A beginner’s guide to island hopping Japan’s Seto Inland Sea

More than 1000 islands are peppered throughout Japan’s Seto Inland Sea and each one has a unique character waiting to be discovered.

Japan is famous for many things, but island hopping isn’t the first that comes to mind when planning a holiday in the Land of the Rising Sun. The Seto Inland Sea is a body of water bordered by the main islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu and serves as a connection between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. There are more than 1000 islands spread across the Inland Sea and each one offers visitors a different experience. Whether cultural immersion, gastronomic discovery, natural beauty, history or art take your fancy, there’s a sailing itinerary on a chartered boat or yacht to suit every explorer.

How to sail the Seto Inland Sea

With Seto Yacht Charter you can plan an island-hopping route through the Setouchi region on a bespoke itinerary. For day trips, a Toyota Ponam-28 boat with comfortable amenities is available to singles, couples and groups. Alternatively, rent a cabin on the Bali 4.0 catamaran yacht and cruise the Seto Inland Sea with friends and family in tow. Suitable for up to 10 passengers, cruising on board the Bali 4.0 includes a personal chef, an attendant and an experienced skipper with local knowledge of the islands. But with more than 1000 islands to choose from, which should you visit first?

Yacht on the water
Seto Yacht Charter © Image courtesy of Setouchi DMO

A beginner’s guide to the Seto Inland Sea islands 

Manabeshima 

While this quaint village is known for its fishing industry heritage and delicious seafood, it’s the thriving cat population that draws tourists to its shores. Manabeshima is one of Japan’s 11 cat islands and the several dozen felines are most often found at Honura Port. French illustrator Florent Chavouet also created a book about Manabeshima, documenting the tranquil lifestyle, beaches and scenery here. Expect a relaxed energy and a picturesque village. 

Honjima

Honjima is the second-biggest and most developed island of the Shiwaku archipelago and serves as the main hub of the region. These islands were once integral to the area’s maritime transportation industry and many historic sites from this period have been preserved for visitors to see. The island is best seen on foot or by bike, so rent a bicycle and pedal along the coastal road where you can catch a glimpse of neighbouring Ushijima and Sanuki Fuji on the opposite shore.

Naoshima 

Modern art and architecture fans should include a visit to Naoshima on their itinerary. The island is famous for its larger-than-life spotted pumpkin, an artwork by Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama. Modern museums, galleries and installations can be found in Naoshima, including the Benesse House Museum and Chichu Art Museum where works by Claude Monet, James Turrell and Tadao Ando are on display. The islands of Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima are all known for their art scene. 

Yayoi Kusama artwork on Naoshima
Yayoi Kusama artwork on Naoshima © Unsplash/Yue-Ting Ling

Shishijima

Located in the south of the Seto Inland Sea, Shishijima is an almost uninhabited island of rugged beauty. Less than 20 people permanently reside on the island, which is a stop best suited to those who enjoy forest paths and hiking. The trails lead to a sacred 1200-year-old camphor tree and a handmade observatory with a view over the coast. 

Inujima

Like Naoshima and Teshima, Inujima is mostly visited for the public art installations on the island. The Inujima Seirensho Art Museum is the main attraction here, an open-air museum set within the ruins of an abandoned copper refinery. After visiting the site, explore the rest of the island to see the Art House Project, a series of art installations scattered throughout the village. 

Teshima 

This rural islet has a history rooted in farming, fishing and agriculture but has since evolved to establish itself as a public art destination, and Teshima Art Museum is the main attraction. This concrete contemporary structure is set among rice fields and when inside, visitors will find the surrounding landscapes have been framed like artworks by the cutouts in the architecture. Another permanent artwork on the island is Les Archives du Coeur, or ‘Heart Archives’, an interactive installation where visitors can make recordings of their heartbeat and listen to the recorded heartbeats of others.

Teshima Art Museum
Teshima Art Museum © Unsplash/Denis Kovalev

Kujirajima

If you’ve ever wanted to escape to a deserted island with nothing but sunshine, waves and good food to keep you company, then Kujirajima is the island for you. Guests can reserve the remote campsite for exclusive use and stay in luxury glamping accommodations, then spend their time kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing or lazing in a hammock.

Shimanami Kaido 

Whether you’re a professional cyclist or a novice, cycling the Shimanami Kaido is a spectacular sporting experience. The 60-kilometre stretch of road connects the main island of Honshu to Shikoku via six small Seto Inland Sea islands. The beautiful coastal scenery, smooth roads and island towns along the way make this cycle journey one of the best in the world. 

Miyajima 

There are only three locations in Japan considered the most scenic in the country, and you’ll find one of them on Miyajima: Itsukushima Shrine. This wooden torii gate is believed to be the largest in Japan and is listed as a World Heritage Site. At high tide, the gate appears to float weightlessly on the water’s surface, making for some excellent photo opportunities. Expect to encounter some friendly wild deer during your stay on Miyajima, and add places such as Daisho-in Temple, Mount Misen and the Museum of History to your itinerary. 

Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima
Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima © Unsplash/Hakan Nural

Awajishima 

Ancient Japanese creation stories suggest that Awajishima was the first part of Japan to appear, and is home to mythological ‘power spots’ such as the Izanagi Shrine. The island is also known for its hot springs, flower fields, Sumoto Castle and abundance of attractions. Check out the Naruto, Shin-chan and Godzilla theme park Nijigen-no-Mori, or the Hello Kitty theme park Sanrio Puroland. The world’s longest suspension bridge, Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, is also accessible from Awajishima. 

Kitagishima

The ‘Island of Stone’ is the largest of the Kasaoka Islands and is popular among visitors due to the stone quarries, some of which are around 400 years old. Stone excavated from this site has been used in buildings such as Osaka Castle and Tokyo Station, while the island’s clean waters have enabled the fishing industry to flourish. Join an oyster raft tour on a fishing boat for a true ocean-to-plate experience with pristine ocean views. 

Shodoshima

Shodoshima is the second-largest island in the Seto Inland Sea and was traditionally known as one of Japan’s key producers of soy sauce. However, olive plantations are now popping up across the island, which offers visitors a Mediterranean atmosphere with beaches and resorts. Ride the cable cars through the impressive Kankakei Gorge, visit the monkey park or take a selfie with the 50-metre-tall statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. 

The coastline of Shodoshima
Shodoshima © Unsplash/Yu

Ōkunoshima

Those travelling with children who love furry animals should schedule in a pit stop at Ōkunoshima. Located in eastern Hiroshima in the Seto Inland Sea, this island is famous for camping, historical sites, walking trails and a huge population of rabbits. Also known as Rabbit Island, this mysterious haven is home to around 1000 wild rabbits. The rabbits are reasonably friendly and always open to offerings of food.

Kamijima 

Set just off the east coast of Ehime Prefecture is an archipelago of 25 islands collectively known as Kamijima. Home to around 6500 people and an abundance of adventurous activities, this collection of islands is an excellent entry point to the broader treasures of Ehime Prefecture. Regular high-speed boats operate from Mihara Port in Hiroshima Prefecture, taking 40 minutes to reach the island town, or you can catch a ferry from Innoshima’s Nagasaki Pier. The main islands to visit are Yugejima, Sashima, Ikinajima, and Iwagijima. 

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