Walking Shikoku

I am back from Shikoku. What a wonderful two weeks it was and how I need these rural Japan breaks to better connect with this beautiful country that I now call home. It all started with mountains, two of the most atmospheric temples that I have been to in Japan, heavy rain and wind (a blessing and visual feast when you hike through forests). The road then took me down to surf beaches, many fisherman villages, intimidatingly beautiful capes and lighthouses and finally foggy rivers. I am now back in Tokyo and thinking how hard the transition would be each time I came back from exploring rural parts of Japan if I did not live in an almost rural part of Tokyo.
 
Thanks to my relatively independent working schedule and the remote working system that I have adopted long before pandemic, I could have stayed longer in Shikoku (for the list of the accommodation that I stayed in during my trip – Shikoku Accommodation). But I did not. I enjoyed my time in Tokushima and Kochi prefectures too much to extend the trip. I wanted to stop  at the two-week mark, come back to Tokyo and have the opportunity to properly reflect on the experience rather than adding new experiences. By the time I reached Cape Ashizuri – the southernmost region of Shikoku Island – the wonderful forest hikes that I did on the second day of my trip in Northern Tokushima already started feeling like a distant memory and that is when I knew that it was time to end the trip. I wanted every hike, every place and every wonderful person whom I met on the road to stand out individually rather than becoming dots in a long trip. I have been on long trips before and in my experience, the individual places and experiences along the way gradually start losing their impact as the trip continues and the act of being continuously on the road becomes the main experience rather than all the small components that make it so special. Do not get me wrong, long trips and the state of mind that it involves also has its own very rewarding merits (the sense of disconnection, that nomadic feeling!) but now that I live in Japan and have the luxury to go on shorter or mid-length trips within the country, I commonly prefer one or two weeks long trip (unless I want to avoid the unbearable summer humidity in Tokyo where merely surviving may be the only productive thing you can do).

Shikoku: Most Scenic Trails

My trip down to Shikoku was not strictly related to the famous Shikoku Pilgrimage Walk (I provide a link to a wonderful blog in the tips section below, which is more helpful if you are planning to hike the entire route). It was a hiking trip physically benefiting from some of the trails connecting the temples and forming the Shikoku Pilgrimage Walk while also trying to explore various cultural elements attached to the pilgrimage. The first week of the trip was hiking/walking intensive where I averaged around 30km/day whereas the second week involved exploration of the small towns along the coast, which turned out to be some of the most fulfilling destinations within Japan both visually and culturally. 
 
My trip started with a one way ticket to Tokushima Airport, located in the Northwestern part of Shikoku. I slowly made my way down to Cape Ashizuri during the course of 12 days. My overnight stops were – in the chronological order – as follows: Katsuura, Hiwasa, Shishikui, Aki, Susaki, Takase by Shimanto River, and Ohki Beach near Tosashimizu. Although I will mention each place below, I also wrote a separate post listing each place I stated in along Shikoku Pilgrimage Route.

Tokushima: Misty Forests to Sunny Surf Beaches

For the first few days of the trip, I covered the trails and at times (unfortunately) highways connecting Temple 19 – Tatsueji (立江寺) to Temple 22 – Byodo-ji since the section involved some of the most beautiful mountain passes along the entire Shikoku Pilgrimage Trail and two of the most atmospheric temples Kakurunji (Temple 20) and Tairyuji (Temple 21). My original plan was to start at Tatsueji (easily reachable by train from Tokushima Station) and hike up to and then down from Kakurunji on the first day – the day I would be arriving with a morning flight from Tokyo. This initial plan was however soon modified upon the very helpful advice of Iwamoto-san who lives in Tokushima prefecture and works in the travel industry. She rightfully warned me that I should not underestimate the short but steep climb up to Kakurunji and take it rather slow on my first half day calling it a day near Katsuura town where I could spend the night at a lodge converted from a school building. Fureai no Sato offers very meticulously kept individual rooms for a very reasonable rate of 4000 Yen/night, which also includes a drop off at the trailhead to Kakurunji in the morning (you can also get dinner/breakfast and even packed lunch at extra fee). I and a Japanese pilgrim from Fukuoka were the only guests for the night at Fureai no Sato, which is managed by a wonderful and very friendly team. The highlight of the evening was however a surprise visit by Iwamoto-san and her husband Erik and the long chat we had about long walks and Shikoku in general. They are both avid hikers (and soon planning to do a through hike of Michinoku Trail and you can follow their adventures here) and have walked Shikoku multiple times. They generously shared wonderful trail tips with me. I was very grateful for the opportunity to have such an informative but more importantly a very layered discussion about the Shikoku pilgrimage, the efforts put into by the locals to upkeep the trails and the accommodation for pilgrims as well as the discussions surrounding potential UNESCO listing for Shikoku. I have been to Kumano Kodo (both Nakahechi Route and Iseji Route) and Yakushima many times – both listed as UNESCO heritage sites and it was very interesting to compare notes.

Hiking up to Kakurunji and Tairyuji Temples

Going back to the trail, the second day was going to be very rainy and windy and I was strangely looking forward to it. I love forest hikes in (un-dangerously) rainy weather. Thick forest, mist, sound of the wind with the promise of a temple on the mountain top – what more do one needs for a more atmospheric adventure? The trails first up to Kakurunji and then to Tairyuji were everything that I hoped for. Both trails require continuous climbing but the surrounding forests and the atmosphere all make up for it. Maybe the famous novel by Umberto Eco, the Name of the Rose and the movie based on the novel as well as the book – Lost Horizon by James Hilton had an impact on me but I feel like the bad weather feels almost like an indispensable element to underline the element of reclusiveness involved in a temple life and the sacrifices made for it.

I did not run into anyone else during both climbs but met once again the pilgrim from Fukuoka in Kakurunji. He was set to cover the entire pilgrimage route, which commonly takes around 45 days and his pack was therefore much heavier than mine.

For my second night, I took a train down to Hiwasa – a wonderful small coastal town – from the station near Temple 22. I had a pre-booking at Ichi the Hostel in Hiwasa. The quality of the accommodation, the cleanness of the facilities and the convenience of the location but more importantly the engaging travel related chat I had with the owner who moved from Wakayama to open the hostel made me consider whether I should extend my stay at Ichi the Hostel. Although I decided to continue the walk further south the next day, I am sure I will soon be back as the town Hiwasa is also very much worth spending an extra day or two and deserves a trip on its own. It also feels like there is some tourism development in the town with people moving from big cities and opening up hostels and cafes. I had a chance to visit another hostel converted from an old Japanese house upon the kind coffee invitation of Seungyeon-san whom I met while enjoying a sashimi dinner at Hiwasaya (ひわさや)- highly recommended. 

The next day I walked the Minamiawa Sunline Route connecting Hiwasa to Minami. It was a very nice and easy walk of 3,5 hours, which unsurprisingly reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway in California, USA. During the walk, I sure thought a lot about many dear friends calling the other side of the Pacific Ocean their home. Minami is -population wise – a very small town having only 6000 residents with a rate of 45 residents per kilometer square and is a living example of the depopulation problem that Japan has long been facing. When you travel in rural Japan, abandoned houses and empty public buildings including school buildings are routine part of the overall scenery. It is heartbreaking  to see these beautiful villages slowly disappearing.  Fortunately, there are currently many incentives in place to lure the young families to these small towns (as I briefly mentioned in an earlier post about Shimanami Kaido) and revive both the culture and economy. Sustainable tourism practices may be the key solution to overcome the depopulation problem (especially given all the nature related offerings of these small towns) but it is a difficult discussion in a country, which has also been suffering from over-tourism (and these topics are related to my PhD studies in Japan). 

After a quick lunch break at Minami, I took the train down to Shishikui town and spent the night at Pavillon Surf Lodge located right by the ocean. It was wonderful to sleep in the company of the sound of waves – particularly knowing that the next day would be a relatively easy day for my legs.

Kochi: Land of Capes and Lighthouses

Cape Muroto and Aki

The next day, I took a combination of small shuttles and buses to reach Cape Muroto in Kochi prefecture. The cape is home to number of temples forming the Shikoku Pilgrimage Trail but it is also famous for the geological formations that it is home to – shaped by volcanic activity, sea and wind.  There is a short and easy walking trail right by the ocean and a very atmospheric cafe where you can taste the refined Japanese delicacy of “pizza toast” (having its own article at Eater). One can easily spend a week along the coast going from Cape Muroto to Kochi. I loved the region and the hostel that I stayed in Aki – Kochi no Ya Hostel (東風ノ家)- so much that I spent another two nights at the hostel on my way back to Tokyo. The hostel opened its doors in the beginning of 2020 and occupies a beautiful 80 years old traditional Japanese home. The owner Azumi-san who also writes life style articles based on her interviews with the artisans of the area is a wonderful host with a great sense of style. She was very kind to take me to a neighborhood concert on my first night in Aki and also to a sake fueled delicious sushi dinner when I stopped at the hostel for the second time on my way back to Tokyo. Kochi no Ya Hostel will sure be one of the places that I frequently return to in Japan. The town – Aki is generally a wonderful base for those who have few days to spare during the pilgrimage walk. It has a nice range of eateries and is also within a walking distance from Ioki Cave, which offers a short and relaxing hike to a beautiful waterfall.

Back to the Ocean Trail Following the Pacific

After two amazing days in Aki where I got to catch up with work, I was back on the road again walking this time the Yokonami Kuroshio Line, which took me to my next stop – Susaki. The ocean side road (very low traffic) offers amazing mountain, cove and beach views. The walk takes around four to five hours but you can expand it by taking a detour to “hidden” surf beaches as I did. 

Susaki is a small fisherman town in Kochi with a population of 22,ooo people. Out of all the very small towns that I had a chance to experience in Japan, Susaki really stood out (along with Owase located along Iseji Route of Kumano Kodo). The town had one of the least industrialized looking fisherman wharfs that I have seen in Japan. I enjoyed watching the boats taking off in the morning. The lack of even mid rise buildings and well preserved old houses really added to the towns appeal, which was already appealing enough with its proximity to two of the most scenic trails along Shikoku Pilgrimage Route. I stayed two nights in Susaki at Kurashi no Nekko where I had the whole traditional Japanese style house to myself for 4000 Yen/night. In Japan, other than ryokans and onsens, I really like that the many facilities adjust their pricing policy to accommodate solo travelers.

With Susaki being my base town for two days, I explored two of the well known trails of the pilgrimage route – Soemimizu and Osaka Henro Trails. The pilgrims who travel in one direction has to pick one of the trails on their way down to Temple 37. Soemimizu offers a determinedly steep forest hike whereas Osaka trail follows a country road with a short but steep climb at the end. While I am sure Osaka trail would be very beautiful during sakura reason, I enjoyed the Soemimizu Trail more as it takes you through dense forest and the climb was not too difficult (thanks to my light pack for the day).

Shimanto River

Saying goodbye to Susaki, my next destination was Shimanto River and the Shimanto Riverside Hideaway that I spotted long ago thanks to their beautifully curated instagram account. Kenji-san picked me up from the nearby Nakamura Station and we traveled to the lodge, which is surrounded by mountains divided by Shimanto River, following a beautiful narrow forest road located in Takase village. The lodge has three rooms and perfectly designed common areas including a fully equipped kitchen. While you can bring and cook your own food, for my second night there, I bought delicious bonito tataki from the nearby fish shop. Kenji-san is from Ehime prefecture of Shikoku and is very invested in the sustainable tourism development in the region. He kindly drove me all the way down to Cape Ashizuri and went out of his way to make my stay a very pleasant one. The lodge, the location and Kenji-san`s attention to detail in terms of the design choices in a traditional style Japanese house were all remarkable. I really hope to visit Shimanto Riverside Hideaway once again during summer when I can also experience the kayaking on Shimanto River.

Ohki Beach

My final stop before going back to Aki and then Tokyo was Ohki Beach. I reached the beach with a short walk of about an hour from Tosashimizu following a half day spent in Ashizuri Area (which I visited first two years ago0. I stayed the night at Kaiyu – a family operated lodge committed to sustainable living. In addition to the therapeutic effect of having spent hours by the Ohki Beach, which is only steps away from Kaiyu Inn, watching the surfers, I had a wonderful and very memorable evening thanks to the kind dinner invitation extended by Kazu family. I got to meet the family and their friends. The dinner kindly prepared by Tae-san was very delicious but it was the laughs that we all shared that really stayed with me. After all the solitude and disconnection imposed upon us by Covid-19, spending such a heartwarming evening by a wood fire in a family atmosphere was a great ending to an already amazing trip. The facility, which also includes a wonderful onsen with a great view, is designed to make you feel at home and is also a very ideal for the emerging concept of work-ations. They are very flexible in terms of the long term accommodation plans.

If you have been following this blog, you may have noticed that the feeling of solitude enhanced by a place that you are not familiar with is one of the main drivers behind my travels and I tend to praise the feeling of solitude more than the human connection. But I came back from Shikoku remembering the laughs that I shared with wonderful people of Shikoku even more than the foggy (and beautiful) hikes. Given the circumstances, one may call it Covid-19 effect but I think it was the “Shikoku effect”.

The experience in Shikoku was meaningful in so many ways. Travel industry was one of the sectors, which took the biggest hit during the pandemic. The impact of covid on the travel industry was one of the issues that I addressed in my thesis, which was submitted this past January and explored the possibilities for increased use of the public-private partnership model for tourism infrastructure and analyzing whether long term contractual structures can lead to a more sustainable and policy oriented tourism development rather than relying on the generic tourism and environmental legislation. Despite the “unprecedentedly” terrible year that the whole travel industry had, it was very energizing and even surprising to see how accommodation owners in Shikoku approach the issue and see the opportunity for a more carefully planned tourism development in the post pandemic era – one of the rare silver linings in this crisis.  I was also amazed with their creativity developing new services appealing to a closer community during a time when international travel is suspended – in a region greatly relying on internationally acclaimed 1000km long pilgrimage route for tourism revenues.

Now on the practical info about the Shikoku walks and pilgrimage route.

Sources and Books About Shikoku Pilgrimage Route

During the preparation phase for the first week, which was mainly focused on picking the most scenic trails, I greatly benefited from wonderful blogs such as Random Wire providing a great account of the full pilgrimage walk around Shikoku covering all 88 Temples.

During the trip, I read Todd Wassel`s account of his Shikoku Pilgrimage – Walking in Circles and enjoyed following his journey especially in the parts when I was in the exact same place. During the second week, I started reading – “the 1918 Shikoku Pilgrimage of Takamure Itsue” – a wonderful account of a century old pilgrimage by a young women in Japan. I am still reading it and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the region. If you are generally interested in books about Japan, I have a separate post where I list some of my favorite books about Japan.

Luggage Forwarding in Shikoku

I strongly recommend that you benefit from the logistical wonders of Japan. With TA-Q-BIN services offered by Yamoto Transport – you can send your luggage/heavier pack between any destination in cheap for relatively low rates starting at 1000 Yen. I very often benefit from this service. I pack one smaller bag with two days worth of staff and a bigger one that I move around with TA-Q-BIN between my main stops.

How to Get to Shikoku

There are four main airports in Shikoku including Tokushima, Kochi, Takamatsu and Matsuyama Airports. Most people fly to Tokushima Airport due to its proximity to the initial set of temples. There are no airports in the southern part of the island, which is accessible in most cases by a combination of rail and bus. Also – shinkansen does not serve Shikoku (matter of long debate in Japan since Shikoku is the only main island not covered by shinkansen – well in addition to Okinawa!)  and the closest shinkansen stop is in Okayama Prefecture.

Small Towns of Shikoku

While Shikoku Pilgrimage is the main draw of the region and a wonderful experience for those fond of long walks, the small towns of Shikoku also deserve a trip on their own. I had the chance to visit many regions in Japan including many small towns and as far as the overused concept of “authenticity” goes, I think Shikoku offers the most authentic experience. I hope to go back to Shikoku many times, re-visit some of the villages that I stayed in during this trip and also discover new ones. You can also check out my separate post on Shikoku pilgrimage accommodation options.