Beer, black squirrels and bridges: A Shikoku adventure

Tanya and Jackie share their adventures and advice on travel in Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands of Japan.

By Tanya Lee and Jackie Hoffart

When faced with Golden Week, the choice is either to splurge on an inflated overseas holiday or stick to somewhere closer to home. This year a group of friends and I decided on the latter and bundled into two cars with a map of Shikoku in hand. Faced with time and money issues, we made a loose itinerary and decided only to stick to camping sites and cabins for accommodation.

Hitting the road, our first stop was the Asahi Brewery in Saijo, Ehime-ken. Asahi beer is a mainstay favourite of many in Japan, so it was fascinating to watch the beer evolve from its initial beginnings as a seed to the amber-coloured liquid stored in the giant silver vats we could see extending tens of metres into the sky. There is also an excellent reward for staying and trying to understand as much of the all-Japanese tour: a free beer sampling session in the beer hall for half an hour. Needless to say, a few of us were a little tipsy towards the end, except for me, the driver. However, the driver does not go away empty handed: he or she is presented with a complimentary omiyage bag upon leaving.

We then rolled to our next destination, Kazurabashi, site of the famed vine bridges, in Iya Valley Tokushima-ken. The valley is absolutely stunning with deep gorges, dense vegetation and clear water. Our first cabin was in this beautiful, picturesque setting. In this tiny cabin, we slept peacefully, albeit shoulder to shoulder… that is, until we had a night-time visitor. A black squirrel was on a rafter above me, perched and ready to pounce on us until I noticed it and screamed! Unfortunately, the poor thing jumped the other way and got stuck in the wall. I told the camp manager the next day and I sincerely hope that our little friend got out of the wall safely.

The next day the bridges that I had hoped to see were a little disappointing. The site was overcrowded with tourists and the lines for crossing the main bridge seemed endless. Needless to say, we did not stay there very long. The moral of the story: don’t visit tourist spots during Golden Week, since loads of tourists can really dull a place.

The third place we stayed was a campsite on the border of Kochi-ken and Ehime-ken. It was smack on the border; there was a line drawn through the hotel and you could take a picture with one foot in each ken. Political geography aside, the drive up to this place was absolutely mesmerizing. Lush green foliage and mist followed us as we drove higher and higher along increasingly narrow roads. The weather was not kind to us on this particular day and soon we were surrounded by clouds. It was difficult to see the car I was following, and, to make matters worse, it had started raining. Then suddenly we reached the summit of the mountain and were at the camp site. Thankfully this site had an onsen with a huge glass window overlooking the forest and suddenly I wasn’t in Japan anymore, but at some luxurious cabin retreat.

The next day we packed up and left, but on the way home I think all of us were planning our next trip back. Shikoku was truly lovely, almost like visiting another country while staying in Japan. My one regret was only staying a day in each location. Next time, I will definitely plan a longer trip.

Jackie’s Suggestions:

Some “Definitelys” for planning your travels:

Shikoku’s mountainous topography will prove likewise bumpy for your trip if you plan to get around by train: definitely rent a car if you can (use www.tocoo.com for user-friendly English-language discount rentals). Definitely pick yourself up a bilingual map (they are not difficult to come by in Hiroshima-ken’s cities) because, despite the island’s seemingly small bean- shape, getting the route to your ryokan wrong, or relying on the “this road looks cool” navigation method can translate into several hours of night-time one-way mountain-road backtracking if you aren’t careful. Definitely do your homework online or with your guidebook beforehand. Shikoku is beautiful, and the udon is excellent, but sometimes the sites are few and far between, so regardless of how fly-by-the-seat you like to travel, it’s advisable to have at least a few destinations in mind within each of the kens you plan to visit. Finally, definitely don’t bite off more than you can chew while planning. I’ve been to Shikoku twice, and have still only made it to two of the four kens.

Some “Don’t Miss” locations to visit in Eastern Shikoku:

Takamatsu, capital of Kagawa-ken, is a nice big city, but if it’s city sights you fancy why are you going to Shikoku?! This place is also, however, home to one of Japan’s national treasures and biggest parks: Ritsurin Park. A sprawling, but manageably-sized, park, it is best visited during Japan’s peak pretty seasons: for the changing of the colors of the leaves in late fall, or for the cherry blossoms in early April. Mind you, if your travel plans don’t mesh with the Goddess of Nature’s schedule, Ritsurin still has plenty to offer year-round. Don’t miss it. Takamatsu also serves as one of two port-towns which offer ferries out to the “art island” Naoshima with its many galleries (the other ferry leaves from Okayama). If you are into modern art and camping, don’t miss Naoshima (www.naoshima-is.co.jp).

If you want to avoid the 1 million people who flock to Tokushima city during obon (a traditional holiday celebrated in August, during which the Japanese celebrate the return of ancestral spirits to their homes), you can check out the year-round performance of their famous Obon Odori (dance) at the slightly cheesy yet amusing hall at the base of the ropeway downtown. Not far from Tokushima city, at the right times of the year, you can catch the “world’s most powerful current” at the Naruto whirlpools (visit www.wel-shikoku.gr.jp/eng for more info). If you like paper (Japanese washi paper) and want to find out more about it, don’t miss the Awagami Paper Factory, which is about an hour outside of Tokushima city (www.awagami.or.jp). Once you weave your way along the road to this small factory and shop (and it may take some weaving), be sure to have the staff set you up with the English video describing the process of the paper-making, and don’t miss the gift shop! In the mountains of Tokushima, the Iya and Oyogi valleys have many hidden treasures such as waterfalls and onsen nestled amongst the narrow mountain roads; in particular keep an eye out for the “Peeing-Boy” statue in Iya Valley. The statue is right next to a decent onsen, which, by the way, has clean water!

Oh, and hey! Don’t miss the udon! You can enjoy it anywhere on Shikoku; but go rural if you can.

LINKS

Kazurabashi Camp Site
http://www.city-miyoshi.jp/kazurabashi/guide/camp.html

Tenguso Cabins
http://www.tenguso.com/shisetu/5_index_msg.html