If you’re a seasoned Japan visitor (or an adventurous first-timer), I would recommend trying the two least-known JR Passes: the San’in-Sanyo JR Pass, and the All-Shikoku Pass (for another post). The San’in-Sanyo JR Pass covers a vast area from Kyoto down to Fukuoka and the historical heartland of Japan. My post focuses on the least-visited prefectures of Tottori, Shimane, and Yamaguchi because these local places are where the tourist crowds thin out and the thick layers of history are well settled.

JR-West San'in-Sanyo JR Route map

JR-West San’in-Sanyo JR Route map

Table of contents:

  1. My Trip Overview
  2. San’in Sanyo Pass Overview
  3. Check my rural Japan tips
  4. Some background and history
  5. Tottori highlights
  6. Shimane highlights
  7. Yamaguchi highlights

My trip overview:

I went in the first week of April, just after hanami season started. Many of the places we went to including Matsue Castle, Izumo Taisha, Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu, and the Kintai Bridge at Iwakuni had full bloom trees with fresh snow pedals fluttering through the breezes.

  1. Fly from Tokyo to Yonago, visited Matsue
  2. Yonago to Takamatsu (Day trip)
  3. Yonago to Hagi (via Izumoshi)
  4. Omi Island (morning excursion), Hagi old town
  5. Hagi to Yuda Onsen (and walked around the area)
  6. Hofu (Day trip)
  7. Yuda Onsen to Iwakuni
  8. Miyajima (early morning), Shimonoseki (Day trip)
  9. Rural Yamaguchi, close to Hatsukaichi-shi, evening in Iwakuni
  10. Iwakuni morning, fly back to Tokyo

San’in-Sanyo Pass overview

  1. Purchasing a Pass Overseas (¥22,000/~US$220) You can order a voucher in your home country, which you can receive and exchange in Japan.
  2. Purchasing a Pass Inside Japan (¥23,000/~US$230). You can purchase this pass at a JR-WEST Ticket Office. The offices are in major regional cities, but I’ve bolded the ones most people know: Tsuruga, Kyoto, Shin-Osaka, Osaka, Kobe, Shin-Kobe, Sannomiya, Himeji, Nijo, Uji, Saga-Arashiyama, Kyobashi, Tsuruhashi, Tennoji, Shin-imamiya, Bentencho, Nishikujo, Kansai-airport, Nara, JR-Namba, Wakayama, Okayama, Sakaiminato, Yonago, Tottori, Matsue, Hiroshima, Shin-Shimonoseki, Shimonoseki, Kokura, Hakata (Fukuoka), Kansai Tourist Information Centre in Kansai International Airport
    Note that this pass cannot be purchased in Tokyo because that is part of JR East, a different company. JR East, JR West, JR Kyushu, JR Shikoku, etc. are all different companies.
  3. Redeeming your pass at one of the above stations if you ordered it overseas. When redeeming, tell them the date you want the pass to start, otherwise it will be assumed as the same day.
  4. Validity: 7 days (i.e. Monday to Sunday inclusive, until 11:59pm)
  5. Types of trains valid for: Shinkansen (Non-Reserved Seats, Reserved seats only if pre-booked at ticket offices and I find unnecessary). Express, Limited Express, Rapid Service, Local trains.
  6. How to board a train: Show your pass to a station attendant to walk into the station. Walk onto any JR train that has free seating or the Non-Reserved seat compartment. Show the station attendant who walks by on express trains. Show the station attendant to exit. It’s as simple as that.
  7. Great benefits: You can go anywhere any time whenever you feel like it. You can hop on and hop off Shinkansen. 
  8. Also: the JR ride from Yonago down to Hagi along the Sea of Japan is breath taking during sunset.

Please check my rural Japan tips for additional info.

yamaguchi travel

The mascot spirits who guard Yudaonsen — Photo by Athena Lam

Some background and history:

This area, collectively known as ‘Chugoku’ (the middle kingdom) is the seat of much cultural and historical significance.

The lords of that region, especially Yamaguchi Prefecture, were instrumental in overthrowing the last shogunate (the Bakufu) and ushering in the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s great modernization era. In contrast, neighbouring Shimane Prefecture is home to the Izumo Taisha (Grand Shine) is one of the two places the founding gods of Japan descended onto earth. It is mentioned in Japan’s oldest recorded, the Kojiki, putting it on par with its more famous cousin, the Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture.

萩焼 山口県

Hagi pottery is known as Hagi-yaki 萩焼 — Photo by Athena Lam

This region is where the settlers from the Korean Penninsula settled as they moved northward from Kyushu. Cities such as Hagi were known for their pottery and scholarly learning and to this day carry a rich poetic legacy. The Seto Inland Sea, a national park, was host to Japanese pirates, naval battles, hermits, and exiles. Yashima was the site of the second last battle in the Genpei War that ushered in Japan’s first shogunate. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed after the first Sino-Japanese War, where China ceded Taiwan, various islands, and vast parts of Manchuria to Japan.

tanuki yashima-ji

The Yashima Plateau had historical significance in the Genpei War that began the shogunate era — Photo by Athena Lam

Now, the island of Naoshima is host to one of the world’s most famous open art exhibitions.

And yet, this region’s historical landscape is equally matched by some of the country’s most unusual scenery. Omi Island has jagged island rock formations. The Akiyoshidai has high alpine caves. Daisen is one of Japan’s Seven Holy Mountains, and Tottori graces Japan with sand dunes.

fugu puffer fish shimonoseki

Eat local in Japan. This is puffer fish at Shimonoseki — Photo by Athena Lam

And, of course, there’s the food. Shimonoseki for fugu (puffer fish), Izumo and Matsue in Shimane Prefecture compete for national soba reputations. Yamaguchi has kawara soba (noodles cooked on rooftop shingles). Crab must be enjoyed in Yonago. Iwakuni has block sushi.

So with that, let me go through a brief list of highlights by prefecture and town that I visited.

Tottori Prefecture

hanami cherry blossoms japan

Going to rural Japan during hanami is a great way to enjoy cherry blossoms without the crowds — Photo by Athena Lam

Mount Daisen, a sacred mountain that commoners could not climb on until the Edo Period and the region’s tallest.

Sand dunes (which we did not visit because it was raining the day we went)

yonago tottori travel

Local Yonago crab eki-ben (train station bento box) — Photo by Athena Lam

Eat Yonago crab, and use the Tabelog (Japanese Yelp) for inspiration. Would suggest searching in Japanese if you can read Chinese / Japanese. Much more info.

The soft ice cream at Yonago Station is also very good as a random piece of info.

Shimane Prefecture

Matsue City is nice and walkable. It has a castle with a moat and has many noodle places. Also has a gorgeous sunset over the massive lake — good for dinner. If you go during hanami (cherry blossom) season, the trees around the castle will be in bloom.

出雲大社

The Izumo Grand Shrine grounds is expansive and worth at least an hour or two to sit and chill in. — Photo by Athena Lam

Cherry Blossoms at Izumo Taisha Shimane

Cherry blossoms at Izumo Taisha in Shimane Prefecture — Photo by Athena Lam

Izumo Taisha (Grand Shrine), which is at the end of the tram line that connects to Izumoshi JR Station. Give yourself 2-3 hours to enjoy the grounds, maybe have a picnic in the grass and enjoy the cherry blossoms in Spring.

menu soba izumoshi izumo taisha

Many places now have photo menus. With a photo translator, you’re good to go! — Photo by Athena Lam

Try the local Izumo soba buckwheat noodles (preferably just off the main shopping street leading up to the shrine). I generally prefer soba without soup and their specialty is a trio mix of three different types. To be perfectly honest, my absolute favourite is still Shinshu soba from Azumino in Nagano Prefecture as I prefer a nuttier flavour and firmer texture. But it was still very good!

izumoshi shimane food travel

The best I could get for the zenzai mochi — Photo by Athena Lam

We tried Arakiya, which is locally ranked for soba and quite good. Their real gem is the soba zenzai (mochi-like sweet in red bean soup).

Take a train along the coast during the evening to watch the sunset over the Sea of Japan.

Yamaguchi Prefecture

Yamaguchi travel history

A preserved Edo-period illustration of life in Hagi at the Kubota Residence — Photo by Athena Lam

Hagi is a perfectly preserved historical town and has many pottery shops still open. The preserved historical buildings have local businesses like Zakka COTOCOTO Cafe and Ruco Guest House (also a cafe), as well as preserved homes.

omi island yamaguchi prefecture

You must take a boat ride to see the Omi Island rock formations. — Photo by Athena Lam

Cruise through the Omi Island rock formations (optional, the motor in the boat is sadly quite loud).

湯田温泉 足湯

Yuda Onsen has many public footbaths throughout the town centre. — Photo by Athena Lam

Visit Yuda Onsen town for the free public footbaths. The Rurikō Temple within one station’s walking distance has a pagoda that is a cultural heritage and gives an authentic feeling of what a temple really should be like (sorry, the Asakusa Senso-ji is a commercial trap). Also try the Kawara Soba (Shingle noodles), which is a regional speciality.

瓦そば 湯田温泉

Yakisoba on a rooftop shingle called kawara soba in Yamaguchi. — Photo by Athena Lam

Visit Hofu and Tenman-Gu Shrine on the hill that has a gorgeous platform area for reading a paper with the sea, mountains, and settlements in between stretched out before you.

Iwakuni Bridge

Iwakuni’s Kintaikyo during hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season — Photo by Athena Lam

Chill by the Iwakuni Kintai Bridge, try the ice cream shop with some 100+ flavours, stroll through the Kikko Park or chill at the river or walk up to Iwakuni Castle. Have dinner at Hirasei to try Iwakuni block sushi around sunset on the 2nd floor to watch the lights come on at the bridge. You hang around long enough like I did, visit the local shops in the central area like Himaar Coffee and Crafts.

iwakuni sushi

Iwakuni block sushi — Photo by Athena Lam

Spend a day, or two, in Shimonoseki. If nothing else, for the sheer number of independent cafes spread throughout the city. Try Karato Fish Market (mini Tsukiji) and the local fugu (pufferfish), but go super early when the fish is still fresh. 

japan travel shimonoseki

Sushi by the piece at Karato Fish Market in Shimonoseki — Photo by Athena Lam

The market is open until 6pm and does have lots of tourists (be warned). It is a great place to wander in and out to sample whatever catches your eye while eating it along the sea — staring over Kyushu, home of tonkotsu ramen.

karato fish market shimonoseki

Look for fugu, puffer fish, at Karato Fish Market, but go early while they’re fresh! — Photo by Athena Lam

The area around Karato has been redeveloped and may seem a bit “commercial”, but it has more of a lively bustle than an overwhelming tourist attraction ambience.If you want a break, we sat at the cafe in the Former British Consulate virtually across the street.

Hiroshima Prefecture

Miyajima Shrine Torii Gate Japan Hiroshima

Miyajima Shrine Torii Gate as the morning tide sweeps in

Miyajima Island to see the Itsukushima Shrine. It is 1 hour train ride from both Hiroshima and Iwakuni. I took the first train and boat there and thoroughly enjoyed the place to myself, at low tide, with plenty of time to take photos right under the grand Torii gate under the first light of day. By the time I was done and the tourists started trickling in, the tide had also washed in. I highly recommend enjoying this place at sunrise for the peace and quiet — so either stay overnight or take the first train. The last boat leaving is in the afternoon.

Other (not so crazy) day trips:

Finally, there are so many places you can just go because you can with your JR Pass. This pass is not available to locals, who would never think to “just” ride a train to try a bowl of noodles. But you can — and I have taken advantage of this often.

  • Takamatsu for Sanuki udon (via the Seto Ohashi Bridge across the Seto Inland Sea)
  • Fukuoka for Hakata Tonkotsu ramen

 

If you liked this post, you can check out my trips to other rural areas in Japan:

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