Last summer we were faced with deciding where to travel to in Japan with about 2.5 weeks of summer holiday left. After exploring Ishigaki for a week and going with the flow, we booked the cheapest flight going from Ishigaki to Osaka and then decided to rent a car from Kobe and do a roadtrip around Shikoku. We took every day as it came and didn’t plan much further ahead than one or two days at a time. Initially we wanted to drive all the way from Osaka to Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu, but the hire car would have charged us a phenomenal amount for dropping the car off in a different prefecture. So around Shikoku we went and discovered that there was a lot to do and see and already quite a distance to cover within two weeks. Below is our itinerary in a nutshell and we hope that it helps you if you are thinking of travelling through Shikoku, as we found it hard to find more information on this less travelled part of Japan.
From Kobe through Awaji Island and Naruto to Tokushima
We got on a train from Osaka to Kobe to pick up our Nissan rental car and drove over a long scenic bridge to Awaji Island. The weather was quite grey and hazy and initially disappointed with our stop at a flower field, the hillside castle with nice ocean views made up for it. Overall, we didn’t find much to see on Awaji (might be different during peak flower season) and were glad to see the back of it. Crossing over to Shikoku island, the Naruto whirlpools caught our attention – we were in luck that we came at the time when they were visible (which depends on the tides) and saw them from a overpriced museum build under the highway express bridge. Standing there on a glass floor over the ocean was scary! It was interesting to see it, but we weren’t blown away and so we got back into our car to reach our first destination in Shikoku: Tokushima City.
Our first morning on Shikoku started with a quick visit of the Tokushima Castle ruins (small and not much to see) and a cable car run up Mount Bizan with short hiking trails. Then it was time to start what we came here for: visit the first two official of the 88 pilgrimage temples in Shikoku!
In the sleepy village of Bando, something caught my attention – the German prisoner-of-war camp! The Japanese and German governments have built a German-style house together to tell the history of the prisoners-of-war and I was astonished to find out that apparently most of the German prisoners had a good time in Bando and some of them even voluntarily stayed on after the war was over. (After we left I researched this topic quite a bit and could not find any evidence that the German prisoners were mistreated and this is all just propaganda, so I’m quite impressed!)
3 Nights in Takamatsu with 2 Island Trips
We arrived in Takamatsu having booked a 2-night stay at the Dormy Inn and after the first day extended to 3 nights as we liked it so much! Takamatsu is a big city with a small town feel, with a charming and vast Japanese garden and a harbour that brings you to many small islands!
On the first day, we took the early ferry over to Teshima Island, one of the three art islands operated by Benesse (we visited the biggest one, Naoshima, two years ago). Upon arrival, we rented electric bikes (much needed on this hilly island!), had a quick breakfast in a local shack and then cycled over the green hills whilst overlooking the ocean – unforgettable views! We visited all the art museums on the island and just about made it back on the last ferry for the day. At first I thought maybe this island wouldn’t keep up with Naoshima, but as everything was more accessible, the weather was amazing (blue skies, hot summer weather) and we were able to not just visit art museums but also had pizza on a hill and strolled through farmlands, we probably liked Teshima a bit more than Naoshima!
On our second day, it was time to explore Takamatsu and we took our time strolling around Ritsurin garden and visited three of the 88 pilgrimage temples by car. Two of them were on steep mountains and I have the utmost respect for the pilgrims who walk up the narrow winding roads to get there!
On the third day, we visited Shodoshima, a big island we actually intended staying on but there were no hotels available at the time. We rented bikes again, but unfortunately didn’t find the electric rental bikes, which meant pedalling up and down the hills in 40 degrees sunshine and I almost had a sunstroke. As the sights on Shodo island are so far apart, we didn’t make it to its famous olive farm, but instead visited Angel Road (a sand path you can walk over to a tiny island) and saw some pretty coastlines and a small temple. There was generally a great vibe on the island and we hope to come back one day to stay on it and explore it more.
1 Night by Oboke Gorge / Iya Valley
It was time to leave the big city and head inland to see Shikoku’s mountains, nature and rivers! Oboke Gorge in the Iya Valley came highly recommended by friends who recently travelled through Shikoku. Driving down from Takamatsu, we stopped in a tiny village to visit an old tobacco factory and were surprised when the owner took us on a private tour and coincidentally the locals were practising a dance that day and invited us to watch! We booked an onsen hotel with a hot spring bath overlooking the gorge and the next morning walked over an ancient vine bridge with steep valley views, saw a waterfall and enjoyed a quick dip in the water.
Time for something unusual and off the beaten track that we have heard about through James May’s tour through Japan: Nagoro Scarecrow Village! While driving on narrow, winding roads through the mountains, we realised that we didn’t have enough fuel and when we arrived by the only gas station on the way, it was closed. But we were in luck! A local farmer on his tractor stopped, chatted with us and then came back with iced coffees and the gas station owner who came over on her day off to re-fuel our car! Phew! And then we arrived at the scarecrow village – you can read the full article here as it really deserves that. Before heading down south to Kochi, we drove up to Ochiai, which is a small village nestled along a hillstop and designated a national treasure… but unfortunately driving up there was a nightmare – imagine narrow dirt roads along steep mountain cliffs, nowhere to turn around while seeing falling rocks off the sides, snakes on the roads and no signal on our phones. That was definitely one of the scariest moments of our lives! Driving in Shikoku can be adventurous to say the least.
2 Nights in Kochi City
Back to the city! We have been curious about Kochi for a couple of years, as one of our best friends in Japan had lived there for a while and told us lots of interesting stories about it. We were thrilled to find out that you can rent electric bikes for free at the tourist information office and then cycled through farmlands up the hills to see the pretty Botanical Gardens and a huge pilgrimage shrine right next to it.
We ended the day by overlooking the sunset from Kochi’s ancient castle grounds and eating the best tuna sashimi we’ve had in Japan at Kochi City’s famous Hirome Market. Having seen these sights, we probably exhausted all there was to see in Kochi City and looked forward to moving back into the countryside the next day.
1 Night by the Shimanto River
We almost skipped the Shimanto River as we were running out of time towards the end of our trip and are so glad that we didn’t! We booked a wonderful hotel with a star observatory with a room overlooking the river, rented canoes and best of all: swam in the river! The Shimanto river is well-known for having submersible bridges that can be crossed by car and withstand floods – an ideal place to jump into the river! There was a great atmosphere with locals jumping into the river and floating in it, the water was clear and refreshing on a hot summer’s day. We spent the whole morning and early afternoon swimming in the river before leaving this area the next day. If you happen to be staying overnight, don’t miss out on the amazing Taiwanese restaurant in town – we chatted in Chinese with the friendly owner who has been living in Japan for many years serving affordable, delicious food.
Detour: Uwajima and Uchiko
Northbound for our next step Matsuyama, we stopped in a little town called Uwajima, rented bikes by the harbour and cycled to the castle ruins with stunning views and a small Japanese garden.
Our next stop just before sunset was a traditional town called Uchiko with preserved photogenic Edo-period streets and houses.
3 Nights in Matsuyama
I have to admit, our first impression of Matsuyama was not a good one – a major city with a red light district. But throughout the two days we stayed there, we made the most of its many harbours to visit two small islands and the historic part of Matsuyama visiting Dogo onsen.
The first island we visited – Kashima – is just a 2 minute ferry ride away (but you need to drive to the harbour which is not close to the city center) and we enjoyed the amazing beach on the island. The next day, we visited a bigger island called Nakajima, rented bikes once again and cycled all around the island along the coastline, meeting friendly locals who gave us free food and drink (as there are no restaurants or big supermarkets on the island). This island was very local with no other tourists on it and we took our time, enjoyed the scenery with its orange farms, spoke with locals and once again rushed back on our bikes to make the last ferry of the day.
The historic area of Matsuyama with Dogo onsen – Japan’s oldest and most famous hot spring – is much nicer than the downtown area and I would definitely recommend staying there. We didn’t know at the time that Dogo onsen also has different private onsens, so we just visited the public hot spring to see its tastefully decorated rooms. We also visited the vast park area around the castle, but did not take the cable car up as it was about to close when we arrived. Next time…
2 Nights in Imabari
While still in Matsuyama, we planned our 2-day cycling trip on the Shimanami Kaido – you can find our full review of this amazing bike trip here. This trip definitely encouraged us to buy new bikes and to go on lots more bike trips with a cross and mountain bike! Once we were done cycling over the 6 islands on the inland sea, we stopped at Imabari castle for amazing views over the sea from its castle tower. Before leaving Shikoku crossing over the Great Seto Bridge, we visited the Kaii Higashiyama art museum, which impressed us with a low entrance fee, beautiful paintings and a view out over the bridge.
Leaving Shikoku & 2 Nights in Okayama
Bye, bye Shikoku! We had a great time seeing nature, islands and mountains. This prefecture of Japan is definitely worth a visit, if you love nature and want to go somewhere more off the beaten track with not many tourists. Before ending our trip, we stayed overnight in Okayama to cycle through the Kibi Plain, see its famous castle and garden and for a spontaneous trip to the third Benesse Art Island – Inujima! There’s a lot that can be said about Inujima as it’s truly amazing, but to keep it short, it’s a short ferry trip from Hoden port, you can walk all around this tiny island and its main attraction is a modern art museum built into an old industrial factory. Not many people still live on the island and it’s great to see that they managed to preserve the old factory with art. You can see art all around the island with installations, paintings on the walls and even enjoy a swimming beach. Needless to say, we spent all day there and once again were impressed with how different this island was to Naoshima and Teshima Art Islands. What a great way to end a great summer holiday!