It has beautiful scenery, a laidback atmosphere, friendly people and several notable sights, yet Shikoku (四国), Japan’s fourth main island, is usually at the bottom of most visitors’ itineraries – if it appears at all. This is a shame, since this tranquil island, nestling in the crook between Honshū and Kyūshū, offers elements of traditional Japan that are often hard to find elsewhere. An ancient Buddhist pilgrimage, original castles and distinctive arts and crafts are some of Shikoku’s attractions – but equally appealing are the island’s rural pace of life and little-visited villages and smaller surrounding islands. Set aside a week or so to get around all Shikoku’s four prefectures. If you only have a day or two, though, head straight for Matsuyama’s splendid castle and the hot springs at nearby Dōgo; or pay a visit to the landscape gardens of Ritsurin-kōen in Takamatsu, before hopping on a ferry over to the idyllic, contemporary art-filled island of Naoshima.
According to legend, Shikoku was the second island (after Awaji-shima) born to Izanagi and Izanami, the gods who are considered to be Japan’s parents. Its ancient name was Iyo-no-futana and it was divided into four main prefectures: Awa (now Tokushima-ken), Iyo (Ehime-ken), Sanuki (Kagawa-ken) and Tosa (Kōchi-ken). These epithets are still used today when referring to the different prefectures’ cuisines and traditional arts. Apart from being the scene of a decisive battle between the Taira and Minamoto clans in the twelfth century (see The Kamakura era), Shikoku has had a relatively peaceful history, due in part to its isolation from the rest of Japan. The physical separation ended with the opening of the Seto Ōhashi in 1989, a series of six bridges that leapfrog the islands of the Inland Sea, carrying both trains and cars. It has since been joined by the Akashi Kaikyō Ōhashi suspension bridge, connecting Shikoku to Honshū via Awaji-shima, the island to the west of Tokushima, and the Nishi Seto Expressway, running along ten bridges spanning nine islands on Shikoku’s northern coast.
Most of Shikoku’s population of just over four million lives in one of the island’s four prefectural capitals: Takamatsu, Tokushima, Kōchi and Matsuyama. The island is split by a vast mountain range that runs from Tsurugi-san in the east to Ishizuchi-san, Shikoku’s tallest peak, in the west. The northern coast, facing the Inland Sea, is heavily developed, in contrast to the predominantly rural south, where the unimpeded kuroshio (black current) of the Pacific Ocean has carved a rugged coastline of sheer cliffs and outsized boulders. The climate throughout the island is generally mild, although the coasts can be lashed by typhoons and the mountains see snow in the winter.
Apart from the highlights listed, other places to consider building into a trip to this part of Japan include the lovely Inland Sea island of Shōdo-shima, the whirlpools at Naruto, and Hiwasa, where turtles come to lay their eggs each summer. With more time you could hit Shikoku’s southern coast for the dramatically rocky capes at Ashizuri and Muroto, and explore the Shimantogawa, one of Japan’s most beautiful rivers.
In the prefectural capitals you’ll find a wide range of hotels, restaurants and bars, as well as international centres and tourist information offices, while the island’s famous 88-temple pilgrimage means that even in the countryside you’re unlikely to be stuck for accommodation.
From Sukumo, Route 56 leads to the coast, where the cliff-side road, passing though small fishing communities, provides unforgettable views of the deep-blue sea, carpeted with nets held up by a crisscross system of buoys. Pearls are cultivated here, and at the port of UWAJIMA, 67km north of Sukumo, there are plenty of shops selling them. The town’s main sights – which include a castle and a fertility shrine – can be seen easily in half a day, though it’s worth staying a night and using Uwajima as a base from which to explore the small country town of Uwa-chō to the north.
Uwajima’s most provocative attraction, the fertility shrine Taga-jinja (多賀神社), is set back from the Suka-gawa, a ten-minute walk north of the JR station. Taga-jinja is to the left as you cross the river, while the larger shrine to the right is Warei-jinja (和霊神社). Taga-jinja has an attached sex museum (daily 8am–5pm; ¥800) and is set in a small compound packed with various statues, some of which assume the shape of penises if looked at from a certain angle – there’s no mistaking the shape of the carved log beside the main shrine building, though. The shrine’s museum, spread over three floors of a bland modern building, is wall-to-wall erotica, with display cases packed with all manner of sexual objects, literature and art. On the ground floor is a collection of Japanese fertility symbols and figurines dating back centuries, while the first floor holds similar objects from around the world, including displays devoted to Tibet, India, Europe and elsewhere; some exhibits are claimed to be the best part of two thousand years old. The smaller of the two rooms on the top floor hosts an impressive collection of five hundred hand-carved wooden statues depicting all sorts of sexual shenanigans – no two are alike. The larger room on this floor has a large selection of Japanese erotic books and prints (shunga) dating back to the Edo and Meiji periods. Downstairs, as you leave the museum, you’ll see two of the most unique souvenirs Shikoku has to offer – rock-hard, life-size candies, unmistakably fashioned after certain parts of the male and female body.
The other shrine, Warei-jinja, is the focal point of the spectacular Warei Taisai, one of Shikoku’s major festivals. Held from the evening of July 22 to July 24, the festival involves huge models of devil bulls (ushi-oni) being paraded in the streets, along with ornate portable shrines, the aim being to dispel evil. The bulls, like giant pantomime horses, eventually do battle in the river, while at the shrine there’s much banging of taiko, bonfire burning and a fireworks finale.
Walking back into the town, keep an eye out for the rather forlorn-looking Uwajima-jō (宇和島城; daily 9am–4pm; ¥200), at the top of the hillside park that rises west of Route 56. The compact, three-storey donjon may be original and certainly gives a fine view of the surrounding city and port, but there’s little other reason to pay the entrance charge. There are two routes up to the donjon, either from the north through the gate of the Kōri samurai family (transferred to the castle ground in 1952), tucked back from the main road behind the post office, or from the Noboritachi-mon gate on the south side of the castle hill.
A short walk south of the castle park is the small formal garden of Tensha-en (天赦園; daily: April–July 8.30am–5pm; Aug–March 8.30am–4.30pm; ¥300). Dating from 1866, the pretty garden is laid out in circular style with a feature made of a wisteria trellis. Nearby, you can also explore the narrow residential streets immediately southeast of the centre. Here shrines, temples and graveyards are huddled on the slopes leading up to the Uwajima Youth Hostel. Even if you’re not staying at the hostel, the hill is worth climbing for sweeping views of the town.
Not surprisingly for a port, Uwajima offers ample opportunity to eat fresh fish – two popular dishes are taimeshi (sashimi of sea bream on top of hot rice) and satsuma-jiru (strips of fish mixed with a white miso sauce and eaten with rice). For a drink, apart from some of the places listed, you could try Red Boots (closed Mon), which has a Wild West vibe and very lively management, or Café Bar Texas, where you can also play darts. For cheap lunch options and cafés, explore Uwajima Gintengai.
Uwajima Station is the terminus for both the JR Yodo line running from Kubokawa and the JR Yosan line from Matsuyama. Buses to and from Sukumo stop in front of the station as well as at the main bus centre at the foot of the castle hill on Route 56.
Inside the JR station is a tourist information booth (daily 9am–6pm), which can help arrange bicycle rental (¥100/hr). You can change money at Iyo Bank just off the Gintengai, and there’s an ATM at the main post office near the Kōri Gate to the castle.
Although it’s said that the novelty wears thin fast, the best time to visit Uwajima is for one of its bullfights, or tōgyū, the bovine equivalent of sumo wrestling. Some accounts date the sport back four hundred years, while others pinpoint the origins in the nineteenth century, when a Dutch captain made a gift of bulls to the town, after local fishermen came to his ship’s aid during a typhoon. The bulls, weighing in at up to a tonne and treated like pampered pets by their owners, lock horns and struggle either to push each other to the floor or out of the tournament ring. The fights are held five afternoons a year (Jan 2, the first Sun in April, July 24, Aug 14 and the fourth Sun in Oct) at the Tōgyū-jō, a white-walled arena in the hills above the city. Get there an hour early to soak up the atmosphere and watch the bulls being paraded around the ring. The bouts are very good-natured and the enthusiastic crowd is welcoming and friendly. Tickets cost ¥3000 and can be bought on the day at the arena.
In the normal course of life, Nakahama Manjirō, born in 1827 into a poor family living in Tosa Shimizu, near Ashizuri Misaki, would have lived and died a fisherman. His fortunes changed when he was marooned on an uninhabited volcanic island some 580km south of Tokyo, along with five shipmates. After nearly five months, they were saved by a landing party from a passing US whaling ship, who had come to the island in search of fresh water.
Mung ended up serving with the American crew for four years, before returning with the captain, John Whitfield, to his home in Bedford, Massachusetts. The bright lad mastered English, mathematics, surveying and navigation, and undertook journeys to Africa, Australia and around southeast Asia. After making some money in the California Gold Rush of 1849, Mung returned to Japan in 1851, where he soon found himself serving as an advisor to the feudal lord of Tosa. Two years later Mung was summoned to Tokyo to assist with the drawing up of international trade treaties, and in 1860 he returned to the US as part of a national delegation.
Before his death in 1898 he taught at the Kaisei School for Western Learning in Tokyo (later to become part of the prestigious Tokyo University), sharing the knowledge he had accumulated during a period when Japan was still living in self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world.
Approximately 30km southwest of Takamatsu, KOTOHIRA (琴平) is home to the ancient shrine Kotohira-gū, popularly known as Kompira-san. Along with the Grand Shrines of Ise and Izumo Taisha, Kotohira is one of the major Shinto pilgrimage sites, attracting some four million visitors a year. Despite the crowds, it is still one of Shikoku’s highlights. The town itself is pleasantly located, straddling the Kanakura-gawa at the foot of the mountain Zozu-san, so called because it is said to resemble an elephant’s head (zozu). Kotohira can easily be visited on a day-trip from Takamatsu, one hour away by train, or en route to Kōchi or the mountainous interior.
Kompira-san, the unofficial but more commonly used name for Kotohira-gū, comes from the nickname for Omono-nushi-no-Mikoto, the spiritual guardian of seafarers. Kompira was originally Kumbhira, the Hindu crocodile god of the River Ganges, and was imported as a deity from India well before the ninth century, when Kōbō Daishi chose the shrine as the spot for one of his Buddhist temples. For one thousand years Kompira-san served as both a Buddhist and Shinto holy place and was so popular that those who could not afford to make the pilgrimage themselves either dispatched their pet dogs, with pouches of coins as a gift to the gods, or tossed barrels of rice and money into the sea, in the hope that they would be picked up by sailors who would take the offering to Kompira-san on their behalf.
When the Meiji Restoration began, Shinto took precedence, and the Buddhas were removed from the shrine, along with Kompira, who was seen as too closely associated with the rival religion. While there are no representations of Kompira at the shrine today, an open-air gallery decorated with pictures and models of ships serves as a reminder of the shrine’s original purpose, and the Chinese flavour of some of the buildings hints at the former Buddhist connection.
Kotohira-gū (琴平宮), Kotohira’s star attraction, is usually known as Kompira-san. It’s a venerable shrine, dating back to at least the tenth century, but award-winning contemporary steel and glass buildings designed by Suzuki Ryoji lend a modern edge to the mainly wooden hillside complex, reached via 785 steps. You’ll see many people huffing and puffing on the lower slopes beside the tourist shops, but the climb is not so strenuous and shouldn’t take you more than thirty minutes.
The shrine grounds begin at the Ō-mon, a stone gateway just beyond which you’ll pass the Gonin Byakushō – five red-painted stalls shaded by large white umbrellas. The souvenir sellers here stand in for the five farmers who were once allowed to hawk their wares in the shrine precincts. Further along to the right of the main walkway, lined with stone lanterns, are three small museums housing different collections of the shrine’s artistic treasures: the Hōmotsu-kan (宝物館), the Gakugei Sankō-kan (学芸参考館) and the Takahashi Yuichi-kan (高橋由一館). Only the latter, displaying the striking paintings of the nineteenth-century artist Takahashi Yuichi, is really worth the entrance fee.
Before climbing to the shrine’s next stage, look left of the steps to see a giant gold ship’s propeller, a gift from a local shipbuilder. To the right is the entrance to the serene reception hall Omote Shoin (表書院), built in 1659. Delicate screen paintings and decorated door panels by the celebrated artist Okyo Maruyama (1733–95) are classified as Important Cultural Assets; they’re so precious you have to peer through glass into the dim interiors to see them. At the rear of the complex is a series of wall-panel paintings of crimson camellias by local artist Takubo Kyoji.
Returning to the main ascent, the next major building reached is the grand Asahi-no-Yashiro (Sunshine Shrine) dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu, decorated with intricate woodcarvings of flora and fauna and topped with a green copper roof. Two flights of steep steps lead from here to the thatched-roof Hon-gū, the main shrine, built in 1879 and the centre of Kompira-san’s daily activities. Priests and their acolytes in traditional robes rustle by along a raised wooden corridor linking the shrine buildings. Many visitors stop here, but the hardy, and truly faithful, trudge on up a further 583 steps to the Oku-sha following a path to the left of the main shrine. When you reach this inner shrine, located almost at the top of Zozu-san, look up at the rocks on the left to see two rather cartoonish stone carvings of the demon Tengu.
From the main shrine area, head to the wooden platforms for magnificent views of the surrounding countryside – on a clear day you can see as far as the Inland Sea. To the left of the main shrine is the open-air Ema-dō gallery, which displays votive plaques, paintings and models of ships. These are from sailors who hope to be granted good favour on the seas. The commendations extend to one from Japan’s first cosmonaut, a TV journalist who was a paying passenger on a Russian Soyuz launch in 1990.
Kompira-san is one of only two places in Japan (the other is Kyoto) where you can see the ancient sport of kemari performed. Deemed an Intangible Cultural Property, this ninth-century forerunner of soccer is played by the shrine’s monks on May 5, July 7 and in late December.
Further north along the Yosan line the train hits the coast at Yawatahama (八幡浜), where there are ferries to Beppu and Usuki in Kyūshū. It then turns inland to reach Ōzu (大洲) on the banks of the Hiji-kawa. The town’s billing as a mini-Kyoto is overselling the place; still Ōzu has its charms, particularly so from June 1 to September 20 when the river is the location for ukai – fishing with cormorants. To view the display from a boat costs ¥3000; for bookings call Ōzu tourist office.
At other times of the year, the town is worth visiting to see the picturesque Ōzu Castle (大洲城; daily 9am–4.30pm; ¥500 or ¥800 with entry to Garyū Sansō). Destroyed in 1888, the four-storey donjon of this fortress commanding a bend in the river was rebuilt in 2004 to its original sixteenth-century specifications. The grounds are a riot of pink in cherry blossom season.
From the castle, follow the river for around fifteen minutes as it bends southeast to reach steps leading up to Garyū Sansō (臥龍山荘; daily 9am–4.30pm; ¥500), a prime example of a traditional villa built in the sukiya kenchiku architectural style with a triangular thatched roof. Beautifully detailed woodcarvings and fixtures inside are matched by a lovely moss-and-stone garden outside leading to a teahouse and a separate moon-viewing platform overlooking the river. Head directly west back into Ōzu from the river to locate Ohanahan-tōri (おはなはん通り), a short street lined with traditional houses including one that has been converted into a good restaurant (see Uchiko). Also worth a look before leaving town is the gallery, gift shop and café Ōzu Akarengakan (おおず赤煉瓦館; daily 9am–5pm), housed in a handsome red-brick complex dating from 1901 and once used as a bank.
Ōzu is forty minutes by express train from either Uwajima or Mastuyama. The town’s train station, Iyo Ōzu (伊予大洲), is around 2km northwest of the Hiji-kawa and the castle. The tourist information desk (daily at least 8.30am–5pm) is on the south side of Ōzu. The assistants here can advise where to find bicycle rental and suggest places to stay should you get the unlikely urge to linger overnight. For eating, Shun (旬; daily except Thurs 11.30am–2pm & 6–10pm), on Ohanahan-tōri, is a restaurant in an attractive traditional house facing a neatly tended garden. Its speciality is beef satsuma-jiru (¥1260). On the north side of the Hiki-kawa-bashi is Tarui (たる井; Tues–Sun 11.30am–2.30pm & 5–8.30pm), a restaurant in a large wooden-beamed building specializing in unagi (eel) dishes. Also worth trying here is the rich, savoury rice porridge, called zousui (ぞうすい; ¥630).
Wherever you are in Shikoku, you’ll seldom be far from Japan’s longest and most famous pilgrimage, established by disciples of the Buddhist saint Kōbō Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism ( for more on Daishi). It usually takes over two months to walk the 1400km between the 88 temples on the prescribed route, and plenty of pilgrims, known as henro-san, still complete the journey this way, though far more follow the route by car, train or on bus tours. The number of temples represents the 88 evils that, according to Shingon Buddhism, bedevil human life.
Henro-san are easy to spot, since they usually dress in traditional short white cotton coats, coloured shoulder bands and broad-rimmed straw hats, and generally clutch rosaries, brass bells and long wooden staffs – for support on the steep ascents to many of the temples. The characters on their robes and staffs translate as “Daishi and I go together”. Most pilgrims are past retirement age, as few younger Japanese have the inclination or the vacation time needed for such a pilgrimage.
The present-day headquarters of the Shingon sect is Kōya-san, in Wakayama-ken, and this is the traditional start of the pilgrimage. The first temple visited on Shikoku is Ryōzen-ji, near Naruto in Tokushima-ken. Pilgrims then follow a circular route that winds its way clockwise around the island, stopping at all the temples en route to the 88th, Ōkubo-ji, in Kagawa-ken.
Several books in English describe the 88-temple hike, including Oliver Statler’s classic Japanese Pilgrimage. For more up-to-date details, check out shikokuhenrotrail.com, created by the American henro David Turkington.
Even before the Seto Ōhashi connected Shikoku’s rail network with Honshū, the port of TAKAMATSU (高松), capital of Kagawa-ken, was a major gateway into the island. Warlord Chikamasa Ikoma built his castle here in 1588, but the city and surrounding area’s history go back a long way before that. The priest and mystic Kōbō Daishi was born in the prefecture, the banished Emperor Sutoku was murdered here in 1164 and, 21 years later, the Taira and Minamoto clans clashed at nearby Yashima. In air raids during World War II, Chikamasa’s castle was virtually destroyed, along with most of the city.
Today, Takamatsu is a sprawling but fairly attractive cosmopolitan city of 420,000 inhabitants, peppered with covered shopping arcades and designer stores. As twenty-first-century as all this is, the city’s star attraction remains Ritsurin-kōen, one of Japan’s most classical, spacious and beautifully designed gardens. The gardens are easily accessible on a day-trip from Honshū, but it’s well worth staying overnight so you can also take in Shikoku Mura, the open-air museum of traditional houses at Yashima, or Kotohira-gū, the ancient shrine an hour’s train ride west of the city. Takamatsu is also a gateway to two of the most appealing islands in the Inland Sea: Shōdo-shima, a mini-Shikoku with its own temple circuit and scenic attractions; and delightful Naoshima, a must for contemporary art and architecture fans with several outstanding galleries designed by Andō Tadao.
The living canvas for a dynamic ongoing art project, idyllic NAOSHIMA (直島) is home to three stunning Andō Tadao-designed galleries as well as several large-scale installations and outdoor sculptures from major international and Japanese talent. In the island’s main town and ferry port, Miyanoura (宮浦), is an amazing bathhouse, while around the southern Gotanji area there are sheltered beaches with glorious Inland Sea views – all making Naoshima a blissful escape.
Takamatsu’s one must-see sight, Ritsurin-kōen (栗林公園), is 2.5km south down Chūō-dōri from the JR station. The formal garden, Japan’s largest at 750,000 square metres, lies at the foot of Mount Shuin. Its construction began in the early seventeenth century and took several feudal lords over one hundred years to complete. The gardens were designed to present magnificent vistas throughout the seasons, from an arched red bridge amid a snowy landscape in winter, to ponds full of purple and white irises in early summer.
The East Gate is the garden’s main entrance but JR trains stop at least once an hour at Ritsurin-kōen Kita-guchi, close by the North Gate. At either entrance you can pick up a free English map of the gardens and buy tickets that combine entrance with tea in the Kikugetsu-tei Pavilion. From the East Gate you can either follow a route through the Nantei (South Garden) to the left or Hokutei (North Garden) to the right. The more stylized Nantei garden has paths around three lakes, dotted with islands with carefully pruned pine trees. The highlight here is the delightful Kikugetsu-tei, or “Scooping the Moon”, teahouse overlooking the South Lake. Dating from around 1640 and named after a Tang-dynasty Chinese poem, the teahouse exudes tranquillity, with its screens pulled back to reveal perfect garden views. Viewed from across the lake it’s just as impressive, swaddled in trees that cast a shimmering reflection over the water. The Nantei also has the less elaborate but more secluded Higurashi-tei teahouse, set in a shady grove.
Hokutei has a more natural appearance, and is based around two ponds – Fuyosho-ike, dotted with lotus flowers, and Gunochi-ike, where feudal lords once hunted ducks and which now blooms with irises in June. Keep an eye out for the Tsuru Kame no Matsu, just to the left of the main park building, a black pine tree shaped like a crane spreading its wings and considered to be the most beautiful of the 29,190 trees in the gardens. Behind this is a line of pines called the “Byōbu-matsu”, after the folding-screen painting (byōbu) they are supposed to resemble.
It may not have quite the same idyllic appeal as its smaller Inland Sea neighbour Naoshima, but thanks to its splendid natural scenery and a collection of worthwhile sights Shōdo-shima (小豆島) should still be high on any list of places to visit in Shikoku. The mountainous, forested island styles itself as a Mediterranean retreat, and has a whitewashed windmill and mock-Grecian ruins strategically placed in its terraced olive groves. But native culture also gets a look-in, since Shōdo-shima – which translates as “island of small beans” – promotes its own version of Shikoku’s 88-temple pilgrimage and its connection with the classic Japanese book and film Nijūshi-no-Hitomi (24 Eyes). This tear-jerking tale of a teacher and her twelve young charges, set on Shōdo-shima between the 1920s and 1950s, was written by local author Tsuboi Sakae. A trip to the island also offers a rare opportunity to visit a centuries-old soy sauce factory (see Naoshima), where traditional methods are still employed.
Built on the delta of the Yoshino-gawa – Shikoku’s longest river – and bisected by the Shinmachi-gawa, TOKUSHIMA (徳島), the capital of Tokushima-ken, is known across Japan for its fantastic summer dance festival, the Awa Odori, which is attended every year by over one million people (see The dancing fools). If you’re not among them then don’t worry, as Tokushima does its best to provide a flavour of the Awa Odori experience year-round at the Awa Odori Kaikan, at the foot of Mount Bizan, a parkland area providing sweeping views of the city.
Home to the first temple of the Shikoku pilgrimage, Tokushima has a long history of welcoming visitors and you’ll find it a noticeably friendly and relaxed place, as well as a good base to explore the rest of the prefecture. North of the city are the whirlpools of Naruto, while heading south there’s the pretty coastal village of Hiwasa, where turtles lay their eggs on the beach each summer, popular surf beaches, and, across the border in Kōchi-ken, the jagged cape at Muroto. Inland, the best place to head is the spectacular Iya Valley, including the river gorge at Ōboke.
At the base of the 280m-high Mount Bizan (眉山), is the Awa Odori Kaikan (阿波踊り会館). The complex houses a good gift shop on the ground floor, a ropeway on the fifth floor that goes to the top of Mount Bizan, a museum on the third floor, and the Awa Odori Hall where there are at least four live performances daily of the city’s famous dance, including one slightly more expensive evening performance from 8pm ; audience participation is encouraged at all performances, so don’t be surprised if you end up on stage.
Every year in mid-August many Japanese return to their family homes for Obon (Festival of the Dead), which is as much a celebration as a remembrance of the deceased. Towns all over the country hold bon dances, but none can compare to Tokushima’s Awa Odori – the “Great Dance of Awa” – a four-day festival that runs every year from August 12 to 15. Over a million spectators come to watch the eighty thousand participants, dressed in colourful yukata (summer kimono) and half-moon-shaped straw hats, who parade through the city, waving their hands and shuffling their feet to an insistent two-beat rhythm, played on taiko drums, flutes and shamisen (traditional stringed instruments). With plenty of street parties and sideshows, this is as close as Japan gets to Rio’s Mardi Gras, and there’s plenty of fun to be had mingling with the dancers, who famously chant, “The dancing fool and the watching fool are equally foolish. So why not dance?”
If you plan to attend the festival, book accommodation well in advance or arrange to stay in one of the nearby towns and travel in for the dances, which start at 6pm and finish at 10.30pm (street parties continue well into the night). To take part as a dancer, contact the Tokushima International Association, which organizes a dance group on one of the festival nights.
Picturesque HIWASA (日和佐), 55km south of Tokushima, is worth pausing at for its intriguing temple, quaint harbour and pretty beach. Yakuō-ji (薬王寺), the 23rd temple on the Shikoku pilgrimage, is on the hillside as you pull into the train station; the temple’s base is surrounded by hotels and gift shops catering to the hordes of pilgrims who regularly pass through. Climbing the steps to the main temple, you can’t fail to notice lots of ¥1 coins on the ground: some pilgrims place a coin on each step for luck as they head up. At the top of the steps is the main temple area, whose buildings date from 815 AD and where there’s a striking statue of a goddess carrying a basket of fish and flanked by lotus blooms. Off to the right is a more recently built single-storey pagoda. There’s a good view of Hiwasa’s harbour from the platform, but the highlight here is to descend into the pagoda’s darkened basement, where for ¥100 you can fumble your way around a pitch-black circular corridor to a central gallery containing Brueghel-like painted depictions of all the tortures of hell. In a second gallery is a long scroll showing the steady decay of a beautiful, but dead, young woman.
About 1km south of the harbour, the reconstructed castle Hiwasa-jō (日和佐城) is only worth visiting for its impressive view of the town. The better option is to head directly to Ōhama beach, north of the harbour, where turtles lay their eggs between May and August. During this time, the beach is roped off and spectators must watch the action from a distance. For a closer look at the turtles, make your way to the Sea Turtle Museum at Umigame Hakubutsukan Karetta (うみがめ博物館カレッタ), beside the beach. The displays are mainly in Japanese, but are very visual, with step-by-step photos of turtles laying eggs; you can also see some turtles swimming in indoor and outdoor pools.
The popular surfing spot of KAIFU (海部), 26km south of Hiwasa, is where the JR train line ends and is replaced with the private Asa Kaigan railway. You’ll nearly always have to change trains here to continue toward the southern cape (simply cross over to the opposite platform). Even if you don’t, you’ll have to pay ¥270 extra to travel the remaining two stops – the first is SHISHIKUI (宍喰), Tokushima’s top surf beach, where there’s a good range of accommodation including the reasonable Kokuminshukusha Mitoko-sō (国民宿舎みとこ荘). The end of the line is KANNOURA (甲浦), a sleepy village with a pleasant stretch of gravelly sand framed with rocky outcrops.
From Awa Ikeda the road and railway enter the spectacular Ōboke Gorge (大歩危), cut through by the sparkling Yoshino-gawa. The vertiginous mountains here and in the adjacent Iya Valley can be coated in snow during the winter, while less than one hour south, the palms of Kōchi sway in the sunshine. This remoteness from the rest of the island made the gorge an ideal bolt-hole for the Taira clan after their defeat at Yashima in 1185. Here the warriors traded their swords for farm implements and built distinctive thatched-roof cottages on the mountainsides. Few of these remain in their original form, their thatched roofs now covered in rusty tin and their wooden walls in plastic sheeting, but one that does is Chiiori (ちいおり), a 300-year-old house in the village of Tsurui (釣井). This delightfully rustic building is the base for The Chiiori Project, which fosters community-based tourism in the Iya Valley and has established a small organic farm. Regular volunteer weekends and workshops on traditional crafts are hosted here, and it’s also possible to stay overnight (Fri–Mon), a communal experience where guests and staff cook, eat and wash up together, and everyone shares a dorm. The suggested rates are ¥7000 for the first night and ¥4000 per subsequent night; rates may be reduced if you’re involved in one of their volunteer projects.
Even more picturesque are the Oku Iya Kazura-bashi (奥祖谷かずら橋), a pair of vine bridges also known as the “Fufu-bashi” (husband and wife bridges), some 30km further into the Iya Valley from Nishi Iya and en route to Tsurugi-san (剣山) – at 1955m, Shikoku’s second-highest mountain. A four-hour round-trip climb starts at Minokoshi (見ノ越), from where there’s a ropeway part of the way up the mountain, if you want to save time and effort.
With thrilling rapids and spectacular rocky scenery, a boat trip down the Yoshino-gawa is the best way to view the Ōboke Gorge. Also check out the whitewater rafting trips on offer.
The 88-temple pilgrimage first reaches Shikoku at NARUTO (鳴門), around 13km north of Tokushima. However, the town is more famous for the whirlpools that form as the tides change and water is forced through the narrow straits between Shikoku and Awaji-shima. This is one of Tokushima’s most heavily hyped attractions, but it’s not a consistently reliable phenomenon. The whirlpools are at their most dramatic on days of the full and new moon; to avoid a wasted journey, check first on the tidal schedule with tourist information in Tokushima. To see the whirlpools up close you can either hop on one of the tourist cruise boats, or traverse the Uzu-no-Michi (渦の道), a walkway under Naruto-Ōhashi bridge, which puts you 45m directly above the maelstrom. The cheaper alternative is a bird’s-eye view from Naruto-kōen, the park on Oge Island, just to the north of Naruto town.
A trip to Ōzu can easily be combined with one to the appealing small town of UCHIKO (内子), ten minutes by express train north along the Yosan line. Uchiko was once an important centre for the production of Japanese wax (moku-rō), made from the crushed berries of the sumac tree. The wax is still used in candles, polishes, crayons, cosmetics, food and even computer disks. The wealth generated by the industry has left Uchiko with many fine houses preserved in the picturesque Yōkaichi (八日市) district of the town, where craftsmen can still be seen making candles by hand.
The best place to start your tour of Uchiko – which is easily explored on foot – is at the handsomely restored kabuki theatre Uchiko-za (内子座; Tues–Sun 9am–4.30pm; ¥300), which lies around 500m northeast of the train station. Performances are held once or twice a week at the theatre, which was built in 1916 to celebrate the accession of the Emperor Taisho; during the day you can wander around the auditorium and stage.
Closer to Yōkaichi, at Akinai-to-Kurashi Hakubutsukan, is the Museum of Commercial and Domestic Life (商いと暮らし博物館; daily 9am–4.30pm; ¥200), set in a charmingly converted merchant’s house, and with mechanical talking dummies that help show the daily life of a shopkeeper during the Taishō era (1912–26). The mannequins, which are electronically activated to start speaking, include a moaning pharmacist in the upstairs storeroom.
Just before heading northwest uphill into the Yōkaichi district, take a detour towards the Oda-gawa to admire the venerable Takahashi Residence (高橋邸; daily except Tues 9am–4.30pm; free), the birthplace of Takahashi Ryutaro, a politician and founder of the Asahi Beer company. The elegant two-storey building with castle-like stone walls has a lovely garden, which you can admire from the café inside.
Return to Yōkaichi, walking uphill past touristy shops selling souvenirs and tea, to reach the Machiya Shiryōkan (町家資料館; daily 9am–4.30pm; free), dating from 1793 and restored as a typical merchant’s townhouse. Further along, on the left after the kink in the road, are two of Uchiko’s most photographed buildings: the Ōmura Residence (大村家), the Edo-era home of a dyehouse merchant, and neighbouring Hon-Haga Residence (本芳我邸; daily except Thurs 9am–4.30pm; free), home of the main family behind Uchiko’s wax industry. This is more elaborate than the other houses, with ornate gables, a facade decorated with intricate plaster sculptures, and a small, attractive garden. Next on the right is another grand house once belonging to the Hon-Haga family, the Kami Haga Residence (上芳我邸; daily 9am–4.30pm; ¥400). Its size and elegant interior decoration give a good indication of how wealthy they must have been. Unlike most of the other buildings along the street, the plaster walls are a golden sand colour, and there’s a spacious courtyard surrounded by exhibition halls. If you plan to enter all the buildings and museums around town, a small saving can be made by purchasing the ¥700 combination ticket from Uchiko-za, the Kami Haga Residence or the Museum of Commercial and Domestic Life.
By the fastest trains Uchiko is one hour from Uwajima and 25min from Matsuyama. JR offers a handy ¥2700 day-pass ticket covering Matsuyama, Uchiko and Ōzu. Several buses a day run from Matsuyama, Ōzu and Uwajima, stopping a couple of hundred metres to the east of Yōkaichi. Bicycle rental is available at the train station (daily 9.30am–5pm; ¥300/hr). There’s also an old-fashioned bus that shuttles back and forth from the station to Yōkaichi (Fri–Sun; ¥800 for round-trip ticket).
Although there’s no need to stay overnight in Uchiko, there are some colourful ryokan and minshuku in and around town. Matsunoya (松乃屋; ¥10,001−15,000, ¥20,001−30,000 with two meals,) is a pleasant, traditional ryokan on the main road leading up to Yōkaichi. Some 2km north of Yōkaichi, Farm Inn Raum Kokuriko (ファームインRAUM古久里来; ¥15,001−20,000 with two meals) is a rather cultured farmhouse-minshuku where you can help the owners cultivate rice and harvest from various fruit orchards. For alternatives, contact Uchiko Tourist Association or the International Association on the third floor of Uchiko Town Hall (内子市役所; Mon–Fri 8.30am–5pm).
For food, be aware that many of the restaurants along Yōkaichi are overpriced tourist traps; one exception is Komachi (こまち; daily except Wed 9am–5pm & 6pm–midnight), a charming teahouse serving green tea and snacks such as sweet bean cake. It’s also a gift shop and turns into a bar at night. Down on the island in the river there is also Karari (からり), a modern restaurant, fresh-produce market and ice-cream parlour. Uchiko’s twin-town links with Germany are celebrated here with a menu heavy on sausages, and at lunchtime they also run a small udon restaurant and a hamburger bar on the island.
Less than 20km north of Uwajima, the small country town of UWA-CHŌ (宇和町) makes a very pleasant half-day trip from Uwajima. The highlight is the excellent Museum of Ehime History and Culture (愛媛県歴史文化博物館; Tues–Sun 9am–5.30pm; ¥500). Inside this ultra-modern building sticking out from the hillside is ample space for the spectacular displays inside, which include full-sized replicas of buildings, including a Yayoi-era (330 BC to 300 AD) hut, a street of Meiji-era shops and a small wooden temple. In the centre of the museum is a folklore exhibit, which includes examples of the fabulous portable shrines, costumes and other decorations used in local festivals, such as Uwajima’s Warei Taisai. TV screens also show videos of the festivals.
The train station for Uwa-chō is Uno-machi, less than twenty minutes from Uwajima by the hourly limited express. The museum can be reached by an infrequent bus (¥150) from the stop about five minutes’ walk south of the JR station, along Route 56. To walk up the hill to the museum takes around twenty minutes. On the way, you’ll pass the other reason for visiting this town, a street of well-preserved, white-walled houses known as Naka-chō, which is also the name given to this part of town. Along here is Kaimei School (開明学校; Tues–Sun 9am–5pm; ¥200), a lovely and well-preserved example of a Meiji-period school and one of the oldest extant in western Japan; there’s also a temple and a church house you can look into. Opposite the old schoolhouse is the Uwa Folkcraft Museum (宇和町民具館; Uwa-chō Mingu-kan; Tues–Sun 9am–5pm; free), an immaculate museum that contains a wide range of interesting items that were once in daily use in the town, from bamboo swords and deer costumes used in local festivals to record players and dioramas depicting life during the Edo period.
You can pick up a simple map-cum-guide to the town’s sites in English here, as well as a special ¥400 ticket offering entry to the school, the nearby Memorial Museum of Great Predecessors at Uwa-chō Sentetsu Kinenkan (宇和町先哲記念館; Tues–Sun 9am–5pm; ¥200), and the Rice Museum at Uwa-chō Kome Hakubutsukan (宇和町米博物館; Tues–Sun 9am–5pm; ¥200) on the other side of town. If you’re in a hurry, the latter two can be safely skipped, as there’s little in the way of English explanations, though the rice museum is housed in a lovely 109m-long wooden school building. To reach this street, walk straight ahead from the station through the arch and turn right at the pedestrianized shopping street. Take the first left and then follow the road as it forks right.
For lunch there’s a takeaway sushi joint and a coffee shop offering light meals in the small branch of the Takashimaya department store on the main road, a minute’s walk from the station, but your best bet is the Ristorante Station, which serves pizza and Yebisu beer and is bang opposite the station.
It’s said that the whaling industry in Kōchi dates from 1591, when the local daimyō Chokosabe Motochika gifted the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Ōsaka a whale and in return received eight hundred bags of rice. Japan and whales have, in recent times, become a controversial combination, but along Kōchi-ken’s coast few are complaining, as whale-watching tours are replacing the old way of making a living. Tours typically last three hours and cost around ¥5000 per person in small boats holding eight to ten people. The best time to see whales is May and August, though the season runs from spring through to autumn. Nothing’s guaranteed, but with a good skipper expect to see the large Bryde’s whales and medium-sized false killer whales, as well as schools of white-sided and Risso’s dolphins. For details, contact the Ōgata Town Leisure Fishing Boats Owners’ Association or Saga Town Fishermen’s Association.