What makes Japan so amazing to travel in is the variety; with every new prefecture, city or village you find something unique. Consisting of 47 prefectures—including 43 traditional prefectures, two urban prefectures (Osaka and Kyoto), one territory (Hokkaido) and the Metropolis of Tokyo—Japan has a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of surprises to unearth. If you’re thinking of venturing outside of the obvious, here are some highlights to help you pick your prefecture!
In our series, we cover the country by region, with this post highlighting the smallest island of Japan: Shikoku. With only four prefectures, it is famous for a special pilgrimage which features 88 temples associated with Buddhist monk Kukai. The island is filled with natural wonders and if you have the time, following the trail is a great way to see the area! Temples 1–23 and 66 are in Tokushima, 24–39 in Kochi, 40–65 in Ehime and 67–88 in Kagawa. It can take up to 60 days, but is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Tokushima – 徳島県
From awe-inspiring whirlpools to chances to see baby turtles hatching on the beaches, to crossing vine bridges in unexplored valleys, Tokushima is full of amazing natural wonders which are too good to miss. Plus, with festivals millions travel to see, the starting point of the Shikoku Pilgrimage and the biggest art exhibition space in the country—it really does have something for everyone!
- Naruto Whirlpools: Formed by opposing currents in the Naruto Strait, these whirlpools can reach speeds of 20 km/hr and stretch over 20 m wide, but they can be admired safely from sightseeing boats, a pathway suspended directly above them or the nearby observatory.
- Iya Valley: Considered one of the three unexplored regions of Japan, it is best known for the vine bridges which cross the Uya River. A suspension bridge made entirely of vines, it spans 45 m long and is rebuilt every 3 years. One of three rare bridges in Japan, it is also a national important folkloric property.
- Sea turtles: Watch sea turtles lay their eggs on some of Japan’s most beautiful beaches on the Anan Coast, with the help of the Sea Turtle Preservation staff from May to August. The local area is also great for surfing and has a turtle museum nearby where you can learn all about them.
The Awa Odori Dance is held in August and features shamisen, drums and bells with lively dances and draws crowds of over 1.3 million. It is the biggest event in the region and definitely a sight worth seeing! If you find you’ve missed the festival, the Awa Odori Kaikan holds performances each evening!
With buckwheat being far easier to cultivate than rice here, it’s a great chance to try sobagome zosui. It is a thick porridge/gratin-type dish made by boiling the soba seeds and is unique to the area.
Kagawa – 香川県
While it may be the smallest prefecture of Japan, Kagawa is home to some pretty big names. The art islands of Naoshima and Teshima are just off the coast in the Seto Inland Sea, sanuki udon was developed here, and Shikoku’s most popular shrine can be found along a trail of over 1300 stone steps.
- Naoshima Island: In an effort to tackle depopulation, Naoshima and nearby islands have begun fostering creatives and are now a hub for contemporary art, with famed installations, galleries and festivals held to highlight the growing scene with works from some of Japan’s most well known and exciting artists (home to Yayoi Kasuma’s famous dotted pumpkin).
- Shikoku Mura: Shikoku Mura is an open-air architectural museum in Takamatsu where visitors can see various structures that have been carefully rebuilt from their original locations across Shikoku.
- Konpira Shrine: Konpirasan (aka Kotohira-gū) is dedicated to sailors and shares elements of both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but was officially deemed a shrine at the beginning of the Meiji period. It has one of the the most difficult ascents in the country, with over 1300 steps needed to reach it. If it sounds a bit much, you can hire a palanquin to carry you up (one-person box, supported by poles and carried by multiple strong-legged locals).
- Ritsurin Garden: A traditional Japanese garden that is an absolute must-visit if you’re staying in Takamatsu.
The Setouchi Triennale is a contemporary art festival held every three years across a dozen islands on the Seto Inland Sea. Around 100 pieces of artwork are displayed including permanent exhibits and new creations. The pieces range from spaces using abandoned homes to fields and corners of small towns—making it an adventure in itself.
Sanuki udon takes its name from the original name for the prefecture, and is one of Japan’s three primary udon types. Characterized by its chewy, firm texture, which comes from using a specific local wheat, it’s found almost everywhere in Kagawa, with over 700 restaurants to choose from!
Ehime – 愛媛県
With a name meaning “lovely princess”, Ehime is a beautiful, warm and traditional prefecture with some familiar faces and plenty of adventures. A great area to explore by bike, there are numerous islands with modern bridges and stunning mountain ranges!
- Dogo Onsen: This onsen is the oldest in Japan, and is home to the Dogo Onsen Honkan—the giant, wooden-fronted, 3-Michelin-star onsen guesthouse thought to be the inspiration for Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. While guests include the Imperial family, a stay might not be within your cheapo grasps, but luckily bathing is still cheap!
- Uwajima Island is a great chance to see an original Edo-period castle, undamaged since it was built in the beginning of the 17th century. It is one of only twelve that have survived this long in Japan!
- Mount Ishizuchi is the highest mountain in Western Japan and is nicknamed the roof of Shikoku. The sharp summit resembles a stone hammer, giving it it’s name. Great for climbing and hiking, it offers trails for all levels. However, note that women are forbidden from climbing the mountain on the opening day of climbing season (July 1st) due to an “old local practice” (boo!).
The Uwajima Gaiya Matsuri spans three days and involves large dancing processions with “demon cow” floats. The grand finale see the floats and mikoshi (portable shrines) arrive at the river surrounded by burning torches.
Goshiki somen noodles are colored using eggs, green tea, buckwheat flour, plums and shiso leaves to create a memorable and beautiful dish often served with sea bream, the prefectural fish of Ehime.
Kochi – 高知県
Green would be an understatement for this prefecture, which is 85% forests and coastline—so a great option for getting back in touch with nature. Kochi is home to the temples 28-34 of the Shikoku Pilgrimage as well as every Japanese child’s favorite character, Anpanman!
- Kochi City Market: The oldest outdoor market in Japan, the Sunday Market stretches from the Otemon Gate to Kochi Castle, and has been running since 1690. There are over 500 stalls selling local produce along the 1-kilometer-long route. But get there early; as with all good markets: the best deals go fast!
- Yoshino River is considered to be the last pristine river in Japan and is great for canoeing in Shimanto City or rafting at Oboke and Koboke gorges, just over an hour from Kochi City.
- Kochi Castle is another of Japan’s few authentic castles. Rebuilt in 1753 after a fire, it has remained undamaged ever since and carefully maintained. It is illuminated at night and the unusual layout means you can see both the main tower and stunning entrance gate at once.
The yosakoi dance in Kochi differs from others in Japan as dance troupes are free to create their own new routines, thanks in part to it’s relatively short history and therefore has a more contemporary feel. It takes place over four days in August and draws great crowds.
Katsuo tataki uses the regular tuna-type fish caught all over Japan, and grills it over a straw-fueled fire to give a light smokey flavor. After becoming seared, it is plunged into ice-cold water to prevent any further cooking and served cut into thick slices with either salt or a soy–citrus dressing, but always with raw garlic!
Although it is small in size, Shikoku has plenty to keep adventurers exploring, and is a brilliant way to see Japan before it became the busy hub it is today!
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. This post was originally published in March 2017. Last update: August 2020.