GoNOMAD DESTINATION MINI GUIDE
Shikoku Island, Japan
By Kristin Johannsen
Shikoku is the smallest of Japan's four main islands.
Sparsely-populated Shikoku, just a short hop from Osaka, is a window into Japan's rural past. It's way, way off the beaten track, and a wonderful introduction to many aspects of traditional Japan, stuffed with farming villages, samurai castles, orange groves, craft workshops, mountain scenery -- and the most startling Shinto shrine in the whole country.
WHEN TO GO
As elsewhere in Japan, spring and fall are best. From March through May, trees are in blossom and the weather is mild and sunny.
October to mid-December bring blue skies and dazzling leaves. Summer can be suffocatingly humid (and plagued with typhoons) while winter is damp and chilly.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
By Land or Sea
Three huge bridges link Shikoku to the main island of Honshu, so train (from Okayama) or highway bus are two access possibilities. But the cheapest and most enjoyable trip is by ferry from Osaka's Nanko Port. Posh ferries of the Kansai Kissen line make the trip nightly, reaching Matsuyama around 6am. These miniature ocean liners feature restaurants, cabins in all price ranges, and even spa-style Japanese baths -- soak in the tub watching the Inland Sea go by! Fares start at around $50 one-way -- book through any Japanese travel agency, such as JTB.
For travel around the island, your choices are train (infrequent service, but reasonable prices) or bus (more frequent service at less-reasonable prices). Distances are short, so it's not worth "spending" Japan Railpass days here.
BEST MAJOR ATTRACTION
- Uchiko, a beautifully preserved 19th century village in Ehime Prefecture.
The town grew wealthy producing the vegetable-wax candles that lit most Japanese homes before the advent of electricity. Watch candles made in the traditional way in the Omori Rosoku shop: the candlemaker dips up handfuls of molten wax and rolls the wicks repeatedly across his palm, forming graceful shapes almost too pretty to burn.
Then wander the streets of opulent mansions built by candle merchants -- the Kami-Haga House, built in 1894, is a stunner. Its garden contains a small museum showing how the wax is made from sumac berries, and its modern use in everything from lipsticks to computer disks.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION
- Taga Jinja, in Uwajima, a Shinto shrine with a difference.
Originally, women came here praying for fertility, and a small building holds poignant offerings of dolls, wooden combs, and long tresses of hair. The main hall is rather more explicit, with a 12-foot-long wooden phallus out front. The top attraction, though, is the shrine's notorious sex museum, three floors packed floor to ceiling with a bizarre assortment of erotica from around the world: scrolls and statues, tea cups and S-and-M harnesses, amulets and comic books and suggestive photos of vegetables, thrown together in no discernable order and hand-labeled in quirky Japanese. Amazing -- and ultimately, numbing.
- The 88 Temple Pilgrimage.
Shikoku was the birthplace of Kobo Daishi, Buddhist "saint" and founder of the Shingon sect. For centuries, his followers have hiked a circuit of the 88 temples he founded, scattered around the mountainous island. These days, pilgrims are mostly jolly retirees off for a quick bus circuit of the temples, but you will also encounter devout travelers dressed in white and carrying staffs and albums for calligraphic inscriptions from the monks. For the musings of a gaijin (foreigner)who walked every step of the way, track down Oliver Statler's Japanese Pilgrimage (Morrow, 1983-- out of print).
BEST LOCAL HAUNT
- Some American and Australian universities have exchange programs with sister schools in Shikoku such as Shikoku Gakuin. If you're a student, it's worth asking at your home institution-- Shikoku would be a fascinating place to study Japanese.
- Dogo Onsen, near Matsuyama, a wonderfully atmospheric nineteenth century hot-spring resort.
The wooden buildings are creaky and funky, the baths all slick marble, and the water stupefyingly hot (and a treat for your skin). Splurge a few extra dollars on a graceful, airy private room for after-bath relaxing. There you can loll about in your yukata robe while a hostess serves tea and sweet bean-paste dumplings.
- The Matsuyama Youth Hostel
One of the poshest you'll find anywhere -- some of the private "rooms" are actually little apartments with their own bathrooms. Friendly manager, tasty meals, and rock-bottom rates, for Japan -- around $25 per person. What more could you ask?
Oranges! Yes, the island has the usual line-up of regional culinary specialties -- its own variation of noodles (five-colored somen), its local style of pickles, its special type of fish sausage... but there's nowhere else in Japan where you can stuff yourself on honey-sweet oranges, dirt cheap. If your barebones travel budget has left you vitamin-deficient, this is the place for you.
The southwest corner of the island is known throughout Japan for (of all things) bullfights. No, not those gory spectacles where macho-men kill bulls with little skewers -- it's more like bovine sumo wrestling. Two immense, pampered bulls try to butt each other out of a ring, urged on by their trainers. It's the only place in the world where you'll see this, and only if you're lucky enough to be there on the six days of the year that it's held. Check with the tourist office in Uwajima for tickets. (Tel. +81-895-22-3934)
Iyo Kasuri, a specialty of Matsuyama, is the hallowed art of ikat weaving using cotton dyed with natural indigo. At Mingei Iyo Kasuri Kaikan (Tel. +81-899-22-0405) you can watch the masters at work, and try your own hand at making an indigo-dyed handkerchief. Their shop is filled with some really lovely gifts: bags, tablecloths, and wallhangings -- and for you multi-millionaires, there are gorgeous bolts of kimono fabric.
VISAS AND DOCUMENTS
Citizens of most Western countries can enter Japan without a visa for stays of up to 90 days.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Shikoku, like the rest of Japan, is probably healthier and safer than wherever you call home!
MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS
US dollar travelers' checks are your best option, and you'll probably want to change large amounts at a time. It's not hard to find a bank with an exchange counter, but the exchange process is VERY slow. Japanese often walk around with shockingly large sums of cash in their pockets, which is perfectly safe here. Don't count on using your credit card to get yen from an ATM -- few machines in Japan are connected to an international system. Card-phones are absolutely everywhere, and the postal system is efficient though expensive. If you want to mail a package, have a Japanese-speaker make inquiries for you first the regulations concerning size and weight can be baffling, and if your parcel is a few millimeters too big, it will be refused.
Shikoku Pilgrimage Guide
A truly outstanding self-published guide to Shikoku (and every other square inch of Japan) is Japan Inside Out, by Jay, Sumi, and Garet Gluck, available through amazon.com. The Gluck family has lived in Japan for decades, and compiled their encyclopedic knowledge of the country into this wonderful, insightful volume. Just don't drop it on your foot.