When the world’s eyes turn to Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, they might see Kobe Misaki Stadium, one of 12 locations hosting the tournament across the country between September 20 and November 2 next year.
Kobe is perhaps already known for its namesake beef, considered globally to be one of the highest quality meats on the planet and renowned for its incredible marbled texture. Kobe beef requires a pure lineage from the Tajima-gyu breed of cattle and when sold in a store in Japan, it even has to carry a 10-digit identification number, so customers know exactly which animal it came from.
Technically, Kobe can only originate from within Hyogo, one of 47 prefectures in Japan. Hyogo is also one of seven prefectures that surround the Seto Inland Sea, a vast area west of Kyoto that includes a coastline spanning 280 miles. The other six prefectures that fringe this “Mediterranean of Asia” are Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Tokushima, Kagawa and Ehime. In 2013 the seven prefectures came together to launch the Setouchi Tourism Authority as a joint effort to develop business and tourism in the region. This was ramped up in 2016 with the formation of Setouchi DMO, the country’s first combined DMO that would oversee multiple prefectures.
Between them, the seven already had several of Japan’s most iconic sites and attractions to shout about. These include Miyajima, the island home of the Itsukushima shrine, marked by the giant orange Great Torii Gate that becomes partially submerged at high tide. It is just one of the region’s Unesco World Heritage Sites, with others including Himeji, a huge white castle; and the Atomic Bomb Memorial, which stands as a reminder of the tragedy of Hiroshima. The Kagawa prefecture is also known for its udon noodles, while the whole Setouchi region is home to 275 sake breweries.
Setouchi also includes Naoshima, now famous as Japan’s “art island” and next year marks the arrival of the 2019 Setouchi Triennial (July 18-September 4/October 8-November 6). It takes place every three years and sees a fresh crop of works installed across 12 “art islands”. It is this creativity focus that has been helping Setouchi make an early name for itself as a brand – in particular, the work of Yayoi Kusama, internationally known as the queen of Pop Art or the “princess of polka dots”, draws the crowds, with Naoshima home to two of her famous pumpkin sculptures.
Naoshima is home to architect Tadao Ando’s Ando Museum, sitting in the Honmura district where many old houses retain their traditional Japanese exterior style but inside have been transformed into concrete works of art – an Ando trademark.
The architect has also designed the island’s Chichu Art Museum, completely embedded in a hill to preserve the beauty of the landscape. Once inside its stark concrete walls, the museum provides a permanent home to work by three key artists: in one enormous gallery there are five of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies; Walter De Maria’s art space contains a sphere 2.2 metres in diameter and 27 gilded wooden geometric forms, which viewers experience under the natural light coming in from the ceiling; and finally, in another gallery, is an intriguing light installation by James Turrell.
Also dotted around the island are parts of the Art House Project, which since 1998 has been restoring traditional Naoshima houses, temples and shrines and transforming them into art spaces. Another of the most significant projects is Benesse House Museum, which opened in 1992 as a visionary facility integrating an art gallery with a hotel.
Designed again by Tadao Ando, the museum is built on high ground overlooking the inland sea and features painting, sculpture, photography and installations all over the building as well as scattered locations along the seashore and in the nearby forest. Staying here in one of its 65 guestrooms makes for one of the world’s most unique experiences.
Other unique accommodation options in Setouchi include one more of Ando’s projects – the seven-bedroom luxury hotel Setouchi Aonagi, which sits on Japan’s smallest island, Shikoku, and was a former museum. There’s also the design-led Guntu, a very high-end floating hotel with 19 cabins that sails out of Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture and explores the islands.
Another option is the growing number of “kominka” or private restored farmhouses. With an ageing population, the number of derelict traditional homes in Setouchi has increased and to preserve these houses and welcome tourism, Setouchi aims to restore 100 of these as tourist accommodation by 2020. While the kominkas offer guests the run of the whole house, the experience can be complemented by cookery experiences with locals. When I visited a kominka, an elderly lady cooked the best tempura vegetables (and plenty more of a feast besides) I have ever tasted – and then sang a haunting tale of lost love after she had done the washing up.
Typical examples of kominkas opened in late 2017 include the 100-year-old Ori and 150-year-old Hisa, located in Uchiko in Ehime prefecture. The renovated houses retain their original Meiji period features and are situated in the nationally designated Yokaichi and Gokoku Preservation Districts of the historic town. The two properties both house up to eight guests across five bedrooms and the entire Kominka costs around £330 per night, with £16 supplement per guest. The services of an elderly, potentially singing, chef are extra.
Setouchi’s campaign is timely; last year saw the highest number of visitors to Japan since the government started keeping records in 1964. A total of 28.7 million, up 19.3%, were recorded and the country hopes to attract 40 million by 2020, the year of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
As Japan continues to grow in popularity, certain parts will only get busier, which is why it makes sense now to see what else it has to offer – and Setouchi could be the answer. Certainly it has a cherry blossom option for those who can’t face the crowds in Tokyo and Kyoto; with the Kotohira-gu Shrine Cherry Blossom Festival taking place annually at Marugame Castle, where 700 Yoshino cherry trees blossom simultaneously each April. And cherry blossom is not the only celebrated bloom in Japan, as Fuji Park in Okayama hosts the Wisteria Festival throughout April and May, home to the most of the flowers in any one place in Japan.
The Setouchi DMO ran its first international fam trip in February, incorporating operators and agents from the UK, Europe, Australia and the US and now has a website with dedicated trade portal. This includes an electronic version of Setouchi’s new brochure plus a travel guide with public transport information, maps and itinerary inspiration, as well as key sights and activities.
Setouchi DMO says it will continue to host tour operators, with an additional fam trip planned in late 2018. It continues to educate the travel trade on the region and is targeting the UK, USA, France, Germany and Australia.