A beginner’s guide to Setouchi, Japan

Japan’s Seto Inland Sea in the Setouchi region reveals a quiet side of the country, one increasingly revered by cyclists, foodies, artists and nature lovers alike, writes Susan Skelly.

Caressed by snowflakes, my cable car glides high above a canopy of primeval forest to the summit of Mount Misen, the highest peak on Miyajima, a scenic island in Hiroshima Bay. I have with me an amulet to protect against thunderbolts, purchased on impulse at a shrine. It works. There will be no lightning, just spectacular views of the Seto Inland Sea and, in the distance, Hiroshima City. 

JR Shikoku Iyonada Monogatari train in Ehime
JR Shikoku Iyonada Monogatari train in Ehime © Adobe Stock

Where is Setouchi? 

In Japan’s southwest, the Seto Inland Sea connects the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan and is home to some 3,000 islands. The region encompassing the eastern part of the sea, between Honshu and Shikoku islands, is known as Setouchi. Setouchi is the go-to for everything on the citrus spectrum (orange juice from a tap, mandarin sake and sweet lemons), for red bean paste, oysters, and strawberry- and-cream sandwiches. Take home white Tobe porcelain, Imabari cotton towels and washi paper art. Expect to eat taimeshi, a sashimi of sea bream on warm rice; onomichi ramen with springy flat noodles; and okonomiyaki, a crepe with enough shredded cabbage to stuff a small cushion.

Dogo Onsen Honkan in Matsuyama
Dogo Onsen Honkan in Matsuyama © Adobe Stock

Why visit Setouchi? 

The Seto Inland Sea abuts seven of Japan’s 47 prefectures: Hyogo, Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Ehime, Kagawa and Tokushima. Everyone knows Hiroshima. Visits to the Peace Memorial Museum and the A-Bomb Dome are on most travellers’ to-do list. But there’s a new push to introduce Japan’s less-crowded, lesser-known areas to Australian travellers looking beyond skiing and big-city buzz. 

A valley in the Ishizuchi Mountain area
A valley in the Ishizuchi Mountain area © Adobe Stock

Things to do in Setouchi

To entice travellers to Setouchi, local tourism authorities have curated 23 itineraries that encompass art, history, adventure, nature and food. My visit includes a little bit of each, beginning in Ehime, whose capital, Matsuyama, is a cruisy 2.5hr ferry ride across the Seto Inland Sea from Hiroshima aboard the luxe Sea Paseo. If you use Super Jet, you can travel from Hiroshima to Matsuyama in about 70 minutes. And Matsuyama turns out to be the motherlode. 

Go island hopping

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. With Seto Yacht Charter visitors can plan their route through the Setouchi region on a bespoke itinerary. 

Read the full guide to island hopping Japan’s Seto Inland Sea 

catamaran sailing past island
Seto yacht Charter © Image courtesy of Setouchi DMO

Immerse yourself in culture on Matsuyama

Find Matsuyama Castle and insights into feudal lords’ sneaky defence strategies, plus the Ishiteji Temple, built in the 8th century to honour Buddhist monks. Soak up the hot springs of Dogo Onsen Honkan, one of Japan’s oldest public bathhouses. Check out the Asuka no Yu onsen, whose forecourt blooms with the digital photo art of Mika Ninagawa.

Matsuyama Castle at sunset
Matsuyama Castle © Adobe Stock

Explore the food scene 

Eating is an art form wherever you go. An oyster feast on Miyajima sees them fresh, baked, smoked, deep-fried, marinated and waiting at the bottom of miso soup. Experience a full Japanese breakfast at a ryokan like Funaya, near Dogo Onsen, or a bento box aboard the Iyonada Monogatari, a shiny red train that hugs the sea between Matsuyama and Ozu. 

Ozu Castle Town is where we find Le Un and an impossibly pretty seven-course degustation. Chef Kazuya Sugimoto works his magic with local seafood, marbled beef, snap-fresh vegetables, edible flowers and rich, red strawberries marinated in Campari. All for not much more than $100. Add a flight of sake. 

Oysters on a plate
Oysters in Miyajima © Adobe Stock

The best places to stay in Setouchi 

Ozu: For history and culture

Ozu was on the brink of obscurity due to a decline in population and industry. But the town has a new lease on life. Of the approximately 180 historic buildings, about 20 per cent are vacant, and 26 of those vacant buildings are being renovated and turned into dispersed hotels. The town of Ozu is like a deconstructed hotel, with 31 rooms of the Nipponia Hotel dotted all over. Passionate Ozu advocate Diego Cosa Fernandez, from Kita Management, an offshoot of the city’s Tourism and City Planning bureau, says “It’s not like a self-contained five-star hotel. Guests must stroll outside to seek breakfast, the restaurant, cafe, bar or hotel reception. It ensures an interaction with locals.” 

I stay in a restored warehouse – rich wooden beams, pitched roof – that belonged to an industrialist. A big square cedar bath takes up much of the ground floor. There is an array of sleepover options. From western-style hotels (the Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima City is where PM Anthony Albanese met with other world leaders last year) to the inn-style ryokan, traditional houses, architect-designed show-stoppers … and the odd castle. 

A night for two at Ozu Castle costs approximately one million yen ($10,270). Guests arrive when sightseers have gone. Dinner is served in one of the four turrets. Expect moon-viewing, sake anda poetry recital. Roughing it or luxe- ing it? Hard to say. There are no shops, toilets or air-conditioning in the castle. A modern outpost with luxury bathroom and lounge has been built close by. 

In addition, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group recently announced the development of three Setouchi properties, to open between 2027 and 2030. 

A hotel room with two beds and a garden hut
Nipponia Hotel room and breakfast hut

Omishima & Onomichi: For cyclists and hikers 

Cyclists love Setouchi. The most popular section of the Shimanami Kaido Cycling Road is the 70km between Imabari in Ehime and Onomichi in Hiroshima, seven beautiful bridges connecting six islands in the Seto Inland Sea. Cycle hotels and pitstops are plentiful. Wakka opened on Omishima Island in 2020, offering accommodation (sleeping pods, glamping tents or luxe cabins), laundry, cafe and advice on cruising, fishing and travel. Its counterpart in Onomichi is U2, a cyclist-centric compound with a hotel, several restaurants and specialised bicycle shops. 

Itomachi Hotel 0 opened last year in Saijo, a town with an industrial bent at the base of Mount Ishizuchi, the tallest peak in western Japan. It appeals to hikers making the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage (temples 60-64 are within the Saijō municipality) and cyclists doing the Shimanami Kaido. Hallways are bike friendly and, for those who want to sleep with their bicycle, there are hangers in the room and a private outdoor space to carry out maintenance. 

Dogo Onsen Honkan in Matsuyama
Dogo Onsen Honkan in Matsuyama © Adobe Stock

Designed by applauded Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, Itomachi Hotel 0 claims to be Japan’s first zero-energy hotel, all but eliminating electricity consumption in operations. A monitor in reception shows how with infographics. Eco-cred abounds. Menus are curated by a dietitian to reduce kilojoule counts and boost antioxidants, there’s a dinky flask (no plastics) for carrying spring water, tabletops and benches that rethink denim and glass, and, from local producers, ceramics, confectionery, coffee and green tea.

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