Japan

Setouchi; Back & forth through time

Setouchi; Back & forth through time

By bike or by train — this untouched Japanese region delivers the goods.

I’m eating a neatly presented bento box on a neatly presented train, roughly 50% familiar with the things that are going into my mouth.

Rarely the wiser once they go down.

Midway through another suspiciously brightly coloured, but yet again delicious delight, something out the window catches my eye.

It’s a little girl about four-years-old, standing with her mother and 20 other smiling Japanese people, waving as the train pulls away from the first station.

“Are they being paid by the railways?” I ask my friend Hanako.

“No,” she says. “They’re residents. They know the timetable of the train and they come out to wave it off, if they can manage it.”

The train is the Iyonada Monogatari, heading from Ozu to Matsuyama in the Setouchi region of south-west of Japan. It goes along the Seto Inland Sea, and you are served properly local and properly delicious fare in an ornate train that gives off Oriental Express vibes.

We chug along past little villages dotted along the coast, residents enthusiastically waving us off as we go. Hanako points out Aoshima in the distance, where I am told there are 206 residents—200 cats and six humans.

We reach Iyo-Kaminada Station where apparently a dog is the station master. Again, the people from this little town wave us off and I am stunned to find my four-year-old friend here as well, having chased us down in a blue Toyota with her mother. I make the heart symbol and she makes it back, and when we repeat this interaction once more further down the line my heart melts completely.

This tells you everything you need to know about this area and the people living here. I like to think I’m a nice guy in Australia, but this is another level.

The Seto Inland Sea is located in the central part of Japan, surrounded by three major islands: Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu, which is the main island of Japan. In between are around 3,000 islands of extraordinary beauty and undiscovered Japanese culture. These islands and the surrounding coastlines of the larger islands are considered to be in the Setouchi Region.

If you read a lot of travel media you will be well-versed with the term ‘untouched’. While the Setouchi region has excellent infrastructure and is reasonably densely populated, it feels genuinely untouched when it comes to food, architecture and the vibe of residents, all of which feel Japanese beyond belief.

Aside from my travelling party I don’t spot another western traveller in a week; the feeling of unfamiliarity, a surprising experience in a world where almost any corner of the globe is a mere scroll away, is a breath of fresh air.

We ride along the Shimanami Kaido, a stunning cycling track of approximately 70 kilometres which links Shikoku with the mainland via six islands, connected by seven bridges (do the math). The bridges are new and epic pieces of architecture, like six Golden Gates in a row. The air is fresh and the endorphins are ample.

You can cycle the track in a day, or two days in an amble. The islands are at their best in autumn (September to November) when crisp, golden leaves line the route, but it’s beautiful at any time, like when we did in winter.

The towns of Imabari and Onomichi are the starting and finishing lines, depending on the direction you take. Around 45 minutes by car away from Imabari (an 60 minutes on the world’s most immaculate public transport system) is the Itomachi Hotel 0 in Saijo, designed by legendary architect Kuma Kengo, who is responsible for buildings like the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, and The Exchange in Sydney.

The hotel’s vision comes from the statistic that of all buildings, hotels have the second highest electricity usage per metre of space, behind only restaurants. Opened in 2023, Itomachi has reduced electricity usage to an absolute minimum and when it is needed, its generated only by the army of solar panels located on the roof.

The hotel is almost like a contemporary art installation that leaps into the future. In the hotel's garden, there is a fountain that wouldn't look out of place at MONA and the cool fresh water spilling out, is from the underground Uchinuki natural spring. As I'm handed a cup I realise I'm drinking from an art installation, which is a first for me.

The Iyo Blue Stone used throughout the hotel Wes Anderson-style, is a light green colour, despite what its name would suggest. It has been used in this region for thousands of years - an ancient stone that is so hot right now.

Beds are laid down next to each other, sometimes as many as four in a row, like a gigantic mega-bed. There are wall-mounted bike racks in each room, and a space to service and maintain your bike, should you wish to continue cycling.

Kengo’s influence is everywhere, like in the post-modern-weirdness of the water taps, which swirl upwards and then downwards in 360-degree motion. The hotel is a futuristic glitch in a region which is otherwise old-world Japan, a bright, glowing, eco-friendly speck among Shinto shrines and the tiled roofs and sliding doors of old homes.

Nearby Ozu is another of the remnants of the old world, a town which was once a big deal through the production of wax in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a slew of beautifully ornate homes were built during this period. Edison inventing the lightbulb more or less fucked that and the town headed toward a slow dilapidation over the course of 100 years, and abandoned houses began popping up everywhere.

A project to restore the abandoned homes has begun, so far yielding epic results. I walk through an old maternity hospital, which is now a high-end fashion store. There are 26 hotels in town, all traditional homes and with only a few rooms each, offering the unique chance to stay in a place that has housed the same family for generations. They are beautifully furnished, with cedar bathtubs and comfy beds.

I spy a wax candle and I decide to use this for light for shits and gigs. I crack open a Sapporo and watch the snow fall softly outside from the comfort of the tub, and it’s only the presence and occasional beep from the tub’s bamboozling array of buttons that remind me I’m in 2024 and not 1824.

Get there

From Tokyo, Japan Airlines (JAL) fly directly to Hiroshima in about an hour. Alternatively, the Shinkansen takes about four hours. For getting up and down the Seto Inland Sea, we recommend taking the Sea Paseo, a ferry which connects Hiroshima, Kure and Matsayuma. There is a high-speed ferry or a slower one, with sick Wi-Fi and snacks.

Stay there

Itomachi Hotel Zero, in Saijo, Ehime, is one of the coolest hotels to have opened anywhere in the world in 2023. Starting from AU$530 per night, the hotel is the perfect place to max chill after crushing the Shimanami Kaido.

If you’re planning on splitting the 72km into two days of cycling, stay at WAKKA, overlooking Tatara Bridge. Located about halfway, there’s both glamping and cottages available, and the place is super bike-oriented

Get Informed

The oldest extant hot spring in Japan, Dogo Onsen, is located in Matsayuma, Ehime. The design of the onsen’s exterior is rumoured to be the inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s 2002 classic Spirited Away.

Tour There

Setouchi Travel is the go-to for travel information in the region, including potential itineraries, booking experiences and how to get around.

Words Tim McGlone

Tags: Bento, cycling, japan, Setouchi, train

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