Island Hopping in Japan’s Setouchi Region: Part Three

TOKUSHIMA PREFECTURE

On Shikoku Island’s eastern side, Tokushima Prefecture has a distinctive climate and topography with soaring mountains, pristine forests, and dramatic gorges.

This area is ideal to visit in all seasons, as it offers snow, cherry blossoms, summer beaches, and autumn’s fiery colors. Major roads and trains link the prefecture conveniently to Osaka and Okayama while neighboring Kagawa offers air and ferry connections.

Notable Experiences

Star attractions include the whirlpools of Naruto, the rustic Ochiai Village, and the 88-Temple Pilgrimage, Japan’s most important pilgrimage route. During my visit, I was privileged to see the many devout pilgrims making their journey. This pilgrimage route is one of the few circular pilgrimages in the world. If walked in its entirety (750 miles); one can experience the abundant natural surroundings and mix with the local people.

During Japan’s annual summer Obon season, when ancestors are traditionally commemorated by their relatives, large-scale dance carnivals take place all over the country. The largest is Tokushima’s, which began the tradition more than 400 years ago with its dazzling August Awa Odori Dance Festival. Today, the event attracts more than a million spectators to streets lined with food and amusement stalls.

Another popular festival is the springtime Awa Katsuura Big Hina Matsuri, or Dolls Festival, in the little town of Katsuura. A display of 30,000 Hina dolls and dance performances are among the highlights. The display is comprised of seated male and female dolls which represent a Heian period  (794-1185 AD) wedding and displayed on red cloth.

I was fortunate to experience the Shikoku Sake Festival in Miyoshi City where breweries welcome guests and you can sample up to forty sake varieties. Depending on the fermentation process and milling, sake, which is made of water, rice and yeast, can have many different flavors.

Meanwhile, Naruto City’s Otsuka Museum of Art, Japan’s largest exhibition space, displays more than one thousand replicas of priceless masterpieces, ranging from ancient murals to modern Western paintings.

The most spectacular scenic sights may belong to the mountainous interior. Well-known for its gorge-spanning bridges made of vines, Iya Valley has soaring cliffs, an emerald river, and a misty forest around every corner; you can take a boat trip through the Oboke Gorge to experience these breath-taking vistas.

Culinary Specialties

Blessed with fertile land, Tokushima has long been one of Japan’s most important producers of vegetables and seasonal produce.

The prefecture has several distinctive varieties of noodles, including short, thick buckwheat (soba) noodles, served in many inns and restaurants often with tempura, miso-baked tofu and the local konjac plant – nicknamed the “devil’s tongue” for its pointy,  dark reddish-purple stem.

Tokushima Ramen consists of noodles in a pork-marrow and soy sauce broth topped with sweet-and-spicy pork belly and raw egg.

Where to Stay

Tokushima City is well-served with modern, international-style hotels, and an excellent range of prices. A truly stand-out property lies just twenty minutes outside the city at the Resort Hotel Moana Coast on the outskirts of Naruto City – the Villa Bel Tramonto. The restaurant serves impeccable Japanese-Italian fusion cuisine that takes advantage of the freshest local ingredients.

Another high-end option nearby is The Renaissance Naruto Hotel, a resort on the Seto Inland Sea with views of the whirlpool-stirred Naruto Strait from every room.

KAGAWA PREFECTURE

The Kagawa prefecture, which lies in the northeast of Shikoku Island, is Japan’s smallest prefecture. Although not large, it still offers unique and varied scenery, architectural treasures, distinctive gardens, and an iconic contemporary art scene known as Naoshima Island. No wonder this prefecture is called the Art Prefecture.

Kagawa’s biggest island, Shodoshima, is well-known for its beautiful landscapes, notably Kankakei Gorge on Mount Hoshigajo, Shodoshima’s highest point, where the fiery colors of autumn foliage such as red maples are breathtaking. Kagawa’s olive industry gives the prefecture a unique place in Japanese cuisine with its signature noodle styles and recipes.

Visitors can access Kagawa by train within two hours from Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Osaka. From Tokyo, the flight to Takamatsu Airport in Takamatsu City takes around 90 minutes.

Notable Experiences

Contemporary art plays a starring role, most famously on Naoshima Island, where striking outdoor sculptures and structures inhabit the gentle landscapes and during the world-renowned Setouchi Triennale twelve islands host international exhibits in quirky venues. The next event is scheduled for 2022.

The tiny fishing village of Honmura, on the eastern edge of Naoshima, is home to the Art House Project, a collection of abandoned houses and workshops that have been converted into venues and art installations by artists from Japan and around the world. On the day I visited these workshops, the theme was “light” which provided some very innovative and thought-provoking demonstrations.

Various artists working on demonstrations during my visit.

The Art Houses are scattered throughout the village, within walking distance of one another and do not require a timed entry. I interspersed my visits with a tea and lunch break at the handful of nearby charming cafes.

The highlight for my visit was Tadao Ando’s stunning Chichu Art Museum. Much of the building is underground and Ando designed it to let in an abundance of natural light that alters the appearance of the artwork it houses throughout the day. If you elect to stay overnight in Naoshima, you can visit the museum in daylight and at night and undergo a very different experience.

Kagawa is also famous for its historic landscaped gardens. Considered one of Japan’s finest, Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu City dates from 1625, and took more than a century to reach its full glory. I was fortunate enough to visit and have one of the curators provide a private tour of the lakes, tiny islands and 1,400 manicured pine trees that encompass this special garden.

Kagawa built its own castle in this period, whose ruins can be seen today in Tamamo Park in modern, cosmopolitan Takamatsu City, the prefecture’s capital.

Shodoshima, Kagawa’s largest island, is rich in picturesque locations. Angel Road is a sandbar that twice a day at low tide connects Shodoshima to tiny Yoshima island, and which is said to bless couples who walk along it hand in hand.

Another interesting city in this prefecture is Marugame; in which I had the pleasure of visiting local artisans and experiencing many different traditional art forms such as indigo dying and fan making. I brought home my own hand-crafted souvenirs and impressed family and friends.

Culinary Specialties

It is hard to overstate the importance of noodles to Kagawa culture. Sanuki udon is the prefecture’s favorite and more than 700 restaurants specialize in this thick wheat variety, usually served in a refreshing dashi broth with green onions, smoked bonito flakes, meats, and other toppings. If you are really interested in the udon noodle-making, you can take courses at Takamatsu City’s Nakano Udon School.

Shodoshima Island was the first place in Japan to cultivate olives successfully and it is now a leading producer of the fruit and its oil. Here, olives are also fed to cattle, pigs and fish making their meat highly prized by local chefs.

Where to Stay

Kagawa offers a broad range of lodgings and I recommend staying at least two nights if you are a contemporary art enthusiast.

The most logistically efficient accommodations are on Naoshima Island and the premier hotel is the Benesse House; opened in 1992. This special place is both a museum and hotel offering relaxing nights on the island after experiencing the art installations and museums in Naoshima and the nearby islands Teshima and Inujima. I recommend staying here will deeply enrich your visit to Naoshima. Only guests are allowed on the premises and many unique art exhibits can be viewed exclusively.

Apart from Benesse House, Naoshima is home primarily to budget-oriented accommodations, such as traditional minshuku (Japanese guesthouses) and yurts.

On popular Shodoshima Island, guests can enjoy relaxing hot springs and dine on exquisite local produce at Shimayado Mari and Resort Hotel Olivean Shodoshima, which has both Western and Japanese-style rooms and a karaoke bar.

EHIME PREFECTURE

Literally translated, Ehime means “lovely princess” and the beautiful sea and landscapes of this unique island earns the name.

The spectacular modern bridges that link Ehime to its neighbor Hiroshima provides one of the world’s most photogenic cycling routes.

Blessed with a warm, Mediterranean-like climate that makes this prefecture Japan’s go-to region for a wide variety of recreational activities, Ehime invites visitors to explore pristine coastlines and forests.

Multiple train and ferry connections allow for a flexible and varied itinerary; especially from Hiroshima, which is a two and half hour ferry ride.

Notable Experiences

The Shimanami Kaido, a 70-kilometer cycle route, hops between islands via nine spectacular bridges and six islands. Meanwhile, a gentler way to enjoy the scenery is on the Iyonada Monogatari, a retro-style sightseeing train that travels along the Seto coastline.

Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama City is a must-see; it was the first public bathhouse in Japan to be designated an Important Cultural Property. The charming three-story building’s ornate Edo-period architecture enshrines one of the country’s oldest hot springs, and is known to be 3,000 years old.

Workers at Dogo Onsen bathhouse. It is one of the oldest bathhouses in the country.

Ehime is rich in cultural contrasts. Historic treasures include Uchiko-Za, a handsome 1916 theatre that stages the highly popular Japanese kabuki and operates intriguing backstage tours where I was able to see how the stage crew still operates everything manually.

On Omishima Island stands the 1,400-year-old Oyamazumi-jinja Shrine, a sacred Shinto site, and now a Mecca for visitors fascinated by the mysterious samurai. These legendary warriors would leave weapons and armor here to give thanks for victories in battle.

Ehime is also home to three castles, including two of only twelve in all Japan to have retained their original architecture.

Culinary Specialties

Of the foods which are found throughout Ehime, jakoten is perhaps the best known. It is made from a paste of fingerling fish which is fried into patties. The whole of the baby fish is used so the patties have a rich taste and crunchy texture. I usually love anything from the sea, but I have to say jakoten is not for everyone’s palates.

Sea bream is a key ingredient in many classic Ehime dishes, such as taimeshi – sea bream rice – whose recipe varies from region to region.

Ehime is the leading volume producer of citrus fruits for Japan. There are forty citrus fruit varieties that flourish in this region and influence the cuisine; along with many unique juices, jams and sweets that should be sampled.

The Mikan orange is unique to Ehime; it is a perfect balance of sweet and sour. Their full flavor is a result of the perfect natural growing conditions of sunshine, sea breezes, and mild temperatures.

Where to Stay

There are truly unique lodgings in Ehime which range from Western-style city center hotels to traditional ryokan inns.

Modern, Western-style hotels can be found in most cities, with Matsuyama’s DogoYaya and Candeo Hotels Matsuyama Okaido popular recommendations.

In Imabari, Imabari Kokusai Hotel combines a great location, a large outdoor onsen bath, indoor pool and from the higher floors, stunning views of the city and coastline.

Of Matsuyama’s many good-quality ryokans, many are located close to historic Dogo Onsen and have baths fed by the hot spring waters such as Yamatoya Honten.

Interested in a Japanese Adventure?

My journey to the many islands and cities of these seven Japanese prefectures was quite thrilling, educational, and memorable. Since my trip, I have participated in the Setouchi Tourism Board training program and I am certified in this region as an expert.

If you are interested in any of these destinations or would like to discuss a potential trip to Japan; please contact me to learn more by phone at 724-935-1577 or email at bkurcina@frontierstravel.com.

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