Japan (Kansai Koyo) and Shikoku self tour – Part 2 (Shikoku) of 2
After our fabulous tour at Kansai indulged mainly in the lovely and fantastic Autumn koyo colors (see Part 1 here), we continued onwards to tour Shikoku, using public transport in Takamatsu for the first 2 days, then using a rental car for 9 days, starting from Takamatsu driving anticlockwise passing through the following towns and sights – Imabari, Matsuyama, Dogo, Ozu, Sukumo, Odo Observatory, Cape Ashizuri, Shimanto, Niyoda (Yanousi), Kochi, Iya Valley (middle part of Shikoku), and Miyoshi before returning to Takamatsu.
Our rental car:
- We use Tocoo in Japan which is straight-forward with English interface booking forms and emails (including custom service for follow up). Itś a platform which offers car from major Japanese car rentals like Toyota Car Rental, Hertz, etc. I think their prices are comparable to others.
- rent a small compact car (smallest or one or two models higher only- width no wider than say 1.7m; e.g. we rented a Toyota Vitz which is roomy for 2, OK for 4. If youŕe offered a BMW or Mercedes premium car at the cheapest price, turn it down! Believe me, you don´t want it (not even a standard family car) as rural roads in Shikoku (and in fact most of rural Japan) are narrow with frequent sharp bends and hairpins, and cars travelling in opposite direction may need to reverse into the nearest passing bays. Driving in Japan (English system, steer wheel on RHS) is otherwise straight-forward, and local drivers are very polite and tolerant.
- Total mileage in 9 days – 1393 km, petrol costs (for our Vitz) about 14,000 yens
- The Toyota Vitz from Tocoo rental for 9 days was 60,924 yens including basic insurance and the SEP (12,000 yens for 9 days). I estimate that the Vitz boot can carry two 26” luggages or 3 cabin luggages. It was adequately powerful and dexterious for the rural roads, My average speed was 20+ over the marked limits.
- We bought a SEP (Setouchi Expressway Pass ordered via Tocoo) which is on an ETC enabling us to go through electronic toll gates without stopping, and the Pass covers all tolls within Shikoku (but not the bridges to Honshu).
Our Key notes:
- Small car needed to effectively explore the more rural areas
- Most cars offered by major Japan car rentals has built in English GPS, but I found them considerably less capable than Google Maps (much smaller database, convoluted menu and clumsy steps to get what you want). Also their GPS database are mainly in Japanese! Although their option of locating via phone number is handy IF it has the particular phone in their database.
- Hence SIM card with mobile data access on the road is a must (for us). We found that the Unicom 4G 4GB SIM for 8 days to be most versatile (around HK$80 from Apliu Street) as it was the only one that also includes some 20 min of calling (to local and overseas no.). Calling ahead to your booked accommodation, to book restaurants, etc was handy and sometimes essential for us.
- bring or get Japanese yens from local ATM (available in many local convenience stores such as 7-11, Lawson), use cash, much easier as there are still many places (other than hotels and their restaurants) that only accept cash.
- most local folks cannot communicate in any language other than Japanese. Large hotels and tourist restaurants may have one or two who speaks a few broken English phrases. Try Putonghua instead, there may be a higher chance that there may be a couple of staff who speaks PTH. But we could get by adding gestures, and some broken phrases.
- If you understand English, you can pronounce the place names, etc and the locals should understand. If you know Chinese characters, then you should understand at least some 80% of the meaning.
- If you book Air BnB or BnB, note the check in time. If you find a good deal with check in time after 7PM (some 11PM), then theyŕe most likely love hotels which operate as hour-rentals and hence want to maximize their patronage during the day. They are of great value, clean and efficient, but you should know what youŕe booking into for the night.
- An accommodation which says they have private bath and does not mention a private toilet specifically often means your room only has a bathroom, but no toilet!- Yes, this is not uncommon.
- A few Japanese words which may be handy – ´no-taki´ means water fall, śhi’ means city, ´bashi´ means bridge,
Our itinerary (2018)
Nov 25-26 Tamkamatsu (Shodoshima, Naoshima ), stay in Airbnb 8 min walk from Kawaramachi train station(which is 2 stops from near Takamatsu JR Station, but on local Chiko line). We have repeated wonderful dinners at Okufuko (金陵) in Kawaramachi which is a place frequented by locals, serving delicious Japanese food at excellent value.
Nov 27 – picked up car, started our tour in anticlockwise direction. Imabari, stay at Matsuyama (hotel).
Nov 28 – Matsuyama, Sukomo, stayed at seaside Airbnb. Fantastic sashimi at local restaurant.
Nov 29 – Shimanto, stayed at Airbnb with English Garden.
Nov 30 – Yansu valley, stayed at Airbnb 100 years+ traditional Japanese house. Had a most wonderful chef to cook Japanese meals for us.
Dec 1-2- Niyodo River, Nakasu Valley. Stayed at Kochi Dormy Inn
Dec 3 – Iya Valley (mid Shikoku). Stayed at posh ryokan.
Dec 4 – Takamatsu Ritsurin Garden. Stayed at Airbnb adjacent to Garden.
Dec 5 – fly back from Hong Kong. TAK is just 30 minutes from town centre by car, or 45 min by airport shuttle bus.
A clip of the Google Map with places we visited starred is shown above.
With the 11 days, we found it just OK with some long days starting early (for us, around 8:30AM), and we did´t walk much trails at all, only a few maxing about an hour each. Do check the daylight hours if youŕe travelling outside summer months. For us in late November, sunsets just before 5PM, hence there isn´t many hours we can use for sightseeing. I don´t recommend driving in the dark due to the narrow and zig-zag rural roads which often are unlit and in steep terrains.
Islands near Takamatsu – there are several islands in the Seto Sea near Takamatsu (some actually near and accessible from Okayama too – Uno port) – From Takamatsu port (about 12 min walk from Takamatsu Station or 5 minutes from Takamatsu Chiko Station), there are ferries and high speed boats to the islands (high speed boat at about half the time, but twice the price). I found that travelling via the slow ferry was more enjoyable and comfortable. Just plan ahead with the time tables as sailings are not that frequent.
We spent a day in Shodoshima- 小豆島 (ferry time about 1 hour and around 600 yen) and loved 2 sights. The Olive Garden is not big, but offers an amazing photo opp where you can play Kiki in the Japanese animation or Harry in the Quidditch game ( ´fly´on your broomstick) . The Angel Road is a lovely experience too- itś a sand bar which is exposed and cross-able only during the low tide. So make sure you check the tide online or at the Tourist Info upon arrival at the island to time your visit.
We also visited Naoshima- 獨島 (ferry time around 50 min, and at 560 yen) – I named it Pumpkin Island after the 2 iconic pumpkins (yellow and red) by the famous Japanese female artist Kusama Yagyoi (whom you must recognise when you see her photo). Naoshima is also called the Art Island as while rather small in size, it has several arts museums – the largest being the Chichu Art Museum which only houses several major exhibits, but it has rave reviews. We ran out of time when we visited the island and hence missed it. Entrance is relatively expensive though (at 2060 yen – 2018 Nov price).
Takamatsu (高松) is the largest town in Shikoku with local trains and buses. We which we found convenient staying near the main station or the Ritsurin Garden. We spent about 4 hours in Ritsurin Garden (栗林公園) which we reckon would be the minimum time to do justice to this magnificent garden in leisure. Surely, don´t miss this major sight- a daimyo (feudal lord) garden, which was completed in 1745 over a period of one hundred years. Designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty, this spacious garden features 6 ponds and 13 landscaped hills.). There are many pine trees there being manicured and maintained ´daily´ in lovely shapes to afford amazing picturesque vistas from every angle. We were there in early winter and so was rewarded with lovely yellows and reds from the autumn foliage. In summer, there should be beautiful lotus flowers in the large pond, as well as azaleas in the middle island in the Lake, one of which was in a heart shape. Many features in the Garden are so thoughtfully built and maintained that I´m sure any one can find lovely scenes everywhere there and heaps of photo opps. Entrance fee is 410 yens for adult, you can also take a boat ride in the main lake. There a recommended walking route through parts of the garden (well sign posted), but we didn´t bother as every turn reveals amazing scenery wherever we went.
Imabari – is the towel capital of Japan where many brand name cotton towels are produced (although many items are now Made in China). There is a towel museum where you can buy towels of the most famous brand names and cartoon characters (Miffy, Peanuts, Disney, …..) from the large place with 3 floors full of towels, there is also a posh Chinese restaurant
Matsuyama (松山)- is the city near the north west shore of Shikoku. The castle there is not as famous as others in Japan, but it offered us a very good morning exercise climbing up there and down while enjoying the nice views and autumn colors. Alternatively, you can ride the cable car or ropeway chairs, but the climb was not too strenuous and most should be able to handle it. Dogo – said to be the oldest hot spring (0nsen) in Japan is nearby and worth a brief visit for a few photos and may be some souvenirs.
Between Matsuyama and Sukomo (宿毛), Ozu (大州) has a nice shinto shrine and garden area framed with lovely maple trees, this is adjacent to the famous historic Garyu Mountain Villa (臥龍山莊). In Sukumo, we had an excellent dinner at 四季和処 福なが, the freshest sashimi, highly recommended.
Near Cape Ashizuri 足摺岬 (the southern tip of Shikoku), we found that the Gongofuku Temple and the adjacent Gomado temple are particularly good for photos with the water feature and the exquisite wooden temple architecture.
From there, we move on to the south western part of Shikoku, which is the country area famous for clear streams and forest. If you are sporty, there are many places offering canoes for hire (our Airbnb host also provides free bicycles) or you can take a boat ride along the quiet stream surrounded by fantastic forests.
We love the tranquil scenery around the very clear Shimanto (四万十) River (at 196 km long, is the longest river in Shikoku that flows to the Pacific Ocean), e.g. the Takasechinka Bridge, also Sadachinka Bridge, in fact don´t miss any of the low bridges (chinkabashi- 沉下) in this area , they all have spectacular scenery, and the whispering sounds of the stream in symphony with the birds chirping are therapeutic- one can easily spend hours lost in this serenity of nature. Similarly for the Niyodo River (The river is called Niyodo-gawa (仁淀川) in Kochi. ) with its famous Nikobuchi- Niyoda Blue where the water color can vary from cobalt blue to emerald green depending on the weather and lighting conditions. Along the upstream areas of these rivers, we could see the rocks and stones deep below the many little crystal clear blue lagoons along the river. Water quality here has been ranked as No. 1 in Japan continuously.
In the Niyodo River area, we visited the Nakatsu Valley (中津渓谷) and the spectacular Raindragon’s waterfall (best way is to park the car at the Nakatsu valley carpark, and take the walk up the stream to the waterfall (allow an hour or so to and back). The river gorge is strewn with huge rocks and boulders, it must have been earth shattering forces of nature that moved them from high up in the mountains to the valley. The landscape reminds me of the Taroko Gorge near Hualien in Taiwan.
In the Yananose house (a very traditional Japanese house) we stayed , we have a most wonderful Japanese dinner (and breakfast) by a warm fireplace, served by our warm host who got his chef friend in to cook just for us- fresh Bonito sashimi , excellent tofu salad (in Shimanto produced dressing which was delicious!), and fried pork, miso soup and rice to accompany, of course!
Based at Kochi- 高知 (the 2nd largest city in Shikoku), we visited the Muroto Cape (室戸岬) for seashore scenery and rock formations (geological park), and the nearby temple (Hotsumisakiji – Temple No. 24 of the 88 pilgrimage temples in Shikoku), and lighthouse (within walking distance from the temple which there is free carpark), this was much easier for us as otherwise the climbing to the lighthouse from the seaside would have been rather strenuous. The temple again offers very quiet and tranquil environment for all visitors – whether you are going for meditation or just sight-seeing. The Lighthouse offers expansive panoramic view of the ocean.
On the way back to Kochi, we visited the Monet Garden Marmottan at Kitagawa which is a reconstruction of the settings of Monetś garden in Giverncy (featured in his famous Impressionist paintings of the bridge and lily ponds, etc), for 700 yens entrance free, this is a paradise for photo-enthusiasts. Weŕe there at sunset time, and was rewarded with an idyllic sunset view from the water garden bridge, we were turning around to leave and was stunned and mesmerised by the lovely sunset view.
Also on way and near Konan city, there is this Kochiken Teiko Rinkodoro Kado Bridge (手結港可動橋 [ていこうかどうきょう]) which opens in certain times of the day (e.g. 4PM) to allow fishing boats to pass through while car traffic has to be diverted round the back. We found it quite interesting to watch the operation while the bridge is raised, and the road (bridge) leading up to the sky is funny-looking.
While at Kochi, we also visited the Kochi Castle, which in itself is not really spectacular compared to the others in Japan (e.g. Himeji, Osaka, etc), but the vibrant colors of the Ginkgo and Maple trees there along the road leading to it was a nice surprise for us. As to meals in Kochi, we have to recommend this small beef yakiniku restaurant (Wagyu Yakiniku Aoki-ya) on the same street as Dormy Inn and 5 minutes walk from Hirome Market 黑門市場(Sunday with more stores and some local crafts, as well as lots of eateries). This beef place was so nice (warm service although the chef can only speak a few English phrases) that we went there twice within 2 days! Very good value too. In Kochi, we stayed at the Dormy Inn (chain) which has an onsen (hot-spring) (itś trademark), a dip in there is very relaxing after a long dayś outing. We consider this a hotel chain of very good value, I would rate this one at Kochi 3.7 star, all the staff we met are nice (there is one who can speak Putonghua too).
North of Kochi (mid Shikoku) and around the Iya Valley (祖谷渓) area, there are several sights not to be missed. Local Tourist Info and hotels offers Map codes for these sights; but they are only approximate locations (within 25m or so- see my previous post on Japan self travel in Kyushu), we planned and relied on Google Map which we found better and more accurate, and with reviews of previous travellers/users which we often refer to.
Oku-Iya double vine bridges (奥祖谷二重かずら橋・野猿) is well worth visiting- the pair of vine bridges (built originally with vines), the Ḿale’ bridge is some 60 m high above the stream bed, and it may be a challenge for some to get across. The monkey bridge next to it uses a self pulled cabin-trolley to travel across the stream valley was great fun for us weŕe the only tourists there! (550 yen entrance fee, but free for us as the area was officially closed -Dec to end March).
Just 5 minutes from the above bridges is the Scarecrow Village (Nagoro) where we saw many life-size dolls doing their daily routines (living) in the fields, waiting at bus stop, attending class, riding bicycles, etc. Interesting (or weird?) to visit and experience.
Scenery surrounding the following areas are spectacular- view from the above vine bridges, the ´Peeing Boy (Monk)´ statue (小僧像), Hinoji Valley, Oboke/Koboke Gorge, and the Iya no Kazurabashi (another vine bridge near the ryokan we stayed – 550 yens to cross, we didn´t pay to cross this, as we think the above double vine bridges are significantly better! And there were many tourists). While at this bridge, we also visited the Biwa Waterfall (琵琶の滝) which is just 3 minutes walk from it. I suspect that package group tours only visits this vine bridge as there other 2 above was much further with considerably narrow roads.
We splurged with a stay at Shin Iya Onsen Hotel KarzuriBashi (a ryokan with nice outdoor onsens), the room and outdoor onsens as well as itś location are nice, but there is nothing to shout about the half board dinner featuring local food (too starchy).
Near Miyoshi, we visited a temple at the peak of a mountain (about 1090 mPD) called Upenji- 雲辺寺ロープウェイ (No. 66) which has 500 lo-han stone statues and a reclining buddha, as always, the environment around it is so serene. As with every of these 88 temples for pilgrimage we visited, we saw small groups of pilgrims who dressed in white robes with pilgrim characters, each carrying a special walking stick with the top typically dressed with colorful cloth covers. This temple is also served by a cable car ropeway, but we drove and parked our car in the carpark about 500m away.
Credits and Sources
Google search and google Maps