Western Japan has it all
Visit the Japanese prefectures of Yamaguchi and Hiroshima for iconic sites and unique food
A blend of nature, history and good food pushed the prefectures of Yamaguchi and Hiroshima high up on my travel list, alongside more popular hot spots like Tokyo, and I managed to check off those destinations last month.
Off the grid towards the western end of Honshu island, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima have an added bonus of being crowd-free at some of the best sights in Japan.
In this second instalment of our two-part series on the Chugoku region, we tell you where to go.
The city of Hagi is a treasure trove of cultural icons.
I was transported back to the Edo period as I walked into Hagi Castle Town.
The streets were lined with Namako white walls that gave way to traditional houses built by samurais and merchants, both significant to the era.
Driving along the coast will take you to Motonosumi Inari Shrine in Nagato, where 123 bright red torii gates lead up to a cliff overlooking the Sea of Japan.
The sight of people throwing coins up into the air left me perplexed, but I soon realised that the shrine's donation box was located on top of the main torii gate. Getting your coin into the box signifies a fulfilled wish.
The shrine also has similar origins as the popular Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Kyoto.
We then started our long drive to the city of Shimonoseki at the tail end of the prefecture but not before stopping at the photogenic Tsunoshima Bridge viewpoint.
A 1.8km-long bridge stretched across the blue sea into Tsunoshima island, a frequent filming location.
Nature lovers will also be impressed by Shimonoseki's Akiyoshido karst cave for its large and colourful speleothems (cave formations).
Another must-visit is Rurikoji pagoda, a Buddhist temple surrounded by colourful trees and an emerald lake. The five-storey structure was built in 1442 and still remains well maintained.
One absolutely cannot leave Shimonoseki, known as the fugu (pufferfish) capital, without eating the delicacy.
At Shunpanro Honten hotel's restaurant, we were served pufferfish done four ways - raw, fried, boiled and as a broth.
There was also a surprise. When I opened my sake glass, I saw a pufferfish fin floating on the surface of my hot sake. Known as hirezake, the grilled fugu fin adds a savoury and nutty hint to the alcohol and is a must-try.
Along the port of Shimonoseki is Kamon Wharf and Karato Market, a wet market with fresh fugu sashimi.
I also popped by Fukuoka Prefecture's Moji Port, a retro area with Western architecture. It is easily accessible by Kanmon Ferry at the port, by car, or by walking through the Kanmon Pedestrian Tunnel.
One of the most iconic sights in the city is the Atomic Bomb Dome.
The skeleton structure is a ghost of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the only building left standing near the hypocentre of the atomic bomb.
The vast expanse of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, once the bustling heart of the city, houses the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Children's Peace Monument, decorated with strings of colourful paper cranes.
The park is a hot spot for both tourists and locals, a tell-tale sign that the city has graciously embraced its past and is at peace with its history.
For a bird's eye view of Hiroshima, visitors can head up to the observation deck of the Hiroshima Orizuru Tower, a trendy area with plastic domes and marshmallow stations.
Just a short boat ride away is the tranquil island of Miyajima, with its forests and wild deer.
An icon of the area is the "floating" torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine. It is not fixed to the ground but weighed down by the stones on its roof.
A ride on the Miyajima Ropeway will take you to the top of the island for a striking view of the Seto Inland Sea dotted with oyster nets.
And munching on local specialities such as the Momiji Manju, a maple-leaf shaped confection served fried or baked, or the savoury grilled oysters, just completes the experience.
For more information on the prefectures, visit Japan National Tourism's website (www.japan.travel/en/destinations/).