Shikoku? Haven’t heard of it? There’s an old travel cliché: same, same but different.
You could apply it truthfully to Shikoku. Though Japan is overwhelmingly homogenous, areas of quirky regional difference appear throughout.
Fourth in size among Japan’s main islands (Honshu, Kyushu and Hokkaido are the other three) and least known to most international travellers, it’s a bit off the beaten track but easily accessible from western Honshu. Osaka’s two airports are a couple hours drive via a series of bridges.
Japan’s impressive railway network also provides quick entry to Shikoku from Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto.
If you’ve been wondering how to discover a relatively untouched Japan, this could be your best option.
Shikoku’s northern side which faces the (Seto) Inland Sea is the most populated while offering easiest access to its top sights.
Driving from Osaka via Kobe, you cross Awaji Island over the Naruto Strait and its famous whirlpools, the bridge overhead adding extra dramatic effect.
Listed for inclusion to UNESCO World Heritage status, the whirlpools are an impressive natural feature caused by massive tidal change from the Pacific Ocean to the (Seto) Inland Sea through the narrow strait.
No accompanying stories about mythical dragons swallowing fishing boats or sea monsters inhabiting dangerous waters (I asked local boat operators about ancient lore) but the whirlpools are impressive nonetheless.
Best viewed from a boat, various operators make regular daily trips to the swirling waters from nearby Naruto marina.
Check tide tables beforehand to gauge prime whirlpool action. When the tide is running high (full moons are best), the twisting currents could indeed hide a dragon or two.
Tokushima is a small city famous for Awa-Odori, a ritualised dance celebrated in mid-August during the annual Bon Festival though local dance troupes meet regularly all year to practice technique in hopes to gain a prize and national fame.
Attracting over a million visitors, accommodation is booked out well in advance in Tokushima and nearby towns. This is a huge event in Japan but not well known to international visitors.
Awa-Odori can be seen during daily shows in Tokushima at the Awadori-Kaikan Museum in the town centre. It’s well worth visiting for a fascinating insight into Japan’s rich cultural history.
Takamatsu is another small city not far from Tokushima on the (Seto) Inland Sea.
Shikoku’s udon noodles are unique in Japan; indeed every region in Japan sports at least one kind of special dish or preparation and Takamatsu udon are particularly well favoured.
Udon noodle making classes are available at the Takamatsu Udon School. The class lasts for about two hours, includes lunch and is fun for keen cooks and innocent bystanders alike. Book ahead to secure a place in the school’s personalised udon noodle making class.
My teacher was a pint-sized dynamo who had her students laughing heartily in tune with Japanese pop music during kneading.
Udon noodles require a fair bit of massaging to perfect. The noodle dough is worked by jumping on it, hand kneading isn’t enough.
(A curious side-note: karaoke dancing was once banned after midnight in many Japanese cities. Imaginative devotees brought udon noodle dough in plastic bags to clubs and jumped on them to get round the ban. Apparently, you can dance on noodles and eat them later while recovering from a heavy dance routine.)
Also in Takamatsu is the absolutely lovely Ritsurin garden, dedicated in 1953 as a National Place of Special Scenic Beauty.
One of the country’s most famous gardens for its sublime ‘daimyo strolling’ horticultural design and ancient stands of Hakomatsu (box pine) and a special Neagari Goyo-matsu (a five-needle pine bonsai sent to Ritsurin in 1833 from the 11th Tokugawa Shogun), its 16 hectares of dedicated garden area is simply stunning, a Zen retreat of utter peacefulness.
Within the garden is the Kikugetsu-tei teahouse which dates from over three centuries ago and continues to offer authentic tea ceremonies to this day.
Shikoku Folk House Museum
Near Takamatsu is an easily accessible reminder of Shikoku’s rural past.
The Shikoku Folk House Museum is a recreated 18th century village filled with restored buildings collected from various villages around Shikoku, from rice storing warehouses to a water powered rice mill, private residences and a full sized kabuki theatre which still features frequent performances to this day.
Shikoku’s mountainous interior boasts Japan’s longest white water rafting river and beautiful forested scenery.
Mt Tsurugi National Park
The Yoshino River in the Mt Tsurugi National Park in the Kochi Prefecture is best known for its geologically interesting Oboke Gorge, a narrow defile running through glistening white crystalline schist cliffs. Frequent small boat cruises ferry visitors up and down the gorge when weather permits.
The Dosan rail line between Tadotsu in Kagawa Prefecture to Kubokawa in Kochi Prefecture clings to cliffs alongside the gorge as it travels up and down the picturesque Yoshino River valley. This must be one of Japan’s most scenic rail journeys.
Also in the mountains above Takamatsu is the beautifully situated Bukeyashiki-Kita Clan old samurai house.
Relocated over twenty years ago to its present position high in evergreen mountains, it is an authentic traditional samurai house that now serves as a memento to the distant past.
Traditional lunches using all local ingredients may be arranged with prior notice.
One of Shikoku’s most photographed sights is the stunning Iya-no-Kakura Bashi rope-bridge near Miyoshi-shi. Ignore the outsized and ugly visitor’s centre built to support numerous coach loads of tourists and focus on the lovely bridge instead.
Walking across it is encouraged, though jumping up and down on it is not. Trust me, I tried it and was warned to mind my manners by a hidden loudspeaker. Big brother is watching even in rural Japan.
My favourite town on Shikoku is Matsuyama at the extreme western end of the island.
Saved from the extensive WW2 bombing that destroyed the centres of so many Japanese cities (such as Tokushima and Takamatsu), it has survived with much of its low-scale residential neighbourhoods intact.
Though the small downtown area is filled with unattractive utilitarian architecture as in most Japanese cities, the streets surrounding Matsuyama Castle are wonderful for strolling and shopping.
Antiques and second hand goods here are often cheaper than in Tokyo; stay alert bargain hunters!
Matsuyama Castle high atop a hill overlooking the city and (Seto) Inland Sea is a wonderfully maintained historic site. Don’t miss it. Self-guided tours follow a logical progression through the castle grounds with signs in Japanese and English.
A chair-lift to the hilltop is an easy way to reach the castle. The views over the city and (Seto) Inland Sea are illuminating.
Many visitors to Matsuyama are there for the historic Dogo Onsen, at over 3,000 years, Japan’s oldest hot springs open for public access.
Housed in a lovely old wooden building in the centre of town, it has provided hot spring therapy for centuries.
The Dogo Onsen Hanayuzuki Hotel Ehime is a modern ryokan opposite the original Dogo Onsen that offers both traditional ryokan tatami rooms as well as Western style accommodation.
Vouching for the tatami room, I can say sleeping on a futon in a traditional room including a kaiseki banquet dinner and breakfast while dressed in very comfortable yukata robe provided by the hotel (similar to a kimono but designed for both men and women with slightly differing rituals regards tying the sash), was one of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences during the whole recent visit to Shikoku.
From Matsuyama it’s an easy drive to Imabari on the (Seto) Inland Sea. A series of suspension bridges link several islands to Honshu across the sea.
A cycling path follows the road. Keen cyclists can make the land and water crossing in a day of dedicated hard and fast pedalling but most people stretch out the trip to at least two days easy travelling, stopping at small islands for refreshing swims (the beaches are lovely during summer) and spending at least one night in a traditional ryokan.
Well maintained bicycles can be rented at Sunrise Itoyama Visitors Centre near Imabari (with a convenient return vehicle pick-up service included if you don’t want to cycle all the way back if you make the complete crossing from Shikoku to Honshu).
Time poor travellers like me may cycle across the first bridge (Kurushima Kaikyo which is part of the Shimanami Kaiyo Expressway between Ehime and Hiroshima Prefectures) and back to the visitor’s centre in a few hours.
The views from high atop the bridge over the strait and tiny islands studding a cobalt blue sea are beautiful on a clear day.
Japan’s (Seto) Inland Sea was once a kind of industrial dumping ground. Thirty years of tight anti-pollution laws have resulted in a return to glory days for this overlooked body of water, a sailor’s dream-world with hundreds of small forested islands, innumerable coves and safe anchorages away from the madding crowds of contemporary Japan, particularly at the western end away from Osaka’s metropolis.
88 Temples walk
If time permits and you’re an avid walker ready for a different kind of ‘Camino’ pilgrimage, Shikoku is famous for its ‘88 Temples’ walk. Straddling the island from east to west are eighty-eight Shinto temples linked by a popular and well signposted (in Japanese) track, some of them representative of significant national importance (such as Zentsuji Temple in the hills overlooking the agricultural plains outside Takamatsu).
Serious pilgrims dress in white robes topped off by peaked white hats resembling tapering cones while they make the eighty-eight temples’ circuit to cleanse their spirits and reconnect with ancient beliefs.
The trek may take several weeks, some of it hard walking up and down steep mountains. Weather conditions should be paid attention when attempting the more remote parts of the trek.
While this is almost wholly a Japanese ritual, it may appeal to travellers keen to immerse themselves into local culture. More than a basic understanding of Shinto faith and the Japanese language would be essential for a successful completion of the famous pilgrimage.
Eighty-eight famous temples linked by an island wide trek? A nationally important dance festival that attracts over a million visitors annually? Special noodles that need jumping on for perfect conditioning before cooking? Whirlpools and white water rafting? Remote mountain samurai houses and imperial castles? An Onsen to die for?
This is just a glimpse at Shikoku.
Go there and find out yourself why it’s a special place.
Tom Tacker travelled courtesy of Japan National Tourist Organisation.
For all information regards booking all attractions mentioned in this story, including accommodation links, go to Japan National Tourist Organisation’s website.
For inquiries regards room rates and special packages (such as tatami rooms with kaiseki meals included) at the Onsen Dogo Hanayuzuki Hotel Ehime in an excellent location stepping distance from the Dogo Onsen itself, see www.city.matsuyama.ehime.jp
The compact easy-to-use NINJA Wi-Fi router gave me continuous Wi-Fi access via my Smartphone throughout Shikoku, even in far-flung mountainous areas. The device can be hired via www.vision-net.co.jp is moderately priced and easy to use. I recharged its battery each night which provided full Wi-Fi access for a moderate cost during my whole journey around Shikoku.
Visiting Japan in the winter? Skiing in Hakuba is fun for the whole family, World Heritage Shirakawago is a storybook village of gingerbread houses and seeing Japan’s amazing snow monkeys is an unforgetable experience. But if you’d rather prefer soaking in a Japanese onsen instead of watching the monkeys bathing in the hot springs, there are plenty to choose from everywhere in Japan.
Do you like skiing or snowboarding? Hakuba is the place to go in Japan.