On a chilly early-autumn morning, I set out for two coastal cities in Hyogo Prefecture whose terrains stretch all the way down to the Seto Inland Sea. The cities of Tatsuno and Ako are both renowned for their food production and gastronomy. As I was determined to know more about how each area’s geography and local cuisine contribute to its “terroir” (taste,) I visited local museums displaying the marvels and manufacturing process of local specialties and savored local treats so delicious that I won’t easily forget their fabulous taste!

Somen-no-Sato Ibonoito Museum: The Tradition of Somen

My day started with a visit to Tatsuno City’s “Somen-no-Sato Ibonoito Museum,” which houses in-depth exhibits exploring Tatsuno’s local specialty: somen. Somen is a thinly-stretched white noodle mainly made from wheat flour by repeating the process of stretching and and letting the noodles age to obtain perfectly thin and white somen. Its ingredients, texture, size, and process of making are slightly different from soba, ramen, or udon – other types of noodles which more people may be familiar with.

Starting from the museum’s second floor exhibition room, I learned about the cultural significance of somen in the Banshu region, which encompasses the southwestern portion of Hyogo Prefecture. Somen is said to date back at least 1,000 years, when Japanese envoys to Tang Dynasty China brought “sakubei”ーa type of sweet made of wheat and rice flourーback home with them. Its influence reached the royal palace, where guests were served somen on the “Tanabata” Star Festival held in July in hopes of preventing plague. Today, somen has become a dish that anyone, not only royal guests, can enjoy throughout the year. It is most often served cold and eaten during the summer months as a way to cool down from the heat but it can also be eaten as “nyumen” in hot soup.

Somen are made from simple ingredients: wheat flour, salt, and vegetable oil, but Ibonoito utilizes for its somen premium ingredients and takes advantage of Hyogo’s rich climate which is particularly suitable for their production. Three key ingredients are needed: fine-quality wheat flour, pure, crystal-clear soft water from the Ibo River, and salt from Ako. Throughout the museum, there are detailed dioramas that demonstrate step-by-step how “tenobe” (hand-stretched) somen was traditionally made. There are several steps that include meticulous kneading, stretching, and aging, followed by drying, cutting, tying, box packing, inspection, and aging in a warehouse before being shipped and delivered to the tables of many people.

On the second floor of the museum,I was also able to catch a glimpse of the processing plant where 6 bundles are packed in small batches. Though machinery is used now, human employees are still an integral part of the somen-making process, as they will knead, twist, age, stretch, dry, and cut the noodles by hand, all before binding and boxing them up. Ibonoito somen is then divided into several grades based on factors such as thickness, ingredients, manufacturing period, and more.

Back on the first floor, I was just in time for the next noodle-stretching demonstration, which is held every hour, five times a day. Noodles were brought out by a professional, who so gracefully stretched the somen that it was almost like watching a ballet. The noodles are repeatedly pulled by hand using tubes and separated by long chopsticks until they are stretched to two meters long, eventually resembling harp strings in their final state.

I was also able to try stretching the somen myself, under the guidance of the staff. Though the noodles are less delicate than they look, it was still quite difficult to stretch them all the way to two meters. When I got to the final step, many of my noodles broke and fell to the floor, making me appreciate the abilities of somen craftspeople even more.

There is also a restaurant in the same building called “Iori” where you can try delicious somen dishes. Prior to visiting Somen-no-Sato, I had thought somen to just be a summer food, best enjoyed cold and dipped in “men-tsuyu” (noodle dipping sauce). I was fascinated by Iori’s menu which featured many variations including nyumen served in steaming hot broth, which I had never tried before.

Though the seasonal dishes, like “kabocha” (pumpkin) soup somen and pork kimchi somen sounded intriguing, I went with a more classic version: “ume nyumen” with pickled plum. The sourness of the plum contrasted perfectly with the savory broth. My friend chose a somen “teishoku” (set meal) served with grilled fish on the side, making for an extra-filling, nutritionally balanced lunch.

We were also given a small set of “makizushi” sushi rolls. At first glance, I thought the sushi had been rolled with rice, but when my first bite was softer than I had anticipated, I was delighted to discover that the rice part was, in fact, somen! I found this somen-rolled sushi to be both creative and delicious, with a light flavor that was sweeter than regular sushi.

Tatsuno Castle Town: Harima’s Quiet “Little Kyoto”

Besides cuisine, the charms of Tatsuno City include the traditional architecture, preserved cultural buildings, and the quiet streets lined with willow trees, which have led many to refer to Tatsuno as Harima’s “Little Kyoto.”

It was once also home to the majestic Tatsuno Castle, which was built about 500 years ago. The grounds host the restored “Honmaru Palace,” which visitors are allowed to enter for free. The palace has several fascinating displays, including one showcasing samurai armor, and guests can also enjoy the artwork and architecture.

Tatsuno is a City of Soy Sauce!

The climate in Tatsuno City gives birth to some of the best ingredients, not only for somen, but for soy sauce as well. Traditionally, soy sauce only needs four ingredients: water, wheat, soybeans, and salt, and the Tatsuno area has all of these in the highest quality.

Much of the soy sauce made in Tatsuno City uses water from the Ibo River, which runs through the city and is known for its soft, low-iron, and crystal-clear water. The nearby Harima Plain, with its fertile soil, is likewise the ideal place for rice and wheat to grow, while soybeans are also harvested at the foot of Tatsuno’s mountains. Salt, the last essential ingredient, is sourced from the nearby city of Ako, where salt from the Seto Inland Sea is farmed. Ako, whose history of salt making dates back about 1,800 years, accounts for around 20 percent of Japan’s overall salt production.

Just a short car ride away from Somen-no-Sato and a few minutes from Tatsuno Castle on foot, I found myself at the Usukuchi Tatsuno Soy Sauce Museum, the first soy sauce museum in Japan. Higashimaru, one of western Japan’s most popular “usukuchi” (lightly-flavored) soy sauce brands, originated in Tatsuno. In the old building where they used to make and sell the original usukuchi soy sauce, there is now a museum that shares Higashimaru’s history and craftsmanship, and also preserves antique tools that were used before Higashimaru opened its modern factory in 1979.

At the museum, I discovered what sets Higashimaru’s usukuchi soy sauce apart: the addition of “amazake” (sweet fermented rice beverage) to the four main ingredients (soybeans, wheat, salt, and water) before straining the unrefined soy sauce. This gives it a lighter, sweeter, and less salty flavor, making it perfect for simmered dishes, hot pot, and udon broth, among other dishes.

In the museum, you can walk through each step of the soy sauce-making process and try to imagine what it was like to work in the old factory. I was blown away by the size of the wooden barrels where the soy sauce was kept during the fermentation process, and could only imagine the sight of them being filled. Traditionally, soy sauce takes over one year to make and must be stirred periodically. Because of the sauce’s thickness and the size of the barrels, three workers were needed to stir it – a tough gig indeed!

Near Usukuchi Tatsuno Soy Sauce Museum, I spotted a shop advertising soy sauce-flavored “manju” (steamed buns typically filled with red bean paste), which I decided I must try! The manju had a light, salty taste forming a pleasant contrast with the sweet red bean paste inside. While unconventional, it was delicious and satisfying, and gave me a greater appreciation for the versatility of soy sauce.

As I walked around the town, I came across a vending machine with soy sauce inside. Next to the tea, juice, and sports drinks you would normally find in a vending machine, there were offerings of both light and dark soy sauce, making for great souvenirs. You can truly feel the local pride and cultural impact that soy sauce has had on the Tatsuno area.

Shiosai Kirara Syokichi: Ako City’s Michelin-Star Resort

On the final stop of the day, I reached Ako City. The pride of Ako are its hot springs, which are hidden gems kept secret by locals. Ako’s therapeutic waters are rich in salt and minerals, and are said to aid with ailments like digestive issues, chronic muscle and joint pain, mild hypertension, and more. The water also has a moisturizing effect which is great for the skin.

A place where you can enjoy these hot springs alongside seasonal local cuisine is Shiosai Kirara Syokichi Resort. I arrived just as the sun was setting, and their gorgeous lounge area gave me a breathtaking view of the sunset over the Seto Inland Sea. After a tiring but fun-filled day, this was the perfect way to relax.

Syokichi Resort is especially loved by locals for its cuisine. Its speciality is “kaiseki ryori,” a traditional Japanese meal served in courses. The resort mainly focuses on fish dishes and utilizes local ingredients sourced from all around the Seto Inland Sea area, such as produce from Hyogo Prefecture and local sake and wine.

The resort’s menu changes its theme four times a year to correlate with each season.
I was visiting in autumn, when conger eel and crab were in season and the main vegetable was the exquisite matsutake mushroom. The resort’s specialty dish at the time was eel steamed in an earthenware pot alongside mushrooms – a delectable seasonal treat!

Syokichi offers a winter menu from December to March with dishes and kaiseki featuring oysters which are caught locally in Sakoshi Bay. Sakoshi oysters can be served or cooked in various methods, and one of Syokichi’s specialties is their original oyster “sukiyaki” hot pot.

Shiosai Kirara Syokichi Resort can accommodate guests with dietary restrictions, including vegetarian and vegan, with notice.

Along with the rooms themselves, each “onsen” (hot spring bath) at Syokichi Resort boasts an ocean view, as do the open-air “rotenburo” (hot spring). Some of the deluxe rooms even have private baths included!

Ginpaso: A Hot Spring Resort with a Panoramic Sunset View

Image: Ginpaso

In Ako City, there is another seaside resort which offers breathtaking scenery of the Seto Inland Sea. Ginpaso is a traditional-style inn that boasts panoramic ocean views from the natural hot spring baths, seasonal multi-course meals showcasing the best of Ako and the nearby region’s ingredients, and is designated as one of Japan’s Top 100 sunset spots!

Image: Ginpaso

From the public hot spring bath, you can witness a panoramic view where the sky melts into the Seto Inland Sea. The infinity bath will make you feel like you are part of the sea itself. On a clear day you can see the Shikoku Peninsula and a direct view of Shodo Island, one that is famous for its olives.

Ako City’s hot springs are all natural, and its minerals help to ease muscle and joint pain while moisturizing the skin. Hotel guests are welcome to use the baths any time of day, but it is also possible to come for a day trip. There are 2 hour day trip plans for bathing only, or a combination of bathing and lunch with options starting at 4,950 yen per person.

Image: Ginpaso

Ginpaso’s restaurant serves fresh seasonal fish, raw or steam-roasted, straight from the Seto Inland Sea! I recommend visiting in autumn, when matsutake mushroom and crab are the main ingredients or between December and March when you can relish Sakoshi oysters caught in the Seto Inland Sea, both served alongside colorful local dishes.

Summer is also a wonderful time to visit. Every Friday from July to September (and every day from August 22nd to 26th), guests can participate in the “Sea Firefly Viewing Party” and enjoy the newly harvested oysters as part of the “Nishi Harima Nagisa Kaiseki Meal,” a multi-course set menu. The highlight of the course menu is the summer oysters that will be served with Setouchi lemon, adding to Ginpaso’s delectable experience that can’t be had anywhere else.

Image: Ginpaso

Ginpaso offers 36 guest rooms, some of which are Japanese-style with tatami mats and futons, and other rooms that are a combination of Japanese and Western styles with tatami mats and beds. The rooms display a variety of spectacular views of the sea, mountains, and garden. Some rooms are equipped with open-air baths accompanied by an ocean view.

Image: Ginpaso

Ginpaso also features a pool that is open during summer, a tea lounge, bar lounge, meeting room, gift shop, beauty salon, massage service, and more. Guests will have endless possibilities for relaxation.

Enjoy a Luxurious Trip Teeming With Nature and Local Specialties in Tatsuno and Ako

Tatsuno and Ako’s beautiful nature, consisting of rivers, mountains, plains, and coasts along the Seto Inland Sea, all contribute to its terroir: the characteristic taste and flavor of a place, apparent in the delicious foods that are the pride and joy of the area. It is easy to see why the locals are so proud of their regional specialties, and not only is a trip through the region a treat for the eyes, but for the tastebuds as well!