Shikoku – Japan

Driving around Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s major islands, you get a sense of rediscovering a place from the past. Being the smallest and least populated of the main islands, it’s easy to find yourself alone surrounded by valleys and following rivers, passing by isolated houses perched on hillsides, or the lone farmer slowly tending to their crop. It’s this quiet charm, coupled with incredible natural scenery as you move inwards away from the city that I found Shikoku completely alluring.

After completing our Shimanami Kaido cycling adventure, there’s no better way to relax tired muscles and a sore bum than a trip to the hot spring! Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama is the oldest onsen in Japan, and was the inspiration for Spirited Away one of my favourite animations by Miyazaki. The onsen building is what makes it special; inside it seems like a regular osen but looking from the outside especially at night – there’s an old otherworldly feel to it as different hues of light glow from the lanterns and wooden windows, and you see the shadows of people passing by.

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The entrance to Dogo Onsen.
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Dogo Onsen trolley bus station. I felt like I was on the set of a Studio Ghibli animation.
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Tracks for the trolley bus in between the main roads in Matsuyama.
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One of the trolley busses, complete with wooden flooring. I appreciate the cream, yellow and orange colour scheme which makes me think of popsicles.
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The shopping street that leads to Dogo Onsen from the trolley bus station. Filled with restaurants and gift shops selling Shikoku specialities.

To really be able to explore the island, the best thing is to rent a car in one of the main cities and spend a few days exploring south. We rented a car in Matsuyama from Toyota, and if you don’t speak any Japanese they have a useful ipad app that they use to translate the rental agreement and communicate. To rent a car in Japan you need to have an international driving license.

Note: There are several car rental places all available within walking distance from JR Matsuyama station. If possible, you can book in advance with the help of a Japanese speaker to guarantee a car would be available.

After settling in our rental car we drove down south towards Kochi prefecture where we found an amazing Airbnb property along the Shimanto river. The Shimanto river is famous in Japan for inspiring many artists, poets and novelists with its pure crystal water and surrounding landscape. The river has such a peaceful vibe that of course we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to lay beside its calming waters and take a nap in the spring afternoon sun.

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One of the many spectacular views driving in Shikoku on route to Kochi prefecture from Matsuyama.
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Uwajima castle in sunset light. Small and humble compared to the other castles in Japan but still had an air of dignity as the castle overlooks the city below. Uwajima castle is one of the 12 original castles of Japan.
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Walking along part of the Shimanto river.

We visited Shikoku mid-April which was a treat because as we drove by one of the many valleys in Kochi we came across ‘flying fish’ (koinburi) that spanned across the entire valley to celebrate upcoming children’s day in May. I’m not sure if this is a permanent fixture that is taken down after May, but when the wind blows and the fish begin to dance in the wind it really does look like they’re swimming in the sky.

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The longest koinburi I’ve seen so far hung across the valley.
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Flying fish!

All the way down south of Kochi to the very tip of Shikoku is Cape Ashizuri. We were greeted with panoramic views of the pacific ocean and its waves crashing upon the cliffs creating swirling shades of ocean blue and white. I sat for a bit mesmerized by all the colours below.

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Cape Ashizuri – the southernmost tip of Shikoku.
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The classic Cape Ashizuri shot with the lighthouse perched on the end.

Next to Cape Ashizuri is Kongofuku-ji temple which is the largest temple on Shikoku island and is part of the 88 temple pilgrimage route. Pilgrims dressed in white and straw hats can choose to walk the entire way visiting all 88 temples on Shikoku which takes about 6 weeks, or there is also the option to use the bus. Whatever method of transportation chosen, the cape and temple are well worth a visit.

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The people dressed in white with straw hats are Shikoku pilgrims who visit all 88 temples on the island.
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The many statues of Buddha that surround the temple, all in various poses.

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In Kochi city, I visited a metalsmith shop run by a second generation metalsmith that made the most beautiful knives and other tools I’ve ever seen. All materials are sourced from Shikoku and the craftsmanship is the most amazing quality. I have a goal to return to Shikoku now just so I can buy a few of their kitchen knives and no longer deal with smushy tomatoes being deformed by crappy knives. If you appreciate high quality products, and knowing who made them, please visit their store. The name of the shop is Kurotori, and I find the prices very reasonable for knowing they are all handmade and of high quality. For example, a small paring knife is about $30 – $50 USD depending on the handle and blade material.

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Quick snapshot of Kochi castle at night on the way to Iya valley.

After Kochi we made our way towards Tokushima prefecture where we would stay the night and explore Iya valley. Driving around Iya valley was exciting – narrow roads cut into the mountainsides overlooking the river and valley below, feeling just wide enough to fit our already compact Japanese car.

Around Iya valley we visited the Iya-no-Kazurabashi (vine bridge) and Hotel Iya Onsen. The vine bridge has an interesting history, one version is that during ancient times the vine bridge was built by a clan so that it could be cut off when they were pursued by enemies. After crossing the bridge myself, I can attest to the prowess they must have had to run across and then quickly slice and dice it.

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Iya-no-Kazurabashi vine bridge. Doesn’t look that difficult to cross!
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Actually… mind the gap?!

For those questioning overall safety, the vine bridge is actually reinforced with steel cables and then vines have been placed over to conceal them. Other than that, you’ll still need to watch your step! It costs ¥‎550 ($7 CAD) to cross the bridge which is a little pricey, but we were the only ones around and could take our time going back and forth for our moneys worth!

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Spot the cablecar as it makes its way back up to Hotel Iya Onsen. It was like watching a scene right out of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’! The onsen is at the bottom of the valley.

Visiting the onsen at Hotel Iya Onsen was one of the most special experiences due to the outdoor onsen being located 400 metres below requiring a short cablecar trip to get there. If you have the budget to stay at the hotel, I highly recommend it. And if you have budget to get a room with your own private bath overlooking the Shikoku mountains, then you’ll really be living the high life. Something for me to come back to when I’m rich, or even when I have a paying job? Haha.

For budget travellers only wanting to use the outdoor onsen, the fee is ¥‎1,700 ($22 CAD) which is well worth the experience. There are also day trip options available at the hotel that includes lunch and the onsen, and requires a reservation. Visit their website for more information.

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Riding the cablecar down to the onsen!
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Iya valley’s infamous peeing boy.

It felt all over too soon when we found ourselves driving back to Matsuyama to return our rental car.

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Matsuyama city from the castle grounds.

So planning a trip to Japan? Want something special and off the regularly visited track of Tokyo/Osaka/Kyoto? Visit Shikoku!

Top Tips:

  • To see the most out of Shikoku, the best way is to rent a car and drive around. Once you are out of the city, the roads are well maintained with little traffic making for a relaxing road trip.
  • You can also get a Japan Rail Pass and travel around Shikoku by train. Though it will be difficult to access the places I’ve written about in this post by train except for Matsuyama and visiting Dogo Onsen.
  • Shikoku is famous for udon and ramen noodles!
  • Nobody really speaks English since most of Shikoku is rural – I travelled with my Japanese friend but if you don’t speak Japanese then patience and google translate would help!
  • For more information, visit the Shikoku tourism website here.
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Go for the Shikoku road trip!

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