The smallest of Japan’s four main islands has more than its share of attractions. Here are six that should be on every visitor’s list.
Far from the bright lights of big-city Japan, Shikoku boasts its own unpretentious character and quaint charms. This is the smallest and least populous of the country’s four main islands, a rural backwater with a few prosperous coastal cities, an ancient pilgrimage circuit, and rugged mountain valleys dotted with thatch-roofed farmhouses. It’s not exactly off the beaten path anymore, but for those looking to experience a different side of Japan, Shikoku has much to offer. What follows is a sampling of some of its highlights.
If you’ve never heard of Takamatsu, you’re not alone: the busy port city isn’t all that well known even among most Japanese. But it is the first stop for many visitors to Shikoku, having the island’s second-busiest airport—Tokyo is a 90-minute flight away—as well as a train connection via the scenic Seto-Ohashi Bridge to Okayama on Honshu, where the nearest Shinkansen station is. And for the noodle-obsessive, Takamatsu is said to produce the finest, firmest udon in the land, Sanuki udon, available at hundreds of shops throughout town and the surrounding prefecture of Kagawa. What really sets it apart, though, is Ritsurin Koen, a splendid Japanese garden that has been meticulously planned, pruned, and cultivated for almost four centuries.
Backdropped by the forested slopes of Mount Shiun, the site features landscaped hills and waterfalls, carp-filled ponds, elegantly arched foot bridges, an ancient teahouse, and—of course—innumerable plants and trees, including plums, maples, and old bonsai-shaped pines with twisted branches extending so far from their trunks that they have to be supported. The gardens unfold across 16 hectares, revealing exquisite details at every turn: a miniature ceramic pagoda, say, or a meditatively shaped rock. Plan on spending at least a couple hours to take it all in.
G Takamatsu is also the jumping-off point to Shodoshima in the isle-studded Seto Inland Sea. Often overlooked in favor of its smaller, more famous neighbor Naoshima—home to the Benesse Art Site—this rural and mountainous island makes for a great day trip. The hilly countryside beyond the coast is undeniably pretty, with terraced rice fields, yuzu and persimmon orchards, and olive groves—the trees were first planted here in 1908, and this is the only place in Japan where they have flourished. More dramatic still are the highlands of the interior. Here, one of the island’s top attractions is the Kankakei Ropeway, a kilometer-long aerial tramway that carries you up through the chiseled cliffscape of Kankakei Gorge to a station near the top of Mount Hoshigajyo, at 816 meters the highest point on Shodoshima. If the weather is clear, you’ll be rewarded with sublime views over the Seto Inland Sea.
A 30-minute drive to the east is Komame Shokudo, a roadside café overlooking rice terraces in the Nakayama area. The building itself oozes character—it’s a converted wooden rice mill from the 1930s—and the plucky young waitresses within are dressed farm-style in aprons and Yayoi Kusama–inspired headkerchiefs. Go for the signature lunch set, which spotlights local produce: balls of rice harvested from neighboring fields, tempura’d eggplant and shiso leaves, fragrant udon, and fried whole sweetfish. They also serve a mean olive beef burger—the meat comes from cattle that are fed leftover pulp from pressed olives. Afterward, pop across the street to the open-air kabuki theater. Performances are rare, but the thatch-roofed stage deserves a look regardless: it’s been here for 300 years.
Back in the direction of the ferry port at Kusakabe, past the touristy Olive Park with its iconic Cyclades-style windmill (a gift of Greek sister island Milos), there’s Morikuni Shuzo, established in 2005 as the island’s sole sake brewery. Owner Aki Ikeda runs the place with her mother and sister, hosting tasting sessions in a cozy showroom originally built eight decades ago as a kelp factory. With the help of a renowned toji (master brewer) who spends four months here each winter, and using mineral-rich water from a spring on the flanks of Mount Hoshigajyo, they produce some lovely handcrafted sakes with equally lovely names like Bibibi (which Ikeda will tell you is the sound sunlight makes when hitting the water) and Fufufu, a ginjo sake that has won awards at home and abroad. A flight of six will set you up well for the 60-minute ferry ride back to Takamatsu.
Rise and shrine
The pleasant, compact town of Kotohira—an hour-and-a-quarter’s train ride from Takamatsu—is best known as the home of Shikoku’s largest Shinto shrine complex. Set halfway up the wooded slopes of Mount Zozu, Kotohira-gu is dedicated to the guardian of seafarers, and sports a pagoda-like lantern that once served to guide sailors into shore. A side pavilion next to the venerable main hall is filled with assorted maritime memorabilia, most conspicuously the cigar-shaped hull of Malt’s Mermaid, a solar-powered boat made from recycled aluminum beer cans that yachtsman Kenichi Horie solo-sailed across the Pacific in 1996. If that sounds arduous, getting to the site is no picnic either: it involves a climb up 785 granite steps that will leave most visitors with trembling thighs, a condition known in Japanese as hiza ga warau, or “laughing lap.” Or you could hire a palanquin to carry you to the top—but where’s the fun in that?
Starting at Kotohira Station, the newly launched Shikoku Mannaka Sennen Monogatari is a sightseeing train that chugs its way inland to Oboke over the course of two hours. Passengers have their pick of three cedar-paneled dining cars designed to show off the passing farmland and mountain scenery to their best advantage, with two quick stops along the way: one at a riverside switchback, and the other in the rural suburbs of Miyoshi, where the train is greeted by a troupe of local folk dancers. Lunch is served en route—a bento-style presentation of what might be best described as nouvelle Japanese cuisine, with things like sea bream–and-mushroom terrine, glazed sweet potato with sea-urchin mayo, and delicately sauced slices of roast Kagawa beef. Now if only there was some Morikuni sake to wash it down with.
Perched above the Yoshino River and flanked by wooded hills, Oboke Station puts you near the entrance to the Iya Valley, the island’s wild heart. Not for nothing has this remote and mountainous region been called the “Tibet of Japan.” In centuries past, it was a sanctuary for bandits and fugitive samurai, and folktales once abounded about supernatural monsters called yokai who gobbled up children foolish enough to wander into the forests.
Tourist boats ply a flat stretch of the Yoshino not far from the station, a cruise that takes you through a gorge of glistening white crystalline schist. A 20-minute drive in the other direction is Iya-no-Kazurabashi, a suspension bridge made of entwined kiwi vines that spans the Iya River. Though today’s bridge is reinforced with steel cables and twisting handrails, it was originally designed a millennium ago to be cut in the case of enemy attack. Stepping gingerly across the widely spaced foot planks, it’s all too easy to imagine the terrifying fall into the boulder-strewn water 14 meters below.
Deeper into the valley along sinuous mountain roads is Ochiai, a village of Edo-era houses and terraced farm plots that hugs the contours of a steep hillside. In the 1970s, a young American Japanophile named Alex Kerr backpacked through this area and was smitten; he would go on to purchase and renovate a 300-year-old thatch-roofed farmhouse in the nearby hamlet of Tsurui, and to found the Chiiori Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing Iya’s rural communities through organic agriculture and sustainable tourism. The trust’s efforts have more recently extended to Tougenkyo-Iya, a group of eight other beautifully refurbished farmhouses tucked in and around Ochiai that can be rented in their entirety. Now replete with mod cons (including fully equipped kitchenettes, walk-in showers, and botanical toiletries), they still convey something of their original rustic aesthetic, with thick black beams and rafters and a living room centered on an irori floor hearth. Rolling out your futon at night to a chorus of chirping crickets, you’ll appreciate why this hidden corner of Japan had so entranced Kerr.
Kochi is an easy-going city of palm-lined streets and trundling trams on Shikoku’s balmy Pacific coast. History buffs will want to make a beeline for Kochi Castle, originally completed in 1611 and rebuilt in the mid-18th century after a devastating fire. It’s one of just a dozen Japanese castles to have survived into modern times with its original keep intact.
Food is another draw. Sawachi cuisine is a regional specialty that sees sushi, sashimi, and other seasonal dishes presented sharing-style on colorful porcelain platters; book a tatami room at ryotei restaurant Hamacho, and a geisha will orchestrate the entire meal (and teach you some traditional drinking games to boot). Kochi’s embarrassment of seafood is also on display at Hirome Market, a rambunctious food court where diners sit at communal wooden tables gorging on everything from octopus skewers and shrimp-filled gyoza to donburi rice bowls, curries, and fish served raw, fried, boiled, or grilled. The place also does a brisk trade in beer and sake.
Kochi’s most beloved dish is katsuo no tataki, or fillets of bonito (skipjack tuna) seared over a fire of rice straw. You can sample this at Hirome Market (caveat: the lineups are long) or, for a slightly more subdued experience, head to Katsuo Fune, a ship-shaped restaurant and shop in the port area dedicated exclusively to bonito. Here, you can try your hand at roasting a skewered fillet over the blazing brazier before passing it to a cook for slicing. Eaten with roasted salt and ponzu sauce, the flesh is lightly charred and crusty outside, raw and red within, and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The people of Kochi are known to consume far more bonito—roughly five times the national average—than anyone else in Japan. Try their katsuo no tataki, and you’ll understand why.
Hong Kong–based HK Express is one of the few international airlines that flies to Takamatsu, though the city is well connected with Tokyo’s Haneda and Narita airports.
Where to Stay
Rihga Hotel Zest Takamatsu
Takamatsu; 81-878/223-555; doubles from US$100.
Kotohira Onsen Kotosankaku
Kotohira; 81-877/751-000; doubles from US$116.
Crown Palais New Hankyu Kochi
Kochi; 81-88/873-1111; doubles from US$75.
Ochiai, Iya Valley; 81-883/882-540; houses from US$275.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Setting Sights on Shikoku”).