Escape the hustle and bustle of Japan’s mega cities and explore well-preserved rural boroughs along the country’s western coast.
Immersive cultural experiences continue to be a major drawcard for many incentive travel planners, and there’s no culture quite as beguiling as that found across Japan. For an authentic taste of Japanese tradition, skip the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and Osaka, and explore the picturesque San’in area, which runs along the western coast of Japan.
Here, the prefectures of Tottori, Yamaguchi, Shimane and Hiroshima are home to smaller cities, sacred sites, awe-inspiring natural landscapes and carefully preserved cultural traditions.
Recognising this potential, the Japan Convention Bureau recently launched a number of initiatives to introduce the region to corporate meeting and incentive planners.
“Besides conventional business hubs, governmental efforts have helped strengthen the competitiveness of cities nationwide under the program Global MICE Cities,” says Etsuko Kawasaki, executive director of the Japan Convention Bureau.
“JNTO has also been promoting well-preserved Japanese cities with a more traditional feel. A recent promotional video on these, titled “Compact Convention Cities” introduces the charms of Hiroshima, Takayama, Okayama and Himeji; destinations that allow event participants to be closely in contact with the local community and craftspeople.”
Another key factor, she says, is the unique geography of the area. “Neighbouring with the Seto Inland Sea, Western Japan is abundant with nature, showcasing different hues and charms throughout the region.”
Following a recent road trip through the San’in area, here’s our list of top 10 experiences:
Conduct a private cooking class for up to 20 people at Otafuku Okonomiyaki Cooking Studio and learn how to make this popular Japanese savoury pancake, Hiroshima style. Here, Okonomiyaki is a symbol of recovery, gaining popularity after the WWII atomic bomb attack when food was scarce.
The Otafuku studio is conveniently located at Hiroshima Station and can tailor experiences with halal and vegetarian options. Guests gather around a large teppan grill and follow English-speaking instructors, adding several layers (cabbage, green onion, bean sprouts and pork) before flipping the almighty pancake and topping it with a fried egg, Okonomi sauce and seaweed.
Gardens at Adachi museum
Become part of a ‘living canvas’ at the Adachi museum in Shimane prefecture, home to some of the most beautiful gardens in all of Japan. The museum, established in 1970, was cleverly built around six gardens, where large windows are designed to ‘frame’ the gardens as if they were a painted landscape. From a pine garden and dry landscape, to ponds and carefully curated moss lawns, the museum is open year-round and features 1,500 artistic works by Japanese masters.
Fold paper cranes in Hiroshima
In memory of Sadako Sasaki (who died aged 11 from leukaemia caused by radiation exposure following the 1946 atomic bomb attack), the art of folding paper cranes is now a symbol of peace in Hiroshima. Sasaki’s death triggered a movement and visitors from across the globe now donate paper cranes to her statue, which stands atop the Children’s Peace Monument in the heart of the city.
Hiroshima Orizuru Tower, just east of the Atomic Bomb Dome World Heritage Site, hosts paper crane folding workshops for groups of 50-60 people. After 7pm, its rooftop observation deck can be used for cocktail receptions for 50-200 guests. The twelfth-floor auditorium can also host presentations and private workshops for up to 150 people.
A visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, while sombre, is a prerequisite while visiting the city. Beyond shock and awe, the museum is an educational platform where photographs and artefacts provide a very human face to the current political debate surrounding nuclear power. This makes for an incredibly moving experience.
Visit Natural Wonders
The San’in Kaigan Geopark extends through Kyoto, Hyogo and Tottori prefectures, where the natural history of the area is mapped out in layers of rock and sand. In summer, ride camels along the Tottori Sand Dunes, which stretch for 16km along the Sea of Japan. During winter, learn to ski or snowboard on Mt. Daisen, the Chugoku region’s highest peak. Daisen White Resort runs private ski or snowboarding lessons for groups of 10, and a number of onsen resorts surround the mountain.
In Yamaguchi prefecture, the Mine-Akiyoshidai Karst Plateau Geopark brings a 350-million-year-old drama to life. Trek through the Akiyoshidai Plateau, scattered with the sediment of ancient coral reefs. Then explore the Akiyoshi Cave below, which features dramatic limestone structures.
This formal meal is considered the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine. Kaiseki is not a specific dish or cooking technique, but a way of eating often involving several tiny courses (12 or more) that incorporate aesthetic elements such as calligraphy and flower arranging. A number of dishes are also prepared at the table, often on individual hibachi grills and DIY hotpots perched atop a single flame. Likened to the ritualistic nature of tea ceremony, kaiseki is an art form, where taste, texture, colour and theatre come together to create an engaging dining experience.
Kaiseki is often served at ryokan (traditional Japanese-style inn) across Japan, with a focus on local, seasonal produce. In Tottori prefecture, this means seafood, and in winter (November-March) the famed Matsuba Gani (snow crab) dominates the menu.
Kaike Grand Hotel Tensui in Yonago City serves a beautifully curated kaiseki meal as part of its accommodation and onsen experience, where kimono-clad servers prepare dishes in private dining rooms.
In nearby Matsue, the capital city of Shimane Prefecture, the long-established Minamikan ryokan can accommodate up to 150 diners across four floors that overlook Lake Shinjiko. Its kaiseki menu features its renowned tai-meshi (sea bream rice) dish, which is prepared according to a 140-year-old secret recipe.
Perfect onsen etiquette
In Japan, natural wonders extend to hot springs. And a truly immersive cultural experience isn’t complete without a visit to the onsen. The Hagihonjin ryokan in Hagi City is the ideal place to perfect your onsen etiquette, with a total of 14 different onsen baths – indoor and outdoor, standing pools, and open air spas with views of Mt Azumayama.
The onsen is a healing sanctuary, where the water’s natural minerals soothe aching muscles and nourish the skin. But, rules apply. Firstly, you must be naked, and after stripping down you are expected to wash thoroughly before entering the hot spring baths. Small bathing stations provide soap and toiletries. Modesty towels are also provided, but don’t dip this into the onsen pool – this is for washing the body only. Respect the purity of the water by placing the towel on your head (most patrons do this to cool down while simmering in the hot baths).
After the onsen, walk through Hagi’s historical Castle Town precinct, where streets are lined with traditional (and original) Japanese homes from the Edo period and ceramic boutiques where guests can meet local artisans.
Take a ferry to Miyajima Island, off the coast of Hiroshima, for a day trip or stay overnight at one of several ryokan set amid the primeval forest in Momijidani Park. Explore the many temples and shrines dotted around the island, including the famed Itsukushima Shrine, and take a group photo in front of the impressive O-Torii gate.
Hike up Mt Misen and take in the views via a ropeway (cable cars) that connects Shishi-wa Station with Mt. Misen. Meanwhile, the Omotesando Shopping Arcade is full of restaurants, boutiques and craft centres where groups can learn how to bake Miyajima’s favourite sweet, momiji manju (maple leaf-shaped waffles filled with bean paste).
Fugu (blowfish) is a delicacy in Japan. Try fugu sashimi, fugu hotpot, fugu tempura and fugu sake at the renowned Shunpanro Honten restaurant in Shimonoseki city, the fugu capital of Japan. Following a 16th century ban on eating poisonous blowfish, Shunpanro Honten served fugu in 1888 to the then prime minister and the ban was subsequently lifted.
Fugu chefs must go through rigorous training to attain a licence that permits them to serve fugu (internal organs contain a toxin that is said to be 10,000 times more poisonous than cyanide). If diners can work up the courage to take bite, they are duly rewarded.
Shunpanro Honten serves its fugu kaiseki cuisine during winter, and abalone in the summer. The venue has two floors of private party rooms that can accommodate 30-140 guests, while the main dining space features 10 private dining rooms.
Shinto experience in Izumo
Rent a kimono or haori and explore the quaint village surrounding the grand Izumo-Taisha shrine, one of the oldest and most important Shinto shrines in Japan.
Visit the shrine, take in the stunning natural surrounds and observe the world’s largest Shimenawa (Shinto straw festoon), a striking Shinto symbol used for ritual purification.
Then, create your own Shimenawa at the nearby Goen Shimenawa Taiken Kobo craft workshop. Here, local artisans instruct groups of 20 on how to carefully twist rice straw into sacred rope and create personalised souvenirs with a range of decorative adornments.
Make a wish at Motonosumi Jinja Shrine
Avoid the crowds in Kyoto and instead visit Motonosumi Jinja Shrine (main image) in Nagato City instead. Perched along the coast of the Japan Sea, the shrine’s 123 vibrant red tori gates wind down the cliff face towards cobalt blue waves below, making this an insta-worthy photo stop when travelling through Yamaguchi prefecture. While you’re there, make a wish to the honorary white fox spirit by tossing a coin into an offertory box positioned on top of the tallest tori gate.
For more information, visit: https://www.japan.travel/en/destinations/chugoku/shimane/