Travelers to Western Honshū (本州西部) will find a tale of two coastlines. San-yō (literally "sunny side of the mountains"), looking southwards out over the Inland Sea, boasts the bigger cities, the narrow-laned portside and hillside towns, ceramic history and the fast train. This coast holds the region's big name – indelibly scarred but thriving and warm-hearted Hiroshima.
On the other side of the dividing Chūgoku mountain range, San-in (literally "in the shade of the mountains") gazes northwards across the expanse of the Sea of Japan. Up here, it's all about an unhurried pace, onsen (hot spring) villages that see few foreigners, historic sites, wind-battered coastlines and great hospitality.
Head inland for hikes along gorges and through caves, or escape the mainland altogether – you could take a trip to the Inland Sea and its galaxy of islands, or lose yourself in the remote and rugged Oki Islands (Oki-shotō) in the Sea of Japan.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Western Honshū.
Hugged by rivers on both sides, Peace Memorial Park is a large, leafy space crisscrossed by walkways and dotted with memorials and tranquil spaces for reflection. Its central feature is the long tree-lined Pond of Peace leading to the cenotaph. This curved concrete monument holds the names of all the known victims of the bomb. Also at the pond is the Flame of Peace, set to burn on until all the world's nuclear weapons are destroyed.
Izumo Taisha, also known as Izumo Ōyashiro, is perhaps the oldest Shintō shrine in Japan. This shrine, dedicated to Ōkuninushi, god of marriage and bringer of good fortune, is as old as Japanese recorded history – there are references to Izumo in the Kojiki, Japan's oldest book – and its origins stretch back into the age of the gods. It's second in importance only to Ise-jingū (in Kansai), the home of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and makes a charming day trip from Matsue.
Kōraku-en draws the crowds with its reputation as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan. It has expansive lawns broken up by ponds, teahouses and other Edo-period buildings, including a nō theatre stage; it even has a small tea plantation and rice field. In spring the groves of plum and cherry-blossom trees are stunning, in summer white lotuses unfurl, and in autumn the maple trees are a delight for photographers. There are also seasonal events (fancy some harvest-moon viewing?).
With origins as far back as the late 6th century, Itsukushima-jinja gives Miyajima its real name. The shrine's unique and attractive pier-like construction is a result of the island's sacred status: commoners were not allowed to set foot on the island and had to approach by boat through the torii (shrine gate) in the bay. Much of the time, though, the shrine and torii are surrounded by mud. Note that the torii is undergoing repairs from June 2019, expected to last 2–3 years.
Used as the location for Teshigahara Hiroshi's classic 1964 film, Woman in the Dunes, the Tottori sand dunes are on the coast about 5km from the city. There's a viewing point on a hillside overlooking the dunes, along with parking and the usual array of tourist schlock. You can even get a 'Lawrence of Arabia' photo of yourself accompanied by a camel. Pick up maps at the Sand Pal Tottori Information Centre.
Perhaps the starkest reminder of the destruction visited upon Hiroshima in WWII is the Atomic Bomb Dome. Built by a Czech architect in 1915, it was the Industrial Promotion Hall until the bomb exploded almost directly above it. Everyone inside was killed, but the building was one of very few left standing near the epicentre. A decision was taken after the war to preserve the shell as a memorial.
Dating from 1611, picturesque Matsue-jō has a wooden interior showcasing treasures belonging to the Matsudaira clan. Known as 'Plover Castle' for the graceful shape of its gable ornaments, Matsue-jō is one of only 12 original keeps left in Japan, making it well worth having a look inside. There are dioramas of the city and displays of armoury, including a collection of helmets – each helmet design is said to have reflected the personality of its wearer.
In Honmura, half a dozen traditional buildings have been turned over to contemporary artists to use as the setting for creative installations, often incorporating local history. Highlights include Shinro Ohtake's shack-like Haisha, its Statue of Liberty sculpture rising up through the levels of the house; James Turrell's experiment with light in Minamidera, where you enter in total darkness...and wait; and Hiroshi Sugimoto's play on the traditional Go'o Shrine, with a glass staircase and narrow underground 'Stone Chamber'.
The island of Sensui-jima is just five minutes across the water from Tomo-no-ura town, though vastly different for its rugged natural beauty, as there are no residential homes. There's a walking path that hugs the coast, passing interesting volcanic rock formations, and offers lovely sunset views across the water. After a stroll or swim at the clear-water beach, drop into Kokuminshukusha Sensui-jima, where nonguests can soak in a range of baths for ¥540 (from 10am to 9pm).