31 most beautiful places in Japan.” Look out for small fox statues as you walk slowly through the torii gates. Look for the offering box placed at the very top of the final torii gate - it is said that your wish will come true if you can get your coin in the box!
With much of its coastline on the Seto Inland Sea, Yamaguchi is well-known for its seafood, with fugu (pufferfish) being the iconic local delicacy of the prefecture. Fugu is notorious for being poisonous unless prepared correctly! Seafood lovers must take a trip down to Karato Market in Shimonoseki to sample some of Japan’s best seafood. Wash your delicious seafood "donburi" (rice bowl) down with some Dassai sake - a highly-acclaimed sake (Japanese rice wine) that originated from Yamaguchi.
Seeing Tsunoshima Bridge threading through the emerald sea on a clear summer’s day is truly captivating. Cool off by going for a dip on the beach on the island, and visit the Instagram-worthy lighthouse on the island for a romantic sunset.
4. Shimane: Japan's Mythical Land of Serene Islands and Pristine Beaches
Izumo Taisha Shrine
Shimane Prefecture, unfrequented even by local Japanese tourists, actually houses THE oldest Shinto shrine in Japan - Izumo Taisha. This tranquil corner of Japan is mentioned in the Kojiki (Japan’s oldest existing record of history and mythology), and artifacts excavated from ruins in the area point to the historical role Izumo plays in Japan’s origin story. There’s a belief in Shintoism that there are eight million gods or deities, and this shrine is said to be where they all gather once a year in October. Couple your visit to this “power spot” with the Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo to experience firsthand the world of Japanese mythology to see how myth became history.
There was a time when Japan used to produce up to one-third of the world’s silver, and it was found right here in Shimane at the underground silver mine Iwami Ginzan. The mine was active for almost four hundred years between 1526 to 1923, and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, along with its surrounding forested landscape. It was built in a heavily wooded area, and its rich forestry was maintained with the efforts of the miners from back in the day. It might sound like an odd choice for a sightseeing spot, but there’s actually plenty to do here.
Go underground and wander through the mine shafts to discover the various mining processes used throughout the centuries, or take a stroll through the old mining town of Omori, lined with shrines, old merchant residences, and preserved samurai houses converted into cafes and shops. Soak up the tranquility of the natural surroundings by going for a leisurely stroll or a long hike, passing ancient shrines through bamboo groves or over rugged mountain trails, depending on the route you choose.
Surrounded by rivers, canals, and coastal shores and built around Japan’s seventh-largest lake, it’s no wonder that Matsue is known as the “City of Water.” This castle town was a feudal stronghold during the Edo period, and Matsue Castle is one of only twelve original castles in Japan with an original, intact keep. The top floor of the castle offers incredible panoramic views of the city and of Lake Shinji. Filled with 200 cherry blossoms, the castle grounds are a sight to behold in spring. In certain months of the year, there are either nighttime illuminations of the castle or festivals with colorfully-lit lanterns floating down its waterways in the evening. Many museums and historic sites in the surrounding samurai district that are easy to explore on foot await just beyond the castle.
Matsue has its fair share of shrines associated with ancient Japanese mythology - Yaegaki Shrine, Kumaso Shrine, and Suga Shrine to name a few. And be sure to get your camera ready for the breathtaking sunset over Lake Shinji - you can make it extra special by taking a pleasure cruise on the lake!
The city’s central location in the prefecture makes it convenient to serve as a base for visiting nearby places such as Izumo Taisha, Sakaiminato, Inasa Beach, and other wonderful spots around Shimane.
5. Tottori: Sand Dunes, a Spectacular Coastline, and Blessings for Your Love Life
Tottori Sand Dunes
If there's one thing anyone knows about Tottori, it would be the Tottori Sand Dunes, the most popular sand dunes in Japan. This mini-desert is Tottori’s most famous and most visited landmark, attracting two million visitors every year to Japan’s least populated prefecture. Aside from just walking around the sand dunes and snapping photos of the magnificent scenery of nature’s handiwork, there are plenty of activities to add to this out-of-Japan experience, including sandboarding, camel riding, and paragliding!
Head over to the Sand Museum nearby to learn more about the geology of the area and check out world-class sand sculptures done by some of the best sculpting talents. There’s always something fresh, as the exhibition theme and works change every year, quite like the constantly changing nature of the sand dunes themselves!
Further along the coast is Uradome Coast, famous for its white sandy beaches, shallow coves, and beautiful rock formations. The crystal-clear water is perfect for swimming and snorkeling. Kayaking in clear-bottomed rafts has also recently become popular - you can see straight through your kayak while exploring the inlets, cliffs, and caves. For something less strenuous, take the sightseeing cruise that runs between March and November to enjoy the impressive topography up close. West of Uradome main beach, there are also hiking trails along the cliff tops that offer amazing views of the coves and the surrounding turquoise ocean.
Misasa Onsen and Mount Mitoku
Dust the sand off your feet and head into the hills to take a dip in the natural hot springs of Misasa Onsen. Springs here boast high levels of naturally occurring radon, which purportedly has healing effects for joint pain, chronic inflammation, and allergies. You’re encouraged to drink the water as well as it is supposed to boost metabolism and the immune system.
Adventure junkies should pencil in a visit to Mount Mitoku for a short but challenging hike. This pilgrimage along “Japan’s most dangerous temple path” will have you climbing up tree roots and chains and scrambling atop rocky ridges, but at the end, you’ll be rewarded with the magnificent Sanbutsu Temple, where the ancient architectural ingenuity of Naeiredo built into a cliff face will fill you with awe.
Returning to mythology, another famous setting for one of the legends mentioned in Japan’s creation chronicles the Kojiki is Hakuto Shrine. The story “Inaba no Hakuto” (The Hare of Inaba) is considered to be Japan’s first love story, and this shrine is now known for being the “sacred ground for lovers,” bringing luck to love lives and marriages. In the summer, the Hakuto seashore in front of the shrine is popular for swimmers and surfers.
For more things to do and more details on top sightseeing spots in Tottori, check out this article.
Charmed by Chugoku!
The Chugoku region might not be very well-known to people outside of Japan just yet, but from adventurous hikes to tranquil gardens, unspoiled beaches to quaint samurai towns, there’s something for everyone. And with the bounty of good food found here, the wonders of Chugoku are not going to stay a secret for much longer, so be sure to put this amazing part of Japan at the top of your Japan itinerary!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.