The area surrounding the Seto Inland Sea (the Setouchi region) is Japan’s Mediterranean. Beautiful sweeping beaches, waters dotted with idyllic islands, olive trees and lemon groves – there’s good reason why this was designated as a National Park from the outset. Just inland from the azure wonders are some true time-capsules of Japan’s past, perfect additions to a classic route through the country.
Okayama is the second largest city in the area (after Hiroshima) and is a key transport hub, linked by the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansesn (bullet train) to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and many other key tourist stops. This makes it an easy layover stop when spanning the country, or a well-located base to explore the nearby wonders that aren’t as blessed with abundant hotels. Rather than simply being a wallflower though, Okayama does have some of its own treasures to boast. Korakuen, one of Japan’s three famous landscape gardens, has ushered in visitors for hundreds of years, and the reconstructed Okayama Castle peers over the greenery to improve everyone’s snapshots of the spacious lawns.
Kurashiki, less than quarter of an hour away from Okayama station, is one of the best-preserved old towns in Japan, boasting a compact but picturesque maze of streets around a central canal that is lined with willow trees. A wealthy merchant town from days gone by, Kurashiki shines in the evenings once the bus tours have headed home. A truly magical destination where you can enjoy some quaint shops, cafes and art museums in the sunshine, and step back in time for a meal and a few drinks in a traditional izakaya (Japanese pub) when the stars come out.
Naoshima is an island in the Seto Inland Sea, dotted with sculptures, art museums and golden beaches. A literal breath of fresh air from the concrete cacophony of Japan’s sprawling cities, Naoshima is a rural and relaxing place to walk, cycle and unwind, regardless of your opinion of modern art. The museums themselves are architecturally spectacular, and the works within them are sure to excite and enthral art lovers. Even the most brazen philistine is sure to come away enlightened though – if not from the artwork, then by the surrounding waters and scenery.