HIROSHIMA, Oct 27 — With close proximity to sea coasts and mountains, Japan’s Chugoku region boasts the best of both worlds.
It has a wealth of fresh seasonal seafood and carefully-cultured, delicious produce. Add to that, awe-inspiring seascapes and mountainsides, exquisite art, immersive culture and beautiful — and beautifying — onsens. Sandwiched between Kyushu to its west and the more bustling Kansai region (with large cities like Osaka and Kyoto) to the east, the Chogoku region is often an overlooked destination. Perhaps the most well-known prefecture in this region is Hiroshima, which incidentally, will soon be accessible via direct flights on Silkair from October 30.
The direct route to Hiroshima also means West Japan is now more accessible than ever. Here are some highlights not to be missed in Chugoku.
World Heritage Sites The Atomic Bomb Dome, which is the preserved ruins of where the atomic bomb blast occurred and the Itsukushima Shrine.
Just across the river from the Atomic Bomb Dome, is the Peace Memorial Park. Walk through it to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (¥200 (RM7.40)/adult; 1-2 Nakajima-cho, Naka-ku, Hiroshima 730-0811; www.hpmmuseum.jp). As a World War II history buff, I watched wide-eyed a video re-enactment of the bomb blast from a bird’s eye view of Hiroshima. What was particularly educational was an interactive touch screen display, which among facts and figures, also showed photographs of declassified documents like the original field order for deploying the atomic bomb.
Set aside a few hours for the second World Heritage Site — Itsukushima Shrine (¥300/adult) with its iconic vermillion Torii gate that appears to be “floating” over the water during high tide. Take a ferry (¥180/way) over to the Miyajima Island where the shrine is.
The island also boasts attractions like a ropeway, aquarium, temples and a shopping street with restaurants. Plan to arrive there in the afternoon and stay the night. When the day trip crowds have left, it would be a more magical experience.
Check the tide schedules and you can join others to walk up to the Torii gate during low tide for varied photo opportunities of this most famous of Hiroshima views.
Explore on two wheels Rent bicycles and experience cycling a section of the Shimanami Kaido, a 70km bike route that traverses the islands in the Seto Inland Sea between the Hiroshima and Ehime prefectures. It costs ¥1,000 per day if you return the bike to the original rental location and ¥2,000 if you drop off the bike at another rental location.
With sea views on one side and quiet homes and citrus groves on the other, enjoy the ride leisurely taken or feel the wind on your face as you zip up the winding road. After labouring up the hilly climb to get onto the bridge, the magnificent views and refreshing sea breeze that nearly whips my hat off are a welcome reward.
Retail Therapy Browse Hondori Shopping Arcade with its mix of high street clothing brands, cosmetic shops and little coffee houses all within a sheltered pedestrian arcade. Then a short walk away is Okonomimura (5-13 Shintenchi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima; www.okonomimura.jp/foreign/english.html) or okonomiyaki village, in a building where you can take your pick of three floors of okonomiyaki shops. The Hiroshima version of this savoury pancake has the ingredients laid in layers instead of all mixed together. Oysters — best from October to February — are synonymous with this port city as 60 per cent of all oysters in Japan come from farms here, so order your okonomiyaki topped with them.
Other options for exploring further afield in the Chugoku region:
At an unbeatable ¥500, you can take the Hiroshima-Matsue Highway Bus for a three-hour ride to Shimane’s capital city, Matsue, which has plenty for art and culture enthusiasts.
Spend a couple of hours at the Adachi Museum of Art (¥2,300/adult; 320 Furukawa-cho, Yasugi, Shimane; www.adachi-museum.or.jp/en/). With a notable array of works by modern Japanese painter, Taikan Yokoyama, I couldn’t help but stare captivated by the gilded gold strokes of Autumn Leaves on a pair of folding screens. I took a breather in Midori, one of two onsite elegant cafes. It felt like an extra special treat to dip into the refreshing matcha ice-cream and mochi dessert in front of large glass windows, taking in the stunning views of the gardens, which are touted as “living Japanese paintings”.
A 10-minute train ride from Matsue Station followed by a seven-minute bus trip will bring you to nearby hot spring town Tamatsukuri Onsen to soak in the waters’ curative and beauty-enhancing powers.
Dating back to the Nara period over 1,300 years ago, the historical hot spring town with its mildly alkaline spring water has long been renowned for its restorative and moisturising properties.
Clustered along the River Tamayu are a host of onsen inns to cater to varying budgets. For a luxurious treat, check into Hoshino Resorts KAI Izumo (doubles from ¥58,000; 1237 Tamatsukuri, Tamayu-cho, Matsue-shi, Shimane 699-0201; www.hoshinoresorts.com/en/resortsandhotels/kai/izumo.html), a boutique hot spring ryokan.
Hitting the right balance of modern clean lines with traditional design, each of its guestrooms comes with a private open-air bath or sink into the spacious but intimate indoor and rotenburo (or open-air) hot spring pools for relaxing decompression. Expect to feel the spirit of Japanese hospitality or omotenashi here in the carefully-sourced seasonal ingredients in the dinner and breakfast that come with the room rates and thoughtful touches like providing yukatas, casual kimonos that are soft flax — cool in summer and warm in winter.
Another accommodation option is Hotel Chorakuen (doubles from ¥32,000; Tamatsukuri 323, Tamayu-cho, Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture 699-0201; www.choraku.co.jp/en/). If going fully buff in onsen bathing makes you hesitate, this inn provides bathing outfits for men and women that can ease many a blushing bather’s introduction to onsens.
A 1.5-hour limited express train ride away from Matsue is Tottori, which has an ideal mix of family-friendly and outdoor activities. Keep a look out for the area’s famed food: Beni Zuwaigani or red snow crabs, Tajima beef (from the Japanese Black Cattle, one of the original stock breeds used in cross-breeding to produce Kobe and Matsutaka beef), Hata Hata (Japanese sandfish) and Tottori’s own brand of fatty sandfish – Torohata.
Sea coasts and sand structures Nothing quite prepares you for the expanse that is the Tottori Sand Dunes. There are options to paraglide, sandboard and ride camels, but most did as I did — climb to the top of the sandbar for selfies with the breath-taking vantage views of the sea coast.
A 40-minute boat tour of the Uradome coastline (¥1,300 /adult) takes in picturesque rocky outcrops, some of the jagged geographical features topped with verdant pine trees that look right out of a typical Japanese landscape painting. For the more adventurous, you can opt for paddling in a transparent kayak that allows you to look into the crystalline clear waters. ¥7,000 covers the kayak rental as well as pick-up and drop-off in Tottori City. Or for a taste of the unusual, there is yoga on a stand-up paddle board.
Seasonal fruit-picking Tottori is famous for their juicy sweet nashi or Asian pears and the season for picking the fruit is between August and November. I visited Mikaen Pear Farm (1206 Fukube-cho, Yuyama, Tottori, 689-0105) which produces the most popular variety, the Nijisseiki (“20th Century”) pear, as well as others like the Shinkansen.
The fruit’s light brown skin is usually pared and the white almost translucent flesh is crisp and incredibly juicy with an addictive sweetness and delicate fragrance. I preferred the Shinkansen pear for its sweeter more balanced flavour. For ¥1,000, you can pick and eat all the pears you can within an hour. You can also take away five pears for ¥1,000. The Daiei watermelon (late June to early August), known for its sweetness, large size and how well it retains its shape after being sliced, is also grown in Tottori. Other fruit-picking seasons include strawberries (late November to late May), blueberries and white peaches (July to September).
Manga Mania Manga fans will rejoice to know that Tottori Prefecture was home to two popular manga artists – Mizuki Shigeru (of series Gegege no Kitaro fame) and Gosho Aoyama (famed for his Detective Conan series). Photo opportunities start the moment you arrive at the airports with themed installations in Tottori Airport (Detective Conan) and Yonago Airport (Kitaro). Visit museums devoted to each of them and dedicated streets with bronze statues of the well-known characters. — TODAY
* The writer’s trip was made possible by Japan National Tourism Organisation.