Exploring Western Japan: Setouchi via Hiroshima Airport

It’s 5 pm, and the sun is setting over the Senkouji Temple in Onomichi. Cherry blossoms are in full bloom, and the haze of dusk adds a warmth to the view that radiates a magic dust. I’ve come to explore the lesser travelled western Japan, the Setouchi region, that’s part of Hiroshima Prefecture. After flying into Tokyo Haneda Airport, it’s an easy plane change. Within an hour and a half, I’m landing at Hiroshima Airport, which is ideally located to access the treasures of Setouchi.

This region is famous for island hopping, modern art and cycling, all against the backdrop of traditional historical sites. It’s part of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea and its islands. Bordered by Hyogo, Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Tokushima, Kagawa and Ehime prefectures, I soon discover it’s a region to be uncovered for authentic experiences away from the crowds.

Cherry Blossoms in bloom at Senkouji Temple, Onomichi
Cherry blossoms in bloom at Senkouji Temple, Onomichi © Nardia Plumridge

Onomichi

We take a private car from Hiroshima Airport to Onomichi, a quaint port town less than 40 Kilometres to the east. Onomichi is a perfect starting point for exploring Setouchi. In recent years, it’s become popular with cyclists who travel here from around the globe to ride the Shimanami Kaido, a 70-kilometre stretch of road connecting six islands via bridges. I can see the appeal. The rugged landscape I admire from my sunset location at Mount Senko-ji is mesmerising. A stop at Senko-ji Temple in the middle of Mount Senko-ji is a must for one of the best viewpoints in Onomichi City from the summit observatory. From here, lush and green islands layer into one another as they disappear into the distance. I will soon discover that these islands are rich in history and Japanese culture. 

My home for the night is the six-room LOG (Lantern Onomichi Garden). Only a few minutes’ walk from Senkoji Temple, this former apartment block has been reimaged into a Zen yet modern hotel. Rooms are simply dressed with futon beds and walls wrapped cocoon-like in stretched Japanese paper. There is also a private inside terrace that boasts views down the harbour below. 

Onomichi Market shop fronts
Onomichi Main Shopping District © Nardia Plumridge

Onomichi is a walking town, and from the riverfront, it is lined with bars and eateries. We wonder its streets ending at the Onomichi Main Shopping District, an undercover mall with a mix of retro and newer modern fashion and food outlets. We head for dinner at Takahara Seikichi Shokudo in a former bookstore on the shopping street, which has been converted into a modern diner with private rooms and traditional Japanese cuisine of small plates with a heavy leaning towards seafood. 

Ikuchi-jima Island

One of the Geiyo Islands near Onomichi is Ikuchi-jima, famous for being the largest producer of domestic lemons in Japan. You’ll find sprawling lemon fields, Kousanji Temple, hiking and biking trails, and outdoor art sculptures that line the cycle pathways, transforming the island into an open-air gallery with 17 art installations to discover. A shorter cycle ride, the Setoda/Tatara Bridge Cycling Art Tour, is an easy route to navigate the roads of Ikuchi-jima with a 17-kilometre loop along the beachfront heading south, taking in sandy beaches, lemon groves and riding over the Tatara Bridge. 

yellow sculpture on coastline
Ikuchi-jima is known for its outdoor art sculptures that line the cycle pathways

Setoda

The west end of Setoda has recently been gentrified with a stay at Azumi-Setoda, a modern ryokan retreat set within a 140-year-old traditional house with the best rooms in the area. Each of the 22 rooms has a small garden with Yukimi shoji screens, an enormous futon-style bed and an onsen-styled bathroom with a cypress bathtub, giving off a private spa feel. Rooms are made with cedar, cypress, washi and granite in a modern sukiya interior design style. If desiring a more traditional Japanese bathing experience, across the road is the yubune Bath House, which follows the traditions of onsen bathing – think hot and cold plunge pools – to rejuvenate and revive. 

For dining, Soil Setoda is a communal living concept with MINATOYA restaurant for flavourful whole foods and a list filled with lemon-infused drinks made with local citrus. Azumi-Setoda staff can also plan special private dining cruising via private boat to a neighbouring island for dinner at a rustic fisherman’s diner, Yoshimasa, feasting on Gyoza, lightly fried chicken, baked fish heads and fresh sashimi.  

Rustic fisherman's diner in Japan
Rustic fisherman’s diner, Yoshimasa © Nardia Plumridge

We woke early the following day for a 7 a.m. meeting at Kojo-ji Temple for a Zen Meditation Experience. Walking to the temple at this early hour is so peaceful, and the paths lined with pink cherry blossoms is dreamlike. From the three-story pagoda, the view of Setoda from the hilltop is sublime. It was another unique experience arranged by the Azumi-Setoda staff: a private lesson and a guided meditation led by the local monk. 

Art on Ikuchi-jima and Momoshima islands

Ikuchi-jima Island is known for its contemporary art, and the Hirayama Ikuo Art Museum celebrates the fabled local artist known for the genre of Nihon-ga, or traditional Japanese painting with many Buddhist themes in his works. The museum also has original works by other 20th-century artists, including Picasso. Another nearby art trip is to Momoshima Island, where you can find Art Base Momoshima, an art centre on the rugged island where the region’s heritage is explored through modern works.

ART BASE MOMOSHIMA
Yukinori Yanagi “Wandering Mickey” Art Base Momoshima

Cyclists love Setouchi

The Shimanami Kaido Cycling Road is between Imabari in Ehime and Onomichi in Hiroshima, with seven huge bridges connecting six islands in the Seto Inland Sea. Cycle hotels and pitstops are along the route, and back in Onomichi, we check into U2, a cyclist-centric hotel in a refurbished former shipping warehouse by the port edge that is made for these active travellers – you can even bring your own bike into your hotel room with dedicated hooks to hang it overnight. Within the vast warehouse space, a bar, retail shop, and restaurant serve modern international dishes and breakfast for hotel guests each morning, with a specialised bicycle shop on site for those needing repairs or accessories before their next ride. 

U2 Hotel in Onomichi Japan
U2 Hotel Onomichi © Nardia Plumridge

Dinner at Onomichi Nishiyama

It’s our last evening, and we are in for a food treat. Dinner at the stunning Ryokan Onomichi Nishiyama, a traditional inn with luxe Japanese-style rooms, a bar cum library, tranquil walled gardens and a restaurant serving innovative French-inspired cuisine using Onomichi’s food culture made from local ingredients nurtured by the four seasons of Setouchi. From the open kitchen, we sit bar style and watch the chefs at work with each dish paired with sake or wine. It’s an indulgent way to say goodbye to a sensational few days of discovering this incredible region of western Japan. 

Dinner at Onomichi Nishiyama in Onomichi Japan
Onomichi Nishiyama © Nardia Plumridge

Western Japan via Hiroshima Airport

The easiest and fastest way to access western Japan is to fly into Hiroshima Airport, just 51 kilometres east of Hiroshima and less than 40 kilometres to Onomichi and the Seto Islands. It is the largest airport in the Chūgoku-Shikoku region and serves domestic and international flights, making it a fantastic entry point for travellers in western Japan to explore the Setouchi region.

Read more
A beginner’s guide to Setouchi, Japan
A guide to island hopping Japan’s Seto Inland Sea
This is the only Japan travel guide you’ll ever need

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