Article updated on May 25, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
While the Japanese train system is excellent and allows to explore most of the country, driving is essential to explore Shikoku, the remote and off-the-beaten path island of Japan, where public transportation is less developed.
The road from Yawatahama, where the ferry from Kyushu lands, to Matsuyama is squeezed between the turquoise waters of the Seto Inland Sea dotted by fisherman’s small boats and lush mountains, offering breath-taking views on Kyushu, Honchu and many smaller islands. It is a perfect introduction to both faces of Shikoku: the coastal one and the inland one.
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The mountain side
As soon as we leave the national coastal road to explore the mountains, it turns into a single lane with a mirror in each curve to check on an occasional car that might come from the opposite direction. Driving through the mountains of Shikoku is not for the faint of heart: reversing the car in a bend to let another pass or to be able to take an extremely sharp curve along a never-ending ravine becomes the norm. Gaining confidence on these daunting roads, we wandered on even smaller and steeper ones, merely 40 centimetres (14 inches) wider than the car to discover one of the many shrines and temples, an 800-year-old cedar tree and a former Samurai house in the very scenic Iya Valley along roaring rivers.
Like on traditional Japanese prints, the inland side is composed of layers of steep mountains covered in ever-green forests often playing hide and seek with the clouds. Steep and winding mountain roads unravel an uncountable number of waterfalls being continuously fed by the summer rains.
The abundant flow rate of rivers and gorges are a visible trace of the passage of the most recent typhoon, Nangka, as are the streams of water and branches that cut off the road at times.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage
Renown in Japan, the pilgrimage on Shikoku Island visits 88 temples. Most pilgrims (henro) only walk a part of this 40-day 1,200-kilometre (750 miles) hike. Associated with the Buddhist monk Kukai (774–835), pilgrims of all ages wearing white and the sedge hat with traditional walking sticks are easy to spot in the forests of Shikoku. This trail has been walked for over 1,200 years…
One of Japan’s 7 sacred summits, Ishizuchi-San takes a demanding day hike to be summitted:
Coming down from the mountains with its poor villages consisting of a few houses and occasionally planted with rice as soon as allowed by the terrain, to arrive on the coast feels like a travel through time: multiple lane roads, traffic lights, large rice fields, prosperous towns with modern buildings, industrial harbours, shops, restaurants, trattorias and French bakeries.
Takamatsu – Ritsurin Garden
The Ritsurin Garden of Takamatsu is one of Japan’s most beautiful Japanese gardens and is well worth a visit.
The Kompira-san complex houses both Buddhist and Shintoist temples.
The castle of Matsuyama, Matsuyama-jo is one of the most interesting one to visit in Japan.
Ozu is a small village where a rare and ancient fishing tradition still takes place:
Driving back to the ferry along the Inland Sea about a week later, we are overlooking the suspension bridges connecting Shikoku to the Hiroshima prefecture on Honchu. These impressive pieces of civil engineering present such a big contrast with the inland vine bridges that we feel we have discovered two worlds and times on the very same island, both equally interesting.
- Make sure you can drive in Japan! Check driver’s license details here.
- For driving tips, check out this article.
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles (zoom out) about the area!
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