You’ve already glimpsed Western Honshū’s San'yō coast in your Japanese daydreams. It’s the stuff of samurai and wooden castles, floating temple gates, famously friendly people, and artisans brewing sake. The San'yō train line unfurls west from Osaka all the way to Hiroshima, making exploring this lesser-visited corner of Japan simple. And pleasant. As you whoosh by, the Inland Sea dips in and out of view through the rustle of pine trees.

A black locomotive with billowing steam rolls through the lush green Japanese countryside
The San'yō region is perfect to explore by train © Image courtesy of West Japan Railway Company

Whether you want to glide along an ancient canal, explore centuries-old ceramics in serene surrounds, or dine in the buzz of a city reborn, there’s a stop for you on the ‘sunny side of the mountain’ (as San'yō is known in Japan). Here’s our guide to exploring San-yō by train.

A red ceramic tea cup, made in the Bizen style, sits on a glass tabletop surrounded by other red-hued Bizen pottery.
Bizen pottery is very distinctive and found all over the city of Bizen © Wissuta.on / Shutterstock

Stop 1: Bizen – Japan’s pottery town

You might find you are the only person alighting at Bizen’s tiny Imbe Station. In this outlying neighbourhood, narrow streets are lined with gorgeous wooden shop fronts, yet barely anybody is in sight – as if you have discovered Bizen yourself.

Head towards the red-brick chimney stacks and you’ll find abundant activity in the workshops, where artisans – that have been firing up kilns here for over 800 years – shape and carve clay into renowned Bizen pottery. Alongside the workshops are cute cafes, where visitors can sip matcha green tea from brown Bizen ceramic cups – a quintessentially Japanese experience. Bizen-ware appears glazed but isn’t. It’s the position in the oven that gives each piece its unique flame-polished ‘lacquer’.

From the main street, paths amble towards forested temple Amatsu-jinja, decorated with animals of the Chinese zodiac, sculpted from, you guessed it, Bizen-ware. Before hopping back onto the train, complete your pottery education at the ceramics museum – showcasing ancient pottery from across Japan – that adjoins Imbe Station.

A view of Koraku-en garden in Okayama, with the still lake in the foreground leading away to green hills dotted with trees and an ornate castle visible in the background.
Beautiful Koraku-en garden has been drawing admirers since the 1700s © Artem Smetanin / 500px

Stop 2: Okayama – gardens and castle within the city

The local train to Okayama from Bizen is a 50-minute ride that is oh-so Japanese. Not a peep of passenger noise, just the pleasant chatter of the tracks as a menagerie of towns and overground stations rattle by.

Arriving in buzzing Okayama station is a different world, with all the spoils of a Japanese medium city – eclectic eating and shopping and a youthful verve – plus the surprise of one of Japan’s most exquisite parks. The sculptured lawns and tea plantations swirl around the ponds of Kōraku-en garden, which has been drawing admirers since the 1700s.

The gardens are fascinating through the seasons – cherry-blossom heaven in April, awash with red maple leaves in autumn, and magically lit up on summer evenings. Edo-period structures grace the park, and the raven-black building standing regally in the background is Okayama Castle, nicknamed ‘Crow Castle’. Stroll on over for a close inspection of the golden fish-gargoyles crowning the eaves and take in the wonderful views across the gardens.

A man in a kimono rows a boat of passengers, all wearing conical rice hats, along a narrow river in the town of Kurashiki. The river is flanked by green trees.
Kurashiki is known for its pretty waterways and denim obsession © Sean3810 / Getty Images

Stop 3: Kurashiki – ancient canal and blue-denim town

Students and workers bustle (neatly) into the train from Okayama as it flies through a blur of white houses and green bushes on the 45 minute ride to Kurashiki.

Arriving in Kurashiki, head through the old-school plaza to the Bikan historical quarter. San'yō towns are a peek at yesteryear Japan, with modern touches, and Kurashiki is a standout example. A canal weaves through the town, criss-crossed by stone bridges and weeping willows sipping from the calm waters.

Hop on a rowboat, and if you still don’t feel transported back in time, slip away into the back alleys. The cobbled narrow-ways are lined with ancient black-tiled, wooden warehouses, which now serve as ryokan (Japanese inns), museums such as Japan Rural Toy Museum, and stores loaded with yukata (summer kimono) and antiques. With a cute all-wood interior, low-lit Takadaya does wonders with charred chicken skewers enveloped in shiso (wild basil).

Kurashiki also has a denim obsession, evident not only in the stacks of jeans in shops off the canal, but also in the cuisine on offer: denim-blue tinted steamed buns, turquoise-shaded soft-serve ice cream, and even navy-hued burgers.

A close-up shot of a bartender pouring sake from a jug into a small cup held out by a patron.
Saijo is the perfect place to get well acquainted with Japanese sake © AkiIshida / Getty Images

Stop 4: Saijo – the place to sample sake

The train tracks between Kurashiki and Saijo edge the coast, providing passengers with teasing glimpses of beautiful blue waters. Then around the temple-town of Onomichi, the Inland Sea hurtles into view with island humps rising and falling on the horizon.

Two-and-a-half hours later in Saijo town, slow down, smell the pine trees and taste the sake -- but be careful, the Japanese rice wine may go down like silk but it can leave drinkers feeling a little fuzzy. Luckily the eight sake breweries are metres from each other, so visitors won’t get lost.

Sake scholars study at the Saijo National Research Institute of Brewing, but you don’t need to be a connoisseur to enjoy a glass. Begin your learning journey at the storied Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company. You can watch the brewing process within its handsome white walls where feudal lords drank during the Edo period (1604–1868). More recently, when Japanese President Abe dined with US President Obama in Tokyo, Abe poured a Kamotsuru sake with blossom-shaped, gold-leaf flakes. Hot tip: this ‘Daiginjo Special Gold’ is only ¥600 (US$5.5) for a small bottle.

An aerial view overlooking the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. The park has a small pond in the centre of it, with trees and lawns all around it. Many people wander along the pathways flanking the pond.
Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park provokes reflection from visitors © f11photo / Shutterstock

Stop 5: Hiroshima – Peace Memorial Park and okonomiyaki in a city reborn

The 40-minute ride from Saijo to Hiroshima is a carousel of mountains liberally brush-stroked with pine trees and fan palms. Floating by are spacious homes and gardens that invite gazing, as you daydream of a parallel life in coastal Japan.

Hiroshima is synonymous with one tragic moment in history, but arriving at energetic Hiroshima Station, it’s obvious that the city has come a long way since 1945. The sculpted Peace Memorial Park is as beautiful as it is solemn. Wreaths of origami cranes burst with colour, sent from schools across Japan and the world. When the atomic bomb detonated just 600 metres above the now Atomic Bomb Dome here, the skeleton of the building remained incredibly intact.

This Unesco World Heritage site and nearby museum provoke reflection, yet modern Hiroshima is cosmopolitan and forward looking. The eating scene excels at international and vegan eats, oysters, and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki (savoury pancake), which layers the ingredients (noodles, cabbage, egg, meat or seafood) rather than mixing them together.

Newcomers looking for a crash course in all-things Japanese cuisine should head to one of the 25 stalls spread across three floors at Okonomi-mura. Half the fun is eating straight off the hotplate using a metal spatula, with guidance from local diners. If you’ve had your fill, nearby is Carp Castle with samurai performances, while the floating red torii (shrine gate) of Miyajima is an easygoing tram-ride away.

A traditional wooden Japanese outdoor onsen, which is surrounded by snowy countryside.
Finish your time in the San'yō region with a revitalising soak in a Japanese onsen © ANUCHA PONGPATIMETH / Shutterstock

Stop 6: Yuda Onsen – thermal baths town

The shinkansen whips through Hiroshima to Yamaguchi towards Yuda Onsen, practically teleporting through green mountains. The bullet train kisses the coast at Tokuyama port, as the hazy island sentinels of Kurokami and Ozu shimmer into view, then vanish.

Arriving in Yuda Onsen, prepare for an onsen (hot spring) crawl for a relaxing finish to your San'yō trip. The town has various bathhouses to clip-clop between in wooden sandals. Or just collapse into the natural thermal waters of your own open-air bath at Matsudaya Hotel, with an artistic seafood spread for dinner. The modern ryokan is where rebels planned the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and you can dip your toes into the history of the place, while enjoying an outdoor foot bath (most free) with the alkaline spring water softening your skin. Before heading off, pick up the local speciality, Uirō, a slightly sweet, steamed-bracken cake (from ferns, not rice like mochi) with flavours such as yuzu citrus or matcha.

The bullet train will zip you back from Yamaguchi to Okayama in a mere hour. The JR Sanyo-San’in Area Pass and Setouchi Area Pass allow several days of unlimited train and bus travel on the San'yō coast, from Osaka to Fukuoka.

Produced by Lonely Planet for West Japan Railway Company. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.

Explore related stories

Islands of Adventure, Universal Orlando
Islands of Adventure, Universal Orlando, United States. (Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
godong, America, American, man, woman, group, water, leisure, outdoors, person, splash, fun fair, leisure park, fun

Theme Park

Florida's best theme parks for year-round fun

Apr 14, 2024 • 6 min read