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The smallest of Japan’s four main islands is largely ignored by foreign tourists, but what Shikoku lacks in mega-cities and world-famous sights, it more than makes up for in wild and remote countryside, unsung historic towns, and unique local charm. Here’s why it should be on your bucket list.
Matsuyama is Shikoku’s largest city, and it’s worth visiting for a number of reasons. For a start, there’s the castle: one of only 12 original feudal castles to have survived to the present day, it has now weathered earthquakes, fires and wartime bombing for four centuries and counting. In spring it is a fantastic cherry blossom spot, and it has superb views over the city and the Seto Inland Sea.
Then, there’s Dogo Onsen — the oldest bathhouse in Japan, and familiar to Studio Ghibli fans as the inspiration for the bathhouse in Spirited Away. In fact, Dogo Onsen is so old that it’s mentioned in one of Japan’s oldest books, the Nihon Shoki, and it even has special baths reserved just for the Japanese royal family.
2. Iya Valley’s vine bridges
Criss-crossing the Iya Valley, kazurabashi are bridges made of vines that were first built by samurai in the feudal era. These days, the bridges are rebuilt every three years and have steel cables hidden in the vines for safety (boo) but they’re still pretty heart-stopping to cross!
Takamatsu is most famous for Ritsurin Gardens, which are among the most beautiful in Japan, but we love it for its friendly, laid-back atmosphere, its long arcade lined with cafés and restaurants, its rattletrap tram system, and its hole-in-the-wall, self-serve noodle shops.
4. The ‘art islands’ of the Seto Inland Sea
Only a couple of decades ago, Naoshima Island was just an unremarkable fishing island struggling to make ends meet. Then, in 1992, Benesse House opened its world-class art museum on there, and the rest is history.
Today, art lies scattered across the islands of the Seto Inland Sea, with exhibits and installations spilling out onto beaches, into shrines, and occupying empty houses. Just hop on a ferry and see what you can discover.
5. The Shimanami Kaido
Linking Honshu main island with Shikoku via six tiny islands, the Shimanami Kaido is Japan’s most dramatic cycle route. Crossing a series of bridges and snaking past tiny rural communities, this is one of our favourite ways to explore the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. No special equipment or training needed – just hire a bike and go. The U2 Cycle Hotel in Onomichi is a great place to start.
Keen walkers might have heard of Shikoku’s famous 88-temple pilgrimage: the Buddhist answer to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela. The 1,200-kilometre loop is completed on foot, and pilgrims sleep in shukubo, or temple lodgings.
Konpira-san is our favourite of these 88 temples, and it sits on top of a hill at the end of 1,368 stone steps in the lovely, traditional town of Kotohira. Little shops line the route to the top, where the temple stands overlooking the hills and valleys below. We recommend rewarding yourself for your efforts with a soak in the hot springs when you make it back to the bottom.
7. Awa Odori dance festival
The city of Tokushima is the home of Awa Odori, Japan’s biggest dance festival. Over a million visitors flock to the festival every year to watch performers in traditional costume perform the “fool’s dance”, and partake of special festival food and drink. Held in August, this is a fantastic way to get a taste of Shikoku’s traditional culture – and get to know a few of the locals, who are always keen to make friends during the festive period.
Feeling inspired to visit Shikoku? Our Hidden Japan Small Group Tour explores many of the destinations mentioned here, under the guidance of an expert tour leader. If you prefer to travel independently, check out our Secrets of Shikoku Self-Guided Adventure for ideas.