If you find yourself in Hiroshima or the surrounding area for any length of time, you really should set aside a day or two to explore the Seto Inland Sea. It’s not uncommon for people to live in the city for years, within sight of the Inland Sea and its islands, and never do more than visit Miyajima. Of course, by all means, visit Miyajima, as often as you can! But just a couple of kilometers south of Miyajima’s crowded tourist district, the little fisherman’s island of Atata receives almost no visitors at all.
There are many likely destinations on and around the Inland Sea. Let’s begin, though, with the Shimanami Kaido.
The Shimanami Kaido, also known as the Nishiseto Expressway, opened in in 1999. The 60 kilometer route leapfrogs island to island across the Seto Inland Sea by a series of bridges, beginning in Onomichi on Honshu and ending in Imabari on Shikoku. This not only affords direct access to the islands along the route, but gets you closer to ferry crossings to a number of surrounding islands. Since opening, the Shimanami Kaido has gained fame both in Japan and abroad as a cycling route, since the route was built to include cycling lanes that allow even casual cyclists to comfortably cross from Honshu to Shikoku in a single day. Two of the islands mentioned below can be accessed directly from the Shimanami Kaido, while the third is part of the same Geiyo Island chain and easily reached by ferry.
The third island along the Shimanami Kaido traveling south from Onomichi, Ikuchijima would be a pleasant but thoroughly anonymous place were it not for Kanemoto Kozo, an eccentric Osaka businessman who loved his mother. To please her, he first built her the Choseikaku Villa as a holiday retreat. Upon her death, though, he began construction of Kosan-ji, a famously odd temple complex including replicas of famous religious structures around the country, including the iconic Yomeimon gate at Nikko Tosho-gu, a towering Kannon statue, garishly eerie depictions of hell in a series of artificial caverns, and an abstract sculpture park (Kanemoto was also a lover and noted collector of art) built with some 3,000 tons of Carrara marble and housing an Italian restaurant. Truly an odd, and oddly appealing, destination.
One island further on, you’ll come to Omishima. The island featured prominently in Donald Richie’s travel classic The Inland Sea, written at the end of the 1960s, long before the arrival of the bridges. It’s a different place today, doubtless, but nevertheless is an officially designated National Place of Scenic Beauty. And the fantastic Oyamazumi Shrine still stands, with its astonishing collection of samurai arms and armor. In Richie’s day, these were housed in the open, in a dimly lit hall. Today, they’re preserved in museum that’s well worth a visit, if only to marvel at the child-sized suits of armor worn by some of Japan’s most legendary daimyo. If you have an interest in contemporary architecture, the island’s Toyo Ito Museum is a wonderful place to take a close look at some of the major movements within modern Japanese architecture.
Though the claim may sound outrageous, this little island is one of the strangest places you’re likely to visit in Japan. Also called “Rabbit Island,” Okunoshima is in fact teeming with feral rabbits, most friendly and eager for a handout. Naturally enough, the island is enormously popular with daytripping families, many parents bearing ample supplies of carrots and cabbages to lure crowds of mangy bunnies to their delighted children. One of Japan’s official ‘kyukamura,’ or rest villages, Okunoshima has a hotel, onsen and other services, and virtually no permanent human population.
This latter feature was no doubt one of the reasons the island was selected, in the 1920s, as a production site for chemical weapons. Until the end of the second world war, the island was erased from maps and locals sworn to secrecy as thousands of tons of chemical weapons, primarily mustard gas, were manufactured and stored on the island. A small museum does a credible job of covering this history, and a bicycle tour of the island will carry you past gas production sites, earlier gun emplacements and former storage facilities that still have signs warning visitors away.
The juxtaposition of bunnies and mustard gas is unsettling, to say the least. And in fact, one explanation for the presence of the rabbits (there are several, but this is the best story by far) is that they are descended from rabbits used to test the efficacy of the poisons created here. Whatever the truth may be, Okunoshima is a fascinating place daytrip.
We’ve barely scratched the surface here. With some 3,000 islands, and points of interest bearing on everything from medieval piracy to modern art, olive cultivation to the treatment of leprosy, the Inland Sea could keep a curious traveler occupied for years. So get out there and explore!
From Hiroshima, Ikuchijima and Omishima are both reached by the Shimanami Kaido, which has its northern terminus in the wonderful little city of Onomichi. This can be done by car, bicycle, or even on foot.
Okunoshima, or Rabbit Island, is most easily reached by a fifteen-minute ferry ride from the port town of Tadanoumi. You can either drive there in your own car (though you cannot bring your car on the ferry to Okunoshima), or take the train. If the latter, you’ll need to take the JR Kure Line from Hiroshima Station (or a Sanyo Line Kodama shinkansen to Mihara Station, transferring to the Kure Line from there) and getting off at Tadanoumi Station. The ferry terminal is a five minute walk south from the station, and the ferry itself departs about every half hour between 7:30 in the morning to 19:30 in the evening.