It’s late afternoon on Shikoku, a lush island refreshed by wind and tide and the smallest of the four major landmasses of the Japanese archipelago. It is one of the most charming and illusive places to find a Japan seldom seen by outsiders.
As the day begins to fade and the tides ebb, throngs of people flock to an observation point on one of the world’s longest suspension bridges, the gigantic, modern and sleek Onaruto Bridge, to gawk through a plexiglass floor at the waters raging below.
This isn’t a spot for acrophobes: about 450 ft. directly below, the force of the onrushing Pacific Ocean clashes head-on with the strapping surge coming out of Japan’s Inland Sea, causing enormous whirlpools and eddies that never fail to stun viewers on the bridge.
The crowds that come here to witness the brutal force of the waters below aren’t typical—for Shikoku has always been something of a Japanese outpost, so far off the tourist radar and barely on the fringe of more typical Japanese destinations that few venture to this island to experience the wonders within it.
Until 1988, Shikoku was accessible only by ferry. Then the bridge was built followed by an additional span on the island’s south side. Still, the bridges have had relatively little impact on drawing the crowds.
But those who are game to search for a more serene and removed Japan will thrill at this relatively anonymous green, wind-swept island that manages to veil itself in a coy, uniquely Japanese way.
Why Shikoku is Japan’s least-visited island remains something of a mystery. It’s easy on the eye, its pre-Meiji dynasty gardens are enchanting, Japan’s most celebrated bathhouse (Dogo Onsen Honkan, in Ehime Prefecture) still thrives after 1,300 years and the ancient temples that dot the island look like they were filched from early Japanese woodblock prints.
Shikoku is a Japanese spiritual Mecca. Most importantly, it’s the birthplace of Kobo Daishi, an eight century Buddhist scholar saint who imported Buddhism from China, invented the Japanese alphabet, experimented with stargazing and founded countless temples and monasteries. If that wasn’t enough, Daishi also introduced the delights of tea to the Japanese.
His followers believe the old monk will roam the earth until the day of universal enlightenment. To honor his memory they regularly set off on a 2-month, 870-mile pilgrimage following a circular route around Shikoku to pray at every one of the island’s 88 temples. They believe that completing the trek will free them from Buddhism’s 88 earthly desires, thus getting a step closer to Nirvana.
Their trek is something akin to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” or the Roman Catholic pilgrimage to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela. You often see religious pilgrims plodding with their walking sticks alongside roads, all dressed in white robes, wearing straw conical hats, chanting and counting prayer beads.
It’s an uncanny 10th century spectacle in ultra-modern, 21st century Japan. Indeed, this is a place where modernized Japan seems centuries removed.
a feast Then there’s the food. It often seems as if every small eatery on the island specializes in a different cuisine. While northwestern Shikoku’s Ehime is renowned for mikako, a form of pastry resembling clementines, Ehime is better known for tai-meshi, rice cooked with red snapper filets in a flaming pot at the table.
In Takushima, restaurants specialize in iyasoba, a pancake that becomes especially tasty when you pound the buckwheat yourself; Kochi is lionized for its tosaryori and sawachiryori, delicious seafood dishes.
When you add Shikoku’s mouth-watering local food with the spectacular natural beauty of the island, you have a potent recipe for attracting visitors. Yet, again, tourists are few.
As usual, though, these marvels come with a caveat: given the huge language barrier that non-Japanese speakers find frustrating along with the lack of Western-style amenities on the island, a trip to Shikoku will require the careful planning offered by competent tour operators familiar with the area and keenly aware of Shikoku’s limitations.
Of course, hotel concierges can arrange for transportation and interpreters for independent travelers, but cost is often prohibitive.
American tour operators specializing in Asia can make a trip to Shikoku as hassle-free as possible, for this is a section of Japan where towns merge into spectacular rural areas in an endless ribbon of eye-popping scenery. Shikoku offers a refreshing aura of old Japan.