Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, is a spiritual place. It is here that you’ll find the country’s most famous pilgrimage route – the 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku – which wraps around the edge of the island. Atmospheric temples and shrines aside, Shikoku is blessed with supreme natural beauty, with plunging canyons, tumbling waterfalls and wooded mountains laced with hiking trails. Add to that some rich cultural experiences and steamy onsen (hot springs), and you’ll see why a Shikoku itinerary is unmissable. Here’s how to spend 7 days in Shikoku Japan.
Shikoku isn’t always at the top of visitor’s lists when it comes to a trip to Japan, but that just makes it all the more appealing. The island’s staggering natural beauty – emerald rivers winding through deep mountain valleys, coursing waterfalls and forested hills – is met with a slow pace of life and laid-back, friendly locals. On any Shikoku tour, the relaxed villages are a joy to explore, with several one-of-a-kind cultural experiences to be had (paper making, anyone?). And that’s before we touch on the island’s spiritual heritage, home to the famous 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku pilgrimage route, its historic castles and its magical onsen. What’s not to love?
You can get around Shikoku on the island’s network of public trains and buses, which link all the major cities. However, bus connections can be infrequent and complicated in the more remote reaches of the island. Hiring a car will give you more freedom and flexibility, so why not transform your Shikoku itinerary into a fabulous Shikoku road trip? And don’t forget to take in some of the island’s alluring scenery on your own two feet or by bicycle: there are numerous trails to explore.
If you’re wondering where to stay in Shikoku, the good news is that there’s plenty of atmospheric options on the island. Some of the best are included in our Shikoku itinerary, such as the Marche Yusuhara and the Kumo no Ueno Hotel, both architectural masterpieces designed by world-renowned Kengo Kuma. Mito no Sato on Shodoshima provides another memorable stay towards the end of your trip, once a home, now a “farmhouse” hotel notable for its stylish design, superlative kitchen and rentable e-bikes.
Begin your 1-week Shikoku itinerary in Kochi Prefecture, where you’ll visit a stellar collection of sights including Nakatsu Gorge, the Kamikoya washi studio and Yusuhara town. From Kochi City, drive (or take the JR Dosan line from Kochi Station to Sakawa and then the Kuroiwa sightseeing bus) to reach your first stop, Nakatsu Gorge. This is the perfect place to begin your adventure, offering visitors a spellbinding introduction to the gorgeous natural landscapes of Shikoku. The gorge is laced with a network of walking trails and rail-free bridges that stretch over the famous blue waters of the Niyodo River, past deep pools, scenic cliffs, round boulders and roaring waterfalls. It’s easy to get lost in the rugged beauty of this magical area of Kochi; climb higher and you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views over the valley. While the Nakatsu Gorge scenery is lovely year round, it’s especially beautiful in autumn, when the rust-red leaves (known in Japanese as koyo) contrast with the otherworldly blue waters for which the valley is famous.
In the afternoon, head to the Washi Studio Kamikoya for a traditional paper-making experience to remember. The studio, located in the heart of the Kochi hills, is part guesthouse, part artisanal workshop. It’s run by Rogier Uitenboogaart and his son, Yohei; making the move from the Netherlands nearly forty years ago, Rogier was captivated by the art of paper making, and never left. The cool mountain climate is perfect for growing kozo, which grows wild around the property. This fibrous plant is the main material in washi paper, which Rogier supplies to local architectures, hotels and restaurants for use in sliding doors (shoji), wallpaper and lampshades. One of the washi’s most famous clients is Kengo Kuma, the architect extraordinaire behind Tokyo’s new Olympic Stadium (as well as the V&A in Dundee). Book onto a class to learn all about the process of paper-making before bedding down in the on-site guesthouse.
Spend Day 2 exploring the town of Yusuhara, located high in the mountains and surrounded by an ethereal landscape of mist and forest (the town is known locally as the “village above the clouds”). It is here that you’ll find a clutch of buildings designed by one of Japan’s most prominent architects, Kengo Kuma. Start at Marche Yusuhara, a local market-hotel hybrid that showcases Kuma’s tendency to pair traditional, natural materials with stylish design. The building’s thatched-style roofing draws visual inspiration from the town’s forested surroundings. Inside, the beams are crafted from local cedar trees; the hotel rooms are minimalistic but also feature plenty of wood. The next Yusuhara (and Kengo Kuma) showstopper is the Kumo no Ueno Toshokan, the “library above the clouds”. It’s a community space that’s characteristically Kuma in its use of wood and locally sourced materials. The result is a warm, light-filled space that encourages contemplation and the exchange of ideas.
To learn more about Kengo Kuma’s work in Yusuhara town, visit the Kumo no Ueno Gallery, which is part of the Kumo no Ueno Hotel – the “hotel above the clouds” – another Kuma creation. The gallery-museum, which seamlessly doubles as a corridor to the hotel rooms and the on-site onsen (hot springs), sheds light on Kuma’s creations, with plenty of images and insightful details. The hotel has minimalist rooms, a stunning dining room and steamy onsen baths. It is also an architectural showpiece, with floor-to-ceiling windows that ensure plenty of natural light and stunning views. Gorgeous wooden details and flourishes mean Kuma’s innovative design blends beautifully with the natural world outside. As you tuck into a classic Japanese-style multi-course menu at the modern restaurant, muse on Kengo Kuma’s work – it is easy to see why he is one of the country’s more influential architects. Spend the night here and savour the stylish surrounds. Note that the hotel will be closed from October 2021 until the end of March 2024 for renovation, though the swimming pool and hot springs will be open as usual.
Days 3 to 5 of your Shikoku itinerary explore Tokushima Prefecture, home to the dense forests of Okuiya and the immensely beautiful Iya Valley. There are plenty of hikes in the area; alternatively, take to the waters and explore by boat. Begin by taking a ride on the quaint Okuiya Sightseeing Tour Monorail through the lush landscape of Okuiya, deep in the Iya Valley. Running for 4.6 kilometres along tracks serviced by cute two-seater carts, this is the longest monorail of its type in the world.
The hour-long trip will take you through exquisite scenery – keep your eyes peeled for local wildlife including deer and the rarely spotted tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs). The highpoint – quite literally – is topping out at 1380 metres, having navigated slopes of 40 degrees.
Fabulous scenery aside, the Iya Valley is famous for its suspension bridges made from vines, known as kazurabashi. Though there are more than ten of these bridges scattered around the area, two of the most impressive are the Okuiya Niju Kazura Bashi – or the “couple’s bridges”. The “husband bridge” (Obashi) is naturally the larger of the two (44 metres in total), while the “wife bridge” (Mebashi) is around half that. The origin of the bridges remains a mystery; some believe they were raised by Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon Sect of Japanese Buddhim, while others say Heike refugees crafted them following the Gempei War (1180–1185). Either way, they represent an impressive feat of engineering – and a sure-fire adrenaline rush. Take your time to admire the glorious landscapes in the area.
Start day 4 by exploring Oboke Koboke, another excellent spot to take in the scenic beauty of the Iya Valley, with its rugged cliff faces and roaring rivers. The winding gorge offers plenty of activities, from white-water thrills to pleasure-boat sightseeing cruises. It is thought that this jaw-droppingly beautiful area of Tokushima was created by the Yoshino River carving its way through Shikoku’s mountains some 200 million years ago. Undoubtedly one of Shikoku’s highlights year round, Oboke Koboke is especially picturesque in autumn, when the trees turn fiery shades of red and gold, and in spring, when pink cherry blossoms carpet the hills.
Continue on to Togenkyo-Iya in the afternoon, where you’ll spend the night. This cluster of pretty thatched-roofed houses has been reimagined and renovated to marry traditional elements with modern design. Author and Japanese historian Alex Kerr helped to create the Chiiori building, one of the most significant houses in the collection. This 300-year-old beauty has been tastefully renovated, with an irori stove, thatched roofing and all the modern amenities. Check-in and -out is flexible, and you can explore the local area before sitting down to a delicious dinner – think: bento-style offerings and soba noodles – made using local ingredients.
For some local colour, head to Tenku no Mura Kakashi no Sato, or “village of scarecrows”, on the morning of Day 5. This unique place is home to around three hundred lifelike dolls, lining the streets and populating the ruins of a closed school, ready to welcome curious tourists. Originally created by a village resident in response to the town’s depopulation – a common problem in Japan, where the aging population and urbanization combine to this effect – the doll to human ratio is now more than 10:1. For sheer bizarre spectacle, Kakashi no Sato is hard to beat.
The final part of the Shikoku tour takes in Kagawa Prefecture, where much of your time will be spent on Shodoshima Island, carpeted in olive groves. First up, however, is a trip to Kotohiragu Shrine, commonly known as Konpirasan. Located in Kotohira Town, it’s an important spiritual landmark on any Shikoku itinerary: the most important Konpira shrine in the country dedicated to sailors and seafaring. You’ll find it gorgeously positioned about halfway up Mount Zozu, with lovely views over Kotohira Town that compensate for the 785 stone steps you’ll have to climb to get there. An important pilgrimage destination, the shrine was founded some three thousand years ago. Those with enough puff left might want to continue to the top of Mount Zozu.
Refuel the tank with a hearty lunch at Kaohken in the centre of Kotohira. This bustling bistro-style diner is famed for its modern take on the yoshoku – for the uninitiated, that’s Western-influenced Japanese cuisine – hamburger steak. There are plenty of other Western classics, such as curry and omelette rice, for anyone craving some home comforts. It’s a scenic spot, too, looking out over the koi fish-filled Kanakura River.
Your final destination is Shodoshima Island, the epicentre of Japan’s olive industry. While you’re here, you’ll want to bed down at Mito no Sato, a truly unique accommodation option. Once a home, now a modern guesthouse-hotel hybrid, Mito no Sato combines stylish design with warm hospitality. There’s a collection of different buildings to choose from, as well as communal baths and e-bikes for rent. Be sure to take some of your meals here – the kitchen serves up tasty dishes made with local produce from the surrounding area. Eat your heart out with spreads of sashimi, seaweed, local olive oil and succulent olive-fed fish and pork.
Explore your surroundings on the accommodation-led e-bike tour. The route around the hotel takes you through winding streets lined with traditional wooden houses and past important sacred sites. While the 88 Temples of Shikoku is among the country’s most famous pilgrimage routes, Shodoshima has its own collection of 88 temples – and they are every bit as interesting. With sublime ocean views and easy hills, cruising by bike is a great way to discover the area at a relaxed pace. If cycling’s not your thing, explore on foot instead.
Famous for its olive cultivation, no visit to Shodoshima would be complete without an olive-picking experience. The island’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranian, making the conditions perfect for harvesting plump, juicy olives – most of them turned into rich olive oil. If you come to “olive island” during the harvest (October and November), get stuck in and help strip the olives from their branches, ready to be turned into oil, skincare products and soap. If you come at another time of year, you’ll still be able to admire the olive trees and eat countless olive-flavoured delicacies in the local restaurants. One of the best eateries is Nonoka, serving multi-course meals that showcase a range of exquisite local ingredients. Olive-fed fish, pork and beef are all good choices, backed up by fresh vegetables and delicious rice. The light-filled restaurant is laid back and rustic.
Foodies will also want to revel in Shodoshima’s role as an important producer of soy sauce. Home to more than twenty soy-sauce factories, one of the most historic breweries is Yamaroku Shoyu, which has been producing the stuff since the Edo period (1603–1868). Traditional methods of soy-sauce production render a product that is rich and complex, and so balanced that it can even be enjoyed on ice cream – a local delicacy that is served on site. When in Rome…
The last stop on your Shikoku itinerary is Tonosho’s Yokai Art Museum. Central to Japanese folklore, yokai are spirits with no distinct shape or form, invisible and lurking everywhere. The Yokai Art Museum displays a collection of fascinating visual representations of these creatures – some realistic, some abstract – including several striking sculptures. The museum takes in a collection of buildings, so be sure to grab a map and download the app to help you on your way.
Shikoku is an island of laid-back treasures, from natural wonders to sacred sites and cultural hotspots. This week-long itinerary is the best way to take it all in. Bon voyage!
Top image: Lush Iya Valley landscape © okimo/Shutterstock
This article was created in partnership with:
Shikoku District Transport Bureau
Kochi Visitors & Convention Association
Kagawa Prefecture Tourism Association
Helen worked as a Senior Travel Editor at Rough Guides and Insight Guides, based in the London office. Among her favourite projects to work on are inspirational guides like