Experience an Adventurous Journey Through Setouchi - Japan’s Land of Slow Tourism
Uncover all the gorgeous sights and natural wonders of lesser-traveled locations in rural Japan by partaking in local activities that introduce the charms of the regions. Pottering tours, cycling routes, and island hopping are just a few of the exciting ways to see the Setouchi area while slowly getting in touch with its superb scenery and local traditions! Read on to explore 5 different areas of Setouchi and learn about alternative methods of transportation that will help you enjoy them even more!
Feb 22 2023 (Feb 28 2023)
*This article was written in collaboration with the Setouchi Tourism Association.
Kibiji Cycling Route: Cycle By Ancient Shrines and Temples in the Countryside
Connecting the cities of Okayama and Soja in Okayama Prefecture is the Kibiji Cycling Route, one of Japan’s top 100 cycling routes. Stretching for around 25 kilometers along the historical Kibi District that centuries ago was home to the Kibi Kingdom, this cycling route provides detours past splendid shrines and temples and picture-perfect scenes of rural Japan as you roll among rice paddies and fields!
I started my day at Araki Rent-a-Cycle next to Soja Station where, after renting my bike, I headed to the historical Soja Shotengai, an area where many former merchant houses and shops line the street, embellishing the town with their elegantly retro presences! Among these, I stopped at the Former Hori Wahei House, a 180-year-old building that was the birthplace of Hori Wahei (1841-1892), a renowned Western-style painter in Okayama. The house is a great place to take a break along the route as, since it was donated to Soja City in 2002, it has been used for a local initiative called “Tsunagaru Cafe Sen,” which aims to guide future cafe owners by letting them temporarily take over this building for their cafes and gain experience with customer service, so travelers can try different cuisine styles depending on when they visit.
Leaving the city center behind, I ventured into lush rural scenery until I spotted my next stop among the flower fields, Bitchu Kokubunji Temple. Although the main hall of the temple was rebuilt in the early 1700s, one of its highlights is the five-story pagoda that was completed around 1844. It is the only of its kind in all of Okayama Prefecture and is an Important Cultural Property of Japan.
Next was another one of Japan’s spectacular heritage sites and a designated National Treasure, the main hall of Kibitsujinja Shrine, as it is the only remaining example of an architectural style called “Kibitsu-Zukuri,” known for its gable roofs. Though when it was originally built is unknown, the shrine’s main hall was rebuilt in 1425 and houses a 398-meter-long passageway of wood so solemn that walking through it made me feel as if I was walking a sacred pilgrimage route! Kibitsujinja Shrine is dedicated to Okibitsuhiko no Mikoto who saved the country from a terrible “oni” demon and who is said to have inspired the character of Momotaro, a popular Japanese folktale about a boy who was born from a peach and, similarly to Okibitsuhiko no Mikoto, fought demons and saved his people. For this reason, Kibitsuhiko and Momotaro motifs can be found around Kibitsujinja Shrine, including decorating the “omikuji” fortune station and the “ema” votive plaques.
Setoda: Explore the Island of Lemons Along Japan’s Most Prized Cycling Route, the Shimanami Kaido
Almost at the midpoint of the Shimanami KaidoーJapan’s internationally prized 70-kilometer-long cycling route crossing sea straits, islands, and incredible marine panoramasーfloats Hiroshima Prefecture’s Ikuchijima Island, also known as Japan’s “lemon island,” and the small Setoda Town which is one of Japan’s most renowned production areas for lemons!
Whether you decide to cycle your way to Setoda or board one of the passenger ships from Onomichi Port to the island, in addition to the actual lemon fields dotting the area with their bright colors when in season, you’ll find a number of lemon-themed sites scattered throughout the town that’ll make your trip even more cheerful! Giant citrus objects decorate the entrance of the Setoda Town Tourist Information Center while cute, yellow mailboxes can be found along Shiomachi Shopping Street, Setoda’s main street!
Lined with shops and restaurants selling lemon treats and souvenirs, Shiomachi Shopping Street boasts traditional buildings, giving the place a nostalgic atmosphere. I decided to stop at Bicycle Cafe & Bar Shiomachi-tei, a popular spot among both locals and cyclists doing the Shimanami Kaido. Infused with the peacefulness and retro beauty of old Japan, the cafe is located in a 150-year-old historical building with wooden elements and even “tatami” straw mat flooring, and offers delicious curry plates that’ll be sure to replenish your energy after cycling around!
After some more exploring, I arrived at my final destination on the island, the glamping facility LEMON FARM GLAMPING Shimanami which was created when Citrus Park Setodaーa citrus theme park that opened in 1998 and was temporarily closedーwas reopened in August 2022. The glamping site features six villa-type accommodations and two domes overlooking the majestic blue expanse of the Seto Inland Sea. The facility also offers fully-equipped private kitchens and if you decide to go for the meal plan you can relish a BBQ using fresh ingredients from the Setouchi area such as Japanese beef, locally harvested vegetables, and fish from the Seto Inland Sea!
Iya Valley: Discover one of Japan's Most Secluded Regions Through a Pottering Tour
Surrounded by mountains, steep slopes, and small hamlets where time seems to stand still, the Iya Valley is a remote area of Japan located in Tokushima Prefecture where natural wonders and welcoming locals will make your trip all the more special! One of the best ways to uncover the area’s wonders is through a pottering tour which refers to moving about in a relaxed or pleasant way without being in a hurry and is a type of relaxed, slow tour during which I could really take my time to appreciate the sight along the Iya Valley. As it was conducted on Brompton bicyclesーwhich are lightweight, compact, foldable and so can be brought on public transportーtouring the valley was a breeze!
The meeting point for the tour was JR Awa-Ikeda Station. From there, the group took the train to Oboke Station and then a bus to the unique Iya-no-Kazurabashi Bridge, our first stop of the day and a National Important Tangible Folk Cultural Property. Some say that the valley’s iconic bridge of vines was made by the legendary Heike clanーtheir story is retraced in “The Tale of the Heike,” a Kamakura-period (1185 - 1333) classicーwho strategically built it so that it would have been easy to cut it down if the enemy had found them. Although it is now stabilized through concealed steel cables, the bridge still represents a thrilling adventure when crossed, as it spans a length of 45 meters at 14 meters above the Iya River!
Besides this exhilarating bridge, the pottering tour offered many more wonders, such as the 50-meter-tall Biwa Waterfall, located just a short walk away from Iya-no-Kazurabashi, Iya Bijin which was a restaurant with terrace seats and panoramic views of the steep valley below where I could try some local cuisine, and finally Hotel Iyaonsen, which has a unique open-air hot spring only accessible by cable car. As the onsen overlooks the Iya River, it allows guests to fully take in Iya Valley’s vast nature!
Helicopter Tour: Admire the Charms of Hiroshima From Above
Among the many ways to avoid the crowds while exploring Hiroshima’s many attractions, there is one that is completely private and certainly unique: a helicopter tour. AIROS Skyview which operates in several cities in Japan and offers two types of tours: an 8-minute course and a 17-minute course, both of which allow you to fly over the city and have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I went for the longer tour and enjoyed my time in the sky!
The 17-minute helicopter tour gifted me with incredible views of Hiroshima’s most popular and beautiful sites! We first headed for Miyajima, which is a World Heritage Site and home to Itsukushima Shrine and its giant “torii” gate floating in the sea. In addition to Itsukushima Shrine, the island also boasts hiking trails and a ropeway up to Mt. Misen, which I could admire from the helicopter.
We continued our journey through the sky to the center of the city where other important historical sites were waiting for us. Among these, keep an eye out for the meaningful Atomic Bomb Dome, the preserved ruins of the single structure left standing after the atomic bomb hit the city on August 6, 1945 and World Heritage Site. The surrounding area also includes the Peace Memorial Park which is dedicated to those lost in the tragedy and is a plea for world peace, and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which houses photos, belongings, and the stories of the victims of the bombing.
The final sight I was on the lookout for was Hiroshima Castle. Originally built in the late 1500s, it was also lost in World War II and later rebuilt in 1958. Standing in the center of modern Hiroshima City, the wooden structure of the castle with its traditional architecture is sure to leave a lasting impression!
Marumaru no Hanashi: Travel Along the Coast of the Sea of Japan With This Unique Sightseeing Train
Imagine visiting the gorgeous Yamaguchi Prefecture onboard a luxury sightseeing train. The panoramic Marumaru no Hanashi follows a coastal route that runs from Higashi Hagi Station to Shin-Shimonoseki Station, passing through the cities of Hagi, Nagato, and Shimonoseki, allowing me to enjoy immaculate views of the sea from the strategically designed seats. It also stopped at viewpoints along the way where I could admire breathtaking marine and mountainous scenery and even shrines. There is also a chance to briefly exit the train at Agawa Station’s cafe, which is located right next to the train platform, where passengers can stock up on coffee and snacks and snap some photos as the bridge over the tracks allows you to see the whole train.
Making the journey even more special was the jovial station staff, awaiting the train’s arrival while holding up adorable welcome flags at Shimonoseki, Nagato, and Hagi stations, which really made me appreciate the local hospitality!
The Marumaru no Hanashi takes a bit from each city’s name, Hagi (Ha), Nagato (Na), and Shimonoseki (Shi). In Japanese, “hanashi” can also mean “story,” which perfectly represents this train that tells the story of each city, all of which have a history of bringing Japan and the West together. This concept is illustrated on the train’s exterior in the connecting section between car one and two which has a beautiful gradation with a blue background representing the “sea that connects the West and Japan,” interwoven with flowers of Hagi’s famous citrus fruit “natsumikan” summer tangerine and Shimonoseki’s beloved “hamayu” crinum lily. Even the interior showcases the beauty of Japan and the West, with one car boasting a Japanese-style design embellished with “tatami” straw mats and a healing atmosphere and the other sporting a Western theme with brick details, soft lighting, and fashionable leather seats.
The train ride between Shin-Shimonoseki and Higashi Hagi is around three hours, so there is plenty of time to relax and enjoy all of these incredibly well-crafted details, majestic views, and even eat a “bento” lunch box with a selection of delicious regional delicacies for lunch, making it a fulfilling yet leisurely trip through the countryside!
Appreciate the Slower Side of Tourism in Setouchi
Whether it be slower train rides along the coast, pottering tours that will let you immerse yourself in the local culture and customs, or cycling routes that lead deep into the Japanese countryside, Setouchi offers many opportunities to try different ways of traveling and exploring off-the-beaten-path locations as you’ve never seen before!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.