Rural Japan Explorer
An off-the-beaten-path adventure through Japanese countryside, ideal for those seeking an authentic experience in the heart of rural Japan.
The smallest of Japan’s four main islands and located just south of Hiroshima, Shikoku Island is home to some of Japan’s most beautiful natural sites. The name Shikoku translates literally as four provinces, referring to the four prefectures on the island.
Matsuyama is both a quiet town in the Ehime Prefecture and Shikoku Island’s largest city, home to an impressive samurai castle and the Dogo Onsen hot springs, which are the oldest in Japan. A trip up to the hilltop castle provides incredible views of the Seto Inland Sea.
The Dogo Onsen features in Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan); the oldest book in Japanese classical history, which dates to 720 AD and details the country’s earliest recorded histories. The beautiful bathhouses and traditional ryokan have welcomed prestigious guests over the centuries, including members of Japan’s royal family.
Though you may stay in a ryokan with its own hot spring baths or wish to try a few of the different bathhouses around the area, don’t miss a visit to the Dogo Onsen Honkan, a labyrinthine wooden bathhouse that dates to 1894.
Other attractions on Shikoku include the beautiful landscape gardens of Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu, Yashima mountain, the traditional architecture of Shikoku-Mura and the breath-taking scenery of Iya Valley.
The vast, green expanses of Iya Valley are best explored as part of a self-drive road trip, where you can take in the dramatic countryside and feel your heart race on the winding routes around the mountain terrain.
Iya Valley’s river gorges and steep cliffs were once impassable, making the region ideal for political enemies, defeated clans and fleeing soldiers looking for a hiding place. Today, the valleys hide villages of thatched-roof houses, vine bridges and hot spring escapes.
Shikoku is a true journey into old, rural Japan and ideal for those looking to escape from the cities and into the outdoors. The domineering mountains of Iya Valley make Tokyo’s skyscrapers seem small; while feudal castles, traditional villages and centuries-old hot springs will transport you to back in time to ancient Japan.
As with the rest of Japan, the best times to visit Shikoku are spring and autumn, which are both ideal for hiking. The fall foliage is particularly beautiful, painting the verdant greens of the mountain forests in warm autumnal hues. June and July bring heavy rains, making outdoor exploration decidedly less fun. However, some of the water-based activities available on Shikoku can make for a great escape from the summer heat.
We feature a trip to Shikoku Island as part of our Rural Japan Tour. From Hiroshima and Miyajima, you’ll travel by ferry to Matsuyama for a one-night stay, then onwards to Takamatsu for another night (including a day trip over to Naoshima Island), then you’ll take the reins with a three-day road trip around Iya Valley.
In Matsuyama, we work with ANA Hotel Matsuyama, a four-star hotel near the castle; the JR Hotel Clement Takamatsu has incredible views of the Seto Inland Sea and the town’s harbour; while the Iya Onsen Hotel in Iya Valley boasts its own natural hot spring baths, which you can reach via a private cable car ride down the valley to the river.