7 Historical Hidden Gems of Setouchi

7 Historical Hidden Gems of Setouchi

From one end to the other, each of the seven prefectures of the Setouchi region's stunning coastal landscapes and serene islands is home to some truly hidden historical gems.

More often than not, however, these attractions get overshadowed by bigger, more flamboyant destinations marking the pages of Japanese travel guides. However, this works in your favor, my dear adventurous traveler, as you will get a much more intimate experience of some of Japan's historical gems, unburdened by large crowds.

Each prefecture has unique appeals, from 3,000-year-old hot springs in Ehime, an ancient mountain temple in Kagawa, and willow-lined canals that still look straight out from the Edo period in Okayama, and these are just a few to start your hidden-gem journey in Setouchi.

If you’re looking for a “list” of historical hidden gems from each of these prefectures, this is it!

Okuboji Temple: The Last Temple of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage


Our first stop on our historical journey may be blessed with the most ancient spiritual roots on this list. As the popular last stop along the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage, one of Japan's oldest, most revered pilgrimages is Okuboji Temple (大窪寺), located in Kagawa Prefecture. 

Those walking (or even driving, bussing, and biking) this epic island-wide pilgrimage often choose Okuboji Temple as their final sacred temple stop, as can be seen by the collection of pilgrims' walking sticks left behind in the hopes that their gift will grant them their wishes. 

But the history of this temple is what makes it even more fascinating. The temple dates back to 717 when Gyoki, a prominent Buddhist priest, founded a small hermitage in the mountainous region of Mt. Nyotai. In 815, the traveling holy priest named Kobo Daishi— the founder of one of the most popular schools of Buddhism today— visited the mountain to undergo religious training in one of the mountain’s caves. Today, devotees whisper of a Healing Buddha enshrined in a building on this same mountain by the priest.

Perhaps it is the all-lovingness of the Hidden Buddha that inspired Okuboji Temple to allow anyone to worship at its doors, including women, during a time when females were not welcomed to pray at most of the 88 temples during the Edo period (1603-1868).


For a quiet look at the temple, you can take the entryway immediately from the parking lot, which will take you to a smaller hall with a wisteria-covered trellis and giant straw sandals hanging on the sides of the gate.

However, for the complete main hall entrance experience, head down to the road with all the restaurants and turn left to go up to the main gate. In late November, this pathway is graced with a canopy of autumn leaves made of maple and ginkgo trees, making the walk up to the temple entrance worth the visit on its own. However, the greenery during any other season is equally lush, rich, and spectacular.

Dogo Onsen: One of Japan’s Oldest Hot Springs


Fans of Natsume Soseki's novel "Botchan" will recognize Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture as one of the places the protagonist visited during his travels in rural southern Japan. Dogo Onsen is also one of Japan’s most ancient hot springs, with a history spanning over 3,000 years. Its historical importance is especially evident by its designation as an important national cultural property.

The standout feature of Dogo Onsen is its grand bathhouse, known as the Dogo Onsen Honkan, a beautiful wooden structure that has been preserved over the centuries. Sections of Dogo Onsen have been under conservation work since 2019, with final works scheduled to be completed in December 2024. Still, the Tama-no-Yu baths are currently open, welcoming visitors into the centuries-old baths. 


Despite the intricacies of its exterior, the interior baths of Dogo Onsen are a testament to the beauty of simplicity. The Kami-no-Yu are lovely stone bathing rooms with Tobe porcelain panel paintings and narrow seats lining the edge of the bath so you can sit while looking at the paintings or even imagine Soseki’s witty, sarcastic main character, Botchan, enjoying these baths himself. In the women's bath, two divinities in the legend of Dogo Onsen stand at the center, reminding you of the rich history and tradition surrounding these baths.

While bathing in the therapeutic waters is undoubtedly the main attraction at Dogo Onsen, there are plenty of attractions nearby, like its stylish gift shops, restaurants serving Ehime tai meshi— fresh sea bream over rice— and even mikan orange juice tasting rooms. Even if Dogo Onsen is one of the more well-known attractions on this "historical gems" list, that certainly doesn't discount it as a place to visit if you're in Ehime!

Udatsu: The Indigo Dye Historic District of Tokushima


Although it's famous for its striking "Japan blue" indigo, there's much more to experience in this charming historic district of Udatsu in Tokushima Prefecture. 

The storefronts adorned with indigo-dyed banners are just the tip of showcasing the area's rich heritage. For nearly 800 years, Tokushima was a hub for indigo dye production, which made it a prosperous and profitable prefecture.

Named after the distinctive "udatsu" roofed walls used to prevent fires from spreading to neighboring houses, these "Ai-yashiki" buildings served as both homes and businesses for indigo makers and merchants during the Edo and Meiji periods. 

These merchants played a crucial role in the production, processing, and distribution of "indigo Sukimo," which was the basis of indigo dye during the height of Tokushima’s indigo production.

Today, the Udatsu row houses still stand as they did during the industry's peak of prosperity, spanning the length of the "udatsu-no-machinami" (Udatsu townscape). 

A perfect way to spend a day in Udatsu is by visiting the Ai Tanuki indigo dye studio, where you can make your indigo-dyed handkerchief and even enjoy indigo desserts made with edible indigo ground into powder.

While exploring the historic district, check out the restaurants and souvenir stores. You’ll quickly find one of Udatsu's cozy cafes, and an opportunity to relax and savor local delicacies while soaking in the nostalgic ambiance.

Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter: The Willow-Lined Canals of Japan’s Past


Another historical gem of Japan is the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter, located in Okayama Prefecture. With the beautifully preserved district of traditional architecture, narrow canals, and cobblestone streets, visitors can experience the perfect blend of Western influence and Japanese style that has remained unchanged for centuries. 

During the Edo period, this region experienced a period of prosperity and growth, partly due to the canals becoming a vital transport route for one of Japan's most important commodities at that time, rice.

Today, people are steered down these gentle canal waters rather than rice by gondola boat men who point out various historic buildings and share interesting stories about the canals. 

Aside from the occasional ducking you might have to do under one of Kurashiki’s graceful stone bridges, the views of the white-walled storehouses and other historic buildings are uninterrupted as you glide down these ancient waterways.

Visitors on foot can wander down the pretty cobbled streets and right up to the white-walled storehouses and merchant houses with latticed windows. Drop into any of the restaurants, shops, cafes, and galleries to truly appreciate the ambiance of this nostalgic Japanese townscape.

If you stay long enough, when the sun starts to set and the crowds thin out, you'll see a different side to the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter. As shops and restaurants close up one by one, the atmosphere becomes one of quiet reflection. The once busy boats now lie peacefully idle along the canal's edges, practically inviting you to capture their beauty on cameras.

Senkoji Temple: The Hillside Temple of Hiroshima


You're standing atop Mount Senkoji in the coastal city of Onomichi, surrounded by breathtaking views of the Onomichi Channel and the Seto Inland Sea. As you look around, you notice you’re at an ancient temple peeking out from the treetops. You’ll likely be at Senkoji Temple in Hiroshima Prefecture, one of Onomichi's most iconic landmarks. 

The vibrant vermilion-lacquered main hall, nestled atop Mount Senkoji, has stood tall for over 1,200 years. The temple visit itself, though challenging, will leave you with a sense of accomplishment. After all, climbing all the stone steps up the mountain from Onomichi Cat Street, past the three-tiered Tenneiji pagoda, and then weaving your way through the maze-like pathways to the cliffside temple complex is no small feat. But rest assured, the views get better as you ascend and the experience is well worth it.

While visiting, one can experience a variety of sensory delights, like the sweet aroma of burning incense wafting from a smoking pot of sand near the Omikuji, or the sight of a giant bell that overlooks the city and the sea outside the main hall, and a few cats sunbathing on stone walls during your Senkoji Temple visit.

In the park nearby, there is a "literature path" featuring stone monuments with poetry carved into them by famous Japanese authors that leads to the Senkoji Park Observatory 140 meters above sea level. 

Those who may find the walk uphill tiring can take the Senkoji Ropeway, which provides a smooth and effortless ascent to the top of Mount Senkoji. It's not uncommon to see other visitors carrying heavy cameras to capture the scenic ocean view on your way up to the hillside temple. 

Once you've soaked up the stunning view, you'll have two equally tempting options to choose from — either hop on the ropeway cable car for a scenic descent or take a leisurely stroll down to the charming shopping arcade brimming with vintage vibes and quaint shops. The choice is yours!

Izushi Castle Town: Castle Ruins and Soba Noodles

Dubbed the “Little Kyoto of Tajima,“ Izushi Castle Town in Hyogo Prefecture is a collection of wooden structures and buildings that have earned it a spot on our “historical gems” of Japan. 

With an honored distinction as a National Preservation District of Important Buildings, this castle town still has the nostalgic atmosphere of one that flourished over 400 years ago, with Izushi’s main draws including Izushi Castle Ruins, the oldest Japanese clock tower, Shinkoro Clock Tower, and Eirakukan, the oldest Kabuki theatre in Kansai. 

The Izushi Castle Ruins is one of the first introductions to the town, located up a tunnel of torii gates on the side of a small mountain that looks over the town. The original castle has stood on this hill since its founding in 1604, though only the white outer tower, rebuilt in 1979, remains. Past the remaining tower is a refreshing view of the city, particularly beautiful in the spring, when the hill’s cherry trees come into bloom.

While a visit here could simply be about browsing the pretty historical streets, you'd miss out if you passed on one of Izushi’s main gastronomical attractions: Izushi-soba. These chewy, slightly nutty buckwheat noodles are both a summer and winter classic, although in Izushi, it’s all about trying the chilled variations from one of the many soba restaurants in the city. 

The tourist center sells special soba tokens that are transferable at one of the many soba restaurants in the area, each one getting you five small plates of that shop’s handmade noodles. They are served with a dipping sauce made from dashi soup stock, often fish and kelp, and side toppings like grated yam, green scallion, freshly grated wasabi, daikon radish, and egg.

There is a specific way to layer each ingredient before enjoying your soba, but we won't ruin the surprise here. You'll have to come and experience it for yourself!

Hofu Tenmangu Shrine: Praying for Educational Prosperity


Located in Yamaguchi Prefecture, the Hofu Tenmangu Shrine holds a special place as the first Shinto shrine dedicated to Michizane Sugawara, a renowned scholar and deity of learning, and completes our list of Setouchi’s hidden historical gems. Founded in 904, this historic shrine is not only a place of worship but also a symbol of intellectual pursuit.

Visitors from all walks of life come here to pay their respects and seek blessings for academic success, whether they are a student praying to pass their university entrance exams, or hopeful parents wishing for a prosperous education for their children.

To immerse yourself in the authentic ambiance of the shrine, take the main approach that starts at the foot of the hill where there are shops selling traditional foods and gifts. This way, as you ascend the stone staircase, you can relish the stately shrine that unfolds before you. And don't forget to take a look at the 6-meter-tall stone torii, which is believed to be the oldest in Yamaguchi Prefecture! 

One of the most remarkable features of the shrine is its Japanese garden that houses the reconstructed historical building Gyotenro, where imperial loyalists used to hold secret meetings during the Meiji period. You can now relish a cup of Japanese tea and sweets with an awe-inspiring view of the garden during the autumn season.

Another must-see spot is the Shunpuro, a wooden structure that was originally meant to be the base of a five-story pagoda. Despite the project being abandoned by its lord, the Shunpuro remains a magnificent feat of architecture, with its stately structure perfectly framing views of Hofu City and the Seto Inland Sea. 

Whether you are a student preparing for exams or an individual seeking wisdom in your pursuits, the Hofu Tenmangu Shrine provides a peaceful ambiance for prayer, paying homage to Michizane Sugawara, and embracing the spirit of learning that permeates this revered place.

Our collection of 7 historical hidden gems highlights the truly impressive depth of Setouchi. Each prefecture in Setouchi has its own unique attractions waiting to be explored, ranging from ancient temples and hot springs to historic districts and shrines. Each site has its own unique story to tell, and we invite you to come and discover these hidden gems for yourself!



This is an area with many islands, including Naoshima and Teshima, which are famous for art. It also is home to the tasteful Ritsurin Garden. Kagawa is also famous for its Sanuki udon, which is so famous it attracts tourists from throughout Japan. The prefecture is even sometimes referred to as “Udon Prefecture.” [Photo : “Red Pumpkin” ©Yayoi Kusama,2006 Naoshima Miyanoura Port Square | Photographer: Daisuke Aochi]