Literally meaning ‘four countries’, Shikoku consists of four prefectures and is the smallest of Japan’s major islands. Travellers completing the Shimanami Kaido cycle route from the mainland continue across Shikoku to the art islands of the Seto Inland Sea, but as a standalone destination it offers a glimpse of an older, slower-paced Japan. Its breathtaking, almost impenetrable, rural landscape is full of deep gorges, vine bridges, white water and forest. As a spiritual destination, the Shikoku Henro - a famous pilgrimage in reverence to the Bhuddist monk, Kobo Daishi - attracts a constant stream of visitors from Japan’s other islands.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
Japan is full of beautiful scenery, but finding somewhere accessible that’s truly free from overdevelopment can be tricky. However, the Iya Valley is just such a place. It’s so naturally inhospitable that it was the chosen refuge for the Genpei clan after their defeat in 1185, but a few modern roads now allow visitors to get to its deep mountain gorges, wild rivers and forested mountains. Like most places in Japan there are pockets of ever-progressing modernisation, but the overwhelming image is one of nature and tranquility. Find relaxation at one of the numerous, highly regarded ryokan, taking long soaks in the onsen, and enjoy adventurous hiking, white water rafting and canyoning down the rivers.
After being catastrophically damaged during WW2, Takamatsu has been rebuilt as a smart, modern city and is historically the eastern gateway to the island. It’s worth making the journey here just for the stunningly peaceful Ritsurin Koen: one of the most serene gardens in all of Japan. It’s like something out of a Japanese fairy tale or, perhaps, how you might imagine arriving in the country in a dream. Impossibly picturesque red bridges curve between purple and white iris ponds, immaculate pavilions and the most idyllic tea house. Created, refined and perfected over hundreds of years, they are a chocolate box delight.
Between Shikoku and Honshu, surrounded by the Seto Inland Sea, is a cluster of tiny islands that, over the years, has become a living art project. The most famous of these is Naoshima, home of the famous arthouse accommodation, Benesse House, which itself is part of the canvas. Dotted around each of the islands are art installations, galleries, reclaimed spaces and museums, with more immersive pieces by world-renowned artists added every year. Hire bicycles to see it all over a few days, and make sure to allow plenty of time for relaxation and quiet contemplation. This group of islands has gained a glowing international reputation, and they are collectively considered one of Asia’s best travel experiences.
Wander along the ancient trails of Kumano Kodo and its spiritual shrines, enjoying the peaceful, and enchanting surroundings as well as taking in the hospitality of local families along the way.