Shikoku (四国) is an oft-forgotten island in Japan. The smallest of Japan's Big Four, it lies to the south of Honshu. The island is thought of as a rural backwater, with few must-see attractions, but a visit there can wash away those doubts; the mountainous inner regions offer some good hiking. It is also the home of the 88 Temple Pilgrimage of the Shingon sect of Buddhism.
Shikoku literally means "four countries", and it indeed consists of four ancient countries (now prefectures) on Shikoku island, conveniently arranged around the compass points. Each prefecture also has an old provincial name, still often found in place names and listed in parenthesis below.
(Iyo) — to the west
(Sanuki) — to the north
(Tosa) — to the south
(Awa) — to the east
- Kochi — home of "Yosakoi" and many local sights
- Matsuyama — Shikoku's largest city, best known for the venerable hot springs of Dogo Onsen, inspiration of princes and poets
- Takamatsu — capital of Kagawa Prefecture, widely known for its superb udon
- Tokushima — home of the Awa Odori festival in August
- Uwajima — (barely) on the tourist map due to an interesting fertility shrine and wrestling bulls
- Naruto — the east gate of Shikoku.
- Cape Ashizuri — a scenic cape at the southernmost point of Shikoku
- Iya Valley — a remote but beautiful mountain valley
- Kotohira — the site of the Kompira-san shrine
- Mount Ishizuchi — the tallest peak in Shikoku
- Oboke and Koboke — rafting on the Yoshino river
Shikoku is a primarily agricultural island, renowned for its citrus fruits. Cutting through the centre of the island is the mighty Yoshino river whose clear waters and big turbulent rapids make for great rafting.
Shikoku is far enough off the beaten track that some Japanese ability, while not absolutely necessary, will come in handy. Some of Shikoku's dialects, notably Tosa-ben spoken in Kochi, are famously incomprehensible even to other Japanese.
While there are highways linking Shikoku with Honshu, they are expensive -- around ¥5,000.
Prefectural capitals Takamatsu, Matsuyama, Kochi and Tokushima all have small regional airports. Matsuyama has flights to Seoul and Shanghai, while Takamatsu fields a few flights a week to Seoul. For any other international destinations, you will likely have to connect via Tokyo or Kansai.
Shikoku is not connected to the Shinkansen network, but there are frequent connections from Okayama on Honshu to Takamatsu and from there on throughout the island. The limited express Shiokaze (特急 しおかぜ) runs back and forth betweeen Okayama and Matsuyama roughly every hour during the day, skipping some stations on the way, if you feel like a more direct connection to that side of the island. The pace on Shikoku being what it is, don't come there expecting any of the trains to be super fast. It would also be wise to remember that train information will be in Japanese only, unlike what you may be used to from the Shinkansen. So either be sure to brush up on your knowledge of terms such as "unreserved seats" and the names of the places you're planning to visit, in kanji, or plan to ask a lot of people (which may be more fun, but may also take more time).
There are numerous ferries that run to Shikoku that can be taken from major cities like Kobe and Hiroshima. From Hiroshima to Matsuyama expect to spend 2700 yen. The ferry takes around 2 and a half hours.
Shikoku is very difficult to get around without your own vehicle, especially to out-of-the-way natural places most visitors are seeking. Trains and busses are infrequent, slow, and much more expensive than what most travellers are used to along more common tourist routes. Additionally many places of interest are not accessible by public transport, or are only accessible in summer months, weekends, or holidays. If you decide to go to Shikoku without your own transport, allow yourself plenty of time (1 week minimum) or you will spend the majority of your time sitting on a bus, train, or station platform.
The JR train network connects the larger towns together fairly well, but regular trains are slow and expresses are expensive. The main lines are:
- JR Yosan Line (予讃線) on the west coast, from Okayama to Takamatsu and Uwajima via Matsuyama
- JR Dosan Line (土讃線) across the center of the island, from Okayama and Takamatsu to Kubokawa via the Oboke gorge (near Iya Valley) and Kochi
- JR Kōtoku Line (高徳線) on the east coast, from Takamatsu to Tokushima
For heavy travel, JR offers the Shikoku Free Kippu (四国フリーきっぷ) , which allows unlimited usage of JR trains and buses, including limited expresses, on three consecutive days (¥16,140). If you manage to time it so that you can start on your birthday, ask for the Birthday Kippu instead, and you'll get the same deal for just ¥10,000!
For the frugal traveler, the Shikoku Saihakken Haya-Toku Kippu (四国再発見早トクきっぷ )  may be a better deal, as it offers one day of unlimited travel for just ¥2,000. There are three big catches though: it's only valid on weekends and public holidays, it's limited to local trains, and you have to buy it at least one day in advance.
A new rail pass offered by JR , the San'yo-Shikoku-Kyushu Pass, includes unlimited travel on all JR trains in Shikoku as well as the bullet train lines and main lines west of Osaka in Chugoku and all or part of Kyushu. 5-day consecutive passes range from ¥22-25,000.
There are some other minor lines with infrequent trains. Some parts of the JR network, notably the southern segment from Kubokawa to Sukumo, have split off to the private Tosa Kuroshio Railway company.
Serious pilgrims may choose to complete the 88 Temple Circuit (see Do) on foot.
There are twelve original castles left in Japan and Shikoku is home to four of them, more than any other region:
- Konpirasan (Kotohira)
- Ritsurin Garden (Takamatsu)
- Makino Botanical Gardens (Kochi)
- Monet Garden (Aki)
- Nanrakuen Garden (Uwajima)
- 88 Temple Pilgrimage. The 88 Temple Pilgrimage is a famous but grueling 1,647-kilometer hike around the entire island.
- White-water rafting. The rafting in the Yoshinogawa River near Oboke and Koboke is said to be quite good.
- The most sought after present or "omiyage" after a visit to Shikoku is udon noodles. Fresh noodles can be purchased at almost any souvenir shop.
- Gifts related to the traditional pilgrims (henro) and their outfits are also popular, including a "Henro" Hello Kitty cell phone charm. These can be found in gift shops.
There aren't any "Shikokuan" foods per se, but each prefecture has something that they're famous for:
- Ehime: Sweet mikan mandarin oranges
- Kagawa: Sanuki udon noodles
- Kochi: Bonito (Katsuo), a type of small tunafish
- Tokushima: Sudachi a little smooth green citrus fruit, like a lime
- Chugoku - Easily accessible by train, car, or ferry, from natural sites, such as the nation's largest cave in Akiyoshidai and the sand dunes of Tottori to rich historical cities, like Hiroshima and Okayama, the Chugoku region offers a wide variety of unique travel experiences.
- Kansai - A pleasant escape from the mostly rural Shikoku to Osaka and Kobe are makes for a fun trip. With a plethora of historical and cultural sites in Kyoto, Nara, and Ise, a trip to Kansai can be enjoyable for all types of travelers.