Bridges and Water: A Road Trip around the Seto Inland Sea
While younger travellers either opt for the appeal of cities or backpacking around tourist sites, the elder statesmen of travel are often drawn more to seeing the beauty of the nature in comfort. In his first article for Japan.com, retired banker and avid traveller KK avoids tackiness, and instead, showcases the height of serene tranquillity and the ultimate luxury of Japan as he takes us around Matsuyama in 8 days.
It was already dusk when our flight landed in Takamatsu City. Fortunately, the airport shuttle from the airport to downtown was only about half an hour. This allowed us a quick meal and exploration around the many shopping streets near our hotel before we called it a night.
Our second day in Takamatsu City marked the true beginning of our trip. We started with a 2-hour drive to Matsuyama, capital of the Ehime Prefecture. If you were to visit, you cannot miss Hotel Kowakuen, beside the renowned Dogo Onsen (hot spring).
Dogo Onsen is truly authentic and very traditional Japanese onsen. It was even frequented by the Japanese Royal Family, with special rooms dedicated for their use. For those of you interested in a truly luxurious experience, there is little better than using the hot spring selected for the Royal family themselves. Unfortunately, while the dedicated “Royal” rooms were opened for a quick tour, we could not rent them out to further augment our experience.
After relaxing in the onsen and visiting the hot spring shopping street, we briefly visited the nearby Isaniwa Shrine and Yuzuki Castle. We returned to hot spring shopping street for dinner, as it offers a variety of food choices. We chose a restaurant called Ajikura, they offer delicious food with good services, and the prices are reasonable too.
Our third day began with an hour drive from Matsuyama to Imabari City, straight to the Towel Art Museum. Partnering with various artists, the museum recreated intricate paintings on towels down to the most minute detail. The museum also creates magnificent models with them with fascinates all their patrons, adults and children alike, which makes for an activity that is very suitable for families with young children.
After the Towel Art Museum, we went for a stroll at the Imabari Castle. It is recommended that visitors hike up onto the observation deck and look over the breath-taking views of the ocean and the Kurushima-Kaikyo Bridge.
We took a three-hour drive from Shikoku using the Nishiseto Expressway, which connects the six bigger islands of the Seto inland sea by bridges. During our drive through the inland sea towards Hiroshima, we stopped by one of the rest-stops along the bridges for lunch. Dining with a backdrop of a magnificent view makes for an especially rejuvenating break after a long drive.
After we have parked at the Mitsui Garden Hotel, we went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on foot. The museum in the park exhibits many artefacts and pictures from the atomic bombing; it saddens me to see the damage and destruction of war. Against the light of the setting sun, the broken, falling walls and burned steel bars of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial seemed even more desolate and forsaken.
Visitors should pay special attention to the tide schedule to plan for visiting the Itsukushima Shrine at Miyajima so that they could make the most by seeing the Shrine under different settings. There are two different ferry routes that head to Miyajima from the pier that costs the same. One of them passes right by the Torii of the Shrine, which is a traditional gate that is typically found in a Shinto Shrine. We chose this route for its proximity to the Torii so we could take more photos of it. When the tide rose at 10 am, the Shrine looks as though it was floating on water, with the Torii protruding proudly from the sea.
After the ferry ride, we had a scrumptious lunch of Hiroshima oysters at the commercial district, going for a stroll nearby until the tide has receded to go back to the Shrine for another visit. Although the tide would be the lowest only at 5 pm, by the time it’s three in the afternoon, the two pillars of the Torii was already emerging from the water. Tourists were eager to get a photo with the Torii, but for me, the view is most alluring with just the reflection of the shrine in the sea.
When the tide has entirely receded, and we’ve satisfied our desire for astonishing scenery, we took the ferry back to the Miyajima Pier and drove half an hour to the Kintai Bridge in Iwakuni. The Kintai Bridge has been named one of three most mystic bridges in Japan. The bridge is built with stone as the foundation and overlaid with wood; the bridge looks like it’s composed of multiple arches from afar. The bridge isn’t free to walk on, but many tourists don’t mind the few hundred YEN compared to the view you’ll enjoy while strolling on it.
After breakfast, we left Hiroshima and went straight to the Okayama Korakuen. Originally thinking that this was just one of the many gardens from historic Japan 300 years ago, I did not expect much. But who would’ve thought that the garden is filled with miniature replicas of mountains, streams, fields, woods and other sceneries cleverly arranged all together. One could be strolling along the stream and reach a whole new scenery within a few steps. You can look at a view of the lake from the small hill or examine the rice paddy in the fields.
Leaving the miniature sceneries, we headed towards the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter, which is an eclectic mingle of canals, boats, willows and archaic architecture. Although most of the buildings have been converted into retail shops, the whole world seems to slow down when you’re strolling through these quiet, archaic streets. Driving back to Shikoku via the Set Bridge, we checked into the Kosankaku Hotel near the Kotohira Hot Springs.
Oboke is our destination for today. Oboke being a valley among the mountains, visitors often take river raft trips to better appreciate the scenery of the two river banks. When we began our journey from Kotohira, the weather was still warm and sunny, but as we drove onto the mountain, the houses and trees have been overlaid by a layer of snow. The further we went the more snow there was. By the time we have fully arrived at Oboke, white snow was covering the dark ashy rocks and yellowing reed, paired with the fresh turquoise of the river behind; the scenery is heavenly.
Leaving the amazing scenery, we continued deeper within the mountains, heading to Iya-no-Kazura Bridge. It is said that the bridge is built completely using vine. Unfortunately, after driving for ten more minutes, the road has completely frozen over, and we are unable to continue our journey as our vehicle was not fitted with snow chains. Giving up, we returned to Kotohira for a visit to Kotohira-gu, a shrine built upon a small hill that is a little more than 500 metres tall. Hiking up from the bottom, you would have to take up to a thousand steps of stairs. The route is lined with shops, so with all the distraction and rests, the hike was not too tiring. And the view is especially rewarding after the long hike up.
In the blink of an eye, our trip had come to its last day. Since our flight is in the afternoon, we started our drive to Takamatsu City right after breakfast to see the scenery at Yashima. The Kanji for Yashima is House Island, but contrary to what it suggests, Yashima is not an island, but a hill with a flat top. You can take in the beautiful view of all of Seto Inland Sea from the observation deck atop the hill. On the day of our visit, the skies were clear, and we were able to see not only the many islands in the inland sea but also the faint silhouette of the Seto Bridge from afar. The Yashima Shrine does not count as one of the largest, but visitors interested in historical architecture should not miss it. As the shrine is built and preserved in the Chinese Style from the Tang Dynasty even to this day. I was fascinated by the stone statues of Japanese racoon dogs, which the locals worship as a daimyojin.
We then drove to the Takamatsu Symbol Tower for a spot of lunch. This landmark building stands at 30 stories tall beside the Takamatsu Harbour, and free observation decks are open on the 29th and 30th floor for visitors to peer at the panoramic view of Takamatsu City, and it’s harbour. We ran into an exhibition hosted by the local women’s community and was invited to join their event by a few of the members. They received us warmly, serving us a bowl of hot soup and a rice ball each. Besides the lovely exhibition, they also prepared refreshments for guests. This warm hospitality was the perfect end to our trip.