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Setouchi travel guide: An underrated region of Japan without the tourist crowds | Asia | Travel

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Shimanami Kaido

Setouchi is home to one of the world’s most beautiful cycles – The Shimanami Kaido (Image: Getty Images)

Nearly 20 million international tourists arrived in Japan in the first 10 months of 2023. But despite the country’s diverse range of attractions, almost all of those tourists head to three of Japan’s most famous destinations – Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. While the three cities are popular for a reason, there are several lesser-known regions where tourists will discover a unique side of Japan without the crowds. 

Setouchi, sometimes known as Japan’s Mediterranean, encompasses the Seto Inland Sea and several coastal areas of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. I visited the region in November and discovered just how possible it is to enjoy Japan’s spectacular autumn colour in peace. 

Home to one of the world’s most beautiful cycle routes, a state-of-the-art floating gallery and Japan’s tastiest oranges, Setouchi deserves a place on your 2024 bucket list. 

How to get to Setouchi

From London, it’s easiest to fly to Tokyo Haneda Airport and then catch another flight to Hiroshima to access the rest of Setouchi. Japan Airlines and British Airways both fly directly to Tokyo Haneda while Japan Airlines also offers a huge range of internal flights. If you’re looking for specific deals and discounts, you can see the latest deals from British Airways here.

At the time of writing, British Airways had direct return flights to Tokyo Haneda from £867 per person. Of course, prices do vary depending on the time of year you travel and the demand for each flight.

It’s a long flight, so if you’d like to break up the journey, you can check out a range of connecting flight options and compare prices on Skyscanner.

Tourists can choose to reach Hiroshima on an internal flight or use another method of transport.  Japan’s trains are famously reliable or work out a route using the country’s highway buses. 

The basic fare depends on the travel distance between your departure and the destination station. This can then increase with additional kilometres of travel.

However, in some parts of Japan, the cost of a seat reservation depends on the season.

Tourists can also hire a private driver or join a group tour to explore the Setouchi region, which can be great for those who want to fully relax without the stress of navigating themselves. 

Simose Art Garden Villa

See Shigeru Ban’s iconic Paper House at Simose Garden Villa (Image: @Simose)

What to do

Islands, oranges and dizzyingly high bridges, each twist of the Shimanami Kaido cycle route brings another spectacular view. The 70km bike ride is one of the world’s most beautiful journeys to take on two wheels, connecting the island of Shikoku to the Japanese mainland.

Modern roads, cycle lanes and easy electric bike hire make the beautiful route suitable for all abilities. Much like the Mediterranean, Setouchi is famous for oranges and lemons and cyclists will glide by acres of citrus farms along the way. It’s bound to make you hungry, so make sure to stop at a market en route to fuel up one of the region’s famously sweet oranges. Pause on the bridge for breathtaking views across the Seto Inland Sea.

It’s impossible to travel to Japan without sampling sake, the country’s fermented rice wine. Saijo is Hiroshima’s sake capital and the town’s breweries offer tours several days of the week. Tourists can get a glimpse into the intricate process and taste a variety of sake flavours on a brewery tour.

Simose Art Garden Villa

Simose Art Garden Villa’s movable galleries float on the water (Image: @Simose)

Whether it’s a Uniqlo bum bag or a heated toilet seat, Japan’s innovative design is world-renowned. Get up close and personal with the work of one of the country’s most famous architects at Setouchi’s Simose Art Garden Villa. Iconic architect Shigeru Ban designed the hotel’s 10 villa-style rooms and highlights include a house made entirely of cardboard paper tubes and one without any walls.

An overnight stay in a villa does come with a hefty price tag but tourists can pop in for the day to visit the hotel’s floating art gallery. Strikingly adrift on the water, the gallery’s rooms are regularly rearranged and feature work by contemporary Japanese artists as well as pieces by Picasso and Chagall. 

Shimanami Kaido Cycle

The Shimanami Kaido Cycle has incredible views of the Seto Inland sea (Image: Getty)

While each month in Japan offers something different, the most popular times to visit are the cherry blossom and autumn colour season. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds in some of the country’s more famous spots in autumn, head to Shinshoji Zen Museum and Gardens.

The temple’s gardens are breathtakingly beautiful and alive with colour in autumn, while the museum’s unique zen meditation experience shouldn’t be missed. Its raked zen garden is also a must-see, with all the work completed by just one monk. 

Saijo Brewery Street

Learn about sake brewing at Saijo brewery street (Image: Miho Oguri)

Where to stay

A perfect base for the Shimanami Kaido cycle, Azumi Setoda is a beautiful ryokan-style hotel in Setoda, along the route. The sustainable property has a delightful public garden and guests can also use the property’s authentic onsen bathhouse free of charge. Lovingly restored, the ryokan was once a family home and guests are treated to a traditional breakfast and dinner using local ingredients. 

A night in one of Simose Art Garden villas is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and each room is completely unique. Shigeru Ban’s villas are designed to filter light so wake up early to enjoy the rooms at their best. 

Azumi Setoda

Azumi Setoda is a classic ryokan in Onimichi (Image: Azumi Setoda)

Of course, Setouchi has a range of options for all budgets. Both Booking.com and Hotels.com are fantastic options to search for accommodation and offer a price comparison service to find the best deal. You can also see ratings from other holidaymakers based on their experiences. 

Eating and Drinking

Azumi Setoda

Azumi Setoda’s breakfast is an event (Image: Azumi Setoda)

Azumi Setoda’s hotel restaurant features the region’s local ingredients and the team has taken care to put the focus on vegetables that would often be thrown away. The chef’s signature carrot dish which uses every single piece of the vegetable is a highlight of the sophisticated menu. 

Simose Art Garden Villa’s restaurant is open to the public. A fine dining experience overlooking the water, the tasting menu is a masterpiece. Don’t miss the grilled scallops with clam and leek sauce. 

Simose Art Garden Villa

Simose Art Garden Villa offers fine dining overlooking the water (Image: @Simose)

Just a short trip from Simose Art Garden Villa, Hiroshima’s Oyster Ship Kanawa is one of the city’s most atmospheric restaurants. Floating on the river, diners are treated to a menu centred around seafood and it’s a fantastic introduction to Japanese cuisine. 

Ever been tempted to leave society behind? Get a taste of a monk’s lifestyle with lunch at Shinshoji Temple restaurant. In a unique experience, guests dine on udon noodles and must clean their bowl just as the monks do – with a pickle soaked in green tea. Plates can’t be cleared until the pickle is eaten. While tea soaked pickles might not be a flavour you’ll want to bring back to the UK, it makes for a fun and quirky experience. 

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