Most first-time visitors to Japan stick to a predictable course on the main island of Honshu, which takes them to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima, with a few other towns offered as options. For first-time visitors, this is probably how it should be. But for foreign nationals living in Japan, and people who have visited Japan already, there’s much more to be discovered.

Shikoku has everything that you can find in the rest of Japan, but generally it costs less on Shikoku, and involves a lot less hassle. For example, if you want to experience the traditional fun of a geisha party in Tokyo or Kyoto, it would probably cost you more than you can afford. And you’d need an invitation. Where’s the fun in that? But at Dogo, in the hotels around the famous hot spring, you can call a geisha to entertain you without remortgaging your house.

 

Matsuyama's geisha dancing

 

Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. It lies in the southwestern part of Japan, south of the main island of Honshu. The northern coast of Shikoku forms the southern edge of the Seto Inland Sea, sometimes referred to as Japan’s Mediterranean Sea.

Shikoku consists of four prefectures: Ehime, Kagawa, Kochi, and Tokushima, formerly the feudal domains known as Iyo, Sanuki, Tosa and Awa. This explains why ‘Shikoku’ is written with the kanji for ‘four countries’, since domains used to be called countries.

Shikoku was only joined to the main island of Japan by a bridge in 1988, and before then, the only way to get to Shikoku was by ship. Despite its isolation, Shikoku has had a significant influence on the rest of Japan. The Buddhist monk Kukai was born and raised in Kagawa, and he’s credited with founding the Shikoku Pilgrimage of 88 temples after visiting China to learn about esoteric Buddhism. To this day, the pilgrimage holds an important place in Japanese life. People of all ages and classes undertake the circuit of Shikoku to develop their spirituality or to cleanse themselves of some flaw. Through their tradition of hospitality towards pilgrims, the people of Shikoku are said to have become gentle and welcoming.

 

Shikoku pilgrims praying

 

Although it has always been a backwater, the people of Shikoku have played important roles in the life of Japan. Ryoma Sakamoto of Kochi played a major role in the overthrow of feudalism, and today, the people of Japan seem to be searching for a modern Sakamoto to foment changes in the body politic. They visit Kochi to gaze on his statue and consume a dizzying range of products labeled with his iconic image.

Today Shikoku is linked to Honshu by three bridge systems, with spectacular suspension bridges leapfrogging across the islands of the Inland Sea. The Seto Ohashi Bridge is the longest continuous bridge system in the world, and it’s a sight to be seen. The Shimanami Kaido is one of the only bridge systems in the world with cycle paths, making it a mecca for cyclists. There are also numerous ferry services linking Shikoku to the other islands, and a boat trip over the Inland Sea is sure to be memorable.

 

Shimanami Kaido from an island shrine

 

Shikoku is a calm and quiet sort of place. It’s the only island of Japan without any volcanoes, nor does it lie in the routes that typhoons typically follow. The pace of life is slow, and here people enjoy the high quality food and beverages that a mild climate bestow. That’s not to say that Shikoku is bland however. The interior of the island is rugged, with the highest mountain in southwest Japan, Mt. Ishizuchi, whose jagged, angular peak is coated in snow for half the year. There are two major rivers, the Yoshino and Shimanto Rivers which draw visitors from all over to experience rafting and canoeing on their dramatic, isolated waters. For outdoor adventure, there’s nowhere better. The Seto Inland Sea has calm, cold water, ideal for fishing and diving, while the warm, glassy swells of the Pacific in Kochi attract surfers and whale watchers. Festivals in Shikoku are strange and wonderful—massed ranks of strangely attired dancers, violent clashes between portable shrines, perambulating devil bulls, and enough fireworks to make the night seem like day.

 

Awa Odori dancers

 

There’s no Shinkansen in Shikoku yet, and the rail and expressway networks are a work in progress. But the roads that wind along through river valleys are spectacular and largely free of traffic, making Shikoku something of a paradise both for drivers and cyclists.

It takes a certain sort of person to visit Shikoku—adventurous and individualistic, but with a spiritual side that places value on the quiet, natural pleasures of life.