Along the coast from Himeji and situated beside the Seto Inland Sea, you’ll find the lesser-known but just as spectacular Ako city. This trove of stunning sites includes castle ruins, hot springs with incomparable ocean views and engrossing activities that will keep you moving from place to place. Moreover, it is a historically significant city, known for its ties to the 47 ronin. Don’t let Ako City pass by your train window when venturing through. Stop off and leave your regrets behind.
Local food tends to tell the story of a place and for Ako City, the pioneer of salt production, this couldn’t be true enough. The making of their salt dates back nearly 1,800 years and the city is a Japan Heritage site because of it. For epicures, this extra kick delivers irresistible food. Head straight to Ako Ramen Membo, a restaurant with many centuries of experience in making shio ramen. The piquant broth will compel you to hunt for more salty culinary delights.
A hero’s shrine
Drawn together in the center of the city, are three must-see historical landmarks. The first is Ako Oshi Shrine, where many come to pay tribute to Oishi Kuranosuke: a chamberlain who spear-headed 47 leaderless samurai into an act of vengeance. It’s a true story that has been dramatized into an epic tale of vengeance, bravery and tragedy known as the Chushingura. Many come here to pay their respects to the hero and view the treasury’s historical artifacts.
Located in the vicinity are the ruins of the 17th century Ako Castle. Try and find your way inside through several layers of walls and misdirected gates, a purposeful military tactic to discourage enemy attack. The gardens are alive with flowers during springtime, making it a perfect picnic spot. If your time outside hasn’t been educational enough, you can always head inside to the neighboring museum and discover more about this monumental place.
Become a salt connoisseur
Drive, or take a bus, over the sun-speckled Chikusa River and follow the sounds of infectious laughter. There you will find Ako Seaside Park, a playground for families. Its impressive man-made lake is surrounded by a multi-colored Ferris wheel, obstacle courses and The Country of Salt, an opportunity to bring home your very own hand-made salt. For those who want to nourish their brains, there is also The Marine Science Museum.
With the sea at your doorstep, you must head to the picturesque Iwatsushime Shrine. Breathe in the fresh oceanic air as you look out through the torii gate to endless blue waves. It is no wonder that the fishermen come here to pray for safe travel, or for a good haul of fish. It’s also a spot for lovers who are often seen hand-in-hand, strolling down the KiraKira Zaka (glistening slope), and lunching in quaint cafés that face towards the sea.
Nearby, witness the sky marry the sea at the Ginpaso Hotel’s unique infinity-style onsen, Tenkai no Yu. Let your worries drip off you and quietly reflect on nature. It is hard to argue that the best kind of hot spring is one overlooking pristine water. If you are looking for somewhere with an easygoing, artsy vibe then why not try Imaiso a little further along in the Otsuka Kaigan area.
A pleasurable 20-minute stroll away from the shrine, past jumping fishing lines and seaside hotels, is the Higashi Misako Observatory Square. Feast your eyes on 1,700 cherry trees prime to bloom and the wondrous landscape of Shodoshima Island framed by the glorious hues of blue and pink.
The wonders of Sakoshi Bay
Go along one station to Sakoshi and delve deeper into the magic of the region. There, Sakoshi Machinami’s wooden houses and tranquil inner gardens will transport you to the Japan of the past; from an old sake brewery-turned museum, Okuto Shuzo Kyodo-kan, to the Machinamikan, which houses an impressive American safe.
For further breathtaking views, start at the base of Chusuyama mountain and visit Osake Shrine, which is dedicated to Hata Kawakatsu. His grave lies on Ikushima Island, which can be seen as you ascend. Midway, discover Myokenji Temple; its grand hall was built in 1722 with sweeping views of the bay below. If you are feeling confident, hike farther up using the Sekibutsu Junrei trail and be greeted by the enriching sight of rivers, islands, beaches and ocean from the top.
Back down in Sakoshi Bay, the sea brings forth endless delights to gobble up. Its specialty being oysters. Kuidoraku, a quaint restaurant by Sakoshi Port allows you to try them all year round and in many different forms: deep-fried, marinated, steamed and in hot pot. Head over to the market next door to pick some up yourself on the way home.
One last adventure
Before you go do one last rewarding thing and hike Otakadaiyama behind Bansho Ako Station. Climb the snaking trail in less than an hour and point at all the places you’ve been. Sleep on the train or remain an extra night in tranquility at The Kariya Ryokan Q, a contemporary ryokan that swaps futons for luxurious, silky beds. Come full circle at Kuishinbo, and savor the memories of Ako City with one last locally sourced, thoughtfully made meal.