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Shikoku is Japan’s smallest island—and, for better or for worse, its least-buzzed one. This might not be good for local tourism, but it’s great for travelers seeking an authentic experience, whether you walk the “Pilgrimage Trail” between 88 temples, see huge castles in Kochi and Matsuyama, try to escape the Naruto Whirlpools or go back in time at the tranquil Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu.

No matter how many of these essential Shikoku destinations you visit, one thing is for sure: An island with treasures like this isn’t going to stay off the radar for long.

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Follow the Pilgrimage Trail

Ishite-ji Temple | Flickr CC: tjabeljan

Shikoku’s Pilgrimage Trail strings together 88 temples along its 750-mile route, which takes between 30–60 days to traverse, depending on your pace. Even if you’re not among the small group of travelers who can make this sort of time commitment, you can still feel the magic of this holy highway, whose origins date back to the time of Kobo Daishi, an eighth-century Tantric Buddhist monk.

Many of the most iconic temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage Trail are within day-trip distance of major cities. The first temple of the trail, Ryozen-ji, is located just north of Tokushima, Shikoku’s principal gateway to Honshu. Other notable temples include Ishite-ji near Matsuyama and Takamatsu’s Yashima-ji, which commemorates the 12th-century naval battle of Yashima.

Discover Shikoku’s castle cities

View from Kochi Castle | Flickr CC: x768

One fact that surprises even seasoned Japan travelers is how many outstanding castles Shikoku has. The most impressive is arguably Kochi Castle, which rises high above the city of 337,000 along Shikoku’s southern coast, and dates back to the early 17th century, when Tokugawa Shoguns took control of the city. (For reference, a more familiar example of Tokugawa architecture is the Tosho-gu Shrine in Nikko, not far from Tokyo.)

The castle you find in northwestern Shikoku’s Matsuyama City originated around the same time, and while not as dramatic in its beauty as Kochi Castle, offers breathtaking views of the Seto Inland Sea, particularly at sunset. The small city of Marugame is also home to its own castle, whose construction began in the late 16th century, but there’s a more pressing reason Marugame should be on your Shikoku bucket list—more on that in a bit.

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Ohnaruto bridge and whirlpools

Drink in a world of water

That Shikoku is a water lover’s paradise isn’t surprising—it is an island, after all. On the other hand, an attraction like the Naruto Whirlpools, which occur naturally under the massive bridge that leads to Awaji Island and eventually Honshu, possesses a surreal quality you wouldn’t expect to find on this planet, let alone along the coast of Japan.

Shikoku’s 6,200-mile coastline, it turns out, is only the beginning. If you don’t visit during summer, for example, which is the best time to sea kayak off the coast of Kochi, head inland to discover the dramatic Oboke Gorge, or rivers such as the crystal-clear Shimanto and the winding Yoshino, which is considered one of the top rafting spots in all of Japan.

See the best of the Rest

Ritsurin Garden | Flickr CC: Wei-Te Wong

Shikoku’s highlights extend beyond holy places, high castles and water tourism. The city of Marugame, mentioned earlier because of its castle, is perhaps the best place in Japan to enjoy thick, delicious udon noodles, particularly when topped with yakiniku beef, a favorite local preparation. Shikoku is also home to several famous onsen hot springs, such as Konpira Onsen and Dogo Onsen, which is said to have existed in some form for nearly 3,000 years—Japan’s oldest onsen by most accounts.

Shikoku also boasts one of Japan’s finest traditional gardens, Takamastu’s Ritsurin Garden. Heavily wooden in spite of its location in the heart of the city, Ritsurin instantly transports visitors back to the time of its founding, more than 400 years ago. It’s the perfect embodiment of why Shikoku won’t remain a secret for much longer.

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Tagged: Asia, Japan

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Robert Schrader
Robert is a writer and photographer who's spent the better part of the past decade roaming the globe. Read hundreds of inspiring, informative travel articles on his blog Leave Your Daily Hell, or see the world through his eyes on Instagram, where he's @leaveyourdailyhell.

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