The Seto Inland Sea is surrounded by the three islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu in the Japanese archipelago. As Japan's largest inland sea, it runs approximately 450 kilometers from east to west and anywhere from 15 to 55 kilometers from north to south (depending on the location). Including the coastal areas, it is also called the "Setouchi." With the lake-like tranquility of the sea's surface, myriad islands, beautiful stretches of sandy beach dotted with green pines, terraced rice paddies and other beautiful sites, the area's pleasant view and rich nature are alive. Such Europeans as Philipp Franz von Siebold and Thomas Cook, who came to Japan during the time from the closing of the Edo Period on through the Meiji Period, offered high praise of the area's beauty, as they kept its memory dear. In 1934, the location centering on the so-called "Bisan Seto" area of the sea, which stretches between Okayama, Hiroshima, and Kagawa Prefectures, was designated as "The Seto Inland Sea National Park," Japan
Naoshima, the core island of the 27 or so islands comprising Naoshima Town, is about 13 kilometers north of Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture and about 3 kilometers south of Tamano in Okayama Prefecture. It is an island with an area of 7.81 km2 and a population of 3,400 people. It is said that when deposed Emperor Sutokujoko came to Sanuki Province (current day Kagawa) after the Hogen Disturbance of the Heian Period, he came to this island and was impressed by the rustic simplicity and gentle nature of the people living here. He thus bestowed the name “Naoshima,” meaning “gentle-natured island.”
The sea area around Naoshima has been an important location for sea traffic since long ago. The Takahara Clan, which ruled over Naoshima during the Warring States Period, actively led the navy, and at the beginning of the Edo Period, many people from Naoshima were involved in the cargo vessel industry. From the close of the Edo Period up through the Meiji Period, theater thrived, and even to this day the tradition of female-only Ningyo Jorui (Naoshima’s puppet theater performed by women) continues on.
As for local industries that have come to support the island’s economy, fish and seafood cultivation of hamachi (yellow tail) and nori (a type of seaweed) is being conducted, and in the northern part of the island is located a refinery that has been smelting precious metals, such as copper, since the Taisho Period. In recent years, Naoshima has become famous throughout the world as a “sacred place” for modern art, with many museums built in the south of the island.
With an area of 14.5 km2 and a population of about 1,000 people, Teshima is an island lying between Naoshima and Shodoshima. On the furthest south edge of the island is the oldest kaizuka (shell midden) in western Japan, which proves that people had been living on the island as long as 9,000 years ago. Along with trade on the Seto Inland Sea, the quarrying of stones for building and ornamental purposes has come down through the last thousand years as a main industry of the island. The island’s specialized product, Teshima-ishi (Teshima Stone), was even used in the stone lanterns of the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto and has become a product that has spread throughout western Japan.
In the central part of the island, a rich forest spreads over the towering mountain called Dan-yama, and bountiful springs irrigate the island’s rare terraced rice paddies. Once a long time ago, the island was not only self-sustained in terms of rice, it even exported it off of the island. The island was also sometimes called “Milk Island” because of the many cattle that were raised there.
After World War II a nursery was opened on the island. Thus, Teshima is famous as the “Island of Welfare” for its welfare facilities. On the western edge of the island, the country’s largest incident of illegal industrial waste dumping became the catalyst for Japan’s most exemplary measures ever for expeditiously dealing with an environmental problem and reexamining measures related to waste dumping. Currently, the waste materials from this site are transported to the island of Naoshima to be treated and detoxified.
About 4 kilometers off the shore of Takamatsu is the island of Megijima with an area of 2.66 km2, a coastline of 8.9 km, and a population of about 200 people. A stone wall called an ōte rises up to a height of 3 or 4 meters around much of the island’s circumference, and it provides the island with a very unique view.
About 80 years ago, a story came into being, which linked Megijima with the mythical Onigashima, the island in which the fairy tale character Momotaro supposedly made his appearance. Since that time the caves at the top of Washigamine Summit, as the home of the ogres from that story, have become popularized as a tourism spot. From the observation platform at the peak of Washigamine Summit, you can take in a 360 degree view of the Seto Inland Sea, as well as enjoy the view of thousands of cherry blossoms dyeing the islands pink during the spring.
The waters on the beach facing the shores of Takamatsu and Yashima are of extremely high quality and were designated as one of the “Hundred Places with Water Suitable for Bathing” by the Ministry of the Environment. Many people come here every summer to enjoy not only swimming in the ocean but also camping and fishing. The Sumiyoshi Shrine Festival is held here every other summer. This, the island’s greatest festival, is an event where many men carry into the sea large floats on which children ride and pound taiko drums – this demonstrates that they have the gallantry and bravery of true men of the sea.
One kilometer to the north of Megijima, this is an island with an area of 1.37 km2 and a population of about 200 people. There is almost no flat land here, so the houses of the residents are gathered very tightly together on the hill’s slopes. Narrow, sloping roads run between the houses just as if they were woven by thread. It is difficult to maintain rice fields here due to the restrictions imposed by the shape of the land, so up until shortly after World War II, the people would lend out their cows to places beyond the island and receive rice in repayment.
Toyotamahime Shrine, which can be seen on its elevated ground from Ogi Port, was known for having a deity who protects women in childbirth, and many people used to come to the island to pray for the safe delivery of their children. On the northern edge of the island stands the Ogijima Lighthouse (erected in 1895), which, with its beautiful granite construction, has been chosen as one of Japan’s Best 50 Lighthouses. In 1957 the movie Times of Joy and Sorrow was filmed here and became famous throughout Japan.
The remains of the lighthouse keeper’s residence have been preserved as the lighthouse’s museum. The terrestrial “princess firefly” finds its habitat here, and in early summer you can see its glowing light up in the hills like something from a dream. Also, at the begining of February every year, you can see hundreds of thousands of Japanese daffodils that have been grown through the efforts of area volunteers.
Shodoshima is an island with an area of 153.33 km2 and is the second biggest island in the Seto Inland Sea behind Awajishima. Between the two towns of Tonosho and Shodoshima, the island’s population comes to 32,000 people. A long time ago it was called “Azukishima” and, after Kojima in Okayama Prefecture, it was the second island to be created in Japan, according to the Kojiki.
Shodoshima's tallest peak, Hoshigajo Yama is also the tallest point among the islands of the Seto Inland Sea, and the whole island undulates in peaks and valleys, which are blessed with abundant nature. Stones from Shodoshima were quarried and used in the construction of Osaka Castle, built after the collapse of the family of Toyotomi Hideoshi, and the remains of some of these stones can be found in many places throughout the island. Salt, soy sauce, and somen noodles were produced to be sold beyond the islands during the Edo Period, and soy sauce and somen remain Shodoshima’s specialty products to this day.
Theater thrived here during the Edo Period, and at its peak there were as many as 30 small theaters on the island. Currently, rural kabuki performances are held every year at the two remaining theaters in the Hitoyama and Nakayama districts, with their stages covered by roofs of kayabuki (densely thatched grass). Shodoshima is also famous throughout the country for being the stage of Sakae Tuboi’s novel 24 Eyes, and since the very successful first planting of olive trees here more than 100 years ago, it has become known as the “Island of Olives.”
Floating about 8 kilometers northeast of Takamatsu, Oshima is a small island with an area of 0.62 km2 and a coastline of 7.2 km. Once two separate islands, it was connected by a sandbar to become one. A long time ago it was the stage of a battle during the Genpei War, and it is said that an old forest filled with pine trees that served as grave markers of the Taira Clan heroes, who lost at the Battle of Yashima, still exists on the island’s west coast. In 1909, a sanitarium was established for people suffering from Hansen’s Disease (leprosy), and in 1946 it was given the new name of The National Oshima Sanitarium Green Pine Garden. For a long time, the patients of the sanitarium were forced into quarantine on the island due to the government’s wrong policies stemming from social biases and prejudices against Hansen’s Disease. The Precautionary Measures Act, which called for this forced quarantine, was repealed in 1996, and the Basic Law Concerning the Hansen’s Disease Problem was established in 2008. Currently, support for the treatment and assistance of the patients as well as educational activities for proper understanding of Hansen’s Disease are being conducted at the Green Pine Garden.
At about 2.5 kilometers south of Hoden Port in the city of Okayama in Okayama Prefecture, Inujima is situated in a location that is about 8 minutes away on the regular boat line. Its area is about 0.54 km2 and its coastline is 3.6 km long. Of the six islands in the Inujima Archipelago, it is the only one that is inhabited. The island’s name comes from a huge rock called “Inuishi-sama,” which looks like a squatting dog. It is know for the production of its fine-quality granite, called “Inujima Mikage,” which was used long ago during the Edo Period in the construction of the Edo, Osaka, and Okayama Castles and then since the Meiji Period in the construction of the foundation stones of Osaka Port. Rock from Inujima has come to be prized in many places throughout Japan.
The Inujima Copper Refinery was established in 1909, and during its peak decade it employed more than 3000 people. However, through the closing of the refinery and the decline of the quarrying industry, the island’s population has declined to less than 1/50th of what it used to be. On the island you can enjoy distinct nature through all four seasons, as well as such things as a lovely beach and the Shizen no Ie (Nature House).
The city of Takamatsu lies roughly on the central axis of Kagawa Prefecture in the northeastern part of Shikoku. Formerly called “Nohara,” the current port area was developed in 1588 as a castle area for Chikamasa Ikoma, one of Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s retainers, and the name was later changed to Takamatsu. Takamatsu Castle faces the sea and its moats are filled with seawater, making it a mizushiro (water castle), something that is rarely seen throughout the whole country.
In 1642, Yorishige Matsudaira, the older brother of Mitsukuni Mito, became the feudal lord of Takamatsu. Takamatsu then developed as a castle town throughout the Edo Period just as it is sung in the following poem: “On top of the wave, from which can be seen the castle of the lord of Takamatsu, in Sanshu Sanuki.” After the Meiji Period, Takamatsu was improved many times over with the construction of a large scale harbor and railroads, thus making it the “Gateway to Shikoku.”
Takamatsu Port, with a large number of ships frequently entering the harbor, is one of the country’s preeminent passenger ports. Having developed from its days as a castle town, it now plays an important role as the home port for many islands and as a nexus between the towns of the area and the Seto Inland Sea.
Tamano City is located on the southern edge of Okayama Prefecture with a shoreline that measures 44 km in length and a population of 65,000. It is blessed with scenic nature and moderate weather, and its long shoreline is marked with many inlets and bays. Since long ago, it has bustled with boat traffic, which has helped the city flourish as a port city with a wonderful natural harbor.
Historically, A major port reconstruction project in 1909, the opening of railroad infrastructure in 1910, and the opening of the Uno-Takamatsu ferry route also in 1910 contributed to Uno Port becoming the present day’s vital transportation hub connecting the islands of Honshu and Shikoku.
The development of Tamano City’s industry has developed around shipbuilding and mining, and the characteristics of the quintessential “ship building town” can be seen in many of its townscapes.
Shamijima was once a small island 4 km out from Sakaide Port, measuring 160 m east to west and 930 m north to south. However, it became connected to the mainland in 1967 with the completion of the Bannosu Land Reclamation Project.
Shamijima was once called Samine no Shima, and it is said that it had important connections with the famous classical poetry anthology, Manyoshu. The leading poet featured in this anthology, Kakinomoto Hitomaro, is said to have composed a poem upon his visit to the island in 690, and there is now a monument to him at Okozoe Beach on the northern edge of Shamijima. At Nakanda Beach in the central part of Shamijima is another monument featuring the engraving of one of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro’s choka poems and its companion hanka poem. In the island’s interior, there is a cluster of ancient remains from which Jomon era pottery and Shiraku-style salt-making ceramics have been excavated.
The Shamijima Manyoshu Festival is held in the spring, where you can walk around the island with your Manyoshu Stampbook in hand and try to find all of the featured attractions as you think back to the time when this ancient poetry anthology was written.
Honjima is the central island of the Shiwaku Islands, which are located near the Seto Ohashi Bridge. It is 6.7 km2 in area with a population of 490. Historically, it was the base of operations for the Shiwaku Suigun (marines). The Shiwaku Suigun were possessed of bravery, outstanding navigational skills, and superior shipbuilding techniques. Due to these attributes, these sailors were well regarded by the ruling powers of the time. During the Edo period, they became charter boat captains and were given charge of a sizeable territory with a stipend of 1250 koku (bushels) of rice. The island came to be ruled by a collective of 650 sailors called ninmyo, who were granted their authority from the shogunate. After the shogunate collapsed, the Kanrin Maru became the first Japanese vessel staffed by a Japanese crew to make the long voyage across the Pacific Ocean. Among her crew were many sailors from the Shiwaku Islands.
The Shiwaku Kinbansho is a historical building located on the island, which once served as the Shiwaku Suigun’s governing headquarters and in which are stored many ancient documents and letters signed by the likes of Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi Toyotommi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. In Kasajima, one of Japan’s Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Historical Buildings, there are many old temples and shrines, as well as houses built from the Edo period up through the beginning of World War II, all of which harken back to a flourishing time from far back in the island’s history.
Takamijima is a thin, conically-shaped island located northwest of Tadotsu-cho and measuring 7.5 km north to south. Mt. Ryuozan marks Takamijima’s tallest point (297 m) at the center of the island. The southern part of the island is the Hama District, which centers on the port, and the Ura District is located on the mountain. The Itamochi District could once be found on the northern part of the island, but no one lives there now. The western part of the island is a steep cliff, so there are no residences there.
Houses in the Ura District are built in a terrace arrangement on the 25° to 30°slope of the mountain, where the unique aesthetic of the island can be viewed in many places, including the randomly stacked naturally-shaped stones that make up the stonewall bases of the houses. Most of these walls were constructed during the Edo period and serve as a testament to the skill of the island citizens who then worked as Shiwaku carpenters. In both the Hama and Ura districts can be found Ryobosei graves, that is, a dual burial system in which one grave serves as the deceased’s physical burial place and another serves as a grave for the deceased’s family to pay their respects. These graves serve as very important artifacts for understanding the history of burials in Japan.
Every year in September, the Takami-Sanagi Joint Athletic Meet is held between the island residents and the residents of nearby Sanagijishima. During this time, the normally serene island comes to life with great festivity.
Awashima Island once thrived as a port of call for traditional kitamaebune boats. The island is located roughly in the center of the Seto Inland Sea (off the western shore of Kagawa), very near the Shonai Peninsula. It is 3.68 km2 in area with a population of 300. Awashima is actually comprised of three islands connected together by sandbars, to create a shape that, for a boat port island, appropriately evokes the image of a ship’s propeller. It takes a mere 15 minutes to travel to the island from Suda Port, but it is a peaceful place where you can slowly experience the passage of time and enjoy the surrounding space.
At night, in addition to the twinkling stars in the night sky and the blinking lights of ships on the water and the townscapes beyond, you can enjoy the fantastical star-like, blue lights that emanate from sea fireflies (bioluminescent crustaceans) swimming in the waters of the island’s beaches. They can be seen between the end of May and the beginning of October, and their peak viewing time is the beginning of autumn.
Japan’s oldest naval training school, the National Mercantile Marine School was established here in 1897 and produced sailors of superior skill for 90 years until 1987 when it was closed. This school played an integral role in the island’s history. The remains of the former school’s building now serve as the Awashima Ocean Memorial Park and as the island’s symbol.
Ibukijima is located 10 km west of Kanonji Port and measures 1.05 km2 in area and 5.4 km in circumference, with a population of 700. The island’s table-shaped base is made of andesite and granite, and the circumference of the island is an extremely steep cliff face. At the top of the island is a flat, open area and the island’s residences are clustered in a saddle-shaped area there running from south to north.
bukijima has a flourishing fishing industry, which makes use of cast nets, small-scale trawl nets, and fixed shore nets. Particularly famous is Ibuki Iriko, a well-known brand of dried Japanese anchovy fry that is caught with cast nets and then dry processed on the island.
The dialect of Ibukijima is very unique, with expressions and unique honorifics that have their roots in the ancient Japanese language, making this island the only place in Japan with a Heian period accent. In order to study the island’s dialect, famed linguistic scholar Haruhiko Kindaichi came to the island twice, and each time he left behind a poem to commemorate his trip. The Ibuki dialect is known for its simple, slightly rough sound.