Shiga Kogen – Japan’s largest ski resort near the beloved snow monkeys

Shiga Kogen – Japan’s largest ski resort near the beloved snow monkeys

Japan’s largest ski resort near the beloved snow monkeys
– Shiga Kogen

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HAVE THE ULTIMATE RESORT EXPERIENCE AT OKUSHIGA

Nagano prefecture boasts a myriad of popular ski resorts, such as Hakuba, and Nozawa Onsen. It also happens to be home to the largest ski resort in all of Japan with over 50 gondola lifts—Shiga Kogen. This ski resort is not only the biggest, but is also located at the highest altitude of all Japanese ski resorts with lift access. Shiga Kogen has the unique characteristic of having most of its ski areas located deep within the mountains at over 1,500-metres in altitude. Often, when snow conditions are less than desirable at other ski resorts in the same prefecture, Shiga Kogen can have amazing snow to shred up. The potential for the best powder snow, coupled with the amount of time it will take to conquer all of the expansive areas means it would be wise to consider an extended stay here to experience everything the resort has to offer.

Shiga Kogen’s location deep within the snow-rich mountains means that there are no towns close to the resort, however, there are many unique accommodation facilities in the area to make up for this. One of the most renowned areas in Shiga Kogen that offers the ultimate resort experience is Okushiga, which is found deep within the region.

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Due to its location deep within Shiga Kogen, and the necessity to traverse many other courses to reach it from the centre of the region, many visitors never make their way to Okushiga when they visit on short trips to the region.When compared to central Shiga Kogen, where large-scale ski resorts are concentrated and plentiful, Okushiga offers a far more relaxed experience, allowing visitors to bat away the crowds of the other areas and cruise around this quieter one. Okushiga also has a cult-following as it offers the best long-run courses in the area. The chances of you going to sleep on a snowy night and waking up to top-class powder snow the next morning are also quite high.

There are a variety of drawcards to the courses found here. From courses featuring slopes as sheer as 30 degrees to challenge expert snow-sport enthusiasts, to gentle long courses for beginners and kids to enjoy, there’s something to keep everyone entertained. The areas just off the chair lifts offer fun powdersnow courses following snowfall, and a Japanese ski magazine has also visited the area to take photos for a special feature on powder-run techniques for this very reason. Okushiga can be separated into two areas, one that has a gondola to take you straight up to the top for those who want to shred run after run, and the other featuring a medium slope for those who want to enjoy a high-speed shred down.

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The neighbouring Yakebitai area, connected at the mountain’s peak, also features a variety of courses with two gondola lifts servicing them. Setting up base in Okushiga Kogen whilst also visiting Yakebitai is already a full day’s worth of fun in itself. It is very much possible to move on to other areas from there, but the sheer size of the area means you would have to draw up an organised schedule to ensure that you make it back in time. There are shuttle buses constantly in operation in Shiga Kogen, so that back-up option is always there if your plans go awry.

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There is also the Shiga International Ski School in Okushiga offering skiing and snowboarding lessons for kids and adults, taught by international instructors, so you can rest at ease if snow sports are not your forte.

While the ski runs are highly appealing in their own rights, the biggest, unique drawcards of this area are the two hotels at the bottom of the slope offering ski-in ski-out facilities.

Okushiga also has a cult-following as it offers the best long-run courses in the area.
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One of the hotels is known as the finest resort hotel in the area—Hotel Grand Phenix Okushiga. This long-renowned, hotel of nobility is loved by famous guests such as the Japanese royal family, and is also frequented by the world-renowned conductor, Seiji Ozawa. This prestigious guest list exemplifies the exceedingly spectacular accommodation experience this establishment offers. The guest rooms have been made with comfort in mind and feature wood in abundance to create a calming atmosphere, whilst the convenience of ski-visitors has also been considered with all rooms featuring walk-in closets. Guests here don’t have to worry about where to put their ski gear when they arrive for the ski season. Inside the hotel are three restaurants sourcing prized ingredients from all over Japan, such as the gourmet trove of Shinshu, as well as all over the world. These restaurants offer Italian, Japanese, and Chinese cuisine to tantalise your tastebuds. The lounge bar is also popular amongst guests who enjoy gathering around the large fireplace to chat the night away. There is nothing quite as luxurious as having a drink by the fire and soaking up the air of opulence after a skiing session. With an indoor heated swimming pool, and an open-air hot spring for a private soaking, Hotel Grand Phenix Okushiga offers a variety of facilities for all guests to enjoy their stays.

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The second hotel is the Okushiga Kogen Hotel. This hotel is directly operated by Okushiga Kogen Ski Resort, and features a variety of lavish facilities such as spacious rooms, an open-air hot spring to gaze upon the great outdoors, and even its own lounge bar with a fireplace, making it rival the Grand Phenix in its own right. Guests can choose from three different restaurants serving French cuisine, Japanese cuisine, or teppanyaki (where the chef cooks in front of patrons seated at the hot-plate counter).

Both of these hotels are popular for capturing the atmosphere of a European ski resort, whilst also offering the quintessentially Japanese custom of comprehensive hospitality. Many guests visit either of the hotels to sit back and relax at their respective lounges oozing elegance and enjoy the fireplaces ablaze. As a rule of thumb, for those who are after a quiet experience to bask in their time of luxury— choose the Grand Phenix; for those looking for a casual lounge experience whilst listening to some music—head to the Okushiga Kogen Hotel. While the Grand Phenix allows guests in their lounge to enjoy their time in peace and quiet without interruptions, the Okushiga Kogen Hotel organises for pianists to play in their lounge area. Both hotels offer different experiences to cater to different guests.

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As the two hotels are within walking distance of each other, guests can enjoy the offerings at the restaurants and lounges of either hotel during their stay. For the ultimate experience in Shiga Kogen, make plans to set up base at Okushiga and take full advantage of the area’s numerous charms.

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A NEW GATEWAY TO SHIGA

One piece of trending news to come out of Shiga Kogen is the long-awaited completion of the gateway to Shiga, the Yama-no-eki resort gondola chair lift. Shiga Kogen acts as the base for many visitors staying in the various major hotels dotted amongst the expansive resorts in the areas occupying it. While each of these areas are filled with their own unique charms, it would be near on impossible to visit all of the courses available when planning a short stay in just one of the areas, until now. The 2020/21 ski season saw the much-anticipated completion of the Yama-no-eki resort gondola chair lift. Yama-no-eki had originally served as a hub with shops, restaurants, and a bus stop, however, a downside of it was that it lacked easy access to a vital mainstay of the region— the ski slopes. The completion of the gondola chair lift now provides direct access from here to the central area of Shiga Kogen. This location may now very well act as the base station Shiga never had and provide a gateway to various areas in the region.

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Yama-no-eki serves as an excellent gateway to the ski fields. Here you can find a restaurant, souvenir shop, convenience store, and an information centre, as well as free parking for approximately 500 cars, a ticket counter, snow gear rental, lockers, and changing rooms.

The Giant Area is an extremely steep course that can challenge even adept skiers and snowboarders.

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The gondola chair lift provides direct access from Yama-no-eki to the Giant Area, which is the main area connecting 15 ski slopes for smooth and easy movement between them. The Giant Area is an extremely steep course that can challenge even adept skiers and snowboarders, and is known as the most difficult slope in all of Shiga Kogen. Taking a single chair lift from the Giant Area can bring you to the Higashitateyama area, which boasts the longest run in the entire resort featuring gentle to steep inclines, moguls, and variety of other slopes to challenge you on your journey down. Travelling via this area or the Nishitateyama area, which is home to the World Cup course, makes for smooth access to the central area with runs such as the Ichinose Family slope or the Takamagahara Mammoth course. This central area has a well-balanced layout with the steeper courses, for more advanced skiers and snowboarders, in the upper region, and comparatively more relaxed courses towards the bottom. On the other side of the mountain, opposite the central area, is a hidden treasure known as the Terakoya course, which is said to have the best powder snow in all of Shiga Kogen.

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Over in Ichinose in the central area is the Ichinose Diamond Snowcan rental shop where there is a foreign exchange cash machine accepting 12 different currencies. Make sure you take note of this location to save you in a pinch, as there are some cases where credit cards cannot be used and you need to have cash on hand.

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Back at Yama-no-eki, on the opposite area to the central ski hub, are a number of smaller, yet very much charming courses such as Maruike, which is known as the “Mogul Training Grounds” for its bumpy slopes, Hasuike, and Sun Valley. While there a number of accommodation facilities in this area vying for top place in the popularity stakes, Villa Alpen, in particular, sees many Australian guests frequent it. The owner of this establishment is Hideo Okazawa, a former pro-skier who is endearingly known as “Cap” amongst returning guests. While the facilities at Villa Alpen may be dated, the hotel continues to expand its fan base by providing a cosy bar with a fireplace, early check-in and late check-out options, and other careful considerations to ensure that guests have comfortable and worthwhile stays there. One such example of these considerations is that the hotel features fullyaccessible rooms, to keep it up-to-date with the changing times, despite its age. Villa Alpen is also accredited by the National Tax Agency, allowing foreign ambassadors, public officials, and other such staff to stay without being subjected to the 10% consumption tax.

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Heading down the Shiga Kogen mountain leads to a popular tourist attraction—the snow monkeys. Travelling from other ski fields in Nagano prefecture would take a whole day to see the snow monkeys, but a trip from Shiga Kogen is barely a trek at all. Located 40 minutes from Shiga Kogen is the hot-spring area of Yudanaka Shibu Onsen, with its atmospheric townscape. Shiga Kogen can be accessed via bus from this hot spring town, providing the option of perhaps staying a few nights here.

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The Envy of the World 2: SKI AREAS WITHIN METROPOLITAN SUBURBS IN ABUNDANCE

The Envy of the World 2: SKI AREAS WITHIN METROPOLITAN SUBURBS IN ABUNDANCE

THE ENVY OF THE WORLD:

SKI AREAS WITHIN METROPOLITAN SUBURBS IN ABUNDANCE

Ski slopes in the Surrounds of Sapporo and Otaru

Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba

The majority of overseas ski tourists visiting Niseko and other ski resorts in Hokkaido tend to travel straight to their destination from the gateway to Hokkaido, New Chitose Airport. The same visitors then make a beeline straight back to the airport without any side trips or diversions. This type of visit is such an unfortunate waste of potential opportunities for exciting experiences. At just a short 40 minute train ride away from the airport is a large city of approximately 2 million people and one of the most fascinating cities in all of Japan – Sapporo. This city of charm and wonder also happens to have a variety of different local ski resorts around it at just a stone’s throw away. This special feature will focus on travels centred on the metropolis of Sapporo and the charming fishing-port town of Otaru. Keep reading to gain some inspiration on a new way to enjoy a ski trip around Hokkaido by visiting ski slopes around its major cities.

OTARU

THE WALL STREET OF THE NORTH: A HISTORICAL PORT CITY IN HOKKAIDO

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Otaru is a history-rich port city approximately 30 – 40 minutes away from Sapporo by train. It is a popular tourist
destination and has a number of ski areas in close vicinity to hop on over to. For those looking for a more relaxed city with easily accessible ski resorts to base their snow adventures, then Otaru might be the place to stay.

Otaru Canal is the most popular tourist spot in all of Otaru. Visitors are often captivated by the nostalgic sight of stone-built warehouses lining the canal. At night, the stone footpath adjacent to the canal is lit up by gas lamps, reminiscent of the Meiji era during the westernisation movement in Japan. The stone warehouses capture the light of the lamps and cast a reflection across the mirror-like canal at night.

The magical night view of Otaru harks back to the city’s past as a thriving place of trade. Until the Edo period, Otaru was a small fishing town.

The development of Hokkaido in the Meiji period saw the small town grow into a city with a significant presence. Along with the official development of Hokkaido, towns such as Sapporo needed access to Honshu, the main island of Japan, for commodities and resources – this is where Otaru Port played a vital role. Sea routes connected Otaru to places such as Europe and Sakhalin, whilst the establishment of a rail route to Sapporo made freight services by land possible.

With trade routes on both sea and land, Otaru became the main port of Hokkaido and, in turn, saw banks and businesses flock to the town to set up offices and raise capital. Otaru was thriving with so much business at the time that it earned the nickname, “The Wall Street of the North”.

The merchants of Otaru held significant power at the time and influenced not only the markets in Hokkaido, but overseas as well. During the glory days of Otaru in the late Taisho period, the Otaru Canal was constructed. Part of the coast was reclaimed as land to create the 40 metre wide, 1,140 metre long canal, before close to 120 warehouses made of stone were built alongside it.

Nowadays, many multi-storey buildings, such as the Otaru branch of the Bank of Japan, still fill the city like they did during more prosperous times. A trip around Otaru to soak in the sights of buildings and railways that were constructed in days gone by will set you on a nostalgic adventure to remember.

Together with the shift towards modernisation, cars became the norm and the population of Sapporo exploded, forcing Otaru to lose its crown as the central business district. Sapporo took over the economic throne and Otaru now sees visitors flock to it for its charms as a tourist town.

The warehouses lining Otaru Canal are now used as tourist facilities and house establishments such as restaurants and glass-making workshops. Lights illuminate historical buildings at night, whilst rickshaws and retro-styled buses roam around the streets as the city works hard to preserve and maintain the historical buildings that help to boost tourism.

As a port city, Otaru is well-known for being blessed with delicious seafood. Otaru Beer, on the other hand, is a popular local brew worth a taste or two. If you are a gourmand looking for good food and drink, then make sure to put Otaru on your list.

The city is also known as a town of glass and music boxes, making it the perfect place for souvenir shopping on days away from the ski slopes.

February marks the arrival of the Otaru Snow Light Path, an annual event which sees the snowy streets of Otaru majestically lit up. Otaru Canal is also spectacularly illuminated during the event, so make sure you book your tickets to see this magnificent sight in all its glory.

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KIRORO

A MAJOR SKI RESORT JUST A STONE’S THROW AWAY FROM OTARU

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Kiroro Snow World is known for receiving the most snowfall in Hokkaido. The constant snowfall in the area means that the snow is always fresh, prompting skiers and snowboarders from all around the world to flock to this ski resort in search of the world’s best powder snow. The cat has been let out of the bag and Kiroro Snow World is the talk of the town.

At the base of the mountain is the Mountain Centre Facility and the Sheraton Hotel, which is connected directly to the ski area. Approximately 2 kilometres away from the ski slope is the Tribute Portfolio Hotel, the closest fully-serviced resort hotel to Sapporo and bigger than the Sheraton in scale. Both hotels are excellent and offer a wide range of facilities. There are also a number of great hot springs in the area, so you really cannot go wrong with either choice when choosing accommodation in Kiroro.

Visitors staying in Otaru or Sapporo will find Kiroro Snow World a welcome ski resort at a convenient 40 minutes away from Otaru and 1 hour away from Sapporo. Whilst many skiers travel directly to Kiroro from New Chitose Airport, I believe it is a complete waste not to stay in Sapporo or Otaru if you have already made the journey over to Hokkaido. Another suggestion would be to spend a few days at one of the hotels in Kiroro during a long stay in Hokkaido to take advantage of everything the resort has to offer.

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MOUNT TENGU

A TRICKY SKI AREA MADE FOR AND LOVED BY OTARU LOCALS

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Mount Tengu (Tenguyama) is a ski area located behind Otaru and can be seen from the town. There are a number of attractions in the area for those who have no interest in skiing including: the observation deck on the top of the mountain that has earned a 1 star listing on the Michelin Green Guide Japan; the Hananade Tengu-san, which is a large statue of a Japanese demon with a long nose, said to grant the wishes of those who rub its nose; the Tengu Museum, which houses a collection of different tengu masks from all over Japan; and the Otaru Ski Museum.

This ski area is a typical local slope and can be easily missed due to its small scale. Many visitors are unaware of the fact that Mount Tengu was the first place in Hokkaido to introduce ski lifts to the area. It is also where Otaru locals go to earn their stripes – skiers who are able to conquer the slope in one run are considered bonafide skiing experts.

The courses at this resort run down steep slopes and can be challenging even for the most experienced of skiers. Of the various courses, the Dynamic Course, nicknamed “the Tengu Wall”, is the most unforgiving of them all at at heart-stopping 42 degrees steep. This course for experts is a joy to master after a night of heavy snowfall. Otaru is known for producing a number of Olympic athletes and Mount Tengu is often used as the training grounds for these elite skiers and snowboarders. With a reputation for producing world-class athletes, the Tengu Wall is sure to capture the hearts of advanced skiers and snowboarders alike.

A visit to Mount Tengu at night is also recommended in order to see the beautiful night scenery in the area. Whilst the tengu is a Japanese demon known for its long nose, the jury is still out as to why Mount Tenguwas named as such.

SNOW CRUISE ONZE

A RARE EXPERIENCE – SKIING WITH AN OCEAN VIEW

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Snow Cruise Onze is a ski resort located 20 minutes from Otaru and 30 minutes from Sapporo by car, placing it approximately mid-way between the two cities. This ski resort is unique in that it gets particularly busy at night due to its nighttime courses staying open until 11:00 pm. The biggest drawcard of this resort is its location. With the ocean right next to the ski slope, skiers racing down the slope feel almost as if they are diving into the sea beyond the mountain.

Onze is easy to access and has a variety of courses on offer, such as: groomed runs with compacted snow, non compacted snow courses both standard and with moguls, and even relaxing forest runs. Skiers and snowboarders of all different levels are bound to find a suitable course to shred to their heart’s content

This ski resort is popular amongst locals for the ability to enjoy the beautiful night views with nighttime access available on all of the courses.

Whilst the ski resort might be a little too small for you to enjoy a full day of skiing, it is a great place to drop by after a day of sightseeing in Otaru or Sapporo. The “Handsfree 4 Hour Ticket” is one of the various packages on offer that bundle equipment rental and resort admission all in one. Snow Cruise Onze is a great resort for a casual ski trip and is worth adding to your list of ski slopes to visit in Hokkaido.

YOICHI

HOME OF THE FATHER OF JAPANESE WHISKY AND NIKKA WHISKY

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If you happen to find yourself in Otaru, then I highly recommended you take the 30 minute train ride over to the little town of Yoichi. Despite being a small town of only 20,000 people, there are a number of old ruins and other spots to make for a relaxing sightseeing trip. The most famous of all of the tourist attractions in Yoichi is none other than the origins of Japanese Whisky itself – the Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery.

Japanese whisky has gained recognition and high praise around the world in recent times, with the Nikka Taketsuru 17 Year Old Pure Malt taking out the World’s Best Blended Malt Award at the 2018 World Whiskies Awards (WWA). The Taketsuru brand has now racked up a total of 8 international awards.

The Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery was founded by the father of Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru in 1934, with the goal of producing authentic whisky in Japan.

Taketsuru travelled to Scotland on his own to learn the intricacies of producing whisky, fuelled by his unwavering desire to find his own whisky utopia. He finally settled on a small town similar to Scotland with cool, humid weather and fresh water with clean air – Yoichi. The heavy stone walls of the distillery capped off with a red roof makes it look almost as though it was taken directly out of a Scottish town.

The distillery continues to produce authentic whisky to this day and offers highly popular free tours to give visitors some insight into how their whisky is produced. Whilst guided tours are only offered in Japanese, the historical distillery area is free for visitors to walk around with English descriptions on exhibits providing fascinating tidbits of trivia. There is also an English app available for download, so language should not pose any issues.

Along with free whisky tastings, the distillery also offers visitors access to the museum and the residence where Masataka Taketsuru once lived. Make sure you travel over to the distillery by train since drinking and driving is strictly prohibited.

Travelling around SETOUCHI

Travelling around SETOUCHI

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AN UNDISCOVERED AREA OF FASCINATION

Words and Photography: Kazuya Baba

1. LIVING WITH CATS IN A TOWN LOVED BY CYCLISTS – ONOMICHI

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Japan, a country that changes with the seasons. Up in the north is Hokkaido with its skiing heaven, whilst Okinawa occupies the south with its beautiful coral paradise. Let’s not also forget Tokyo and Osaka as front runners for the latest world trends, amongst a variety of other unforgettable cities.

While Japan is a booming nation of tourism in itself, there is an area west of Osaka that has been gathering more attention of late – Setouchi. The Setouchi area refers to the central area of the Shikoku region that surrounds the Seto Inland Sea and is filled with beautiful cities and towns lining the coastline. Hiroshima is likely to be the most famous and long known tourist hot spot in Setouchi due to its past as the location where the United States dropped the atomic bomb. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial, also known as the “Genbaku Dome”, is one of the many popular places to visit in Hiroshima.

This feature, however, will take a step further into the area to showcase spots away from the more famous locations. Although I will be going introducing each location in the order I visited them, this should not stop anybody from travelling directly to them from Osaka using the variety of transport methods on offer as they are all fairly accessible. In October 2017, I accepted an invitation from an organisation promoting tourism for the Setouchi area and hopped on a plane from Sydney to Japan to experience the wonders waiting for me. From the gateway to west Japan, Kansai Airport, I transferred onto another plane to head towards Hiroshima. For the most part in Hiroshima I was on a tour that focused on sake. If you are after some further reading about the intricacies of the liquor, then please have a look at the “GOING WALKABOUT IN THE SAKE TOWNS OF TAKEHARA AND SAIJO” feature (page 24) in the 16th volume of jStyle released last year. This feature is a continuation of that trip.

After delving into the fascinating world of sake in Take hara and Saijo in Hiroshima, we (a group comprised of media from Australia, the US, and other influential outlets invited to participate in this trip) visited the port town of Onomichi. Although it was my first trip to Onomichi, I was very familiar with the town as the backdrop of many movies and novels. With one look at the town I knew it as the place well loved by literary legends.

My first port of call upon reaching Onomichi was Senko-ji, a temple built over 1,200 years ago in the year 806. The
temple grounds, built atop a hill, can be reached by rop eway from the city centre. While there is a trail from the ropeway station at the peak to Senko-ji, known as the “Bungaku no Komichi” (Trail of Literature), I decided to stop by the nearby observation tower first.

The view from the temple is spectacular as it is, but due to the observation tower’s location higher up on a hill, it offers an even wider view of Onomichi. Everything that can be seen from this point encapsulates the beauty of the Setouchi area, from the town of Onomichi bustling below, to the Seto Inland Sea supplying water to the town, as well as Mukaishima further out.

From the observation tower I trekked down the Bungaku no Komichi. This mountain trail is lined with 25 poem monuments featuring verses capturing the beauty of Onomichi as seen through the eyes of various writers and the hearts of those who live there. The poems on these monuments are all written in old prose or completely in kanji (Chinese characters), making some of them difficult for the average Japanese person to grasp, yet even so, it was very strange to feel the intense passion emanating from each character written. As I soaked up this mysterious air on the walk down, I found myself at Senko-ji.

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Senko-ji boasts a long history filled with many different legendary tales, which also means it offers a lot to see, such as peculiar-shaped rocks, and beautiful sights. The sight of various temple halls lining the sheer, mountainous terrain creates an intensely unique atmosphere. Take a trip over to this temple to feel the old Onomichi culture filling the air.

As you approach the city going down the narrow, yet elegant stretch of hillside from Senko-ji, you may find yourself lucky enough to spot a few cats. Onomichi is extremely fascinating for the cat-inspired ornaments placed around the area due to the large amount of cats lurking around the place. There are also cat cafés in the area, making it a must visit location for cat lovers.

Despite the compact size of the town, Onomichi is famous for its ramen, with many Onomichi-style ramen restaurants found dotted all around the place and people lining up to get inside. I highly recommend a leisurely stroll around the town to see all of the unique hot spots as the sea breeze gently flows through your hair.

Onomichi is also known as the starting point of the “Setouchi Shimanami Kaido”. The Shimanami Kaido is a bridging route stretching approximately 60 kilometres from Onomichi to Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. There are 6 large islands connected together through this route, and the characteristic shapes of the bridges have earned this route the nickname, “the bridge museum”. A defining feature of this route is that it can be travelled by foot and by bicycle. It was also included on CNN’s list of the “7 best bike routes in the world”, cementing its place as an internationally renowned cycling course. Onomichi is not simply just a well visited town, but also a town adored by cyclists from around the world. With rental services, ride-and-drop-off bikes, fully-serviced rest stops, and other cyclist-centric infrastructure makes this town a must for cyclists and enthusiasts alike.

After enjoying Onomichi to its fullest, I set off for the beautiful town of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture.

2. A TOWN FROZEN 300 YEARS IN THE PAST; THEREAR QUARTERS OF KURASHIKI – YAKAGE

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Although I was unable to visit myself on this trip, a representative from the organisation highly recommended I drop by a certain place when I got the chance to. The place in question was the town of Yakage, which is known as the rear quarters of Kurashiki owing to its well preserved old streets. Back in the Edo period when Yakage was a prosperous post town on the old Sanyo Highway, it accommodated the feudal lords travelling between their respective regions and Edo during the period of feudal lords working for the shogunate. The residences of the Old Yakage Honjin Ishii Family and the Old Yakage Waki Honjin Takakusa Family still stand to this day and are both recognised as Important Cultural Properties of Japan. Both of these residences are the only two Important Cultural Properties that still exist and both can only be found in Yakage. The luxuriously spacious houses spanning approximately 3,300 square metres are a reflection of the grand times in which they were built. Those who have a chance to visit this area should take advantage of the free guides on offer. The streets of Yakage are also filled with other old buildings from after the Edo period, so make sure you drop by for a time slip into a more nostalgic era. With its handy location on the way over to Kurashiki, why not take a trip over when you find yourself with some time on your hands? A TOWN FROZEN 300 YEARS IN THE PAST; THE REAR QUARTERS OF KURASHIKI – YAKAGE Kurashiki has preserved the feel of its old street landscape, and is a town known for taking advantage of the natural and history-rich environment of which forms the heart of the region. One step into this town will make you never want to leave this beautiful, other-worldly place.

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The area of Kurashiki centred around Kurashiki River has been reclaimed and is currently being developed into rice fields, whilst also maintaining its history as a main port city, ruled by the Matsuyama clan during the Edo period, where it served as a connecting point for goods heading north. Following this period, the region became an area of resources with the backing of protection from the bakufu and abundant produce in its surrounds. From this, the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter area then turned into the bustling location it is today.

Stucco-finished houses and white-walled warehouses lined the streets around the Kurashiki River during the period where boats would carry cargo through the area during high tide. The sight of these old buildings can still be enjoyed by visitors to the area to this day. There are also a variety of programs for visitors to participate in, such as wearing kimonos or taking a ride on a boat which harks back to older times.

3. THE INNOVATIONS OF THE EDO PERIOD PRISTINELY PRESERVED IN THIS TOWN – KURASHIKI

We all went our separate ways to explore the town filled with elegant stores as far as the eye could see. There was even a shrine on a hill offering a view of the whole town. Not a moment of boredom was to be had as I strolled around the town.

Of all the areas I visited, the area of Honmachi and Higashimachi to the east of the town centre was of particular interest to me. Walking around the streets here made me feel as though I had entered a time slip. All of the buildings still maintained the same charm as they had when they were first built before the area along the riverside. Cabinet makers, coopers, and other stores run by craftsmen continue to operate as they did long ago, making a walk through this area a highly recommended trip to the past.

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A large portion of this area has been designated for preservation, however, approximately 200 families still call the area home. The feeling of people going about their daily lives in this historic area was quite refreshing.

Galleries, general stores, a jazz café, a café built in a refurbished tea house amongst a variety of other charming little shops can be found neatly dotted around the area. The harmony of old history and modernism found in Kurashiki is so quintessentially Japanese and definitely deserves to be experienced firsthand.

Another highly unique tourist attraction near Kurashiki that deserves a mention is Kojima Jeans Street. The Kojima area of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture is known as the birthplace of Japanese jeans. The 400 metre stretch of stores by local
jeans makers and general goods shops known as “Jeans Street” was named so to boost local business and to help promote the area. A variety of style-centric clothing shops selling pieces unique to the area, such as indigo dyed shirts, line the streets and absolutely cannot be missed by anybody who has a penchant for fashion.

4. A UNIQUE TOWN OF RED – FUKIYA

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A large part of the itinerary involved going through the Great Seto Bridge to cross the Seto Inland Sea from Honshu to Shikoku, however, there was one place the organisation wanted to visit first – Fukiya in Okayama Prefecture. Located an hour and a half north of Kurashiki and Okayama City, it is a neat little place worth visiting.

The town of Fukiya is a historical town and was originally established for copper mining. In 1707, it became the first place in Japan to produce the red colour pigment, “bengara” in Japan. Known for having high quality bengara that maintained its red vibrancy even when baked, demand for the product spread across the nation. The Fukiya region prospered through the production of bengara during the end of the Edo period. After a conversation between bengara sellers leading to the establishment of the town, it was recognised in 1977 by the Agency of Cultural Affairs as an Important Preservation District or Groups of Traditional Buildings.

Visitors to other areas of Japan may find that the sight of luxurious mansions built by wealthy folk are not as uncommon as one might think; what sets Fukiya apart from the rest is that each of the individual houses are not in fact draped in luxury, but instead, were built by calling upon carpenters to build a whole town in the same style. While the concept may have been rather advanced for its time, seeing the completed town as it stands is impressive, to say the least.

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No other place in Japan offers the sight of a neatly designed town comprised of copper-red Sesshu tiles and the bengara pigment. While the town itself may be small, quaint stores fill the streets, and visitors can also try their hand at some bengara dyeing crafts. For those taking public transport, there needs to be some juggling of trains and buses to get to the town, as it does require a little bit of leg work. Although it might be easier to hop onto a taxi or take a shuttle service from nearby accommodation facilities, this little town is definitely worth a visit for the unique experience it offers.

5. THE WORLD’S LONGEST MULTIPURPOSE BRIDGE – THE GREAT SETO BRIDGE

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Once we left Fukiya it was finally time to cross the Great Seto Bridge connecting Honshu to Shikoku. The sight of islands connected by a great bridge in the peaceful blue sea is one that perfectly frames the area of Setouchi.

The Great Seto Bridge was opened in 1988 and is a collective term referring to the 10 bridges connecting Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture in the Honshu region to Sakaide, Kagawa Prefecture in the Shikoku region.

There is nothing quite like gazing over the islands floating in the calm Seto Inland Sea as you cross the great bridge. For those who want to soak up the views even further then a stop by the Yoshima Parking Area is highly recommended. This is the only parking area on the Great Seto Bridge and the Yoshima Plaza located in front of it is a tourist hot spot in itself with stores, a food court, and an observation deck with a great view of the area.

It is also a great place to visit to pick up some typical Setouchi region foods as souvenirs.

6. CLIMBING UP 1,368 STEPS TO MEET A DEITY – KOTOHIRA

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Crossing the Great Seto Bridge led us to our next gateway, Kagawa Prefecture. The organisation we were with referred to it as the “udon prefecture” due to its reputation as the most renowned prefecture for udon in all of Japan. For udon purists, one cannot look past “sanuki udon” from Kagawa Prefecture. With the popularity of Japanese cuisine gaining more traction over the past few years, the term “sanuki udon” is sure to be making the rounds.

Not far from the gateway to Shikoku after hopping off the Great Seto Bridge is Kotohira, a town known for its worship of the sea deity since ancient times. The most famous shrine in Kotohira, Kotohira-gu (also known as “Sanuki Konpira-san”), can be found halfway up Mount Zozu and is said to have enticed pious followers from all around Japan to worship the deity of the sea for bountiful crops, large fish hauls, prosperous business, and other good fortunes.

While many people visit this shrine for its blessings, it also has another major draw card – the number of stairs it houses. There are 785 steps from the gateway towards the shrine to the main shrine itself, and a further 1,368 stone steps to the rear shrine. The approach leading to the shrine is filled with historic sites and cultural treasures, while the rear approach has displays of cherry blossoms in the spring, azaleas in early summer, and gorgeous leaves in autumn. Strap on your hiking boots and experience the beautiful seasonal views and you find yourself in an atmosphere of eternity, or, if you’re game enough, climb all the way to the top (taking necessary breaks) for a great workout.

Those who make it all the way to the top will be rewarded with a spectacular view. After a fulfilling visit to the temple the way back down is filled with a variety of shops to visit, making it a fun and relaxing way to leisurely quench your thirst on your trek home.

Kotohira is also known for its hot springs and is filled with a variety of magnificent accommodation establishments with onsen facilities. Book a room at one of these establishments to enjoy the services they have to offer, but don’t forget to grab a bowl of sanuki udon while you’re at it!

7. AWA DANCE AND ONE OF THE LARGEST WHIRLPOOLS IN THE WORLD – NARUTO

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The last stop on this trip was none other than Tokushima Prefecture. This prefecture is known as “the land of Awa” (the former name of Tokushima Prefecture) as it is the birthplace of the ancient Japanese dance – the Awa Dance.

Awa dance involves chanting “yatto-saa, yatto-saa” while dancing in a group. It is a dance synonymous with Japan and has even spread overseas. In fact, its reach has also expanded to the point where large scale shows are held in cities such as Tokyo. While these shows may be big, nothing can surpass the scale of the authentic Awa Dance Festival in Tokushima, which involves children dancers and massive crowds. When the festival rolls in, people from all around flock to see this event, the largest of its kind in Japan. Since we weren’t lucky enough to visit Tokushima during the festival, we were treated to demonstrations of it instead and also got our own feet moving, too.

At first glance, the dance may appear to be rather simple – involving sticking your right hand and foot out at the same time, however, it was actually rather fun learning about the intricacies of the dance and the differences between how men and women dance. After wearing out our dancing feet, we set off for our final destination – Naruto.

Naruto is a tourist hot spot known for the tidal currents in its strait and is a must-see location for those who find themselves in Tokushima. While the islands of Japan are riddled with many complicated currents in and around it, Naruto is said to boast the fastest currents in all of Japan with maximum spring tide speeds reaching approximately 20 kilometres per
hour. These are said to be one of the largest tidal currents in Japan and are known for creating large whirlpools in the ocean surface. Tours operate during the times when these whirlpools occur, so visitors can get a close up look of them while on board these boats. These mysterious natural phenomena absolutely must be seen.

Large whirlpools can span up to 20 metres in diameter and can be seen up close by boat. The currents create whirlpools that last from a few seconds up to a minute. As one whirlpool disappears, another is formed in its place, repeating this cycle over and over again. I was fortunate enough to see these artistic natural phenomena created by the gravitational pull of the moon, combined with the sea currents, with my very own eyes. Experiencing the power of nature was absolutely awe-inspiring.

Naruto marked the end of the group tour. We all parted ways at Tokushima Awaodori Airport to fly out to Tokyo or Osaka, and finally head home. While our trip around the Setouchi area was quick and concise, I still vvery much got a chance to experience the wide and deep offerings the region had in store for me. Now that most smartphones come with capable GPS features to navigate around Japan in English, this might be the perfect chance to head on over for a fun road trip around Setouchi.

Go ahead and slip the Setouchi area into your itinerary for your next trip to Japan.