The island of Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. It lies in the southwestern part of Japan, south of the main island of Honshu. The northern coast of Shikoku forms the southern edge of the Seto Inland Sea, sometimes referred to as Japan’s Mediterranean Sea.
Shikoku consists of four prefectures: Ehime, Kagawa, Kōchi, and Tokushima, formerly the feudal domains known as Iyo, Sanuki, Tosa and Awa. This explains why ‘Shikoku’ is written with the kanji for ‘four countries’, since domains used to be called countries.
Shikoku was only joined to the main island of Japan by a bridge in 1988, and before then, the only way to get to Shikoku was by ship. Despite its isolation, Shikoku has had a significant influence on the rest of Japan. The Buddhist monk Kūkai was born and raised in Kagawa, and he’s credited with founding the Shikoku Pilgrimage of 88 temples after visiting China to learn about esoteric Buddhism. To this day, the pilgrimage holds an important place in Japanese life. People of all ages and classes undertake the circuit of Shikoku to develop their spirituality or to cleanse themselves of some flaw. Through their tradition of hospitality towards pilgrims, the people of Shikoku are said to have become gentle and welcoming.
Although it has always been a backwater, the people of Shikoku have played important roles in Japanese history. Ryōma Sakamoto of Kōchi played a major role in the overthrow of feudalism, and today, the people of Japan seem to be searching for a modern Sakamoto to foment changes in the body politic. They visit Kōchi to gaze on his statue and consume a dizzying range of products labeled with his iconic image.
Today Shikoku is linked to Honshu by three bridge systems, with spectacular suspension bridges leapfrogging across the islands of the Inland Sea. The Seto Ōhashi Bridge is the longest continuous bridge system in the world, and it’s a sight to be seen. There are also numerous ferry services linking Shikoku to the other islands, and a boat trip over the Inland Sea is sure to be memorable.
Shikokuis a calm and quiet sort of place. It’s the only island of Japan without any volcanoes, nor does it lie in the routes that typhoons typically follow. The pace of life is slow, and here people enjoy the high quality food and beverages that a mild climate bestow. That’s not to say that Shikoku is bland however. The interior of the island is rugged, with the highest mountain in southwest Japan, Mt. Ishizuchi, whose jagged, angular peak is coated in snow for half the year. There are two major rivers, the Yoshino and Shimanto Rivers which draw visitors from all over to experience rafting and canoeing on their dramatic, isolated waters. For outdoor adventure, there’s nowhere better. The Seto Inland Sea has calm, cold water, ideal for fishing and diving, while the warm, glassy swells of the Pacific in Kōchi attract surfers and whale watchers. Festivals in Shikoku are strange and wonderful—massed ranks of strangely attired dancers, violent clashes between portable shrines, perambulating devil bulls, and enough fireworks to make the night seem like day.
There’s no Shinkansen in Shikoku yet, and the rail and expressway networks are a work in progress. But the roads that wind along through river valleys are spectacular and largely free of traffic, making Shikoku something of a paradise both for drivers and cyclists.
It takes a certain sort of person to visit Shikoku—adventurous and individualistic, but with a spiritual side that places value on the quiet, natural pleasures of life.