Haven’t heard of it?
If you’ve been wondering how to discover a relatively untouched Japan, this could be your best option.
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 (Kansai and Itami) are a couple hours drive via a series of bridges across the eastern end of the (Seto) Inland Sea and Awaji Island. Japan’s impressive railway network also provides quick entry to Shikoku from Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto.
Shikoku’s northern side which faces the (Seto) Inland Sea is the most populated while offering easiest access to its top sights.
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, some stretching twenty metres across, are impressive nonetheless.
Best viewed from a boat, Naruto Kanko Kisen sightseeing tours 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 (Spring and Autumn full moons are best), the twisting currents could indeed hide a Godzilla or two.
Nearby Tokushima is a small city famous for its annual Awa-Odori Dance Festival. A ritualised dance in remembrance of the dead is held in mid-August during the national Buddhist/Shinto Bon Festival though local dance troupes meet regularly year round to practice technique in hopes to gain a prize and national fame during the big shindig.
Dancers chant, ’The dancers are fools, the watchers are fools, both are so alike, so why not dance’, while doing the Awa-Dori shuffle. Hands are raised up like you’re attempting a swan dive into a deep pool and your feet, toes first, step in time with the music. Awa-Dori is deceptively easy looking to perform. In reality it’s anything but. The accompanying lutes, flutes and taiko drums establish a punishing rhythm.
The Awa Dance Festival dominates the city’s tourist scene. 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 travellers.
Street bars and cafes are open until late at night. More formal scheduled Awa-Dori dance performances can be seen throughout the day in various theatres and impromptu spaces set up just for the festival. Each evening however from 6pm until about 10:30pm the streets are packed with thousands of participants doing the Awa-Dori in a massive parade. If you want to get your jiggle on, this is the place.
Viewing stands are set up for non-terpsichorean observers though everyone is encouraged to join the festivities, like a Japanese version of Brazil’s Mardi Gras in Rio de Janeiro.
Outside festival season, Awa-Odori can be seen during daily shows in Tokushima at the Awadori-Kaikan Museum located in the town centre. It’s worth visiting for an intriguing 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 sports at least one special dish or preparation and Takamatsu udon are particularly well favoured… and flavoured.
Udon noodle making classes are available at Nakano Udon School. Taking approximately two hours to complete, the package includes lunch and is fun for keen cooks and innocent bystanders alike. Book well ahead to secure a place; the create-your-own udon sessions are justly popular. My teacher, the engaging and fun Tanaka-san was a pint-sized dynamo who, during vigorous noodle kneading had her students laughing heartily in tune with Japanese pop music while she danced with a tambourine in hand. Who knew a cooking class could become a karaoke session?
Udon noodles require a fair bit of massaging. The plastic wrapped noodle dough is worked by jumping on it in time with the music. Hand kneading isn’t enough. Though the recipe is simple: flour, water and salt, perfection of the udon is nothing but simple. Once the dough is ready and rested, fold into three pleats, cut into thin strands, dry by hanging over a wooden cylinder for about ten minutes and then cook in simmering dashi stock.
Lunch is served in an adjoining dining room, your freshly prepared udon being the star course.
(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 for jumping on to get round the ban. Apparently, you can dance on dough and recover later from a heavy dance routine by eating your noodles.)
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 gifted in 1833 from the 11th Tokugawa Shogun), its 16 hectares of dedicated garden area is a sublime urban retreat, a Zen master plan 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, green and pungent matcha tea being the preferred tipple.
Volunteer guides are available for visits to Ritsurin and come highly recommended. My two 70-something guides added a personal touch; they’d both worked at Ritsurin for many years. Their emotional attachment to the place was clearly evident. Ask at the ticket office upon entry if any English speaking guides are available.
Near Takamatsu is an easily accessible reminder of Shikoku’s rural past. The Shikoku Folk House Museum located in hills outside Yashima is a recreated 18th century village set in forested slopes complete with a waterfall and koi-filled lily ponds. It’s crowded with restored buildings collected from various villages around Shikoku, from tea shops to a water powered rice mill, to private residences and a full sized kabuki theatre.
Shikoku’s mountainous interior boasts Japan’s longest white water rafting river and beautiful evergreen forest scenery. 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 cliffs lined with white crystalline schist. 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 as it travels up and down the picturesque Yoshino River valley including the Oboke Gorge. This is undoubtedly 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 overlooking surrounding peaks, it is an authentic 18th century samurai house that now serves as a memento to the distant past. Traditional lunches prepared with all local ingredients served in the rustic dining room may be arranged with prior notice.
One of Shikoku’s most photographed sights is the picturesque Iya-no-Kakura Bashi rope-bridge near Miyoshi-shi. Ignore the outsized and ugly visitor’s centre packed with coach loads of tourists and focus your gaze instead on the lovely wooden and rope bridge. History reveals the bridge was first constructed over 800 years ago by samurai warriors who occasionally cut the support ropes to repel unwelcome invaders. The entire bridge is rebuilt every three years to traditional custom. 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 many 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!
The restored steam locomotive ’Botchan’ train leaves from near the Dogo Onsen (in front of the clock that also celebrates the work of famous author Soseki Natsume and a stepping stone’s throw from a lovely small hot spring with stone benches provided for a quick foot dip in soothing waters, free and open 24 hours). The tiny train jauntily pulls a single restored carriage through downtown Matsuyama’s streets, depositing its passengers within easy walking proximity of the Matsuyama Castle. As a commuter experience, it’s unlike any other in Japan.
Dating from 1603, Matsuyama Castle is perched high atop a hill overlooking the city and (Seto) Inland Sea and 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, a real gift on a sweltering humid summer’s day. The views over the city and sea are illuminating.
Haiku, Japan’s revered poetry is honoured in Matsuyama. One of its founders and heroes, Masaoka Shiki, lived in Matsuyama. His house, the Shiki-do, is also the Shiki Memorial Museum. Haiku is celebrated in Matsuyama like nowhere else in Japan. International awards are presented occasionally to Japanese and international participants for the best haiku.
Shiki (1867-1902) clearly had a sense of humour. Here’s one of his haiku translated into English:
’A Quart of Phlegm’
’a quart of phlegm
even gourd water
couldn’t mop it up’
Many visitors to Matsuyama are there for the historic Dogo Onsen. For over 3,000 years Japan’s oldest hot springs has been open to the public. Housed in a lovely old wooden building (rebuilt in 1894) in the centre of town, it has provided hot spring therapy to many weary travellers. Private rooms on the third floor can be hired for 1,550 Yen for a couple hours soaking bliss including a yukata to wear and tea served with the local ’Botchan’ dango confectionary.
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 separate cycling path adjoins the Shimanami Kaido expressway linking Shikoku and Honshu via nine bridges and six islands. Keen cyclists can make the approximately 70 kilometres 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 or the new Hotel Cycle.
Well maintained bicycles (including tandem and electric-assisted) can be rented at Sunrise Itoyama Visitors Centre near Imabari and fifteen other locations along the route (with a convenient return vehicle pick-up service included if you don’t want to cycle all the way back from 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 couple hours easy pedalling. The views from high atop the bridge over the strait and tiny islands studding a cobalt blue sea are beautiful on a clear day.
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 which commemorates the teachings of Kobo Daishi (AD 774-835) who is considered one of the most influential figures in Japanese Buddhist history. Straddling the island from east to west are eighty-eight temples linked by a popular and well signposted (in Japanese) track, some of them representative of significant national importance (such as Yashima Temple, with a shrine dedicated to badgers, in the hills overlooking the agricultural plains outside Takamatsu).
Serious pilgrims dress in white robes topped off with peaked white hats while they make the eighty-eight temples’ circuit to cleanse their spirits and reconnect with ancient beliefs.
At over 1,400 kilometres long, the circuit may take several weeks to complete, 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 Buddhist/Shinto faiths and the Japanese language would be essential for a successful completion of the famous pilgrimage. Many pilgrims–o-henro san in Japanese– take the easier option of bus connections or private car between the major temples, collecting a signature and special stamps from the monks at each temple.
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? Whirlpools and white water rafting? Remote mountain samurai houses and imperial castles? An Onsen to die for?
Go there and find out yourself why it’s a special place.
Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of the JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organisation). Images courtesy of author.