Going to Japan is all about having adventures. Be they accidental adventures, such as getting too drunk and passing out on the last train of the night and ending up in the middle of nowhere, or purposeful ones like hiking in the temple-ridden hills of Kyoto, you MUST find a way to go out, get lost, and off the beaten track. Japan is less than the size of California, but because of its long rich history, every region has its own special claims to fame. That means that there are TONS of adventures to be had outside the main tourist traps, and this is the first of a series of articles to get you on your way.
This article is all about Shikoku (四国: Four Countries/Prefectures), the smallest of the four main islands of Japan. If you want to get off the beaten track, this should definitely be one of your top priorities. Most Japanese people associate this place as the ultimate inaka (田舎: rural) destination. In the Tokyo area, it is highly unlikely that you will ever experience total silence or darkness, but Shikoku is one place in Japan you’ll find it. In order for you to get the full experience in Shikoku, I’ll be covering the best local foods, dialects, festivals, and finally some AMAZING adventures you can take.
Repeat after me:
“I LOVE RAMEN I LOVE RAMEN I LOVE RAMEN I LOVE RAMEN I LOVE RAMEN I LOVE RAMEN!!!”
While you’re in Shikoku, you’re going to be crying tears of joy for having tasted this intense bowl of flavor and weeping big wet tears of sorrow when you get back to the states and find out that you probably wont find it ANYWHERE. It truly is the heroin of Japanese cuisine. If you don’t know anything about Japanese ramen, much less ramen in Shikoku, you’re probably thinking “Psh! If I’m going to go have adventures, why would I want to fuel up with Top Ramen?!” The answer is, because it is absolutely nothing like anything you will ever find in a Costco. Here is why:
For those of you who are on top of your TextFugu lessons, you’ll notice on the back of this bowl is written:
“徳島ラーメンが一番 (Tokushima ramenga ichiban)” meaning “TOKUSHIMA RAMEN IS THE BEST!!!”
Tokushima ramen is the pride and joy of Tokushima prefecture in Shikoku. One of the ramen shops in Tokushima City actually opened a museum in 1999 dedicated to the awesomeness that is Tokushima ramen. The things that make this ramen so magical are the soup, made from a pork and soy sauce base that is thicker than most other types, the thicker noodles, and a raw egg on top to add to that thick delicious texture and flavor. You may need a nap after eating this baby rather than jumping right into adventuring!
While ramen should be your primary source of sustenance while in Shikoku, the Udon there is arguably preferred among locals. Sanuki-udon, found in Kagawa Prefecture, is the most famous for the texture and shape of the noodles and also was supposedly the first region in Japan to adopt the dish from China.
Japanese = a language mostly limited to the islands of Japan. Tokushima-ben = a Japanese dialect limited to one prefecture in Shikoku, the rural island in Japan. You + Tokushima-ben = not being understood by hardly ANYONE ON EARTH.
If you’ve been studying Japanese already, chances are you are probably learning the Tokyo dialect. Going to Shikoku is about as different as going from New York City to Birmingham, Alabama. The real famous alternative dialect in Japan is of course Kansai-ben, found in Osaka and Kyoto, and Tokushima-ben is really not that different since it’s only a super long bridge away. If you get to talking to some local people though, there will absolutely be times when you’re like 『徳島弁が全く分からないからゆっくり話してください。』 Meaning “I really don’t understand Tokushima-ben so please speak slowly.” Here’s a sample conversation you might encounter:
A. えっとぶりだ！(ettoburida!) ＝ 久しぶりだ！(hisashiburida!) “It’s been a while!”
A. うちんくにいぬる？(uchinkuni inuru?) ＝ 私の家に帰る？(watashino ieni modoru?) “Do you want to go back to my house?”
B. おまはんくそんなごついかえ…(omahannku sonnagotsuikae…) ＝ あなたの家はそんなにすごいでしょうか。”I wonder if your house is really that amazing…”
A. こんまいけどきー！ (konnmaikedokii) ＝ 小さいけど来てください！(chiisaikedo kitekudasai!) “It’s small but please come!”
As you can see, Tokushima-ben can get pretty ridiculous, but this is what you can expect if you head down to Shikoku.
The Awa-odori (阿波踊り:dance of Awa) is the place to be if you want to get your traditional Japanese groove on. They’ve been partying like it’s 1999 every summer since 1585! They may have about a 400 year head start, but that does not mean that you should not go party with them. This harvest festival, a part of obon celebration (kind of like memorial day weekend), prides itself on two very important historical activities: drinking too much and dancing in silly clothes. The basic moves of the dance are put your hands above your head, palms facing inward, and step forward to the beat moving left hand forward with the right foot and the opposite. The dance is traditionally done in tightly bound kimonos and big straw hats in the sweltering heat so it the steps in the dance are very tiny. No one goes very far very quickly, but it’s definitely not about the destination in this case. The Awa-odori is truly a dance invented by the drunk, so if you go there and you can’t quite get the moves right, have a few more sips of sake, put your hands in the air, walk around a little, and you’ll fit right in! Here’s a video to motivate you to grab your dancing shoes:
The main event in Tokushima City runs from August 12th to 15th and is the largest dance festival in Japan with around 1.3 million viewers, but people are dancing all over the island that time of year so there are plenty of chances for you to practice! Remember the wise words of the Awa-odori song: 『 踊る阿呆に見る阿呆、同じ阿呆なら踊らな損々』(odoru ahoni miru aho, onaji ahonara odorana sonson) “It’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches. So if we’re both fools, you might as well have fun dancing!”
One of the most hardcore things you can do while in Japan is to walk the 88 temples of Shikoku. Legend has it that Kobo Daishi, a famous Buddhist monk and scholar, was the first to visit all of these temples. They say his spirit will accompany you if you chose to accept this pilgrimage. If you really do choose to walk the entire route at once, it will take you around 5 to 7 weeks. Visiting beautiful old rural temples, befriending the ghost of a famous monk, and taking a really long trek through mountains in the rain and heat, while people will even stop sometimes to give you gifts of encouragement! What more could you ask for? Locals are usually a little more sensible and visit the 88 temples over the course of a few years via car, so if you too want to get the enriching spiritual experience without the agonizing blisters on your feet, see about renting a car or moped, or getting friends who will take you. If you want to do it, though, this is how you’d go about it.
If you’re looking to REALLY get off the beaten track, the Iya Valley (祖谷渓谷), also in Tokushima prefecture, is one of the three hidden regions (三大秘境) in Japan. It is so remote that defeated warriors retreated to the region to hide out. You can still visit several vine bridges that were originally set up to ensnare pursuing enemies! If you are in to outdoor adventuring, Iya valley is home to great hiking and there is world class rafting in the nearby Oboke valley (大歩危).
These are just a couple of adventure ideas, but Shikoku is full of places off the beaten track. You just need to get out there and explore! If you get tired of roughing it, stop into Matsuyama, Ehime to relax at the famous Dougo Onsen, the oldest hot spring bathhouse in Japan!
Transportation In Shikoku:
From personal experience, Shikoku is not an easy place to travel in as far as finding public transportation. Unlike on Honshu, you probably won’t be able to get to EVERYTHING you want to see via train. That’s part of the fun though! They’ve definitely got enough rail to get you to the major cities, and there are public busses in a lot of towns, but better yet, go make friends to have adventures with!
いろいろな地域を探検してみてください！(iroirona chiikiwo tanken shitemite kudasai) “GO EXPLORE!”