You can’t really say what is beautiful about a place, but the image of the place will remain vividly with you.
Having visited Japan a number of times, Selective Asia’s Nick wanted to do something really different. He imagined a route which skips Tokyo and focuses on Osaka, giving the latter the time and attention it deserves along with an extra burst of start-of-the-journey energy.
At the other end of the route, Benesse House - the hyper-stylish hotel and art gallery in the Seto Inland Sea - makes a unique final destination to aim for. You may decide to have a light introduction to Shikoku and make the art islands your main goal, or take the time for a more in depth experience of both. But how to bridge the two? By bike, of course. Saddle up in Onomichi, just a couple of hours drive from Osaka, and ride the famous Shimanami Kaido expressway…
Osaka is a favourite amongst the Japan bods in the office for lots of reasons, but notably its eating and drinking opportunities. There’s much more to this vibrant port than just being one of Asia’s top party cities!
Selective Asia’s Sarah, an accomplished artist in her own right, became more and more excited about the prospect of visiting Naoshima Island the further she delved into it. Not only is the iconic Bennesse House hotel a beautiful showcase of architecture and art, but the entire island has been transformed into an art installation and natural exhibition space where you can spend days immersing yourself in the various outdoor and indoor works. You can even hop over to the tiny neighbouring islands that offer yet more artistic immersion.
Follow a 60km cycle route across several elegantly angular modern bridges linking the small islands of the inland sea, towards the shores of Shikoku. There are plenty of places to stop, relax and explore temples and museums. Stay in a delightful local ryokan at the halfway point before the final push to the coast of Japan’s fourth largest island.
Shikoku is the least visited of Japan’s larger islands. It’s largely rural, and perhaps most famous for the 88-temple pilgrimage which takes you on a 1200-kilometre route all around its outline. You may even see a few white robed devotees trudging towards enlightenment along your route. It’s a peaceful, laid back destination that heartily welcomes international visitors. Whatever you do, make way for a bowl or two of sanuki udon; in the world of buckwheat noodles, they are at the top of the premier league.
Before you arrive in Japan, chances are you’ll have sorted your ‘konnichiwa’ from your ‘arigato’, but the above title phrase is a useful one, as it lets you order a beer right from the start! Whilst giving an instant hit of condensed Japan through its mosaic of mega city retro, noise, neon and people everywhere, Osaka doesn’t offer a lot of stand-out sights. It is, however, really well known for its utterly delicious (though often rather fried) street food. Okonomiyaki omelettes, takoyaki octopus rissoles, kushikatsu skewers - it’s all good, and wandering between street stalls, snacking as you go, is the perfect way to spend your first evening in Japan. Along with like minded companions and informative guides, head into the older part of the city where shops give way to night time stalls. If you’re after some unusual Japanese souvenirs, go shopping too; if it’s not available in Osaka, it doesn’t exist!
The city does have a handful of must-see attractions, including Osaka Castle, and the best way to enjoy them is to free your senses and see where you end up. Osaka may be noisy and brazen in comparison to elsewhere in Japan, but it’s also by far the friendliest.
Arriving in Onomichi is rather nice after the big city. There is a welcome peacefulness to all of provincial Japan, but this town holds significant interest. Well-preserved cinematic and literary connections abound, and the narrow lanes winding up the hills, peppered with stylish cafes and a contemplative air, lend the town a pleasant bohemian atmosphere. It’s well worth considering an extra night here, though the main reason for its inclusion is as the jumping off point for your cycle traverse across the Seto Inland Sea.
Despite being a modern route without much historical provenance - its bridges and roads were only completed in 1999 - it is truly lovely. Green hills rise out of the glassy sea, and the roadside cycle route diverges deliciously to the six islands. Easy, scenic and peaceful - a travel experience to savour.
It is possible to complete the route across the sea in one go, but where’s the fun in that? Halfway across, a night in a traditional ryokan awaits, complete with a multi-course dinner and the chance to ease away those cycling aches in the hot spring. Take time to visit the rather recent (1936) Kosan-ji temple and its gaudy architecture. The final pedal push takes you through Omishima before the distant hulks of the shipbuilding town of Imabari appear, marking the entrance to Shikoku island. With your cycling complete, a well earned rest awaits.
A final train journey brings you to Takamatsu, which hosts one of Japan’s finest gardens: Ritsurin Koen. It’s just like something from a fairy tale. Visit the traditional tea house and take in the chocolate box vistas before heading off again as the art islands of the Seto Inland Sea beckon...
Naoshima is breathtakingly beautiful, and as unspoilt as Mother Nature intended, but its beauty has been embellished with a peppering of original, interactive artworks. The whole island is an evolving art project, with one of the world’s most talked about hotels at its heart. Benesse House is an achingly stylish property, its design as much a piece of art as the work it holds. Coming into port from Shikoku, you clock the island’s iconic giant, polka dot pumpkin (designed by superstar artist Yayaoi Kusama) and you know you’re somewhere special.
Sculptures and installations abound; sunken museums, slabs of beautifully finished concrete and natural theatres. Around each corner is another feast for the eyes and mind. In addition to the modern, abstract pieces, there are also 5 priceless Monet’s in residence. You’ll spend your time slowly taking it all in, and a great way to see it all is - once again - by bicycle. There’s an ongoing project to restore and reconfigure some of the island’s oldest houses, transforming them into additional works of art. Each year new works are commissioned meaning that repeat visits to the island always herald new delights. Art lovers will find it difficult to justify not making a pilgrimage here.
The guide price of £2,090US$2,390 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying a total of 3 nights in Osaka, then for the kaido it’s a total of 3 nights (1 night in Onimichi, 1 in a ryokan at Ikuchijima, 1 in Imabari) before you continue to Takamatsu for 1 night to make the crossing to Naoshima for a 2 night stay; all in our favourite mid-range hotels.
Upgrading to Benesse House (and we’d really suggest you do) increases this to
How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.
Well away from the bright lights and ultra modern cities, is the other Japan you crave, on the lesser visited island of Kyushu.