Most first-time visitors to Japan stick to a predictable course on the main island of Honshu, which takes them to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima, and a few other places. For first-time visitors, this is probably how it should be. But for people who have visited Japan already, there’s much more to be discovered, and Shikoku represents a whole new field of exploration.
Shikoku 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 is bordered to the south by the Pacific Ocean. The Inland Sea has calm, cold water, ideal for fishing and diving, while the warm, glassy swells of the Pacific in Kochi attract surfers and whale watchers.
While Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, small is relative. The island has an area of 18,800 km², and due to its mountainous interior, charmingly odd shape and basic infrastructure, Shikoku feels like a very expansive place. Visitors often remark on how much bigger it feels than they expected.
Shikoku has four prefectures: Ehime, Kagawa, Kochi, 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. Each prefecture has its own unique geography and culture, and you can read more about each in our prefecture profiles.
Shikoku was only joined to the main island of Japan by a bridge in 1988. Before then, the only way to get to Shikoku was by ship. Today three bridge systems connect Shikoku and Honshu, between Hiroshima and Ehime, Okayama and Kagawa, and Hyogo and Tokushima.
The middle of Shikoku is mountainous, and the island has the highest mountain in Western Japan, Mt. Ishizuchi. The dramatically angled peak of Ishizuchi-san is an object of worship to the Shugendo sect, and every spring, believers climb the chains hanging from its cliffs to reach the top. In winter, the snowy mountain forms the backdrop to many of Shikoku’s sights.
Japan’s only undammed waterway, the mighty Shimanto River is in Shikoku, which is home to some of the cleanest, wildest rivers in Japan. These rivers draw visitors from all over to experience some of the best rafting and canoeing in the world.
Shikoku has no volcanoes, but it does have a huge rift valley that runs across the northern part, where the Yoshino River runs into the sea in Tokushima. Typhoons often miss Shikoku altogether, and if they do land here, they typically don’t do much damage.
Despite its isolation, Shikoku has had a significant influence on the rest of Japan. The Buddhist monk Kukai was born and raised in Kagawa, and he’s credited with founding the Shikoku Pilgrimage of eighty-eight 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.
It takes more than a month to walk the entire pilgrimage, so many choose to complete the route over several trips, or by using motor transport. Shikoku Tours offers various options for visiting the eighty-eight temples, combining walking with charter taxi.
Through their tradition of hospitality towards pilgrims, the people of Shikoku have become gentle and welcoming, and visitors are often moved to tears by the warmth of their interactions with local people.Learn more about the Shikoku Pilgrimage, the 88 temples, its history and the key figures who made it.
Although it’s always been a backwater, the people of Shikoku have played important roles in the life of Japan. The seafaring clans of the Inland Sea dominated this key waterway for centuries. They were referred to as pirates by the landlubber clans, who nevertheless were happy to use them as their navy when the need arose, as it frequently did. The Imperial Japanese Navy had its roots in the Inland Sea pirates.
Sakamoto Ryoma of Kochi was instrumental 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 Kochi to gaze on his statue and consume a dizzying range of products labeled with his iconic image.
Japan’s industrial revolution got an early start in Shikoku – Japan’s first aeroplane was designed in Yawatahama. The brilliant white, smokeless candles invented in Uchiko were a hit at the Paris World Expo in 1900. More recently, it was a scientist from Tokushima who invented the blue LED which enabled a revolution in low-energy colour displays.
Today Shikoku is linked to Honshu by three bridge systems, with spectacular suspension bridges leapfrogging across the islands of the Inland Sea. The Seto Ohashi 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.
Shikoku has a wonderful range of accommodation, from traditional kominka farmhouses, elegant onsen ryokan, to modern new hotels of every grade. Some parts of the island have yet to catch up with the notion that smoking isn’t a panacea for health, and many establishments have more smoking than non-smoking rooms. We make every effort to meet our customers’ needs in this regard.
There’s no Shinkansen in Shikoku yet, but the JR Shikoku express trains are fast and comfortable. Many trains and stations now have free WiFi. The highway buses are also cheap and efficient. Shikoku has its own very popular transportation pass for foreign visitors. The expressway network is a work in progress. But the trunk 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.
Festivals in Shikoku are strange and wonderful, and there’s something interesting happening year-round. All of the prefectural capitals have summer dance festivals, but the Awa Odori in Tokushima and the Yosakoi in Kochi are particularly notable. In Kōchi, they like to plunge into the Pacific Ocean with their divine palanquins, despite the high waves, whereas in Ehime they enjoy bashing them together in bloody combat or throwing them down the shrine steps. Uwajima has bizarre perambulating devil bulls and people dressed as deer who dance.
Shikoku is still a conservative part of Japan, so at the main summer and winter festivals, people wear beautiful traditional yukata and kimono. As a bonus, most of the festivals end with enough fireworks to make the night seem like day.
Shikoku’s four prefectures each have their own specialties and styles of sake, but food can be roughly divided between sea and mountain. The seafood of the Inland Sea and the Pacific Ocean is quite different, so a trip around the coastal regions of Shikoku promises much variety, including farmed and wild fish. Central Shikoku is mountainous, and its rivers produce sweet freshwater fish, crabs and shrimp, while game such as boar, venison and pheasant are popular. Seaweed, from both river and ocean, features on the menu too, as well as wild vegetables that most visitors from outside have never seen before. Rest assured, you’ll wish you could take them home with you.
Ehime has one of the highest densities of sake breweries for its size, and Kochi has the highest alcohol consumption in Japan, so Shikoku is great place for sake lovers. If you want to know how sake is made, don’t miss the free museum in Kotohira. Recently, craft breweries are springing up everywhere too, and the Kamikatsu brewery in Tokushima, where everything is recycled, is a perfect example.
As we mentioned earlier, Shikoku is big place, that isn’t designed for easy getting about. If you want to see all of it in one short trip, expect to be very busy, and do a lot of two-hour drives or longer. We don’t recommend this approach.
Shikoku is a calm and quiet sort of place. The pace of life is slow, and here people enjoy the high-quality food and beverages that a mild climate bestow. 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.
From simple sightseeing and culture to more specialist interests such as photography, outdoor adventure, food and sake, and the Shikoku pilgrimage, we have a tour for you.
With low-cost flights from Tokyo, three big bridges from mainland Japan, and ferries from Honshu and Kyushu, it’s easy to arrange a few days on Shikoku to enjoy the slower pace of life, fresh food, and informal welcome that Japan’s fourth island is known for.
View our take on the 11 main reasons to visit Shikoku.
We look forward to showing you everything that Shikoku has to offer.