Tokyo and Kyoto are the two cities that travelers flock to when they visit Japan, but if you’ve already gone to both and want to venture out to more off-the-beaten-path locales, the Setouchi region is calling your name.
Comprised of seven prefectures and 350 islands that flank the Seto Inland Sea, it’s the perfect mix of culture, food, and jaw-dropping landscapes. While most recognized for Hiroshima and its Peace Memorial Museum, there are many hidden gems to explore. Ready to dive a little deeper? Here are 13 reasons why you should head to this underrated area.
Centered around a willow-lined river, Kurashiki’s picturesque Bikan Historical Quarter is filled with shops housed in carefully preserved buildings. Stop by Ohara Museum of Art, the first private institution in Japan to exhibit Western pieces, and overnight at Ryokan Kurashiki, which serves a delicious kaiseki dinner and is where Sophia Loren once stayed.
If there are two Shinto shrines that you must visit, they’re Motonosumi Inari Shrine and Itsukushima Shrine. The former is most impressive for its 123 torii gates stretched over 328 feet, while the latter is known for its “floating” torii gate.
Real Kobe beef is hard to come by in the U.S., so you’ll definitely want to try the real deal when you’re in town. But while you’re in Setouchi, try to track down olive Wagyu. Considered the rarest steak in the world – only about 2,200 of these cattle are raised on the island of Shodoshima – its beautiful marbling is the result of a diet that includes olive pulp.
Art lovers won’t want to miss out on Setouchi Triennale, a contemporary art festival held every three years that spans across 12 islands in the Seto Inland Sea and the cities of Takamatsu and Tamano. The next one takes place in 2019, but if you want to see some world-class pieces in the meantime, head to Naoshima. Nicknamed Japan’s art island, here you’ll find Yayoi Kusama’s iconic yellow Pumpkin; the famed Benesse House museum that doubles as a hotel; and Chichu Art Museum, in which the Tadao Ando–designed building is a masterpiece in itself.
If you want to explore the Seto Inland Sea by water, Guntû is the ultimate cruise. The elegant 19-suite floating hotel features spacious accommodations with terraces, a number of dining venues (including a sushi counter), and experiential off-ship activities.
Landscape design enthusiasts will fall in love with the island nation’s manicured gardens. Ritsurin Garden and Korakuen, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, are two of the most beautiful in the Setouchi region.
Kagawa, also called the Udon Prefecture, is known for the Sanuki variety of these thick, white noodles. Slurp them up at any number of restaurants or learn how to make your own.
Onomichi, a town favored for cycling, also has a Temple Walk that strings together 25 temples and a large cat population. Make sure to also check out Onomichi U2, an old warehouse that has been converted into a facility with shops, restaurants, and a hotel geared toward bikers, and hop on a seaplane to see the islands from above.
Formerly a museum, the Tadao Ando–designed Setouchi Retreat Aonagi is a seven-suite luxury hotel nestled away in the mountaintops that’s the perfect respite from everyday life.
Made of vines, Kazurabashi Bridge is tucked away in the remote Iya Valley. It’s suspended 45 feet above the canyon and stretches across nearly 148 feet. Crossing it isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is rather exhilarating.
Hiroshima is the largest producer of oysters in Japan, and winter is the best time for them. Every February the Miyajima Oyster Festival presents a variety of dishes using the shellfish at low prices, but there are also all-you-can-eat shacks open throughout the season.
Several kominka, a type of traditional Japanese house, are currently being restored in the region and turned into accommodations. These thatched-roof homes with sunken hearths can be found in the countryside, but if you’re looking for a more modern interpretation, quaint towns like Uchiko have some great options too.
One of Japan’s twelve original castles, Himeji Castle is comprised of 83 buildings and has been dubbed by UNESCO as “the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture.”