The Seto Inland Sea is Japan's best-kept secret. Lying between the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, the sea is one of the most fascinating parts of the country. Explore its sheltered coasts, or some of the 700 or so islands and islets floating in its tranquil waters, and you will find no end of wonders. From picturesque water towns to cutting-edge art, sensational cycling routes and old-style bathhouses, there is no better place to discover the unique blend of old and new that is contemporary Japan. Add some of these fascinating attractions to your itinerary.
The ancient pilgrim path: Shikoku Henro
Pilgrimages are back in fashion – think of the many travellers now tackling Spain's Camino de Santiago – but the Henro pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku has never gone out of style. Right along the 1200-kilometre route, which winds its way between 88 sacred temples, you will see white-clad pilgrims following trails that have been in use for hundreds of years. These days, it is acceptable to do some of the travel by bus, car or bicycle; alternatively, you could simply tackle part of the route.
A two-day taster will let you visit the first nine temples without over-exerting yourself: some stretches can be travelled by bus, none of the walks lasts more than two hours, and most of the trail is flat. The route, which starts at Ryozenji Temple and finishes at Okuboji Temple, takes you through some magnificent scenery, along with highlights such as the 1200 year old Cedar of Longevity and the Okunoin Gohyaku Rakanji Temple, where 200 life-size statues of priests are on display.
The water town: Kurashiki
Time appears to have stood still in the Bikan quarter of Kurashiki, where weeping willows trail their branches in quiet canals crossed by weathered stone bridges. Take a closer look, however, and you will see that this ancient town also has a decidedly modern edge. The eye-catching black and white warehouses, where local traders once stored their wares, today house not just welcoming cafes and restaurants, but also the studios of local ceramicists and designers, many of whom welcome visitors.
Art fans will also want to visit the Ohara Museum, set up by a local textile magnate to house his impressive collection which includes works by Monet, Matisse, Gauguin and Renoir. Linger into the evening, when Kurashiki's soft street lighting conjures a magic atmosphere.
The garden: Ritsurin Koen
No-one goes power walking in a Japanese garden. To the Japanese, gardening is an art form that creates a place of reflection, a place to embrace a slower pace. There are few better places to discover this than the Ritsurin Koen garden in Takamatsu City. The 75-hectare garden dates back to 1642, and is divided into Japanese and Western sections, with the Japanese portion considered one of the best of its type.
There are extensive plantings of black pine and flowering plants such as azalea, camellias, apricots and cherry blossom trees, designed to be eye-catching in every season; a dozen artificial hilltops to offer scenic viewpoints; and a number of ponds that provide shimmering reflections. Don't rush along those winding paths: the idea is to drink in each different view as it is presented. Tip: the teahouse in the southwestern part of the garden offers a lovely spot for some time out.
The onsen: Dogo-onsen at Matsuyama
Let's cut to the chase: how comfortable are you at the thought of getting naked with strangers? It is worth overcoming any inhibitions you may have to try one of Japan's most memorable rituals, a soak in an onsen, or hot spring.
Every region has its own onsen, but Matsuyama's Dogo Onsen is remarkable for several reasons beyond its age – more than 120 years old. The atmospheric wooden bathhouse was the model for the bathhouse of the gods in the popular animated film Spirited Away. There are separate bathing areas for men and women, so take a deep breath and give it a go. Just remember to do as the locals do, and wash yourself thoroughly in the shower before entering the baths.
The cycle route: Shimanami Kaido
Ride into the blue on Japan's most extraordinary cycling route, the Shimanami Kaido, or Shimanami Sea Route. This 70-kilometre cycle route offers stunning views the entire way as you travel from the southwestern corner of Honshu to Imabari city on Shikoku, crossing six islands along the way. You don't have to tackle the whole thing; there are 13 rent-a-bike stations along the way, and you can drop off your bike at any one of them.
The most exhilarating stretches are the ones where you cycle across bridges, high above the ocean; the most memorable is the three-span, 4-kilometre long Kurushima-Kaikyo suspension bridge linking Oshima Island to Shikoku. Because the bridge was designed with cyclists in mind, the ramps to and from the bridge follow a gentle incline, and dividers separate cyclists from the cars.
The art island: Naoshima
On Naoshima Island, you don't have to step inside a museum to enjoy the art. Just take a stroll along the shoreline of this scenic island and you will come across eye-catching pieces such as Yayoi Kusama's polka-dot pumpkins. If you have a penchant for painting, however, head to the subterranean Chichu Art Museum, which displays some lovely Monet paintings as well as installations by James Turrell and Walter de Maria. All these works are part of the collection of billionaire businessman Soichiro Fukutake, who invested millions of dollars creating the Benesse Art Site, one of the world's most remarkable destinations for art lovers.
The piece de resistance is the traditional village of Honmaru, where Fukutake bought up half a dozen empty houses and invited a range of artists to create site-specific pieces inside. The results range from a post-punk bricolage piece by Shinro Otake to Tastuo Miyajima's mesmerising Sea of Time '98, a pool in which countdowns operate at various speeds. Naoshima Island is also one of the venues for Setouchi Art Triennale (to be held in 2019), which involves 11 other islands in the Seto Inland Sea along with the cities of Takamatsu and Uno.
The taste sensation: Hiroshima's okonomiyaki
There is a lot more to Japanese cuisine than sushi and sashimi. One nationwide favourite that remains little-known outside Japan is the savoury pancake known as okonomiyaki, stuffed with ingredients including meat, seafood and vegetables such as cabbage and shallots. In many restaurants, diners cook the meal themselves on a teppan, or iron griddle, set into the dining table.
This crowd-pleaser is found right across the country, but Hiroshima has its own version of the tasty treat. Rather than mixing all the ingredients in the batter, as they do elsewhere, in Hiroshima they layer the ingredients – a bit like a club sandwich – before topping the lot with fried egg and yakisoba noodles. There is even a special building in town dedicated to okonomiyaki. Known as Okonomimura, the facility is home to a large number of okonomiyaki restaurants, many of which started life as street stalls more than 60 years ago.
The hidden valley: Iya Valley
Rice paddies, ancient temples, blossom-laden trees: when we think of Japan, we often conjure up serene landscapes. However, the country also has its wild side, which you can discover in the remote Iya Valley.
Located in the centre of Shikoku island, the area's jagged mountains and plunging valleys ensured that, until recently, this area remained isolated from the rest of Japan. That made it a favoured stronghold for bandits and refugees of all kinds, some of whom erected the first vine bridges that have become one of the area's trademarks. Grown out of living vines, these bridges appear perilous – the bridges have no sides, sway as you walk across them, and the planks you walk on can be as far apart as 30 centimetres – but what made them particularly useful was the ability to cut the bridges in the face of invading forces.
Just three of these bridges remain, but they are spectacular; the Iya Kazurabashi Bridge, for instance, sits 15 metres above the river and spans more than 40 metres across the valley. If you don't have a head for heights, get a different perspective on the scenery on the boat ride through beautiful Oboke Gorge.
The sacred spot: Miyajima Island
It is one of the most startling sights in Japan: a huge flaming orange torii gate that seems to float on the ocean. This astonishing vision – which only takes place at high tide – has won Miyajima Island the accolade of being one of the three most beautiful scenic views in Japan, along with Matsushima Bay and Kyoto's Amanohashidate sandbar.
The torii gate marks the entrance to the 1000-year-old Itsukushima Shrine, but this entire island has long been an object of worship. Mount Misen, which soars above the rest of the island, is considered an especially sacred spot, and visitors can choose between climbing the mountain on foot or travelling by cable car. From the top, you can enjoy magnificent views across the Inland Sea; in autumn, the foliage of the maple trees is a wonderful sight.
This article brought to you by Japan National Tourism Organization.