Done Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka? …Okay, so has everyone else. Spice up your Japan game with hidden gems you wouldn’t find in your average guidebook!
We’ve snapped videos at Shibuya Crossing, wandered through Arashiyama’s towering bamboo, and posed with deer in Nara. It’s a blast, but what if I told you there’s a whole other side to Japan, a realm of hidden gems and authentic experiences waiting beyond the tourist trails?
Enter Hiroshima and the San’in region, and your ticket to a Japan less discovered. These are your whys for your next Japan trip:
Coastal views and majestic mountain landscape
You’re much more likely to find me on a hike than sipping lattes in Paris — if this sounds like you, consider that San’in flight ticket an instant add-to-cart.
Nestled on the north-west face of Japan, this region is a nature haven with coastal views, majestic mountain landscapes (like Mt. Hyono, where you can hike, camp, and even ski!), and Japan’s largest sand dune — Tottori Sand Dune.
Photo credit: @shinok via Unsplash
We spotted a local fisherman catching grub waist-deep in the waves!
The unassuming rocky flat is actually a raised sea floor, caused by an earthquake in the 19th century.
You can practically wave hello to South Korea across the sea.
Like walking through an open-air natural earth science museum, the rocks revealed a treasure trove of whale bones, shellfish, and other fossils, who knew a beach could tell such a wild story!
Gazing at the jaw-dropping Itsukushima Shrine (Google Maps) against the canvas of a starlit sky was an instant trip highlight. Located on Miyajima Island, the lights are dimmed early out of respect for the gods, which makes it an incredible spot for stargazing after dark!
The Land of Gods
One of the most sacred places in all of Japan, Izumo is where the annual Izumo Taisha Kamiari Festival takes place in November. Legend has it that all the gods in the Shinto religion gathered in Izumo during this time. For the rest of Japan, they call it Kannazuki, the ‘month without deities.’ So, yeah, it’s literally the ultimate spot in November.
Izumo Taisha Shrine is Japan’s oldest shrine and the dwelling place of Okuninushi, the mythological creator of the land of Japan. If you time it right, catching the Kamiari Festival is front-row seat to one of the most important events in the Shinto religion.
But wait, there’s more — cue the spotlight on Iwami Kagura. Kagura, the traditional Japanese ritual involving song and dance, happens all over Japan. However, the Iwami region elevates it to an unparalleled level.
Picture this: a whirlwind of fast-paced action, mesmerizing pyrotechnics, and an ample dose of smoke machines for that extra spectacle. Iwami Kagura blends tradition with modernity and what prevails is an exhilarating adrenaline rush. If you’re in the region, catch the masked performance at a local shrine for the most authentic experience and I guarantee you’ll walk away with sweaty palms.
Trust me, this region can turn even the most iPad-obsessed kid into an adventure enthusiast!
Escaping through the archipelago of Setouchi through Hiroshima’s high-speed cruiser SEA SPICA is a must for all families. The tour features a whole range of sights, from getting up close and personal with navy ships at the Kure Naval Base to historical tours on Shimo-Kamagari Island.
Right next to Miyajima Island, kids can unleash their inner marine biologists with an oyster-catching and buffet Extravaganza. The tour starts with a quick boat ride from Shimada Suisan at 7AM. We caught the farmers hoisting up the first few oyster racks of the day before heading to the hut for steaming hot grilled oysters and delicious porridge in the hut — heaven on a chilly early morning in November.
The culinary adventure continues after breakfast where we learnt how to make Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki at Otafuku. It’s a great hands-on activity for the little chefs to appreciate Hiroshima and learn about the important role this delicious cuisine played in Hiroshima’s history.
Couples from every nook and cranny of Japan make the pilgrimage to Izumo to pray for flourishing relationships and seal the deal with weddings! And that’s because Izumo Taisha Shrine (Google Maps) is also known as the shrine of love.
If you’re riding solo, Izumo’s also the perfect place to pray for your match made in literal heaven.
Just remember — in Izumo, it’s four claps, not the usual two — two for you, two for your partner!
After Izumo Taisha, walk just 15 minutes to catch the sunset along Japan’s west coast at Inasa Beach!
If you’re looking to take home a special piece of memory, I highly recommend heading down to Izumo-en (Google Maps) to try your hand at making your own rings (just 10 mins from Izumo Taisha!). Our friends crafted theirs at the shop’s 1-hour handmaking experience. Each ring is uniquely crafted exactly to the couple’s preferences! The workshop starts with selecting the surface shape all the way to sizing and hammering in the finish all on your own, it doesn’t get any more uniquely personal than that!
One of my favourite things about Japan is its soul-warming onsens. Lovebirds can find a host of accommodations and ryokans all around San’in and Hiroshima that feature private onsens to cosy up in!
Photo credit: Kinsuikan
We booked a room with Kinsuikan (Google Maps) on Miyajima Island with a gorgeous semi-open air onsen built right into the room. It came with its own view of the famous floating torii gate, massage chair, yukata, and champagne — a luxe experience that’ll forever inspire me to seek out moments of exquisite pleasure.
Its Haunting Past
Photo credit: Hiroshima Tourism Association
Textbooks might have covered it, but nothing beats standing amidst the remnants and witnessing the city’s rebirth.
The Atomic Bomb Dome (Google Maps), a haunting silhouette, serves as a powerful reminder of the devastating events of 1945. It may seem a bit depressing, but when you’re there in person you’ll see that the dome is located in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park surrounded by a thriving modern city, and just steps away from Hiroshima Hondori Shopping Street (Google Maps). The contrast is an uplifting reminder of the city’s strong spirit to keep moving forward.
Photo credit: Hiroshima Tourism Association
While you’re on a history binge, check out the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The museum meticulously recounts the impact of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, shedding light on the profound consequences of that historical event. Expect to get intimately close to history, even getting to touch some of the deformed items from the very blast itself.
Hidden Gem Appeal
Here, I felt like I really got to slow down to savour authentic Japan without the tourist rush.
Waking up to this view after a night in the sleepy onsen town Yunotsu was a real treat!
San’in and Hiroshima work amazingly well when paired together in a single trip.
While San’in may not scream “tourist hotspot,” it boasts everything you’d want from a Japan adventure with just a fraction of the crowds: gourmet food, natural hot springs, rich Japanese culture, historical castles and sites, and breathtaking mountains.
Once you’re done with the first leg of the trip, travel down to Hiroshima to explore the vibrant cityscape.
The Peace Memorial Park (Google Maps) is a poignant must-visit, but venture a little further, and you’ll discover Hiroshima’s dynamic shopping districts and eclectic bars. It’s a city that wears many hats, seamlessly blending solemn history with contemporary flair.
One offers slow, coastal, ricefield Japan, where time seems to linger. The other is an electrifying journey through history, modernity, and a tapestry of cultural richness. Best part: they’re only a 2-hour bus ride from each other!
Hiroshima and San’in unfold a whole 10-course meal from mountain, beaches, and islands to Japan’s iconic bustling shopping districts. The journey itself is an adventure, with beautiful drives along the coast in the San’in region and windy boat rides between Hiroshima’s islands of Setouchi.
Each day feels like a completely fresh start with a drastically different view at every turn.
Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love Tokyo. But sometimes the constant buzzing of lights and the city’s rapid pace can quickly tire out even veteran travellers.
In contrast, Hiroshima and San’in offer lots of activities that allow you to slow down and take in Japan at your own pace.
Photo credit: Japan Guide
A must-do for adventurists is the 70km long bicycle road spanning eight islands in the Seto Inland Sea. The road is immensely popular among tourists and features numerous rental bicycle terminals along the way. With so many convenient terminals along the way, you can even drop off your bike halfway and catch a bus.
The initial distance may seem daunting, but fear not; the minimal inclines are either small or non-existent. Intermediate cyclists can comfortably finish the route in a single day.
If you feel like it, you can even stay the night on one of the islands and take more time to explore each island on the route.
Our stay at Azumi Setoda (Google Maps) on Ikuchi Island had me dreaming about the cypress bath for days.
Another popular spot in San’in is Omori Town (Google Maps) and Iwami Ginzan (Google Maps). For almost 400 years, it flourished as one of the world’s greatest silver mines. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site where travellers can uncover a unique insight into the lives of the magistrates, merchants, and craftsmen who lived and ran the small town that supported the silver mine.
Travelling to Japan has a notoriously bad rep for being expensive, but I believe that’s mostly tied to Tokyo and Kyoto (which can be pretty expensive).
Photo credit: Green Hotel Morris
One area you’ll likely save big on is accommodation, especially in the San’in region. Far away from the densely populated cities here, accommodation prices drop drastically from the eye-watering prices you see in Tokyo.
We stayed at the 3-star Green Hotel Morris (Google Maps) in Izumo for around S$55/night* — almost the price of a single hostel bed in Tokyo!
*Price subject to changes according to season
Photo credit: Green Hotel Morris
It was far from no-frills. The hotel was spanking clean and roomy. They even offered different pillow types and there was a cosy lounge area with a fully stocked manga library, and a cafeteria that serves unlimited ramen at night.
To my pleasant surprise, the hotel even had public baths and saunas open to all guests! The cherry on top being that this hotel was just a minute away from the train station.
You could tell that a dollar here goes a much longer way than in Tokyo.
Every trip to Japan comes with high expectations of Michelin-level food and San’in and Hiroshima did not disappoint.
This was our first meal upon landing and I am, no joke, salivating while writing this.
Izumo soba is one of the three major sobas in Japan and has a much bolder flavour. The way you eat these buckwheat noodles is unique in Izumo too. Here, the noodles are typically served in three round-shaped bowls, each with a variety of sauces and toppings. As you work through each bowl, you pour the leftover sauces into the next and let the flavours evolve.
Being along the coast, the San’in region is also seafood haven. Traveling along the coast, we were treated to some of the freshest seafood imaginable.
Even an unassuming traditional Japanese breakfast at our hotels blew us away with the freshness of the seafood.
While you’re in Hiroshima, it would be a cardinal sin to not try Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. Most of us are probably familiar with Osaka’s okonomiyaki, but Hiroshima’s rendition is nothing to scoff at. In fact, the two cities are constantly locked in a fierce rivalry over the title of best okonomiyaki — akin to Singapore and Malaysia’s battle for best chicken rice.
The main difference between the two is the way they are prepared. Osaka’s okonomiyaki is a complete mix of all the ingredients while Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki involves neatly layered ingredients one after another. Just my two cents but I prefer Hiroshima’s style!
As a Singaporean, this segment on food can easily turn into a whole nother wiki page but some other must-tries are Onomichi ramen, momiji manju, and Hiroshima’s delicious grilled oysters.
How to get to San’in
With all of Japan’s iconic destinations, I was truly surprised by how much I was missing out on in San’in and Hiroshima.
The best way to get here is via Izumo from Tokyo.
We took Japan Airlines which had spacious cabin seats, even in economy. Japan Airlines also maintains the renowned Japanese commitment to service excellence we’ve all come to love and expect.
For me, part of the thrill was uncovering parts of Japan that I knew from photos online, but that I couldn’t seem to find in the usual holidays to Tokyo. Many times on this trip when I saw something like Miyajima’s floating torii gate my mind went “So that’s where you were!”.
In Japan’s bustling travel story, Hiroshima and San’in emerge as the unsung heroes, often overshadowed by the bright lights of Tokyo and the cultural allure of Kyoto. It’s like finding a quiet corner in a lively market.
Do you have any other secret hidden gem destinations in Japan? Let us know in the comments below!
This post was brought to you by San’in Tourism Organization and Hiroshima Tourism Association (HIT), supported by Japan National Tourism Organization, Singapore Office.