Shikoku, Japan: What to see and do on Japan’s island of art

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Arms flailing in the air, feet two-stepping to the beat, I am doing my best to fit in with the graceful yukata-wearing awa dancers. There’s a saying that goes along with the awa dance, “it’s a fool who dances and a fool who watches! If both are fools, you might as well have fun dancing!” which to my mind is sort of the Japanese version of Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is?.

Old cultural traditions endure on the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. I’m at the Museum of Awa Dance (Awa Odori Kaikan) in Tokushima on Shikoku, located to the southeast of Honshu. It’s all part of a 40-minute performance where crowd participation is  encouraged. It’s said that the dance can conjure up spirits of the dead and, fittingly, the museum is right next to a cosmos-flower-filled graveyard.

Every August thousands of people take to the streets for the Awa Odori, the largest dance festival in Japan, hoofing it to psychedelic sounding lutes, flutes and taiko drums to remember ancestors. The origins of the dance are not as poignant, though still involve spirits – it dates to 1587 when the feudal lord Hachisuka Iemasa offered sake to the people of Tokushima in celebration of the newly-built castle and all began dancing with an unsteady gait.

Upstairs at the museum, the pompadoured manager of the school informs us about the year-round performances at the Awa Odori Kaikan dance theatre before leading us through the museum showcasing costumes, instruments and photographs. Performing the awa dance is just one of the ways to engage with the culture in one of the four prefectures on this island of Shikoku.

Shikoku offers immersive elements of traditional Japan that might be hard to find anywhere else from ancient Buddhist pilgrimages, learning about distinctive arts to cooking classes sampling local delicacies.

At the Nakano Udon School in Takamatsu, our teacher Tanaka, a jovial woman in her 60s, is shaking a tambourine and dancing while we’re stomping on dough. While our cooking class is in Japanese, using the universal language of music – as well as a handy illustrated guide – within one hour we’re cooking up our freshly made Sanuki udon noodles in dashi stock.

Tanaka guides on the kneading, stomping on and rolling of the dough while  pop versions of fisherman’s tunes play. When not preparing the noodles, we’re also encouraged to shake tambourines and dance. Downstairs at the school, workers are assembling hundreds of bento boxes for a celebration.

These are wonderful artworks in themselves full of colour, each compartment finely assembled. We sit down to lunch of our own concoction, and of course it’s delicious, everything here is. Even the udon noodles ordered through a vending machine at the petrol station rest stop taste incredible. The experience rewards you with a full belly, a graduate certificate and a rolling pin to take home.

On any road trip in Shikoku you’re bound to spot O-henro-san – white-clad pilgrims with conical hats walking the 88 Temple route. The 1400-kilometre circuit, which takes around 50 days to complete, begins in Tokushima. Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi established the pilgrimage across the four prefectures around the year 815. We stop at Yashima Temple where there’s a shrine dedicated to a badger.

Not just any badger, it’s said Kobo Daishi got lost in the fog in these parts and was guided by the god of the Yashima Tasaburō badgers. At shops and petrol stations in the area there’s an aisle dedicated to the badger, with stuffed toys, erasers, writing pads bearing his likeness.

At each temple pilgrims collect signatures and stamps from the priest to provide a lasting record of their visit. We’re content to drop a coin to make a wish and pay to get our fortune on a scroll which offers an escape plan. If it’s not to your liking, you can tie it to a post and leave it there for the spirits to take away.

Elsewhere in  Kagawa prefecture is another part of Japan that seemingly remains untouched. At Ritsurin Garden we stroll amongst koi-filled ponds and pine trees modelled on Japanese gardens from the 17th and 18th Century. Best is the chance to take a Wasen Japanese boat ride upon a vessel from the Edo  era.

The garden, which sits at the foot of Mount Shiun was opened to the public in 1875 and designated as a “National Place of Special Scenic Beauty” in 1953. The Michelin Green Guide gave it three stars – the highest rating – in 2009. There’s also a Folk Craft Museum with 1000 items on display.

Later, we take a walk through examples of perfectly preserved architecture. You can really get a feel for where architects like Frank Lloyd Wright derived his ideas from when you tour the 33 traditional buildings at the Shikoku Folk House Museum in the foothills of Yashima in Kagawa prefecture.

Passing through several early 18th Century family homes, it’s incredible to see such timeless design with geometric lines, bamboo floors, an open hearth in each of the bedrooms and walls made from clay and wattle. There’s also a fisherman’s cottage, a lighthouse and kabuki theatre from the late Edo period amongst bamboo trees and waterfalls.

Modern design and art is also on display across the islands of the Seto Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku in 2016. Every three years artists, architects and designers come together for the Setouchi International Art Festival where you can see contemporary and traditional installations on the “Art Island” of Naoshima, so named because of all the galleries there, including Chichu Art Museum, designed by Ando Tadao. This is itself a remarkable piece of sculpture.

The nearby Teshima Art Museum, on the island of Teshima is a collaboration between the artist Rei Naito and the architect Ryue Nishizawa and could be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.  Also worth visiting is the Otsuka Museum of Art in  Tokushima prefecture with more than 1000 replicas of Western art masterpieces from ancient murals to modern art reproduced onto ceramic plates at their original size. And in the village of Mure you can admire the works of the great sculptor Isamu Noguchi at his studio.

Last stop on our week-long tour of Shikoku is the city of Matsuyama in  Ehime prefecture, the birthplace of famous Haiku poet Shiki Masaoka. There are many sites dedicated to haiku in the city, including the Shiki Museum featuring his haiku and illustrations as well as a replica of his house. On the street of Haiku there are stone monuments inscribed with poetry. There are also 90 haiku boxes dispersed around the city where you can submit your own.

We spend our last day stripping off and soaking in the natural hot springs of the 3000-year old Dogo Onsen, one of Japan’s oldest bathhouses, dreaming up haiku to deposit. Wandering the streets afterwards, wearing just the yukata and slippers provided by the nearby hotel, the haiku deposit box is eschewed in favour of one last Shikoku immersive experience, a free foot spa to sample the healing waters again in front of Matsuyama train station.  FIVE MORE THINGS TO SEE . . .WALK THE IYA VINE BRIDGE 

Suspended by two trees, the 45-metre long bridge is made from vines gathered from the Shikoku mountains. The walk over the Iya River can be a little treacherous but it offers an incredible view over the valley, especially when the autumn foliage is in bloom.  CYCLE THE SETOUCHI SHIMANAMI KAIDO ROUTE

Pedalling the 70 kilometre Setouchi Shimanami Kaido route from  Ehime to Hiroshima prefectures takes you to the islands of the Seto Inland Sea. If tackling the full route, there is  accommodation along the way, including the new Hotel Cycle. See 老站出售sunrise-itoyama.jpCRUISE TO THE WHIRLPOOLS

Cruise on a half-hour round-trip to view the natural whirlpools  along the Naruto Strait in the northeast of Shikoku. The spectacular swirling waters form as the tide changes. See 老站出售uzusio老域名出售SWIM IN THE SETO INLAND SEA NATIONAL PARK

The beach next to the Renaissance Resort Naruto within the Seto Inland Sea National Park offers boat rides, table tennis, fishing, and swimming. You can go sweet potato digging  at a farm across the road. See 老站出售renaissance-naruto老域名出售TOUR A GORGE

Discover the spectacular Oboke Gorge via a half-hour boat trip. You’ll cruise along a calm emerald green stretch of the Yoshino River with jagged rock cliffs of crystalline schist on either side. Boats leave hourly from Hotel Mannaka. See 老站出售mannaka.co.jpTRIP NOTESMORE INFORMATION

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老站出售tourismshikoku.orgGETTING THERE

Japan Airlines and ANA fly direct from Sydney to Tokyo with convenient connections to Tokushima, Matsuyama, Takamatsu or Kochi on Shikoku. See 老站出售jal老域名出售备案老域名; 老站出售ana.co.jpSTAYING THERE

There is a wide range of accommodation across all price categories, from traditional inns, or ryokans, to modern western-style business or leisure hotels, available across Shikoku.

See 老站出售tourismshikoku.org; 老站出售japaneseguesthouses老域名出售GETTING AROUND

The easiest way to travel around Shikoku is by train, though it’s also possible to hire a car. If travelling by train consider a Japan Rail (JR) “All Shikoku Rail Pass” which allows for travel on all trains around the island. Japanese interpreter guide services can also be arranged.

See 老站出售jr-shikoku.co.jp; 老站出售jnto.org备案老域名

The writer travelled as a guest of Japan National Tourism ​Organization.

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