Spellbinding Culture in Shikoku

It’s no secret that Japan’s ‘main’ island of Honshu gets all the love. But while Hokkaido has a huge contingent of ski season loyalists and Kyushu has seen an increasing amount of time in the spotlight, poor Shikoku continues to be overlooked. There are literally hundreds of reasons why this shouldn’t be the case, and Shikoku’s unique cultural tapestry is first among. Here are six spellbinding cultural experiences you can only enjoy in Shikoku.

Japan’s Pre-Eminent Pilgrimage Route

Among Japanese people, Shikoku’s most famous attraction is its 88 temple, 1,200km loop around the island that can take as long as two months to complete. Although just as many exercise or photography enthusiasts as faithful Buddhists come to Shikoku to undertake the task of hiking this route, which is perhaps the most famous one in all of Japan, chances are you don’t have that kind of time on your hands.

That doesn’t mean you can’t partake in this important part of Shikoku culture. Whether you visit towering Chikurin-ji Pagoda in the increasingly popular city of Kochi, or make a day trip from Tokushima to Naruto City’s Ryozen-ji, the official first temple of the trail, you can get a taste of this timeless cultural heritage without devoting months of your life to it.

The Last Indigo Farmers

Speaking of Tokushima, it’s within this prefecture that you find a tradition that is unique not only to Shikoku, but sadly Japan in general. Specifically, you’ll want to head to the town of Aizumi (which is a joy to walk through on its own) and visit the Ai No Yakata Museum, where you can not only see the process of making indigo dye from leaves, but can dye your own textile and take it home with you.

Though visiting an indigo farm is not possible (or at least, not well publicized), you may have a chance to speak with Japan’s last indigo farmers as you enjoy the museum. Among other interesting anecdotes, they’ll explain how the ecological cycles of the Yoshino River makes Shikoku the perfect place to grow indigo, which can only be cultivated outside of Japan’s typhoon season.

A Dance Party for the Dead

Another important cultural activity in Tokushima prefecture, this one in the heart of the city, is a dance known as Awa-Odori. Dating back to at least the 16th century, and notorious ever since then for how raucous and energetic it is, the Awa-Odori Festival takes over the streets of Tokushima for three days every August in order to honor spirits of dead relatives, who are believed to come and visit during that time.

If you can’t be in Tokushima in August (and there are some reasons not to, among them the aforementioned typhoon season), you can still see the captivating Awa-Odori dance itself, another unique feature of which is triangular-shaped woven hats. Simply visit Awa-Odori Kaikan, a performance hall located just 10-minutes from JR Tokushima Station. In addition to the performance, whose profundity will strike you even harder given how quotidian the venue is, you can shop a wide range of festival-themed merchandise.

Inside the Castle’s Keep

By some counts, as few as 12 original castles from Japan’s feudal area remain intact, and several of them are in Shikoku. Probably the best example of this is Kochi Castle, which is located in the heart of Kochi city on the southern coast of Shikoku, and opened in 1601 during the Tokugawa period. From the castle’s keep, one of few in Japan open to the public, you can enjoy a panorama of the city and the mountains that surround it.

The view from Matsuyama Castle, located in northwestern Shikoku a few hours away by train, is likewise stunning, though here you can get a bird’s eye view of the Seto Inland Sea moreso than the Matsuyama cityscape. Both castles position you for other cultural discoveries as well. After you finish at Kochi Castle, walk to nearby Hirome Night Market and sample Bonito Tataki, a tender fish filet seared on the outside but cool to the touch inside. In Matsuyama, meanwhile, you can take a relaxing bath at what might be Japan’s oldest public onsen.

Origin of the Onsen

Of course, it’s difficult to prove whether Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama city is in fact that oldest public bath house in Japan, though it’s certainly Shikoku’s most ancient example. Having been in basically continuous use since its inauguration at least 1,000 years ago, Dogo Onsen attracts hundreds of local Japanese people per day, as well as a number of open-minded foreigners – perhaps you will be among them!

Too shy to take the plunge? It’s understandable – though ordinary to the Japanese, the idea of soaking in volcano-fed hot springs totally nude in the company of strangers can seem, well, strange to Westerners. You can take a tour of the portion of the building where visiting emperors used to bathe when they would come to Matsuyama (though, for obvious reasons, this portion of the Honkan is no longer in use).

Shikoku’s Brightest Son

When you think of Japanese art, you likely think of ancient Imperial pieces (or, at least, pre-war ones) that tend to be on prominent display in the art museums of Osaka and Tokyo. In Shikoku’s northern coastal city of Marugame, the Marugame Genchiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art (usually shortened to MIMOCA) spotlights provocative works of visual art that mirror and comment on Japan’s struggle to find a new identity after the defeat of the Japanese Empire by the Allies.

Devote at least a few hours to exploring this compact but rich museum, which is home to several thousand pieces by Genchiro Inokuma. After taking your time with the paintings and sculptures, many of which reflect the influence of Shikoku-born Inokuma’s famous mentor Henri Matisse, ascend nearby Marugame Castle to get a panoramic view of the ocean (and, on clear days, mainland Honshu) or savor hearty beef udon noodles at the uber-local Mentokoro Wataya eatery.

The best part? This is only the beginning of what Shikoku has to offer. Come first for culture, then return to see some of Japan’s most underrated spots for cherry blossoms viewing, out-of-this-world ecotourism activities and more. A whole world you never knew existed, just two hours by bus from Osaka, and right over the Seto Inland Sea from Okayama, one of the busiest Shinkansen hubs in Japan. Shikoku is truly spellbinding!

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