Most Americans know little about the Setouchi region of Japan. Prior to my fam trip hosted by the Setouchi Tourism Authority, I didn't know much, either. However, it's precisely because it's not as inundated with foreigners as other parts of Japan that visitors have the opportunity to engage with authentic Japanese culture.
One part of Setouchi that most would likely recognize is Hiroshima, the city that during World War II was the first target of a nuclear bomb dropped by the U.S. For that reason, students of history have become a key part of the region's tourism industry.
But "our goal is for U.S. travelers and tour operators to expand their itineraries beyond Hiroshima and to explore Japan's culture and heritage traditions in the communities of this undiscovered region," said Tomohiro Muraki, director of the Setouchi Tourism Authority.
Situated west of Kyoto, Setouchi comprises seven prefectures: Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Hyogo, Ehime, Kagawa and Tokushima. By plane it takes 80 minutes to arrive at one of the region's seven airports from Tokyo. Alternatively, bullet trains from Tokyo take about four and a half hours.
Setouchi includes the Seto Inland Sea, whose calm waters are dotted by more than 3,000 islands. Known as the Mediterranean of Japan, its mild, year-round climate allows a thriving olive cultivation.
Artisans and artists
During a trip to Okayama's Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum, we were immersed in the prefecture's tradition of sword making, which began in the 12th century. It's the only place in Japan where you can be steps away from the intense heat of the forge and melodic "clangs" of katana tempering. General admission is less than $5.
Setouchi is also home to a wealth of contemporary art, best experienced on Naoshima island, which is accessible by ferry from both sides of the Seto Inland Sea. Works of art, including Yayoi Kusama's famous "Red Pumpkin," stand out against the island's rugged landscape. Step into the mostly subterranean Chichu Art Museum, which is itself an architectural masterpiece, to see pieces by Claude Monet. General admission is around $20.
Excursions by bike, plane and boat
The best way to see the scenery of Setouchi is by bike. The 37-mile Shimanami Kaido expressway connects seven islands, making it a world-renowned cycling route. Our sunset bicycle ride across the Tatara Bridge, though short, offered expansive views of citrus groves and the Seto Sea.
Those less keen on bicycling can take in a bird's-eye view of areas that include the Onomichi Channel, Noshima and Innoshima while aboard a Setouchi Seaplane. Another adventurous option is a multiday Seto Sea excursion with Seto Yacht Charter, which can be customized depending on guests' interests.
Where to stay
I stayed in both luxurious traditional ryokans and Japanese hybrid accommodations, which offer Western beds as opposed to tatami mats. Located near the fishing village of Tomonoura, each of the Hotel Ofutei's 43 rooms feature unobstructed views of the sea. Rates begin at $277, including meals.
Also providing panoramic sea views is the 44-room Bella Vista Spa & Marina Onomichi, featuringan open-air bath. Rates begin at $155.