A side of Japan still untouched
We’ve witnessed the fiery intensity of a tuna auction in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market in the dead of night, burnt our pockets down the boulevard of Dōtonbori’s shopping arcade, and reenacted that haunting scene in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ running through Kyoto’s “torii gate” tunnel. But we haven’t seen it all.
Leave Japan’s Golden Triangle behind, because we’ve just stumbled across a piece of Japan so enchanting, you’ll want to keep it for yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christopher Columbus of the Millennial world or just someone looking to chalk up beautiful memories, brace yourself - you’re about to fall head over your Japanese slippers in love with all that Setouchi has to offer.
Here are 10 epic sights in and around Setouchi that belong on the cover of National Geographic’s next monthly issue:
1. The legendary floating ‘torii’ on Miyajima Island
Hailed as one of the top three views in Japan, the majestic vermilion pillars of the Itsukushima Shrine do a fine job of catching your eye miles before you actually arrive on Miyajima Island.
More than just another photogenic pitstop, the island in its entirety is the pinnacle of Japanese folklore with many believing it to be inhabited by God, and the shrine - the physical embodiment of the barrier between the human and the spirit realm. Regardless, it's safe to say bountiful blessings lie in wait.
And just as day transitions to night, as does the shrine with the ebb and flow of the ocean. If fate grants you calmer water, like it did us, you’ll be able to walk all the way out to it and touch its weathered base.
Desperate for blessings, devotees have even gone as far as to force their offerings into the base of the shrine.
And with any visit to Miyajima Island, it would be criminal to leave without checking at least two of these three things: change your fate with an O-mikuji (Japanese paper fortune) at the Marōdo Shrine, ascend Mount Misen, and cuddle up to their free-roaming sacred deer that are more than accustomed to human touch.
And if Lady Luck isn’t shining down on you, you can always leave your o-mikuji behind and reshuffle the cards of fortune.
Miyajima’s Gojūnoto - the five-storied pagoda of the island
Admission: 300¥ (S$3.85)
Opening Hours: 6.30AM - 6.00PM
*Bonus* Fuel up on Hiroshima’s famous deconstructed okonomiyaki
We’ve seen Western takes on the savoury pancake come and go, but it’s the Asian flavours that are here to stay. More than sausages and sauteed mushrooms, the okonomiyaki is proof that the Japanese sure know how to whip up a solid pancake.
A melange of ingredients from eggs and shredded cabbage to slices of succulent pork belly go into the making of their okonomiyaki, but the Hiroshima-yaki definitely steals all the glory. Instead of the usual ‘scrambling’ method we’re used to, the wise folks of Hiroshima build theirs systematically from the bottom up.
A Japanese chef effortlessly assembling 12 okonomiyakis at once - and you thought our hawkers were good at multi-tasking.
With a crisp crepe setting a strong foundation for the heap that is to come, the highlight of this meal comes in a form a thick layer of fried yakisoba noodles.
We recommend this 50-year-old okonomiyaki joint:
Address: 5-13 Shintenchi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima-shi, Hiroshima-ken 730-0034
Business Hours: 11.30AM-12AM (Closed on Mondays)
2. The view from the Akashi Kaikyō, Japan’s Pearl Bridge
The Jurassic Period may be nothing more than a bygone era, but it doesn’t take a seaplane ride off the coast of Hawaii to feast your eyes on a sight that’s worthy of the blockbuster movie. Tagged as the Aegean of the Orient, Ehime is a blinding vision of beauty with its isles of green against the backdrop of an infinite azure-blue sea.
While it’s possible to capture the island from land, the most charming view of this idyllic landscape awaits you on the Akashi Kaikyō, Japan’s Pearl Bridge.
This man-made beauty is only one of the many island-to-island bridges that form the link between Hiroshima’s Onomichi City and Ehime’s Imabari City
Tall, broad, and incredibly handsome - it’s been almost 17 years since the Akashi Kaikyō bridge snatched the title of “Longest Suspension Bridge in the World” from San Francisco, rising to be the prefecture’s pride and joy. Its sheer size, the result of three suspension bridges seamlessly stitched together.
A dedicated bicycle lane wraps itself around the length of the bridge, so ditch your motorised vehicle for one hell of a ride and a view you’re bound to remember. The entire course spans for almost 70 kilometres and will take you a good 8-10 hours, but if that doesn’t match your idea of a leisurely cycle, we recommend the 7km stretch of the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge.
Renting a bicycle for a whole day will set you back ¥1,000 (~S$12.45)
There are around 14 bicycle rental stations scattered across the island, so just settle on one, pick a bicycle of your choice and strap that helmet on good, because it’ll be the scenery - not the distance - that’ll take your breath away.
3. Be ‘Spirited Away’ at Japan’s oldest hot spring in the city of Matsuyama
Blur the lines of reality and make a splash over at Dōgo Onsen, the real-life inspiration behind the phenomenal Walt Disney x Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away. Bubbling with a 3,000-year-old history, this bath house hides within its depths a private bath for those with blood of the brightest blue.
Leave your inhibitions and physical possessions at the door, and deep dive into the maze of bathrooms and tatami-lined salons - we promise you’ll leave revitalised.
Legitimise your stay in the city of Matsuyama by checking yourself into a traditional ryokan, and wandering the city in a cotton yukata.
And if baring it all in a communal bathhouse isn’t your cup of matcha, you can still defrost those toes at ashi-yu (public foot bath) by the Botchan Karakuri clock for free.
Stick around and watch the clock come to life with each stroke of the hour from 8AM - 10PM
*Bonus* Indulge in the prefecture’s speciality - Japanese Mikan Oranges
Harvested from the steep planes that front the Seto Inland sea, Ehime produces as many as 12 different varieties of oranges - some so plump and sweet, they melt the minute they hit your tongue. From a specially-engineered orange variety to orange-flavoured rice balls - Ehime sure takes the cake for most innovative food creations known to man.
Head over to Mikan speciality store, 10 Factory for your dose of freshly-pressed Japanese Vitamin C.
Address: 3-2-25 Okaido, Matsuyama 790-0004, Ehime Prefecture
4. The transformation of the Matsuyama Castle at dusk
The Matsuyama Castle in Ehime may not have clinched the title of ‘World Heritage Site’, but those who’ve traversed its hilly terrain will tell you UNESCO made a mistake with that one. Perched atop a hill in Matsuyama’s epicentre, it only takes a short single-seat ropeway ride up to the castle’s grounds, before all of the city is laid out before you.
Perfectly engulfed in a blanket of cherry blossoms in Spring, there’s a reason why they regard castle’s historical garden as a sanctuary for lovers.
We recommend straddling the golden hour and dusk to fully appreciate the castle in two magnificent states: splashed with the glorious orange and pink afterglow of the setting sun, and illuminated by the twinkling bustle of a city coming to life.
Our guide told us even ninjas couldn’t scale the Nobori-Ishigaki stone walls that flank the impregnable fortress - guess I’m quite the ninja then.
Iyo Matsuyama Castle
Address: 1 Marunouchi, Matsuyama, Ehime
Opening Hours: 9AM–4:30PM
5. The Kazurabashi Bridge of Iya Valley
Rock pools, waterfalls, perfect rays of sunlight streaming through eyelets of autumn leaves onto the misty gorge below - Iya Valley looks nothing like the Japan we know. Who’d have known that a piece of paradise would be hiding right here in Tokushima?
The Kazurabashi Bridge of Iya Valley is an apparition straight out of ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’. It’s beyond our comprehension how a bridge held up solely by vines and wooden planks can bear the weight of more than 25 fully-grown adults inching their way across.
And while the actual history of the bridge remains unknown, legend has it that the samurais of the Heike Clan ruled over many of these natural passageways. In the dire event of an enemy pursuit, they could easily cut the bridge down. That would probably explain why only 3 of the original 13 bridges remain
And with at least 6 inches between each plank, it's no wonder they’re inching along.
The smell of freshly grilled fish perfume the walk to the waterfall - a recommended fuel stop for authentic Iya Valley grub.
After successfully making the journey across, take a left and venture on. You'll soon stumble upon the majesty of the valley's Biwa Waterfall on your left. Look to your right, and you'll see a flight of steps leading your descent to the gorge itself for an uninterrupted panoramic view of the bridge
And if you've time to spare, we recommend exploring Iya Valley's Oku-Iya Niju Kazura Bashi (Double Vine Bridges), an hour’s drive into the valley in the direction of Mount Tsurugi.
Kazurabashi Bridge of Iya Valley
Address: Nishiiyayamamura Zentoku, Miyoshi 778-0102, Tokushima Prefecture
Admission: 550¥ (SG$6.85)
6. The Oboke and Koboke Gorges
If you're naturally attracted to bodies of water, then these next two attractions will have you thirsting for more. The Yoshino-gawa River is famed for two things - having the best whitewater rafting course in all of Japan, and its killer queens - the Oboke and Koboke Gorge.
Aptly named after the danger that lies in wait, the safest and most intoxicating view of the Oboke gorge can be observed from the deck of a sightseeing cruise down its placid waters for just 1,080¥ (~S$13.40). That's more than a reasonable price to pay for 30-minutes of undisturbed serenity.
The real and only challenge you’ll face here is identifying as many rocks bearing the semblance of animals as you can
*Bonus* Huddle over a bowl of steaming Iya-soba (Sobakiri)
As foodies born and bred, we pride ourselves in staking out the best eats wherever our travels take us. Naturally, we couldn’t leave the beautiful prefecture of Tokushima without getting our hands on a bowl of their noteworthy buckwheat noodles.
Thicker than the average strand of soba, and served in a bowl of savoury anchovy broth - the iya soba noodles have a natural subtle sweetness to them, making the dish the perfect perk-me-up on a cold winter’s day.
Seiryu no Sobadokoro Iyabijin
Address: 9-3 Nishiiyayamamura Zentoku, Miyoshi City, Tokushima Prefecture
Opening Hours: 8AM - 5PM
7. The whirlpools of the Naruto Strait
For the uninitiated, the word ‘Naruto’ always elicits either hunger or nostalgia. But neither the 400-episode anime, nor the quirky little fishcake addition in our Udon does the city of Naruto justice like the phenomenon that is their whirlpools.
Making waves as the largest tidal current in the world and measuring up to 20m in diameter, the whirlpools of Naruto are quite a natural force to be reckoned with. Perpetually disgruntled, the whirlpools go into fits of rage every six hours, giving curious seekers a perfect window of opportunity to observe nature at its best - or should we say worst.
Brave the raging seas for an actual taste on the deck of a tide-watching boat that’ll take you right up to the heart of the action, or have your feet firmly planted on the ground with a bird’s eye view from the observatory of the Ōnaruto Bridge - the choice is yours.
We recommend heading out to sea on the Wonder Naruto boat tour, and forking out a little extra for first-class front row seats on the upper deck.
Address: 64-1 Oge, Narutocho Tosadomariura, Naruto 772-0053, Tokushima Prefecture
Kickstart your Setouchi Adventure
If you’re eyeing Japan as a worthy contender for your next block leave, don’t just follow blindly in the footsteps of the dozens and settle for a trip that's been done and dusted. These Japanese specialised travel agencies have specially packaged itineraries to help you tick these 7 stellar sites off your 2017 travel bucket list:
7D Wonderful Shikoku: Naruto Whirlpools - Kazurabashi Bridge of Iya Valley - Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge
Signing yourself up for a all-inclusive tour like the week-long Wonderful Shikoku package offered by Hong Thai Travel will definitely take the load of planning and navigating a new destination off your back. With everything from flights and accommodation to novel activities and must-see attractions laid out before you, all you’ll have to do is show up for the ride.
More than just the whirlpools, the tour will also take you on a gastronomical journey of historic proportions to show you the making of Japanese sake, the legendary UCC coffee, and even leave you with some traditional udon-making skills to bring home and impress the fam.
Seto Inland 7D6N Self Drive Packages
For the independent traveller who prefers spearheading his/her own trip, toss your offerings into the ocean at the Miyajima Island, work up a sweat across the panoramic Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge, and bask in the sunset glow at Himeji Castle in your own time with one of the many self-drive tours offered by H.I.S. International Travel Pte Ltd..
Kill two birds with their Seto Inland 7 Days Sakura Self Drive package with 11 different opportunities for cherry blossom appreciation.
They’ll book you in for a return flight, a 6-night hotel stay with breakfast, and hook you up with a zippy car that will serve you well over the course of the next 7 days - complete with an english navigation system.
There's no better way to break the mundane rigidity of your 9-5 corporate reality than with a glorious stint in nature crossing vine and chasing waterfalls. And don't forget your camera, you're going to be wanting to shout this from the social media rooftops when you're done.
This post was brought to you by Setouchi Tourism.