The French proverb ‘sel de la vie’ (literally meaning ‘the salt of life’) perfectly sums up the essence of Ako, a famous salt-producing city in western Hyogo Prefecture, nestling on the shores of the Seto Inland Sea. This is because one of the many highlights of a visit to Ako is slowing down and enjoying a bit of the good life; whether this is sampling the fantastic regional food or spending a relaxing time near the sea. What’s more, visitors can see first-hand exactly where the local ingredients – the salt, seafood, the fruits and vegetables – come from, to gain a deeper understanding of the history, culture and flavours of the region. With its beautiful natural surroundings and fabulous seaside hot springs, Ako is a place to relax and unwind in peace and tranquillity.
A little spice makes life richer
To experience that unique Ako ‘sel de la vie’ vibe, a farm-to-table tour is the perfect way to enjoy a little of ‘the spice of life’. I started my tour at the Hyogo Ako Seaside Park, a former salt-making site, and there I had great fun making my own Ako salt in an engaging hands-on experience. I even got a little jar to take home at the end too!
We were then invited to see a local farm and meet some of the farmers and had a chance to pick vegetables grown in the fields - a great way to really understand where the ingredients come from. After that we went to an atmospheric old sake brewery to start the cooking part of the tour, spending an enjoyable few hours learning how to prepare and cook a mesmerising array of dishes, all under the guidance of an expert Japanese chef.
At the end of the tour, everyone gathered around to enjoy the meal we had created together, and it was a fantastic chance to sample the delicious local tastes of Ako. Not only did we create something that looked and tasted wonderful, but we could make lasting new friendships too - a life-enriching experience in the true spirit of ‘sel de la vie’.
But even if cooking is not your thing then be sure to head to one of Ako’s many excellent restaurants such as Nijo in the Sakoshi area, which serves splendid seasonal cuisine (including oysters in the winter) in the cosy confines of a traditional 100-year old kominka (Japanese-style house).
Among Japanese tourists, Ako is also known as a great slow-travel retreat, allowing you to escape from the hustle and bustle of Japan’s crowded cities, and there is no better place to do this than in the scenic Misaki area. I spent an hour or two wandering along the quiet streets and gentle coastal paths, where the beautiful sea views and calming ocean sounds soon put me in a relaxed frame of mind.
The area also has a plethora of luxury hotels and ryokan, some of which, such as the outstanding Ginpasō, offer exceptional fine dining and infinity-style outdoor baths with panoramic sea views. All the strains and stress of everyday life are instantly lifted as you sit back and bathe in the warm soothing waters while gazing out across the sea to distant islands - undoubtedly one of the best hot spring experiences I’ve had in Japan!
Or perhaps you may opt to treat yourself to a stay at Imai-sō, a stylish boutique minshuku (guest-house) nestled in a peaceful bay; with only two large and luxurious guest rooms, the exceptional food and hospitality are second to none. Enjoy the pleasure of taking dinner and breakfast in the open-front dining space, while listening to the sounds of the sea lapping along the shore just metres away.
Ako is conveniently located along the Tokaidō Sanyo Shinkansen line between Osaka and Hiroshima, and is just a 30-minute train ride from Himeji, making it the perfect short seaside retreat away from the tourist crowds. Whether you’re interested in food, history or culture, or simply want to take it slow and unwind while surrounded by the beauty of nature, Ako is an undiscovered gem of the Seto Inland Sea. So make time to visit Japan’s ‘salt country’, where a little spice makes life a little richer - ‘sel de la vie’!