The least populous of Japan’s four primary islands, Shikoku exists in a dreamy, under-the-radar state far removed from Tokyo’s neon lights and Harajuku girls. Best known for its 88-temple pilgrimage route, Shikoku is a time capsule where fisherman still cast nets into clear rivers, traditional wooden architecture dots the peaks and valleys, and tourists receive a warm welcome. Spring brings ideal hiking weather to Shikoku, while June and July are the height of rainy season. Late summer heat complements the island’s many water-based activities, but late fall is the most picturesque time to visit. For lovers of nature and Japanese culture, here are five compelling reasons to discover Shikoku.
Shikoku’s pilgrimage route is believed to follow the path of Japanese Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi and dates in its present form to the late 16th century. To achieve toshiuchi takes 6 weeks on foot, but it’s possible to make the loop in 10 days via bus tour or rental car. Shikoku’s extensive rail network also comes close to a majority of the sacred sites. The temples are as diverse as the terrain in between, from the popular Ryozenji aglow in lantern light to Iwamotoji , its main hall ceiling covered in 575 miniature artworks. Although English is rarely encountered, the presence of pilgrims has created a kinship among residents and travelers that transcends language.
2. Farm-to-Table, Epitomizeda
Fishing and agriculture are key components of Shikoku’s economy, and the mountainous landscape that divides the island’s four prefectures has resulted in distinctive specialties for each region. Ehime’s delicious mandarin oranges ripen in fall, adding a jaunty spots of color to the landscape. The Shimanto River yields a bounty of shrimp and sweet-fish, staples of Kochi’s seafood-rich menus. In Tokushima prefecture, chicken is elevated from menu-afterthought to star with its fresh depth of flavor; the Iya Valley’s centuries-old tradition of transforming stoneground buckwheat flour into soba noodles is also a standout. In Kagawa prefecture, you’ll find perfect Sanuki-style udon noodles with a light dash of soy sauce.
3. Parks and Recreation
An abundance of mountain parks, river-carved ravines, and quiet stretches of coastline add up to a wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts. Ehime’s verdant Nametoko Gorge not only has great hiking but also canyoning—a sport where wetsuits, padding, and helmets make the upper Shimanto River safe for use as a natural water slide. Visit Cape Ashizuri at Shikoku’s southernmost point for dramatic coastal hikes and nearby Tatsukushi Marine Park—designated Japan’s first underwater park in 1970—which offers glass-bottom boat trips over coral gardens to the surreal sandstone cliffs of the Minokoshi Coast. And don’t miss Tokushima’s mountainous interior, where vine bridges with 800 years of history (and thankfully, modern reinforcement) create memorable walks through the heart of the Iya Valley that are particularly stunning in autumn.
4. Living History
Centuries-old craftsmanship is celebrated throughout Shikoku, from shops demonstrating the making of Otani-style clay pottery to museums devoted to paper-making and indigo-dying techniques. One of the best places to time travel on the island is the Wakimachi Udatsu Streetscape in Tokushima, where a quarter-mile stretch of road showcases beautifully preserved Edo-period architecture with its high-winged firewalls (udatsu) and black roofs.
5. Ryokans + Onsens = Bliss
Shikoku’s Western hotels possess a cookie-cutter aesthetic that pales next to the minimalist beauty of ryokans, Japanese-style inns having futons unfurled on tatami-mat floors, local cuisine, and communal hot-spring swimming areas. Some properties offer both styles in one, allowing for Japanese amenities and also a thick mattress. Don’t miss this chalet-style Morinokuni Hotel in Nametoko Overeat, a mash-up of Japanese inn and European fairy tale with gardens overlooking a furnished suspension bridge, plus and onsen as well as creative French-Asian fusion menus. For the hot-spring dip with spectacular Iya Pit foliage views, book the Inn Kazurabashi.