Shikoku (pop. 4 million) is Japan's fourth main island in terms of size and population. It is also the least visited part of Japan, an off-the-beaten-track destination with a relaxed pace and abrupt landscapes.
The name Shikoku means "4 countries", and indeed the island is divided into four prefectures (Kōchi, Ehime, Kagawa and Tokushima), corresponding roughly to the four old feudal domains (respectively Tosa, Iyo, Sanuki and Awa). The feudal domain of Tosa, covering most of southwestern Shikoku, was one of the most powerful and insubordinate domains in the Tokugawa era.
Things to see
Shikoku is often ignored by both Japanese and foreign tourists due to its remoteness and lack of compelling attractions. Although it isn't that far from Osaka, transportation inside the island is usually slow, expensive and irregular.
The town of Takamatsu in Kagawa prefecture boasts one of Japan's loveliest garden, the Ritsurin-kōen (栗林公園).
Four of Japan's twelve original castles (as opposed to modern concrete reconstructions) are to be found in Shikoku. They are in the town of Kōchi, Marugame, Matsuyama and Uwajima. The most picturesque is probably Matsuyama's, in the prefectural capital of Ehime. South of Matsuyama the small towns of Ōzu and Uchiko have managed to safeguard a good part of their historic heritage, with delightful alleys of white Edo-era houses.
At the boundary of central Ehime and Kōchi prefectures rises Ishizuchi-san (石鎚山, 1982m), one of Japan's 7 Holy Mountains and Shikoku's tallest mountain. This sacred place of pilgrimage, once barred to women, is now part of the Ishizuchi Quasi National Park and is a popular destination for hiking in summer and skiing in winter.
If you have plenty of time and energy, you could try the Kōbō Daishi's 88 Temples Circuit around the island, which is the best possible highlight of Shikoku's traditional (or Buddhist) heritage. It is Japan's most famous pilgrimage, and requires about two months to walk the 1500 km trail. Nothing prevents you to use public transports to speed up the journey, or to limit yourself to a section of the circuit. One of the most popular stop is Kotohira's Kompira-san Shrine in Kagawa prefecture.
Tokushima is the usual starting point of the 88 Temples Circuit, and is reputed for its Awa dances and puppets.
The Ōboke Gorge and Iya valley in central Shikoku were made famous by Alex Kerr's book Lost Japan.