Web Japan > Trends in Japan > Food & Travel > The Islands of the Seto Inland Sea

The Islands of the Seto Inland Sea

Nature and Modern Art in Japan’s First National Park


Olive Trees and the Seto Inland Sea.

Enlarge photo

A 450-kilometer-long body of water bounded by the islands of Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku, the Seto Inland Sea was designated Japan’s first national park in 1934. More than 700 islands dot the placid lake-like waters, offering opportunities to visit terraced rice fields, fishing villages lined with old wooden houses, and glimpses of a traditional way of life that has largely disappeared from Japan's larger, more crowded islands.

The Seto Inland Sea has long been popular with foreign visitors. Nineteenth-century German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, famous for giving the Silk Road its name, was so struck by the beauty of the Seto Inland Sea that he predicted it would one day become renowned as one of the most beautiful places in the world.

The Olive Groves of ShodoshimaThe best way to get to know the Seto Inland Sea is to spend some time exploring some of the islands, with their rich heritage and culture. Among the largest of the islands is Shodoshima (population 31,000), situated roughly in the middle of the Seto Inland Sea. Shodoshima is a place of natural beauty and stunning sea views. One of the best-known scenic spots on the island is the Kankakei Gorge, said to be one of three most beautiful ravines in Japan. A ropeway whisks visitors up a steep canyon to the summit, which affords 360-degree views of the entire Seto Inland Sea. The mountain top is crisscrossed by walking trails, where more than 2,000 varieties of plant life flourish throughout the year in Shodoshima's mild climate.


Visitors making somen, a Shodoshima specialty, at the Hirai Seimenjo noodle factory.

Enlarge photo

Sushi made with fresh fish from the Seto Inland Sea, photographed at Sosaku Ryori No no Ka.

Enlarge photo

Shodoshima is also known as a center of shoyu (soy sauce) production, an industry that has been a pillar of the local economy for more than 400 years. The local soy sauce is fermented slowly in old cedar barrels over several months, and is renowned for its rich flavor and aroma. Thin wheat vermicelli noodles called somen and traditional tsukudani (fish and other products simmered in sweetened soy sauce) are other local delicacies worth trying. A number of soy sauce breweries offer tours, and there are workshops at which visitors can try their hand at making somen and tsukadani.

The island is also known as “Olive Island,” famous as one of the few olive-growing regions in Japan. The history of olives goes back to 1908, when the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce planted seedlings in several locations around the country on an experimental basis. Shodoshima was the only place where they bore fruit. More than a century later, the efforts of those early farmers have paid off. Orders pour in from around the country at harvest time and olive products of all kinds are popular souvenirs among visitors to the island.

One of the major attractions of a visit to the Seto Inland Sea is the wealth of locally grown fresh produce and other foods. Not surprisingly, seafood is particularly abundant, with the region's fishermen providing some of the freshest sashimi and sushi anywhere in Japan.

On the Shikoku coast, Sanuki udon noodles are hugely popular in Takamatsu and the rest of Kagawa Prefecture. The noodles have a distinctively firm and chewy texture, and many people make a special trip to the prefecture to get a taste of the real thing.

An International Center for ArtAccessible by ferry from Takamatsu and Okayama, Naoshima is fast becoming internationally famous as a major art destination. Miyanoura port is the gateway to Naoshima and the venue for the Marine Station Naoshima. This was designed by SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates), a Japanese architectural studio founded by Sejima Kazuyo and Nishizawa Ryue, recipients of the 2010 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the highest honor in the profession.


The Inland Sea and the Chichu Art Museum. (C)Chichu Art Museum (C)Photographer : FUJITSUKA Mitsumasa

Enlarge photo

The Chichu Art Museum is a stunning underground space lit entirely by natural light, designed by the famous Osaka-born architect Ando Tadao, the recipient of the 1995 Pritzker Architecture Prize. The museum provides a remarkable setting for works by French impressionist Claude Monet (1840—1926), American sculptor and composer Walter De Maria (1935— ), and American installation artist James Turrell (1943— ).

Benesse House is another Ando creation, a stylish concrete structure overlooking the Seto Inland Sea that contains a modern art museum and guest rooms spread over four wings. Artworks are also on display around the grounds, where they add a contemporary, artistic touch to the stunning natural beauty of the island and its seascapes.


Outdoor art at Benesse House, with the Seto Inland Sea in the background. (C)Yayoi Kusama "Pumpkin" (C) Photo:Shigeo Anzai.

Enlarge photo

In the Art House Project, traditional village buildings no longer in use have been handed over to artists to use as settings for their work. This transformation of traditional houses into contemporary works of art has restored the buildings to the heart of community life and inspired visitors from around the world.

Setouchi International Art Festival 2010From July 19 to October 31, 2010, seven islands in the Seto Inland Sea, including both Shodoshima and Naoshima and the port city of Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture (Shikoku) will serve as the backdrop for the Setouchi International Art Festival. Work by 75 contemporary artists will be shown, exploring the theme “restoration of the sea.”

A guiding principle behind the festival is that the art should be a collaboration between artists and islanders. Accordingly, artists taking part will not deliver finished works, instead teaming up with local residents to create their art on site. One of the aims of the event is to give the largely elderly population of the islands a chance to experience the pleasures and satisfactions to be had from engaging with contemporary art.

One of the charms of the Seto Inland Sea is the natural smile of the people who live here. The welcoming charm of the local people lives on today just as in earlier times. (August 2010)

Page Top

Related Articles