In many ways, Shikoku is Japan’s best-kept secret. Packed with culture, tradition and gorgeous scenery, it’s a small but shining example of the best of Japan, but without the tourist crowds. If you’re eager to explore Japan off the beaten path, Shikoku is a brilliant choice.
Nestled between the tranquil Seto Inland Sea and the expansive Pacific Ocean, just west of Kyoto and south of Hiroshima, Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s major islands. Rich in culture and history, the landscape on Shikoku varies between small pacific-coastal fishing villages, crystal clear rivers, and forested mountains shrouded in mist and mystery. The region is also home to arguably the most beautiful formal Japanese gardens in the country.
Shikoku has everything you could want from a trip to Japan. It’s a wonderful place to get an inside glimpse into traditional and modern culture in Japan. During one trip to Shikoku, you can travel from beaches to mountains and cities, eating amazing local delicacies and meeting welcoming residents all the way. Even better, there are very few tourists in the region.
Many of the key tourist destinations in Japan are bustling and populated, but by comparisons, Shikoku rewards the visitor with a taste of traditional, rural Japanese life, unspoilt by the trappings of modern life. The island has one or two bigger cities but no bright lights, so you’ll find a quieter pace to life on this often-forgotten island. For those seeking cultural enlightenment without the sometimes-intimidating chaos of Tokyo, Shikoku has some major highlights to discover.
I took the direct flights from London Heathrow to Haneda. I can’t stress enough how much better it is to fly direct to Haneda (HND) rather than Tokyo Narita Airport (NRT). If you get the option to fly into Haneda, grab it with both hands. Haneda is a stone’s throw from the city and well-connected by the metro. In contrast, Narita is over an hour outside of the city by bus and costs over £20pp to get into downtown Tokyo.
If you’re travelling overland through Japan, you can reach Shikoku by ferry from Kobe (west of Osaka) or Hiroshima. These cities are the main gateways to the region. There’s a good rail network that connects the island to Kojima and Okayama, so it works well for those travelling on the Japan Rail Pass.
The Shikoku rail pass can be purchased in conjunction with other passes, and this gives you access to some cute and colourfully designed tourist trains, such as the Anpanman Train, which is only found in Shikoku.
I would highly recommend planning a self-drive holiday around Shikoku because the road network is simple and Shikoku drivers are rumoured to be the politest in all of Japan. Given the slow pace of life on this island, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Nobody in Shikoku seems in a rush.
Some of the roads in the central, mountainous region are quite steep and twisty, so perhaps a little nerve-racking if you’re new to driving on mountain roads. However, it’s definitely worth the effort, because the views of this region took my breath away time and time again.
Traditionally, I know that everyone flocks to Japan in the springtime to see the famous cherry blossoms. However, if you’re keen to avoid the high prices and tourist numbers in spring, I can highly recommend travelling in late autumn, when the colours of the maple trees are utterly breath-taking. Everywhere I went I was struck by the scarlets, ochres and vermilions of this gloriously colourful season. It was magical.
Japan is notoriously pricey, although, with its lack of tourists, Shikoku seemed more reasonably priced. The Asahi beer in Shimanto was notably cheaper than in Tokyo. There are restaurants and accommodation to suit most budgets in Shikoku. However, as with the rest of Japan, it’s easy to spend money here, so I recommend budgeting carefully in advance. It’s essential to pre-book hotels, car hire and rail passes in order to get the best prices.
Shikoku is full of surprises. The island is home to great food, varied landscapes, friendly people and cutting-edge art. Here are my top tips for things to do in Shikoku:
Shikoku is a popular Japanese pilgrim destination, and there are 88 Buddhist temples scattered across the island. Pilgrims traditionally walk to all 88 of the island’s temples, dressed in white and calling on the hospitality of strangers to accommodate them on their journey. The first temple I visited was Chikurinji Temple just outside Kochi. It looked beautiful in all its autumnal glory.
From Kochi, heading north-west, you’ll come to the prefecture of Ehime. This is a region packed with things to see and do. You can take a boat trip on the unbelievably clear waters of the Shimanto river or explore the traditional houses along the historic preserved street of Uchiko Town.
In Matsuyama, you can visit the spectacular hill-top castle overlooking the city and the Seto Inland Sea. In the spring, the grounds of the castle are scattered with cherry blossoms, while the autumn brings gorgeous autumn foliage. The train station in Matsuyama is also worth a visit, along with the Ishiteji Temple.
Matsuyama is also a great place to learn about Samurai tradition, before heading into the Dogo Onsen district of the city. This area is home to one of the oldest onsen in Japan. I loved Dogo Onsen, with its cobbled streets and bustling little shopping arcades. Right around the corner from the traditional Onsen Honkan, the modern Onsen Asuka No Yu is a surprisingly reasonable and beautiful setting to enjoy an unmissable hot spa.
There is a wealth of hotels to choose from in Matsuyama, both traditional and contemporary, western and Japanese. The uber-cool Dogo Hotel Miyu offers a modern take on the traditional ryokan, and many of the rooms have private onsen on their balcony. The restaurant here offers beautiful contemporary Japanese cuisine.
If you head inland from Matsuyama, you’ll reach the mountainous Iya Valley in the western Tokushima Prefecture. Here, it feels like time has stood still for many years. People live quiet, rural, self-sufficient lifestyles.
As a tourist, you can either slow down to local speed or enjoy the treks and outdoor activities that this region has to offer. Hike through densely forested valleys and cross rocky gorges by the traditional vine bridges. The beautiful but slightly terrifying Kazurabashi vine bridge is certainly not for the faint-hearted!
If relaxation is on your agenda, you’ll be glad to hear that the Iya Valley is well known for its hot springs. The Ryokan Hotel Kazurabashi has a mountain-top outdoor onsen that opens from 6am, and it’s an exquisite place to watch the sky lighten at dawn.
I recommend staying in this area for at least two nights in order to discover and experience everything on offer. The onsen here are wonderful, while the food, hospitality and Japanese-styled bedrooms allow you to feel truly immersed in Japanese culture.
Aside from historical and cultural traditions, the island of Shikoku is an art lover’s paradise. It’s home to a wealth of galleries and attractive sculpture gardens. Just off the coast, the arty islands of Naoshima and Teshima are waiting to be explored. Both islands can be reached by a scenic ferry from Takamatsu on Shikoku or from Hiroshima.
I visited Naoshima and absolutely fell in love with the place. The small island is beautiful and the galleries here are packed full of modern art exhibits. I have always enjoyed art and the day I spent on Naoshima filled me up to overflowing with delight. There is a heavy influence of light and structure and plenty of opportunities to interact with the installations. Even the calming concrete architecture is integral to the experience.
Artists who exhibit here are all encouraged to spend time on the island before producing a piece of work that encapsulates their feelings and experiences here. The results they produce stretch the entire breadth of modern art; from light-hearted to serious, both challenging and accessible, contemplative and interactive.
I comfortably visited Chichu Museum of Art, the Benesse House Gallery Museum and Art House Project in one day. If you enjoy art, I certainly recommend adding Naoshima to your itinerary. Stay overnight if you can and interact with as much art as your heart desires. You can easily rent a bike and cycle around the island at your own pace, so it’s very relaxed.
If you decide to stay on the mainland rather than Naoshima, Takamatsu has many city and waterfront hotels offering well-located and well-priced accommodation. Here, you can visit the beautiful Ritsurin Koen (Japanese Garden), considered to be one of the best gardens in the whole of Japan.
Again, don’t feel you have to go in springtime to see it at its best. The colours of autumn were spectacular and the garden was practically deserted, which added to the sense of peace and serenity.
Takamatsu is renowned for its udon noodles, so you can’t leave without trying them. I recommend the traditional Goyashiki restaurant, where you can taste hand-pulled udon noodles in a quiet traditional setting.
Food is a massive part of the Japan experience and, as menus can be confusing and intimidating for a novice like me, most restaurants offer set menus. These allow you to taste a wide range of the local specialities.
All the meals I had were beautifully presented and tasty, although sometimes I had no idea what I was eating. Just watch out for the sour plums, they look friendly enough but make they will make your toes curl!
Of course, seafood features highly on every menu. If sushi is your thing, you absolutely need to eat at the Keisuke restaurant. This restaurant offers out of this world sushi, gorgeously welcoming hosts and plenty of cold Asahi. The chef, who is the equivalent of Keith Richards on the Japanese shamisen (three-stringed instrument) will even treat you to a private gig once he has finished his cheffing for the evening!
Tokushima is famed for its dance festival and you are encouraged to learn the moves at the Awa Dance Museum. There are even prizes for the best dancers! After you’ve tried some local moves, head up in the cable car for spectacular views from the mountaintop and visit the cultural museum of Sasyu Izutsu Yashiki to learn more about the traditions of this wonderful little island.
If you’re thinking of buying souvenirs, Shikoku is a great place to buy sake and ceramics. Take time to visit a sake brewery such as Matsuura, tasting as much as you can and grabbing a bottle to take home. You can also buy some beautiful wabi-sabi ceramics from the Otani Pottery to use at home.
At the end of my week in Shikoku, I boarded my plane in Tokushima with a heavy heart. I was moved by the relaxed pace of life here, in comparison to the rest of Japan. When you travel Shikoku, you can expect serenity, tranquillity, tradition and calm.
For me, the clear highlights were watching the sunrise at the mountaintop Kasurabashi Hotel Onsen, visiting the Benesse Art Gallery, soaking up the scenery of the Iya Valley and trying the delicious food I was presented with every day.
I cherish the memories of my time in Shikoku and I feel privileged to have experienced a side of Japan many others miss. The overall lasting impression isn’t so much about what I did, but how it made me feel. Japan is not just a destination - it is an emotion.
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