Exploring Shikoku Island: Beyond Japan’s Golden Route

Last Updated on 23/02/2021 by secretmoona

Shikoku Island is Japan’s best-kept secret. Packed with all the things that people seek out for when planning a trip to Japan: breathtaking scenery, culture, tradition, authenticity and hospitable people. If you want to experience something different, where nature and traditions still live on, I would urge you to go to Shikoku.

Let’s explore the beauty of Shikoku Island, a destination off the beaten path.

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Practical information

Where is Shikoku Island?

Located between the Seto Inland Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Shikoku 四国 is the fourth largest island in mainland Japan, after Honshu, Hokkaido and Kyushu. Yet, Shikoku is the least known and visited among international tourists since the island is outside the Golden Route.  Shikoku means “four countries”: “shi” means four and “koku” means country or region. True to its name,   the island is made up of four prefectures: Ehime, Tokushima, Kochi and Kagawa. 

How to get to Shikoku?

  • Plane: From Tokyo, you can easily and quickly fly to Shikoku with JAL, ANA and low-cost airlines. I recommend flying from and back to Haneda (HND) more central and convenient compared to Narita. Flights from Tokyo are generally 1h25minutes.
  • Train: The small island doesn’t have the Shinkansen (high-speed train). However, if you are travelling on the Japan Rail Pass, you can access Shikoku by taking the Shinkansen to Okayama, then JR trains to either Matsuyama or Takamatsu. From there, you can connect to a local train or bus to your final destination. 
  • Boat: For many years, boats were the only way to reach Shikoku. Nowadays, with planes and roads, ferries are less used. There are still several ferry services operating to several cities including Hiroshima, Naoshima, Okayama or Beppu.  
  • Car: Shikoku is separated from Honshu by the Seto Inland Sea. There are several bridges that connect both islands. So you can easily take your car but bear in mind the expressway is costly.

You can get to Shikoku with the Japan Rail Pass or the All Shikoku Rail Pass: Get your pass here.

Botchan Ressha, a replica of a small-gauge steam locomotive in the city of Matsuyama, Ehime - Shikoku Island

Getting around Shikoku Island?

Travelling around the island of Shikoku is done mainly by taking the local trains, buses or private cars. 

  • Public transport: JR trains cover most of the major cities but regular trains are slow and express trains are on the expensive side. For those planning to travel within the island, there is the Shikoku Free Kippu (three consecutive days at ¥16,140/£67) which offers unlimited use of JR trains and buses. For those travelling on a budget, consider the Shikoku Saihakken Haya-Toku Kippu (an unlimited day ticket for ¥2,000)
  • Buses are perfect for destinations not accessible by trains like the Iya Valley. Note schedules are not frequent. 
  • Car: To explore the most remote areas of Shikoku, a car is the easiest way to move around locations. There are rental car services at all the airports and big cities. As noted above, a car is an easy way to get around between towns. There are many toll charges. 
  • Bike: This is a perfect way to explore some areas of the island, especially cycling the fabulous Shimamami Kaido bridge. There are several rental shops making the whole experience easy.
  • On foot: some pilgrims choose to carry out the 88 Temple Pilgrimage on foot. 

When to visit Shikoku Island?

Best time to visit Shikoku - Cherry blossoms

There is no single best time to visit Shikoku as it will ultimately depend on your preferences. Japan experiences all four seasons so can be visited anytime. To go with the trend, Japan is most beautiful during the sakura season (late March-early April) or during the autumn (late November-early December). If you have to visit Japan during these two seasons, escape to Shikoku as there will be less crowd and accommodation will be cheaper than Kyoto or Tokyo.

Where to stay on Shikoku Island?

Like anywhere in the country, Shikoku Island has many accommodations to choose from whether you like staying in hotels, onsen ryokans or guest houses.

Book your stay via Booking.com.

Stay connected with a Pocket Wi-Fi

Empty street in village of Uchiko, Shikoku
A quiet street in Uchiko, Ehime Prefecture.

Why travel to Shikoku? Is Shikoku worth visiting?

Although small, Shikoku island is packed with things to do for active travellers or those interested in the more traditional aspect of the country. A road trip within the four prefectures will enable you to discover and experience small towns, fishing villages, beaches and mountains. On top of that, you can eat some impressive local delicacies while meeting the most welcoming locals of all Japan! 

The fact that the island is not touristy is also appealing as you can experience all these without the crowd.  

What to do in Shikoku Island

Take part in the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage

Shikoku is known for its pilgrimage, a 1200 km long route connecting 88 temples dedicated to Kobo Daichi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. The trails often pass-through towns, coasts, mountains, with many of the temples located in remote locations. Pilgrims follow the path mainly on foot but can cars too. Pilgrims are easy to spot with their white clothing and straw hats. The locals welcome pilgrims with open arms, often clearing the paths, leaving warm messages and helping with directions. More and more westerners are embarking on this Buddhist religious path too. 

Try some local treats

Like most of Japan, you will find plenty of delicious dishes in Shikoku. Water surrounds the island so obviously, seafood will take an important part in the local cuisine. That being said, each prefecture has its own specialties. One dish that can be found in Ehime is tai-meshi. It’s basically rice cooked with whole sea bream on top. Simple but delicious! Ehime is also home to the delicious citrus fruit called mikan. They are refreshing and sweet! Tokushima also has a citrus fruit, sudachi, which is more like a lime. 

If you like noodles and ramen, be sure to sample the island’s specialities. In Kawaga, you’ll get to taste a delicious chewy Sanuki udon. It’s usually served with a light broth (kake udon) or with meat (niku udon). While Tokushima has a yummy ramen made of short and straight noodles.

Bring some ceramics home

If you are thinking of buying souvenirs while in Shikoku, consider ceramics. Japanese ceramics are beautiful and popular around the world, so make excellent souvenirs to bring home. You can buy and bring home some beautiful Tobe ceramics from Ehime or Otani ware from Tokushima Prefecture. Purchasing here they are created means the price will be lower than what you would pay for in Tokyo or your home country.

Take Kobo bamboo workshop Uchiko - Ehime - Shikoku Island
Takeuchi Hisao-san, master bamboo craftman in UchikoT- Ehime

Do something out of the ordinary

Immerse yourself in the traditions of life in the countryside during your trip to Shikoku Island by getting your hands on craft making. Japan is a country where craftsmanship is essential. The country has many crafts, some of them dating back to centuries. In Shikoku, you can learn about and experience various traditional crafts like creating your own washi paper, lanterns, bamboo works, pottery, festival dolls etc… If you are into culinary activities, you can try making your own udon noodles or make mochi. Noodles are popular in Japan and Kagawa Prefecture is a famous region for “udon”. There are several udon preparing facilities in Shikoku Island like the Nakano Udon School. Traditional “mochi” (Japanese rice cakes) making is a labour-intensive task but fun activity. While in Shikoku, you can visit a local farmer to learn the techniques of preparing delicious mochi. You see this method being practised at New Years and festivals.

Village hopping 

If you rent a car, why not explore some the villages in Shikoku? There are many villages spread across the island, each with their own unique charm. Uchiko is a well-preserved small town featuring structures from both the Edo and Showa periods. Its neighbouring town, Ozu, is owned to Ozu Castle as well as Garyu Sanso, a beautiful and serene tea house  overlooking the Hijikawa River. 

Ochiai Village in the mountains of Tokushima is filled with charming thatched houses built on a steep slope. The entire village has been designated as a Nationally Important Preservation District. 

Discover the beauty of Shikoku’s mountains

The island of Shikoku is a paradise for hikers. Not only you can take part in the Shikoku Island 88 Temples Pilgrimage, one of Japan’s best hikes, but you can also experience Shikoku no Michi (1300 km) and Shikoku Nature Trail (1637 km). Both trails follow the pilgrimage routes, Shikoku no Michi focuses on nature and history with stops by temples and shrines while Shikoku Nature Trail emphasizes on mountains. In addition, there are several other trails you can achieve within a day or less. With so many mountains in Shikoku, you are spoiled for choice! 

Explore Ehime (Iyo)

Matsuyama is both Shikoku’s largest town and the capital of Ehime Prefecture. The prefecture, located between sea and mountains, is famous for its sweet tangerines (called mikans), pilgrimage of the 88 temples, Dogo Onsen and is home to the country’s original castles as well as the oldest onsen: Dogo Onsen Honkan.

Dogo Onsen Honkan  

Dogo Onsen Honkan in Matsuyama, Shikoku
The magnificent Dogo Onsen Honkan

A trip to Shikoku wouldn’t be complete without mentioning one of the most famous onsens in Japan. Regarded as the oldest onsen (with more than 1,000 years history), Dogo Onsen Honkan is a magical building. The building with its crafted rooftop is said to have been the inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away”. Pay a visit to the famous bathhouse and have a one of a kind spa experience. 

Visit Matsuyama Castle 

Matsuyama castle in Ehime, Shikoku

Dominating Matsuyama’s landscape is the Matsuyama Castle. Located up the hill, it can be seen from anywhere in the city and provides visitors with an impressive view over the city and beyond. As one of Japan’s 12 original castles, it has many gates and towers. It can be accessed via a ropeway or lift.

Cycle the Shimanami Kaido bridge  

Shimanami Kaido is the name for the Nishiseto Expressway, which connects Hiroshima Prefecture with Ehime Prefecture. The bridge has paths for pedestrians as well as cyclists. Therefore , it’s popular with people who want to witness the beauty of the Seto Inland Sea and feel the ocean breeze! 

Discover Kochi (Tosa)

Kochi Prefecture, not to be confused with the city of Kochi in India, is located on the southern coast of the island. It’s home to another stunning hilltop preserved castle, the Shimanto River ( the longest river in Shikoku) and some of the finest beaches like Katsurahama Beach.  

Stop by the Shimanto River

During the summer months, people flock to the Shimanto River. With a length of 196 km, it’s the longest river in Shikoku. As such, it offers various outdoor activities, including canoeing, kayaking, rafting, and paddle boarding). For a tranquil activity, you can board one of the “yakatabune”, a traditional roofed boat. People also like to cycle on the “Chinkabashi”, bridges with no railings designed to be submerged during flooding. 

Eat Katsuo no Tataki

Slices of seared and cut Katsuo no Tataki

If you love sashimi then you will appreciate Kochi’s especially: Katsuo no Tataki. The bonito (also known as skipjack tuna) is briefly reared over a straw fire and then cut into thick slices. It’s delicious with a woody taste to it. You will easily find this dish in restaurants and izakayas across the region. 

Explore Kagawa (Sanuki)

The smallest prefecture in Shikoku is known as the “country of Sanuki” and is also the birthplace of Kobo Daichi (Buddhist monk). Travelling to Kagawa offers the opportunity to explore quiet islands like Naoshima, fishing villages and eat delicious udon noodles.

Relax at Ritsurin Garden   

Ritsurin Koen, located in Takamatsu, must be on the list of the most beautiful gardens in Japan! The incredible garden is a paradise for nature lovers, especially in autumn. I’m always impressed by the serenity and beauty of Japanese gardens. The level of detail dedicated to this former daimyo’s (feudal lord) residence is no joke. It took 100 years to finish the garden which showed the previous owners each had an eye for beauty and understood the importance of designing a relaxing yet stunning garden. Imagine walking along the cobbled paths and admiring the idyllic ponds and wooden bridges…

Image by Little Mimi

Take a day trip to the “Art Island” of Naoshima

The little island situated in the Seto Inland Sea is a short boat ride from Takamatsu. The island is best known for the red and yellow pumpkins by Yayoi Kusama. On top of experiencing beautiful sandy beaches, people can visit various arts, sculptures and art museums. 

Discover Tokushima (Awa)

Tokushima is known for the spectacular whirlpools of Naruto, the beautiful Iya Valley and the yearly Awa Odori dance festival. 

Discover the natural beauty of Iya Valley 

Kazura Bridge surrounded by lush green at Iya Valley

The Iya Valley is a wonderful place located in the city of Miyoshi in Tokushima. Surrounded by mountains, it’s a popular hiking spot. The area is stunning all year round but even more so in autumn when the colours of the leaves start changing to a mix of red, orange and yellow. The stunning valley is full of vine bridges, all exceptionally maintained. Crossing some of these bridges will definitely be the top attraction for the adventurous at heart! (Kazura Bridge) In the days samurai used to hide from their enemies within the valley, so they built the vine bridges, so they could cut them easily if they were being followed. 

Get your dancing shoes on during the Awa Odori Festival 

The Awa Odori dance is one of the highlights of summer in Tokushima. The festival, which takes its name from the ancient name for the prefecture (Awa), has more than 400 years of history. It’s the largest dance festival in the country and a fun festival where visitors can watch and join in some performances. Check the Awa Odori website for for info.

See the Naruto whirlpool 

Naruto whirlpools seen from above a bridge
Whirlpools seen from the bridge – Credit Uzunomichi

Connecting Tokushima to Awaji Island is the Naruto Bridge. At 876 m, it’s one of the longest suspension bridges in the world. While on the bridge, you can experience the breathtaking Naruto Whirlpools. The whirlpools are created by the harsh tidal currents caused by the tidal variation between the Seto Inland Sea and Kii Canal.  These giant whirlpools (can reach up to 20 m in diameter) can be viewed via a glass-floored section of the bridge. The viewing facility called Uzu no Michi is 450 m long. For added sensations, you can join the whirlpool sightseeing boats to see them up close. More information on the guided tour can be found here

Impact of Covid 19 on travel to Japan

Please note there are currently travel restrictions in place due to Covid-19. Sadly Japan’s border has been closed since September 2020, however the country is planning on reopening to welcome back visitors for the Cherry Blossom season and Tokyo Olympic. 

Interested in visiting and exploring Shikoku? Then these articles might be of interest.

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Hi there! I'm Mayi. Welcome to my blog SecretMoona! I hope to share with you the hidden secret of places I visit.

31 thoughts on “Exploring Shikoku Island: Beyond Japan’s Golden Route

  1. ok..wow!! Temple Pilgrimage, noodle making (hell yes) , village hopping, mountains and temples… My dream to visit Japan is so vivid and im so keen to explore Shikoku too!

  2. Shimanami Kaido was on my bucket list while I was living in Nagoya but I just ran out of time! It was lovely seeing a bit of Shikoku through this guide though 🙂

  3. That food looks heavenly! I want to visit Japan so freaking badly! I would for sure splurge on way too many ceramics and eat my body weight in ramen.

  4. Oooh your post made me miss Japan, I haven’t been to Shikoku yet but I am definitely adding it to my Japan bucket list for my next trip!

    1. Yes, staying in a Japanese traditional house is called “kominka”. There are lots of villages in Shikoku you can stay over and experience Japanese life. One of them is Uchiko in Ehime Prefecture. You can also stay in a thatched farmhouse in Ochiai Village, Tokushima Prefecture.

  5. I’ve never been to Japan, but it’s at the top of my Asia travel bucket list. I bet it’s absolutely gorgeous when the cherry blossoms are in bloom! If it’s even half as pretty as Washington DC is then, wow!

    1. Thanks Sage. I’ve nit been to Washington DC but can say that cherry blossoms in Japan are more beautiful! I believe it all started after Japan gifted some trees to the city.

  6. I want to go to Japan during Cherry Blossom season. I think the photos would be stunning then. Where you do you think would be the best place in Japan to see them?

    1. There are numbers of spots in Japan where you can enjoy beautiful cherry blossom viewing. Tokyo alone has lots of beautiful parks like Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Kyoto and Kanazawa are great locations too but might be overcrowded.

  7. I am now sorry that we missed Shikoku Island when we visited Japan. We had a tight schedule and had to cherry pick our stops. The train or maybe even a ferry sound like an option to me to get there. But it looks like we need a few days to really enjoy the charm of the island once there. And maybe even learn to make noodles!

  8. I love that one of the modes of transportation around Shikoku Island is a train! This looks like such a beautiful place to explore nature, history, and try new foods. Thanks for sharing!

  9. I have never been to Japan! I would love to visit it during the sakura season. I bet it’s amazing. Also, thank you for sharing this island. I love visiting off the beaten track places.

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