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3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region

3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region / Setouchi / A Thousand Islands Set in the Sparkling Inland Sea

At the southwest end of main island, Honshu, facing the Seto Inland Sea, is a region whose mild southern clime and seaward outlook have fostered for centuries progressive people tolerant of change. Yamaguchi, in fact, became the breeding ground for revolutionaries who brought Japan into the modern era. There is a great deal of beauty and history to be found not only in such places as Hagi in Yamaguchi, but also in Hiroshima, a tranquil city that unwillingly gained a place in modern world history, and the floating shrine at Miyajima, revered for a thousand years. From vantage points such as Imabari on the island of Shikoku, take in breathtaking views of the Inland Sea or venture inland to explore the former castle town of Matsuyama.

Nights of Lore Today

The great red shrine gate stands in the sea. Who has not seen that powerful image of Japan? Or the A-bomb dome of Hiroshima--a fragile symbol of a terrifying force? These places, both World Cultural Heritage Sites, are but an hour apart in the prefecture of Hiroshima, facing the glorious island-dotted Inland Sea of Japan. From the absorbing displays at the A-bomb memorial museum, all you have to do is take a half-hour ferry ride to the floating red pavilions of the Miyajima Shrine for a total change of mood. Find yourself transported back a thousand years to the time when princes approached this sacred island through the red shrine gate and mere mortals could not touch its soil.
These days, anyone can visit Miyajima, and it is highly recommended to stay overnight. This not only provides the chance to try some of the area's luscious oysters at a restaurant or inn, but to take a quiet stroll at dusk among wet-nosed deer in maple-shrouded glens and to see the red shrine lit by hundreds of lanterns at night.
Follow this magical nightscape, with another otherworldly experience at the former castle town of Iwakuni, just half an hour down the coast from Miyajima. Here, straddling the serene Nishiki River, is surely one of the loveliest bridges in the world, the "Brocade Sash Bridge," Kintaikyo, gracefully illuminated at night. Add to your enjoyment of Iwakuni by timing your visit for a midsummer's night when local cormorant fishermen put on their traditional dress and take out their skiffs to catch sweetfish by firelight. The scene has not changed in 300 years, from the time when the lord of the castle on the hill ordered that ukai [cormorant fishing] be performed as a distraction on the long, humid nights of summer. Board a skiff yourself and watch the fishermen work their birds at close range. Perhaps even take home some of their catch to be cooked fresh at your inn--a great summer delicacy.

Warrior Revolutionaries

In the morning you might take the cable car to explore the castle on the hill and the historic town at its feet with its old samurai mansions, and imagine the days when samurai made their way to the castle on foot. Some of their mansions are now museums.
Samurai! You are now on the doorstep of the breeding ground of great revolutionaries who, at the end of the 19th century, brought the whole system of rule by a warrior elite to a dramatic end. Being far from the seat of government in Edo [now Tokyo], the leaders of the Choshu Domain, the old name for Yamaguchi, had opportunities for clandestine contact with the outside world. These thinkers embraced the latest learning from Europe and set up schools to teach Western language, medicine and science, and realized more and more that Japan could not stay isolated anymore.
At trysts in tea houses and inns, the Choshu revolutionaries and their Satsuma compatriots of Kyushu plotted the end of the 300-year-old shogunate. Even now, guests at the Matsudaya Inn in Yamaguchi City, can bathe in the very bathtub shared by these men, now called the Ishin no Yu, the "Meiji Restoration Bath."
And in the seaside city of Hagi, an hour from Yamaguchi City, explore the former homes and one of the schools of men who led Japan into its modem era, including Japan's first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito. They are preserved in a lovely area of lanes lined with crumbling earthen walls and mandarine trees.
Hagi is a place redolent with history. From an earlier time, when a powerful clan known as the Mori ruled these parts, are two temples--the Toko-ji and the Daisho-in--that hold the grand Mori tombs. The tall stone lanterns standing in eerie rows heralding the tombs were donated by retainers in place of their own lives. This is one of the most memorable sights of Japan.
Adding to the interest of a visit to Hagi is the local Hagi-yaki pottery, regarded by tea ceremony aficionados as one of the great ceramic wares. This white or beige-pink ware is said to get more beautiful the more it is used. Kilns and shops selling Hagi ware dot the city.

Immersing Oneself in History

From Hiroshima it is a 70-minute hydrofoil ride to the island of Shikoku, one of the four main islands of Japan. Until a decade or so ago, Shikoku could only be reached by boat or plane. Now three bridges link the main island of Honshu with Shikoku. But if you are trying to reach Shikoku from Hiroshima, the easiest way is by ferry to Matsuyama. Here is one of the few castles in Japan that were not destroyed as relics of feudalism in the modem era and which retains its original keep.
However, it is not just for the castle that most people visit Matsuyama, but also to try out a legendary bath. Before 6:30 in the morning crowds of tourists and locals, from bikers to elderly ladies, can be seen lining up outside the legendary Dogo-onsen Hot Spring bathhouse. They are waiting for the beating of the drum on the phoenix-topped roof that will proclaim business open for the day. Once inside they segregate into men's and women's baths, wash outside the tubs and ease into the baths for a long soak.
After a bath, it is the tradition to don the bathhouse's blue and white cotton robe called yukata, printed with the symbol for holy waters, and retire to one of the upstairs rooms to lounge on the tatami matting, eat rice crackers and drink tea, as patrons have done here for hundreds of years. On the third floor you will find a private room called "Botchan's room." This is named after the character in one of Japan's most loved stories, “Botchan”, because it was his favorite.
The wooden bathhouse, in elaborate Momoyama-style (generally noted for its gorgeous decorations) architecture, has been designated an important cultural property. It was built in 1894, but bathing at Dogo-onsen dates back more than 1,000 years. At one time there were separate baths for samurai, priests, upper-class women, commoners and animals. The bathhouse still has a gilt bathroom with coffered ceiling made for a visit by an emperor.
The Dogo-onsen Hot Spring waters do not promise miraculous cures, though the spa is claimed to alleviate anything from stiff joints to rough-edged nerves. Most people come here simply to be a part of history.

Blue and White Stoneware

About half an hour's drive from Matsuyama City is the Baizan pottery, the place to go to see how the sturdy local blue and white stoneware called Tobe-ware is made. If you apply in advance (arrange this through the Ehime Prefecture International Center), the people at Baizan pottery will give you a guided tour of the workshop, the climbing kiln, and museum that traces Tobe-ware history from when local stone was in demand for sword-sharpening whetstones to the development of a ceramic industry.
Ceramics of a different nature can be found at the seaside town of Kikuma, which has been engaged in traditional roof tile production for several hundreds of years. Kikuma-gawara, as the local tile is known, is of such a high grade, it is even made by appointment to the Imperial Household in Tokyo. Visitors to the Kawara-no-Furusato Park can try their hand at making tiles to take home. In fall, the town fills with excitement when it comes time for the annual festival. The 500-year-old festival reaches its peak when young boys astride splendidly decorated horses gallop up the approach to the Kikuma Shrine.

And finally we come to the highlight of any trip to Shikoku--the chance to drive or ride over the Kurushima-Ohashi Bridge for the view of a lifetime. Make your connection to one of the newest links in the great bridge, from Imabari to Onomichi on the main island of Honshu, but only after viewing the dramatic Kurushima Strait from Hashihama Park at the north of the old castle town. The strait is famed for the powerful currents that swirl at 18 km per hour between the Imabari Coast and Oshima Island.