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The Setouchi region of Japan: Finding your Zen

Have a yen to escape to a land worlds away? Are you in search of an authentic cultural experience in a region of natural beauty? Would you like to renew your inner spirit and learn the ancient art of  Zen meditation right on temple grounds? 

Japan’s Setouchi region, which surrounds the Seto Inland Sea, is all that and more. Its rich history and culture, vibrant arts scene, lively festivals, and exotic and succulent sweets and savories make it a compelling destination.

The calm clear waters of its Seto Inland Sea lie between three of the Japanese archipelago’s four main islands. This area is known as the Japanese Mediterranean and “land of beautiful weather” for its sunny mild climate, warm waters and pristine beaches.

People vacation in the Setouchi region to enjoy the the waters — crystal clear around the islands and warm and mineral-rich in the baths known as onsens. It’s also a place to better appreciate the beauty of the culture through its museums, historic temples and shrines, serene gardens and special events.

Visit and you will better understand why the Japanese people enjoy one of the longest life expectancies in the world. This productive high-tech nation is also deeply rooted in the art of relaxation.

Here you can immerse yourself in Japanese tradition as you soothe your body and soul with the blissful sounds of trickling water and soothing warmth of a Japanese onsens’ therapeutic mineral spring waters. You can also learn the art of clarity and composure with spiritual monastery training by meditating with monks on authentic temple grounds.

Finding enlightenment: Shinshoji Zen Museum and Gardens

Experience the spirit of zen through the art collection, landscape,  unique architecture and installations at Shinshoji Zen Museum and Gardens. Here in the mountains of Fukuyama you can breathe in the tranquility of the Zen gardens as you roam from one area to the next. Feel the relaxation as you unplug from the rest of the world, discover harmony with nature and focus on your mind and body. 

Continue the meditative experience with the exhibit and landscape at the contemporary art pavilion known as KOHTEI. Its ship-shaped form that seems to float above the stony landscape was chosen as a tribute to the temple’s founding by a shipbuilding company that sought to console the spirits of those who died at sea or in the industry. Shimmering lights over rippling water set the mood inside KOHTEI.

For the ultimate experience, reserve time with an English-speaking monk for the Shinshoji International Zen Training Monastery’s one-day Zen retreat. Begin with the seated deep breathing meditation known as Zazen, which is in the yoga-based Rinzai Zen tradition. Worlds away from modern distractions, you can concentrate on the correct sitting posture, focus on deeper and longer breaths, clear your mind and better understand your true self. 

Next, although you do not need to do the three prostrations the monks perform at the bathhouse before and after bathing, you, too, can improve your breathing, energy level and overall health by following the protocols. Immerse yourself in the silence of the moment and concentrate simply on being alive.

Follow this with a meal of Udon noodles in the Shinshoji Temple restaurant, dining as the monks do, with long thick chopsticks and three bowls. The afternoon continues with another enlightening experience, the hand-copying of Buddhist sutras. Complete the day as you drink in the serenity of a cup of tea served at one of the teahouses.

Where to stay

Accommodations in the Setouchi region range from traditional tatami-matted inns known as ryokans to  sleek and modern hot spring and seaside resorts. For the ultimate in privacy charter a private yacht. Spend the night onboard or reserve a charming cottage or glamping tent on a private island.

Steeped in history: the luxurious Ryokan Kurashiki

In Kurashiki’s preserved Bikan Historic District small pleasure boats glide along a canal that is lined with willow trees, traditional former kura (storehouses) and merchants’ mansions. This is a good base from which to visit the region, but be sure to allow enough time right here to explore the local art museums, shops, galleries and restaurants. Be sure to take a ride along the canal in an old wooden boat.

Sansai-ichi, a monthly morning market, is held in the shopping arcade in front of JR Kurashiki Station. Browse the array of local produce, seafood from the Seto Inland Sea and local crafts. It dates back to the Edo Period (1603–1868). Time it right and you may find yourself in the midst of an annual festival.

In spring, for example, paper umbrellas and an array of lanterns illuminate the canal during the Kurashiki Spring Light Festival. Houses are bathed in shadow pictures. Local crafts are displayed. The Achi Shrine, with an over 1,700 year history, looms above the area. Blessings like health and wisdom are said to come to those who receive a pat on the head from jesters dressed to appear elderly during its Spring Festival.

Over 3,500 people join in the spirited Daikan Bayashi-Odori Dance at the Kurashiki Tenryo Summer Festival. Drummers and musical bands perform.

In fall, join the chanting, traditional music, dancing and singing goddesses in the lively procession right through the middle of town during the ACHI Shrine Autumn Festival. Doors of the merchants’ houses open to the public in mid-October to show their precious artifacts at the Byobu (folding screen) Festival.  

Traditional and authentic

Ryokan Kurashiki was established in the heart of this centuries-old restored merchant town by uniting the home of a wealthy sugar merchant with storehouses and newer structures. Its unique blend of luxurious modern amenities with traditional architecture and gracious service has attracted international celebrities. 

Guests enjoy a visual and palate-pleasing kaiseki feast, a experience that incorporates 9th century imperial court, 12th century Buddhist, 14th century Samurai and 15th century tea ceremony culinary traditions.  Each course is expertly prepared with seasonal ingredients, beautifully plated, arranged and garnished for a meticulous balance of flavor, color, texture, and presentation. 

The English-speaking okami (proprietress) can arrange unique and customized experiences in the community, including visits to traditional weaving, indigo dyeing, and Japanese paper craft studios. 

Or you might want a customized itinerary of day trips. The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum is dedicated to the Japanese-American artist, sculptor and landscape designer. Japan’s renowned Edo Period Ritsurin Garden was built by feudal lords. The open-air Shikoku Mura Village features historic structures from throughout Shikoku island. Adventurous? Cross the vine suspension bridge or climb the 785 steps to Kotohira Shrine, dedicated to sailors and seafaring. Access to the inner shrine requires another 583 steps.

Spectacular views: Bella Vista

Vistas of the mountains and sea surround Bella Vista Spa & Marina, a luxurious Inland Sea resort boutique hotel for adults. Each of the 45 rooms overlooks the sea, but for a stunning panoramic view from the bath reserve the signature Maisonette Spa Suite.

Bella Vista’s Setouchi Kilometer: Zero philosophy ensures that this will be an experience in regional culture and cuisine. Locally produced products include Kasuri fabric and furniture. Kaihara denim from Hiroshima is used to make the teddy bears that are on every bed.

Savor the local flavors with any of the dining venues and options, from the lively open kitchen to the the serenity of the dining room that faces the sea. Menus are based on seasonal and fresh ingredients sourced from the mountains and the Inland Sea. Seasonings are grown onsite.

Charter a fishing excursion or private cruise aboard a luxury yacht at the Bella Vista Marina. Stargaze through the poolside telescopes. Unwind with the spa’s free yoga lessons. It’s all about relaxation. There is even a free shuttle service from the station or airport.

Local foods

Kobe beef and Sanuki’s Olive Wagyu beef, seasonal game, local oysters, udon noodles, and the savory pancake known as okonomiyaki are among the local specialties.

Fruits grow in abundance here and are celebrated with festivals throughout the year. Mandarin oranges (mikan), white peaches, pione grapes and Sudachi, a Setouchi citrus, are among those used to make local liqueurs. Sake is made from local rice.

Adventurous? Try tessa, the lip-numbing sashimi made from poisonous fugu, or globefish. It must be prepared by a certified chef trained to remove an otherwise life-threatening poison–or else….

Island hopping yacht charters in the Seto Inland Sea

There is an extensive ferry service for enjoying the beautiful seascape, but sightseeing is easier with an island hopping cruise. There are lunch cruises and sunset cruises, but the most popular “Art Encounters” cruise explores the renowned modern art on the “triangle of art,” Naoshima, Teshima and Inujima.

For the ultimate experience, visit during the Setouchi Triennale or Setouchi Art Festival, held every three years on a dozen islands. Some islands have installations left from past festivals.

If you can visit just one island, rent a bike and browse the galleries and outdoor museums at Naoshima, Japan’s art and architecture island. It’s easy to spot. One of Yayoi Kusama’s renowned pumpkin sculptures is at the port.

Seto Yacht Charter

Seto Yacht Charter offers a variety of options from popular 3 or 8 hour day charters to private overnight stays aboard their well-appointed 20’ long and 22’ wide Bali 4.0 Catamaran yacht from Chantier Catana. It accommodates 10 passengers by day or 6 guests overnight in 3 cabins.

Charter a cabin or book the entire yacht. The English-speaking skipper and hostess can help you set your own course with family and friends. Visit the islands’ art sites, historical districts and industrial heritage sites or just relax with the view. Savor the freshest of seafood, whether catered onboard or at restaurants along the way.

With charters, embarkation and disembarkation ports can be customized, tour guides and meals can be arranged. Follow a set itinerary or create your own. Spend the day hiking, canoeing, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, fishing, or exploring the natural wonders. Discover what a Setouchi sunset is all about. Stargaze by night. A support staff is there for your comfort and safety.

Small groups can stay overnight in the cozy Kujira Cottage, which has two twin rooms on Kujira-Jima, a private uninhabited island. Groups of five or more have another overnight option — glamping tents.

Spiritual and authentic

A getaway to the Setouchi region of Japan combines the modern and the traditional. It’s a blend of the unique and innovative with time-honored and authentic sights, sounds, scents, seasonings and sensations. Best of all, this enticing journey to the other side of the world may also lead you to the discovery of your innermost self.

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