When we first received the invite to explore Shikoku, Japan, my interest was immediately piqued, if only because an invitation like this doesn’t come very often. The BAZAAR team is known to visit the Land of the Rising Sun ever so often, but it’s always to Japan’s better known gems: Tokyo (been there), Kyoto (done that), Hokkaido (still have the bruises from that ski trip). Mention Shikoku, on the other hand, and you’re more likely to get a barrage of puzzled looks and questions than helpful tips on the newest best kept secrets to visit.
The smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku boasts four prefectures – each with their own unique character, distinct landscapes, not to mention local cuisine. Kagawa, for example, is famed for its silky udon and olive products, while tuna lovers will simply marvel at Kōchi’s katsuo tataki (seasoned and lightly seared bonito) dishes. Tokushima, on the other hand, offers awe-inspiring landscapes to take your breath away, and Ehime is home to one of Japan’s oldest hot springs, Dogo Onsen.
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Overall, the island has a myriad of rustic attractions and natural wonders that will appeal to visitors looking to explore a different side of Japan less trodden by globetrotting feet. (Shikoku does, however, have a regular flow of local tourists visiting its shores, thanks to the Shikoku Pilgrimage, which sees Buddhists making their way across the island to visit its 88 temples.) And with three main expressways (supplemented with an established railway system), connecting the island, Shikoku is the perfect destination for an epic road trip.
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So if ever you’re in the neighbourhood, here’s a couple of highlights to look out for, while making your way across Shikoku’s pristine grounds.
One of the city’s main attractions, this historical 750,000sqm garden dates back to the Edo period and is filled with beautifully cultivated pine trees. Dedicate at least 2 hours here so that you can take a leisurely stroll to soak in the views and serene atmosphere.
This quaint little cafe, located opposite Shodoshima Island’s terraced rice fields, is the perfect spot to savour a Sanuki Wagyu (or olive beef) burger, a local delicacy comprising beef from cows that have been fed on the remains of pressed olives.
Olives are one of the island’s main exports and a visit to its olive park comes complete with a sight of visitors taking photos in front of this windmill, jumping high in the air with straw brooms between their legs. This site is popular for its appearance in the film version of the 1989 anime, Kiki’s Delivery Service.
The island’s only sake brewery is unique for two reasons: It’s entirely run by a family of trans-generational women and its sakes bear the most kawaii names. Drop by and sample bottles such as the “bibibi” (the imaginary sound that light makes as it hits rippled water) or “fufufu” (doesn’t it sound like wind-blown clouds?).
Offering spectacular views on any day, this attraction is a must-visit especially in Autumn when the valley is dressed in fiery reds and yellows. Touted as one of Japan’s most beautiful gorges, there are two hiking trails for the adventurous wishing a more intimate exploration of the lush greenery. We chose to sit back and admire the view via the cable car instead.
For a tiny taste of the journey that modern-day pilgrims take for their 88 Temple Pilgrimage, climb your way up 800 stone steps to the main Kotohira-gū Shrine (add another 600 to reach the the temple’s inner shrines). Or cheat your way halfway up Mount Zōzu by car and climb the the rest of the way. This is the patron shine for sailors.
The reward to the torturous climb up to the shrine? A view of the city below on one side and serene cloud-covered hills, on the other.
Make your way to Ōboke by rail and you’ll be offered views of the Yoshino River (a popular destination for whitewater rafting) and its emerald waters. If you have half an hour to spare, you can take a tranquil ride on a water craft downstream for a better look at its rock formations.
Bearing five tons of mountain vines, this 45m long historical bridge is only 1 of 3 remaining bridges of its kind (the valley used to contain 13). Its beginnings can be traced back to the 12th-century, but thanks to its wide-spread, worn planks that give you glimpses of the rushing river below, most visitors are more focused on the thrilling (yet safe) experience of crossing it.
Located in the midst of the Higashi-Iya Valley, the Ochiai Village is historically and culturally significant for its community of traditional thatch roof houses (which are fast disappearing from Japan’s modern landscape), built from the middle of the Edo period (1700s), to the beginning of the Showa period (mid-20th-century).
No prizes for guessing what this restaurant specialises in. Being presented with white bait prepared in four different ways (broiled, boiled, fried and raw) can strike one as being a tad odd – until you dig into the rustic meal and realise how strangely satisfying it is.
Located just 5 minutes from the Ioki train station, Kōchi’s surreal Ioki Cave is literally a hidden gem. To enter its premise, you first have to make your way though a small tunnel located a few steps away from the road, before emerging to a sight of a Jules Verne-esque land before time. Lush green ferns (of which there are approximately 40 varieties) and other foliage carpet the tall boulders, making it small wonder this cave is recognised as a national monument.
At the heart of the community is the Kōchi Hirome Market, where patrons come for a quick meal or hearty drinks with friends. Here, a woman prepares the Prefecture’s beloved katsuo no tataki – bonito that has been seasoned before being lightly seared over a bed of flaming straw.
Kōchi has its share of Geisha’s too. Here, a 17-year-old geisha sits with patrons after her performance at Hamacho restaurant, as guests ply her with questions and conversation.
Located just a few minutes walk away from the foot of Kōchi Castle, the Sunday Market makes for a vibrant affair with farmers bringing their wares to the streets from across the island. The one thing that will strike visitors is how generously sized the produce is: Grapes are the size of small plums, while pumpkins are of headlines-making proportions. There’s also a healthy offering of freshly prepared goodies to munch on and keep energy levels up.
To continue the agricultural note of the day, head over to the amazing Nishijima Horticultural Park, where all manner of fruits and flowers are scientifically grown in rows after rows of greenhouses. Stepping into the main tent is like stepping into a miniature Garden of Eden and depending on the season, you can also get a satisfying peek at how strawberries, watermelons and other fruits are grown.
To round up the trip, we head back to Tokushima and the Anrakuji Temple, which is the sixth on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage and one that many pilgrims visit on their first day. The original temple was burnt down in the 16th century and rebuilt nearby on its present site. With its grounds studded with cultivated pine trees and its interior gleaming with gilded motifs, this temple makes for an impressive zen sight.
You don’t have to be a fan of architecture to appreciate the houses that make up the 18th-century town of Wakimachi Udatsu. The prosperous area was known for its indigo dye trade – a tradition that continues to this day within the redeveloped houses. With a myriad of establishments found here, you can easily spend the afternoon browsing this charming neighbourhood.