Shikoku, Japan

Jeff Aasgaard, president of Japan Roads—a tour company based in Commerce Township, MI, with more than 15 years of experience in designing tours to Japan—says, “Yes, Shikoku is not easy to explore, but with careful advance planning, the destination can be one of the most appealing in Japan. All it takes is a little patience and endurance when planning either a large group or an individual tour. An operator must have the contacts to arrange for guides, hotels, interpreters and other amenities that a visitor to Shikoku would have difficulty finding.”

Aasgaard should know. He lived in Japan for 14 years and specializes in designing tours for those who want to explore a seldom seen Japan in small groups ranging from two to 12.

Japan Roads boasts that its tours offer an experience unlike any other and, of course, this means that sampling Shikoku cuisine is an integral part of the tours. “Food is an essential part of Japanese culture,” adds Aasgaard. “We offer the chance to sample a large variety of food, from eating with locals in small diners and tasting homemade meals, to sampling full-course seafood dinners or the more refined traditional Japanese cuisine available only in Shikoku.”

getting around Most of Japan Roads’ clientele consists of Americans who prefer less-traveled roads. Those coming here inevitably will set off to explore the island from Tokushima, a sparking, clean city near the Onaruto Bridge.

Tokushima is a terrific city of about a quarter million residents. According to the latest figures, 20,000 foreigners visited the city in 2008. Of those, only 3,340 were Americans, making Tokushima an ideal place to see Japan’s b-side.

Says Masahito Nakagawa, assistant division head of Tokushima’s Tourism Planning Division: “You’d never suspect that once a year our city is overwhelmed by more than 1.5 million visitors during the Awa Odori Dance Festival, a classical Japanese dance festival held in mid-August. People come to enjoy the lavish dance routines and we encourage foreigners to participate in the dancing.”

Tokushima may easily be the last opportunity for visitors to Shikoku to savor Western-style accommodations in the plush Hotel Clement hotel, an 18-story modern building adjoining the rail station. The Hotel Clement offers superb service. Its 250 rooms range from about $115 per night for a single, to more than $550 for a suite with city views.

After this pleasant interlude of Western living, most will find Shikoku an enchanting rural spot where accommodations normally will consist of ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) where beds are tatamis on the floor and chairs are nonexistent.

Beyond Tokushima, visitors will be enthralled by “the historic streets of Wakimachi,” says Nakagawa. The town dates back to the Japan’s Edo Period where the streets are full of homes built in the udatsu style. “Udatsu,” explains Nakagawa, “refers to the roof extensions between the houses of prestigious indigo merchants (for centuries, indigo was an economic mainstay in Shikoku) to prevent fires from spreading. More than 50 such houses are clustered along Minamimachi Street in the old section of Wakimachi. The area is treasured as a Japanese historical landmark.”

Another popular tourist attraction is the series of vine bridges in the Iya Valley. “In ancient times, locals built many of these bridges using vines that grow wild in the mountains,” says Nakagawa. “The few that remain today are exceptional to visit. Crossing them will put butterflies in a visitor’s stomach.”

Topping the innately Japanese attractions of Shikoku, visitors will be enthralled by a stay at the Hotel Iya Onsen, a secluded and luxurious resort sitting on the crest of a ravine where cable cars transport guests to marvelous hot spring pools to experience Japanese bathing.

The Iya Onsen offers minimalist Japanese-style rooms with spectacular views of the canyon with a river running through it. Prices here range from about $150 pp per night—well worth it, if only to experience the immaculate and secluded hotel.

If a client is searching for the unhurried, culturally enriching Japan, the self-guided tour of Shikoku featured by Japan Roads offers the singular opportunity to explore the island leisurely.

Its Shikoku Tour is a 6-day venture that stops at the more intriguing spots on the island. Aasgaard says the tour is “a very relaxing experience, complete with beautiful natural scenery, impressive sights such as feudal castles, hot spring baths, ancient religious centers and a flair that can’t be experienced anywhere else in Japan.”