Make an Escape to Ako

Ako City is a small coastal town in Hyogo Prefecture along the beautiful Seto Inland Sea. Its location between Osaka and Hiroshima makes it the perfect destination for a one- or two-night stopover if you want to take a break from more crowded tourist areas. Although Ako is under the radar of most travelers coming to Japan, it has much to offer—you can savor fresh seafood and take in fantastic seaside vistas. And not only is it a great place to learn about old methods of salt production, it was also the home domain of one of the most famous samurai groups in Japanese history, the 47 Ronin.

Misaki Onsen Area

Ako’s onsen neighborhood, known as Misaki, is full of scenic destinations. These include Iwatsuhime Shrine, a location that dates back to the Heian period (794–1185) and is often visited by young couples who go there to enjoy the scenic views of the Seto Inland Sea and pray to the Shinto gods for a bright future together. From the shrine, you can walk down Kirakira Zaka (Glistening Slope) to reach the coast. The name of this picturesque little street likely comes from the glass atelier there that sells glittering accessories and other glass crafts.

From there, you can take a path along the rocky coast to Fukuura Beach and Otsuka Kaigan, where the atmosphere feels almost Mediterranean. Otsuka Kaigan is a charming park area that is popular with the locals as a fishing spot and a place for barbecuing and sea kayaking in the summer.

From Otsuka Kaigan, you can walk up a trail to the Higashi Misaki Observatory Square. If you visit Ako in spring, you should definitely come here, as it is one of the best places for hanami, or cherry blossom viewing—it boasts about 1,700 cherry trees. The color contrast between the pale pink of the cherry blossoms and the dark blue of the Seto Inland Sea is truly a stunning sight.

The 47 Ronin of Ako

History aficionados will also find plenty to enjoy in Ako, as it is home to the famous story of the 47 Ronin (masterless samurai), which is known by most Japanese as Chushingura. The story is based on the real events of the Ako Incident, which took place in the early 18th century, and has inspired numerous plays, novels and movies.

You can find traces of the story of the 47 Ronin throughout Ako. One location is the remains of Ako Castle, in the center of the city. The castle was destroyed after the rule of the samurai ended in the 19th century, but parts of it have been restored and the castle was designated as a national historic site in 1971. Most of the inner areas have been transformed into a public park with beautiful gardens.

Located on the grounds of Ako Castle is also Oishi Shrine. It is dedicated to Oishi Kuranosuke, the leader of the 47 Ronin, who was enshrined here with other eminent military commanders of the feudal-era Ako Domain. People come here to pay respects to the 47 Ronin’s historic deeds and to pray for success in their endeavors. Many school children write their wishes on wooden plaques and leave them hanging up at the shrine, in the hopes of passing their exams.

In addition, the Ako City Museum of History is located to the north-east of the castle’s remains. The buildings of the museum are fashioned after old Japanese warehouses. Inside you will find permanent exhibitions about the development of Ako Castle and the town that grew up around it, the story of the 47 Ronin, the long history of salt production in Ako, and the old waterworks of the city. Most information is in Japanese, but an English pamphlet is available.

Country of Salt

Since ancient times, salt has held a special place in Japanese culture. It is believed to have purifying powers. If you have ever seen a sumo fight, you might have noticed that the wrestlers throw salt into the ring before the match starts to disperse bad influences. Salt is also one of the common offerings for Shinto gods at small shrines that some people have in their homes. But since Japan has no salt lakes or significant deposits of rock salt, the Japanese had to rely on salt production from seawater. As Ako is blessed with many sunny days, it has a long history of salt production.

In the 17th century, large-scale salt farms were developed under the rule of the Asano family. Even today, Ako’s salt accounts for 20 percent of the nationwide salt production. One place where you can delve into this product is the Country of Salt, an open-air museum located in the huge Ako Seaside Park. (If you’re traveling with young children, this park—with its small amusement area, obstacle courses, and vast playgrounds—is a great place to spend some time.)

At the Country of Salt, you can learn about the traditional methods of salt production in Ako. However, most of the information is in Japanese so you might want to bring someone with you who can understand the language to get the most out of your visit. At the Marine Science Museum entrance right next to the Country of Salt, you can make a reservation for a salt-making experience where you produce your own salt and take it home with you.

Unique Japanese Onsen Experience at Ginpaso

An ideal place to stay in Ako is Ginpaso, a ryokan (Japanese-style inn), located right next to Iwatsuhime Shrine. One of the highlights of the inn is the open-air hot spring baths with amazing views of the sea. Their Tenku no Yu bath is designed as an infinity pool, which means that the water flows over the edge, creating the illusion that there is no boundary between the hot spring bath and the sea. Those who want to appreciate this unique experience in a more private setting can book the Tenku Room on the sixth floor, which is the only room with a private open-air bath.

Another highlight at Ginpaso is the fresh seafood served for dinner in the ryokan’s own restaurant. If you never had the pleasure to enjoy a multi-course kaiseki dinner in Japan, the attention to detail that the chefs put into each course will amaze you. The Seto Inland Sea is one of the most famous places in Japan for oyster cultivation, because of its gentle currents, nutrient-rich waters, and relatively mild climate. The oysters are served in a variety of ways, including deep-fried, steamed in their shell, and boiled in a hot pot at your table. Sashimi, tempura made with seasonal vegetables, simmered yellowtail, seasoned rice and red miso soup are also served with meals. For dessert, you can expect treats such as green tea pudding and citrus jelly.

Imaiso’s Modern Art and Tranquil Sea Views

Another excellent accommodation option is Imaiso, located next to Fukuura Beach. The vast rooms are designed with stylish interiors and have a modern loft feeling. The large windows allow for a fantastic view of the sea. The bathroom opens up towards the windows so you can even gaze at the tranquil sea while having a bath.

Dinner and breakfast are served in a cafe on the first floor, which resembles a beach house. The cafe is decorated with paintings by the Okinawan artist Umehara Ryu, who visits every year to create a new painting for one of the cafe’s walls.

The dinner centers around fresh seafood from the Seto Inland Sea. The meal includes dishes such as sashimi, steamed oysters, and simmered rockfish—but make sure to save room for the cheesecake, which is made by Imaiso’s owner.

And if the weather permits and you can wake up early enough, you can see the sunrise from the comfort of your bed.

How to Get to Ako

Ako City is easy to reach from Himeji Station, one of the main stops on the Shinkansen Tokaido Line. From Himeji Station, it takes about 30 minutes and costs ¥590 to take the Sanyo Main Line to Banshu Ako Station, the last stop.

PHOTOS BY THOMAS SIEBERT

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