8 underrated to-dos in Western Japan for when travel resumes

Bookmark these unique things to see and do in the lesser-known, but beautiful, Chugoku and Shikoku regions of Japan’s west coast

The ancient Matsuyama Castle in Matsuyama, Ehime, Japan. PHOTO: TIERNEYMJ/SHUTTERSTOCK

Missing Japan? We feel you. The pandemic might have upended all of our 2020 travel plans, but we can still dream and plan ahead for when the skies re-open. (Meanwhile, you can still bring a piece of Japan home - and earn KrisFlyer miles at the same time - by browsing KrisShop's curated range of authentic Japanese products, from exquisite porcelain teacups to stylish mini scarves and handcrafted furniture.)

For your first trip back, consider going off the beaten track to less-travelled Western parts of Japan. In particular, the Chugoku and Shikoku regions promise rural beauty, quaint historical towns and quintessential Japanese cuisine. The best way to get there is by flying to Osaka, before hopping on the highly efficient rail system to explore the various destinations - just make sure to acquaint yourself with the country's travel safety measures in advance.

Catch the sunrise among a sea of clouds at the Takeda Castle Ruins in Hyogo. PHOTO: NICK KWAN/SHUTTERSTOCK

1. See the "floating castle" in Hyogo

Witness the spectacular ruins of Takeda Castle situated on a hilltop in Asago city, Hyogo prefecture. Also known as "Castle in the Sky", its name refers to the way it seems to float on a sea of clouds when the fog rolls in, especially during autumnal sunrises. To get there, follow the easy walking course to observe what remains of the castle's fortress and wings. To survey the ruins in its entirety, the best viewpoint is on the mountain slopes of Ritsuunkyo opposite the castle.

Hop on an antique Japanese boat and take a trip down the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter in the charming town of Kurashiki. PHOTO SIRIWAT SRIPHOJAROEN/SHUTTERSTOCK

2. Stroll down a picturesque canal in Okayama

A 15-minute train ride from Okayama station takes you to the charming town of Kurashiki. It is most famous for its beautifully-preserved canal area that dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868), when the town once served as a vital rice distribution centre. Lined with weeping willow trees and old storehouses that have since been gentrified into cafes, boutique shops and museums, it also offers a more immersive experience via leisurely strolls or a traditional boat tour.

Immerse yourself in the beauty of the Ritsurin Garden - one of the most famous historical gardens in Japan - in Takamatsu city, Kagawa prefecture. PHOTO: MRNOVEL/SHUTTERSTOCK

3. Sip matcha tea in a traditional Japanese garden in Kagawa

Feel as if you've stepped into a Japanese painting at Ritsurin Garden, a beautiful landscape garden in Takamatsu city that once served as a private retreat for feudal lords in the mid-1600s. Considered one of Japan's finest gardens, it features idyllic pavilions, enchanting ponds, vibrant foliage and quaint walking paths. Enjoy relaxing on the veranda at Kikugetsu-tei teahouse, with the peaceful scenery as your backdrop.

The serene Shimanto River, also known as Japan's last crystal clear river, in Kochi. PHOTO: SAN HOYANO/SHUTTERSTOCK

4. Take a river cruise in Kochi

Revel in the unspoilt natural beauty of Shimanto River Valley, located deep in the heart of Shikoku. Known as Japan's last crystal clear river, it's where you can canoe, trek along the tributaries and embark on a leisure cruise before heading to a nearby izakaya (an informal Japanese bar) to savour fresh seasonal seafood like tsugani (mitten crab), ayu (sweetfish) and unagi (eel). The best time to visit is in early summer, when you can witness the magical glow of fireflies dancing on the river.

Visit the famous Iya no Kazurabashi, a vine bridge spanning Tokushima's Iya River. PHOTO: TANYA JONES/SHUTTERSTOCK

5. Cross a vine bridge in Tokushima's Iya Valley

Nature lovers will enjoy a trip to rural Iya Valley in Tokushima prefecture, a lush mountainous area known for steep slopes, deep dramatic gorges and mountainside onsens (hot springs). Cross the iconic 45m-long Iya no Kazurabashi, a suspension bridge made of vine, just like in the old days. Those seeking a bigger thrill can visit Forest Adventure, an exhilarating high elements obstacle course that includes ziplining over a river gorge.

Cycle down Shimanami Kaido, a 60km long road that connects Japan's main island of Honshu to the island of Shikoku. PHOTO: RUJIPART/SHUTTERSTOCK

6. Go on a scenic cycling adventure in Ehime

Cycling down Shimanami Kaido is one of the best ways to soak in the stunning scenery of Ehime prefecture. The well-marked 70km bike route connects six islands in the Seto Inland Sea waterway featuring plenty of interesting stops along the way, from temples and shrines to museums and parks. Studio Ghibli fans take note: Ehime's Matsuyama city is also home to the historic Dogo Onsen, said to be the inspiration behind the iconic bathhouse in Japanese animated fantasy film Spirited Away.

Take in the marvellous views of the Sea of Japan coast while camel riding or paragliding at the Tottori Sand Dunes. PHOTO: SEAN PAVONE/SHUTTERSTOCK

7. Marvel at Tottori's majestic sand dunes

The Tottori prefecture boasts one of the largest sand dunes in all of Japan, with breathtaking and unobstructed views of the Sea of Japan coast. It is a popular spot for exciting outdoor activities such as camel riding and paragliding, and is home to the Sand Museum, the world's first indoor museum dedicated to sculptures carved entirely from sand. As the masterpieces are prone to degrade over time, their non-permanent quality makes them a once-in-a-lifetime viewing experience.

Chefs making okonomiyaki, a Japanese savoury pancake. Unlike the Osaka-style okonomiyaki, the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is made from ingredients that are layered instead of being mixed in a batter, and usually includes noodles and a fried egg. PHOTO: CHERRYDONUT/SHUTTERSTOCK

8. Visit an okonomiyaki "theme park" in Hiroshima

No trip to Western Japan would be complete without a stop at Hiroshima, the Chugoku region's principal city and an ideal location for history buffs and foodies alike. Take a sobering stroll through Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Atomic Bomb Dome (a Unesco World Heritage Site), then indulge in the city's most famous delicacy at Okonomi Mura, a complex of restaurants specialising in Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake).

Visit JNTO's destination webpages on Chugoku and Shikoku to discover more underrated destinations in Western Japan.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.