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Why Shikoku Should Be Your Destination of Choice for 2024

Discover Shikoku in 2024—A yet-to-be-discovered gem in Japan, offering a serene escape into nature, rich history, and vibrant art scenes, away from the typical tourist routes.
Why Shikoku Should Be Your Destination of Choice for 2024

Japan is one of those countries for which a single visit just isn’t going to suffice. As a result, many who have explored the mainstream destinations come back time and time again in search of more hidden gems and missed opportunities.

It’s now been almost a decade since Japan started seeing its inbound tourism industry begin to boom. In the years since, more and more individuals have started to venture off the beaten path in favor of more remote regions like Tohoku and Hokkaido.

Now, attention is increasingly turning to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Powered initially by social media and demand for art islands like Naoshima, an increasing number of tourists are starting to see what makes this part of Japan as special as it is.

To help you get a sense of how to explore Shikoku and the rest of the Setouchi region, we’ll detail two branching routes that are perfect for people wanting to get away from the tourist traps and see a side of Japan that many still don’t know about.

Day One: Himeji, Shodoshima & Takamatsu

Himeji Castle & Port

Himeji Castle & Port

For both of the two alternative routes, you’re first going to need to make your way to Hyogo Prefecture. This can be done in just under three hours on the Shinkansen. If you prefer though, you could also make the trek down via a quick Japan Airlines flight to the closest airport. From there, you’ll then need to then hop on a local train. 

To start your adventures in Shikoku, you’re going to make your way to Himeji Port. However, if you’ve never made a stop at Himeji Castle before, it would be a grave oversight to bypass the architectural splendor of Himeji Castle on your journey. The fortress is often described as the best in Japan and is one of a dozen remaining originals.

From Himeji Castle, the local port can be reached in 20 minutes by taxi. There are other ways to get there but this is the most painless for the majority of overseas travelers. Once arriving, you’ll want to purchase a ride out to the island of Shodoshima in Kagawa Prefecture.

The Ferry to Shodoshima

The Ferry to Shodoshima

From Himeji Port, the ferry ride out to Shodoshima will take you just under two hours. Thanks to social media, this island is slowly growing in popularity due to being the inspiration for a scene in the animated film Kiki's Delivery Service. Here at Shodoshima’s Olive Park, you can live out your Ghibli dreams.

Outside of anime, the captivating island of Shodoshima, renowned as a prime green destination, beckons with a rich tapestry of cultural, historical, and natural treasures. It proudly serves as a key venue for the Setouchi Triennale art event, with numerous art installations scattered across its landscape.

As far as attractions go, Shodoshima boasts its own spiritual journey through 88 sacred sites à la the better known Shikoku Ohenro Pilgrimage. Among these, the Sekimon-dō Temple stands as a Buddhist sanctuary offering a realm of quiet contemplation. For those seeking to embrace the island's natural beauty, a visit to Kankakei Gorge is imperative, with its towering peaks offering panoramic vistas.

No visit to Shodoshima would be complete without a stop at Yamaroku Soy Sauce. Here, the age-old art of brewing soy sauce is on display. Even now, the maker uses massive wooden barrels to keep with the traditions of old. As a result, this artisanal soy sauce has seen its demand soar domestically in recent times.

Further enriching the culinary exploration, MORIKUNI, a distinguished sake brewery and restaurant on Shodoshima, invites you to a delightful tasting experience. Here, a medley of fine Japanese sake complements a hearty meal, and their shop offers an extensive range of sake. It’s the perfect way to take a piece of Shodoshima's tradition home with you.

As you traverse Shodoshima, the vast olive groves on the hillsides are emblematic of the island's robust olive oil industry, a venture that has borne fruit in other realms of food production on the island. The leftover olive matter from oil production is crafted into feed for wagyu beef cattle, leading to the creation of Olive Beef, a succulent, umami-rich delicacy that has garnered praise from culinary circles across Japan.

Similarly, the island's aquaculture benefits from this sustainable practice; olive feed given to farmed yellowtail (hamachi) results in Olive Hamachi, a variant boasting higher collagen content in its muscles compared to other farmed fish, making your culinary exploration on Shodoshima an unforgettable fusion of tradition, sustainability, and gastronomic delight.

Takamatsu City

Takamatsu City

From Shodoshima, hop a quick ferry over to Kagawa Prefecture’s capital city of Takamatsu. While you could possibly take a ferry directly to somewhere else like the island of Teshima, the world-renowned 400-year-old Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu awaits. Given that you’re so close, you should do yourself a favor and plan a visit to this amazing traditional Japanese garden.

Renowned for its picturesque vistas and meticulously groomed pine trees, Ritsurin Garden holds the esteemed designation of a Special Place of Scenic Beauty and has earned a prestigious three-star rating in the Michelin Green Guide Japan. Its convenient location from the city center ensures that a detour isn't necessary to immerse oneself in its captivating aesthetic.

After Ritsurin Garden you’ll want to make a decision. Do you want to explore the mountainous core of the island of Shikoku or do you want to see more of the wonderful art islands and other cultural mainstays back on the main island of Honshu? Do you want to island hop or traverse remote parts of Shikoku that few travelers can boast of seeing—the choice is yours but we’ll provide model courses for both.

Day Two: Deeper South into Shikoku

Bonsai at Takumikumo

Bonsai at Takumikumo

After relishing the pine trees at Ritsurin Garden, seize the opportunity to explore more trees, albeit smaller ones, as you find yourself in the bonsai capital of Japan. Takamatsu is known to be the birthplace of 80% of Japan's bonsai pine trees, with the town of Kinashi standing as the heart of Takamatsu Bonsai culture. Here, visitors can wander through a forest of exquisite bonsai trees, leaving with a newfound appreciation for the philosophy, skill, and patience required to craft these living masterpieces.

At Takumikumo Village, you can embark on a 2.5-hour guided tour of the gardens and nursery, conducted by a bonsai master, which will culminate in a cultural experience of your choice; you can create your own bonsai moss ball, explore kintsugi golden joinery, craft wagashi sweets, or try your hand at making lacquerware or uchiwa fans—just ensure to book your spot with a 2-week advance notice.

Konpira Shrine

Konpira Shrine

After taking in the artisanal magnificence of Takamatsu’s bonsai, you’ll also want to make some time in Kagawa for Konpira Shrine (also known as Kotohira-gu). It is one of Japan's most famous and revered Shinto shrines. It is dedicated to the god of sailors and seafaring and visitors need to climb a daunting 785 stone steps to reach the main shrine building.

If you are feeling more energetic, you can also elect to climb an additional 583 steps to reach the inner shrine at the top of the mountain. As you explore Konpira Shrine, you will be amazed at the architecture, the intricate carvings on the buildings and the stunning views of the surrounding countryside and the Seto Inland Sea.

In addition to Konpira Shrine, there is also Japan’s oldest kabuki theater, the Kanamaru-za in the nearby vicinity. Alternatively, you could also try your hand at making the region’s famous Sanuki udon noodles at the local branch of the Nakano Udon School.

Day Three: Into the “Tibet of Japan”

The Iya Valley

The Iya Valley

Welcome to the Iya Valley, a part of the country that is often described as the “Tibet of Japan.” This mountainous valley is located in western Tokushima Prefecture, somewhere near the heart of Shikoku itself. The secluded region is characterized by its steep mountain slopes and deep rocky gorges.

Access to the Iya Valley has been difficult for centuries, making it the perfect hideout for those who had the need to conceal themselves. The location previously served as a refuge for certain members of the Taira clan who escaped to the region after losing the Gempei War (1180-1185). Even today, it’s still hard to traverse.

Transportation throughout the Iya Valley was typically assisted by vine rope bridges. These days, three of these remain in good condition and are some of the most iconic and popular destinations in the Iya Valley. Should you ever make it down here, you should muster up the courage required to cross the rickety rope bridges—it’s not as easy as it looks.

The Iya Valley is home to a number of traditional accommodations that have been upgraded for the modern era. For example, in the mountain village of Ochiai in Higashi-Iya, you’ll find a number of traditional homes that have been outfitted to stay in. These give off the quintessential Japanese countryside landscape where village life and nature overlap and cohabit the same space.

Gorges & the Yoshino River

Gorges & the Yoshino River

While you’re in the vicinity of the Iya Valley, you’d do well to also check out Oboke Gorge and Koboke Gorge as well as the Yoshino River. Carved out of the Shikoku Mountains by over 200 million years of erosion, these dramatic landscapes will leave you breathless.

Many people choose to explore these rugged environs by hiking but you can also elect to take the Oboke Gorge Sightseeing Pleasure Boat upstream if you’d prefer to avoid the trek. This will allow you to enjoy the scenery without working up a sweat.

For the more adventurous souls out there, you can find white water rafting operators along the Yoshino River. This river is regarded as one of the best white water rafting locations in the world – so much so they staged the 2017 World Rafting Championships here.

Now, let’s take a look at an alternative route for the second and third day…

Day Two: Inland Sea Island Hopping

Teshima & Naoshima

Teshima & Naoshima

If the remote reaches of the Iya Valley don’t sound enticing, you can instead opt to hop from island to island across the Seto Inland Sea. Many of these isles have popped up in the international news lately due to the impressive array of artworks that they host. If you prefer manmade masterpieces to those of nature, then this is the route for you.

Assuming that you didn’t take a direct ferry from Shodoshima, you’ll want to begin by taking a ferry out to the island of Teshima where you’ll find the highly acclaimed Teshima Art Museum. This property is the result of a notable collaboration between artist Naito Rei  and architect Nishizawa Ryue. The facility is a smooth concrete shell with no pillars and the experience inside is directly influenced by the conditions outside. In other words, no two visits to the site will ever be the same.

While on Teshima, you should also aim to eat lunch at Shima Kitchen. This restaurant aims to connect people through food and art. It was created by the architect Ryo Abe for the Setouchi International Art Festival 2010 and serves lunch on weekends, Mondays and public holidays. It's a great place to feel the local community vibe and it also regularly hosts performances and other events throughout the year.

While Teshima might still be gaining awareness, Naoshima needs no introduction. For years, people have traveled far and wide to visit Naoshima —the most famous of Setouchi’s “Art Islands.” An exhibit unto itself, many of the works are housed within structures created by the architect Ando Tadao, thereby adding another dimension to the many magnum opus on Naoshima.

To really get the most out of Naoshima, you should plan on spending the night at Benesse House. More than just one of the museums on the island, Benesse House boasts rooms that command a sweeping view of the Seto Inland Sea and are decorated with original artworks. What’s more, hotel guests also have the exclusive privilege to experience the museum after hours when the visitors are long gone.

Day Three: The Charms of Okayama

Okayama Korakuen Garden & Okayama Castle

Okayama Korakuen Garden & Okayama Castle

After spending the night on Naoshima, why not take the ferry over to Okayama to experience some more of Japan’s beauty. Here, you’ll find the likes of Okayama Korakuen Garden, Okayama Castle and the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter all within a stone’s throw of each other. Doable in an aggressive day or alternatively leisurely over two, an Okayama outing is sure to compliment the Seto Inland Sea’s many isles.

To begin with, know that Okayama Korakuen Garden is widely hailed as one of the top three gardens of its kind in all of Japan. Along with Kenroku-en in Kanazawa and Kairaku-en in Mito, Okayama Korakuen Garden brings a level of beauty that is hard to match. Seeing how convenient it is to drop by, any itinerary that sees you go by Okayama should also include Okayama Korakuen Garden.

Of course, Okayama Korakuen Garden’s enchanting beauty is only further improved by the presence of Okayama Castle. Known colloquially in Japan as the “Crow Castle” due to its striking, black-paneled exterior, this facade reflects magnificently off the pond in Okayama Korakuen Garden, making for a picture-perfect shot.

Finally, if you’re going to go as far as Okayama Korakuen Garden and Okayama Castle, you should also make an effort to go to the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter. Though it's a bit farther, this eclectic mix of traditional Japanese and Western-style warehouses and mansions is built along the Kurashiki River. Even today, the area maintains a historic vibe that will leave you wondering if you haven’t slipped back in time.

The Convenience of Flight

When it comes to your return trip, definitely look into flying back on Japan Airlines. While many overseas visitors to Japan do indeed tend to default to the bullet train, you’ll often find that flying is both quicker and cheaper in many instances. For example, if you’re in Okayama, you can fly back to Tokyo for the same or less than the Shinkansen and arrive in half the time.

Whether you elect to dive deep into the Iya Valley or enjoy the artistic wonders of the Setouchi region, the entirety of Japan is but a short flight on Japan Airlines away.

To make your journey even more rewarding, take advantage of the JAL Japan Explorer Pass. It offers outstanding airfares to more than 30 destinations across our domestic network. Plan your journey with JAL today!

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