NORTHERN SHIKOKU – TAKAMATSU / KOTOHIRA / MATSUYAMA (ATT.JAPAN ISSUE 34)
Shikoku is one of Japan’s four main islands and while its inhabitants have long had a close relationship with their cousins on the largest island of Honshu, Shikoku has, over time succeeded in forming its own unique blend of culture and tradition. Surrounded by water and full of sites of scenic and historical interest, this issue we will be focusing on the Northern area of Shikoku, its entertainment forms, local delicacies and numerous sightseeing spots.
Situated in the North East corner of Shikoku, Kagawa is becoming increasingly popular for its golfing facilities – many courses set in areas of great natural beauty. Kagawa is also known to attract large numbers of tourists with its blend of relaxing environment and the warmth demonstrated by its local citizenry.
Takamatsu, the capital of Kagawa Prefecture plays a pivotal role in this area of Shikoku. A maritime city, Takamatsu has long served as a gathering point for folk from Honshu arriving by way of the ferries arriving at Takamatsu Port or more recently via the Seto Ohashi Bridge connecting Honshu and Sakaide City. An airport brings in other, albeit fewer visitors from further afield.
A 20 minute walk from JR Takamatsu Station will take visitors to Ritsurin Park – a designated Special Beauty Spot of Japan since 1953. The 75-hectare site has as its backdrop, the impressive Mt. Shiun. The nickname of this park ‘Ippo Ikkei’ means ‘One step, One scene’ in English and refers to the various ‘faces’ displayed by the park – depending on the timing and purpose of your visit. During a visit to the park the view of Engetsukyo Bridge and the Kikugetsutei Teahouse are highly recommended – perhaps even a break sipping a green tea in one of the teahouses is a good idea, if feeling a little weary.
A 23-minute train journey from Takamatsu Station takes passengers out to the city suburbs – an area known as Yashima; location of a number of traditional houses and storage facilities at Shikokumura Village. The Kazurabashi suspension bridge – a la Indiana Jones movies – awaits the fearless and for those making it into the site, the 33 old Japanese houses filled with agricultural implements designated as tangible folklore cultural assets make interesting viewing.
In addition, for visitors with an interest in art, locally, Naoshima Island is the place to visit to access the artistic heart of this increasingly famous island. The island is best accessed by ferry from Takamatsu Port (50 mins).
Naoshima early in the 21st century still retains a feel of the ‘ordinary’ run-of-the-mill island, covered in hills and blanketed in greenery. Once ashore however, the realization that things are a tad different comes into play with all the stylish buildings and unique shaped monuments sat on the shoreline coupling with the other art related monuments around the island to create a slightly surreal atmosphere. Two art museums, both well established in the South of the island and named, respectively, Benesse House and Chichu Art Museum were designed by the now famous architect Ando Tadao.
According to local tradition, an emperor of old once paid a visit to the island and then bestowed upon it the name of Naoshima which means the island of purity and innocence; the pure hearts of the residents behind such an honor.
In Japanese, “san” added to the end of an individual’s name is an honorific intended to show respect. Here in Kotohira, Kotohiragu Shrine is called by the nickname “Konpira-san” to show the love and respect the locals have for the shrine said to be more than 1,000-years-old and home to an enshrined emperor of centuries past as well as Omononushi-no Kami – a god of agriculture, fisheries, industry and medication.
The access route to the shrine totals 1,368 steps and is quite a hard climb although it can be broken up with visits to the refreshment stalls along the way. For the lethargic, palanquin bearers can even make the journey on your behalf as you sit back and watch the world glide by. The view back over the town from the main Hongu shrine at the point of the 785th step is especially impressive after the climb.
Konpira Oshibai, a local kabuki performance reappeared 23-years-ago after a long hiatus and now, held annually and known as Shikoku Konpira Kabuki Oshibai, attracts large audiences to the area.
Zentsu-ji Temple is another historical spot just a 5-minute ride from Kotohira Station on the JR Dosan Line. As the birthplace of Kukai (Kobo Daishi) the city of Zentsuji and the father of Kukai are said to have donated this ground to aid in the establishment of the temple.
During your visit, if lucky enough, you may come across people clad entirely in white and donning a straw hat while carrying a stick. If so, you are looking at pilgrims on their way around the “Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage,” – following in the long cold footsteps of Kukai. Zentsu-ji is the 75th fudasho (visiting place) of the 88 on the route and has long been visited by these men and women labeled “Ohenro-san.”
Kan-on-ji Temple is another fudasho (the 69th) and is not far from Kotohiki Park – famous for Zenigata Sunae (sand paintings of early Japanese coins) said to bring financial benefits to those visiting the site in a scene which creates an interesting combination of coin art and sea. The Sekai-no-Coin Kan is another facility located in Kotohiki Park and serves to explain the history of global coinage.
Kagawa Prefecture was, in days of old, named Sanuki – a name that today reminds Japanese people of a certain traditional food – udon noodles. The thick, white noodle made of wheat flour, with its soft but relatively al dente feel is famous throughout Japan today but the passion for this noodle shown by the residents of Kagawa is second to none. When parties or wedding ceremonies are held in Kagawa, the noodle is an ever present food.
In recent years, however, it is another local dish that has been attracting the attention of both locals and visitors alike – Honetsuki-niku (chicken with bones) – a dish that permits those tasting it to compare the different flavor of different types of chicken found in the various Honetsuki-niku restaurants – locally.
An area of rich nature, Ehime has long been a popular abode of novelists intent on adding to the pages of Japanese literary history while over recent decades, the silver and small screen have both muscled in somewhat with their film crews and location shoots. Besides its literary and screen potential, Ehime is also known as an area with abundant supplies of fruit – producers here specializing in kiwi, mandarin oranges and Iyokan (a local orange named after its old area name of “Iyo”).
As the capital city of Ehime, Matsuyama is visited by people from all over West Shikoku and even Hiroshima on the opposite coast of the Seto Inland Sea. Although it is the most advanced of the cities on Shikoku, it is still known as the perfect place in which to visit the oldest hot spring resort in Japan. Literary talent has been another export over time with many haiku poets having lived here – the many “haiku posts” dotted around town dedicated to their memory.
Matsuyama’s tram system is a well organized, fundamental form of transportation for local people in this part of Japan and is absolutely no problem for those visiting from out of town to access and use worry free although it didn’t feature in the famous novel Botchan written by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) in which the main character is a high school teacher in the city who goes by the nickname of “Botchan”. The ‘Botchan’ name is used at various spots around the town today and one of the most famous must surely be the “Botchan Ressha (Botchan Train)” – a locomotive shaped tram running through the city center.
Located in the center of the city is Matsuyama Castle built by Kato Yoshiakira, a subordinate of the renowned warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) who initiated construction in 1602. Today the 400-year-old castle has largely become symbolic of Matsuyama City – visible from all areas of the city.
For visitors to Matsuyama, perhaps the highlight of a visit is the opportunity to take a dip in the Dogo Onsen hot spring. As one of the oldest hot springs in Japan with a 3000-year history, Dogo has some of the most effective waters in the nation for those wishing to fight nerve pain, rheumatism and anemia. The Dogo Onsen Honkan Public Bathhouse stands at the center of this hot spring town to welcome both tourists and locals to its baths for the reasonable fee of 400 yen per person per dip.
For the more active individuals in search of a touch of exercise and ocean views, why not visit the neighboring city of Imabari, access point to the Shimanami Kaido Expressway that stretches across the sea to Onomichi City in Hiroshima Prefecture by way of several islands in the Seto Inland Sea. A cycling path runs parallel to the highway enabling the energetic to rent a bicycle at the entrance and enjoy cycling above the waves below – all the time taking in the glorious sea view.
A bean jam roll cake has long been seen as a local Matsuyama sweet and is said to have been introduced to the local area in the mid-17th century by visiting Portuguese in a slightly different shape and containing jam. Over time the current form emerged and is now considered a Matsuyama specialty.
To Takamatsu Airport: 1 h 10 mins (from Tokyo)
To Matsuyama Airport: 1 h 15mins (from Tokyo), 45 mins (from Osaka)
Shinkansen Bullet train to Okayama followed by express train.
To Takamatsu: 4 h 35 mins (from Tokyo),
1 h 55 mins (from Shin-Osaka)
To Kotohira: 4 h 35 mins (from Tokyo),
2 h (from Shin-Osaka)
To Matsuyama: 6 h 20 mins (from Tokyo),
3 h 35 mins (from Shin-Osaka)
When traveling around Kagawa it will be hard to miss the numerous udon stands and restaurants so if fond of the white noodle it might be interesting to master preparation techniques prior to leaving the area and there is no better place to do so than near the stone steps leading to Konpira-san. Named Nakano Udon School, and labeled one of the funniest and most entertaining of schools in Japan, this isn’t a place for mathematics or science as the only subject on the curriculum is udon cooking.
“We are called a dancing udon school” principal, Ms. Sumiko Matsunaga says, asking customers (students) to call her by her nickname of Matchan – and it is clear from the outset that her interest lays primarily in entertaining her students.
While struggling with the flour and elbow deep in the process of kneading, Matchan suddenly turned up the music and shouted “Let’s dance!” – herself already swaying to the music. At first I was literally stunned but upon seeing her boundless enthusiasm had no other choice but to join in. Mere seconds, or was it minutes later, my shame done away with I had discovered the perfect blend of cooking and dance.
After rolling then cutting the ‘block’ into noodles, immerse them in boiling water and wait for a short time. Only then do you fully appreciate that anything made with our own hands is so much more delicious than that purchased and eaten. With just a little soy sauce, raw egg, grated radish, and of course traditional bonito soup nothing can quite surpass these noodles.
“Cooking udon is, in a sense, a similar process to that involved in bringing up children” chirps in Matchan now wearing a rather serious face. “It’s useless resorting to power in the kneading process when a combination of love, and tenderness will take you so much further” – a lady truly pleased that her students will take these lessons back home with them.
For more information about udon cooking at Nakano Udon School.
Nakano Udon School:
796 Kotohira-cho, Nakatado-gun, Kagawa
Udon-cooking 1575 yen (60-80 mins)
The 88 Temple Pilgrimage
Long ago Shikoku was considered to be a remote region by the Japanese and was thus considered a perfect place in which to train mind and body. As the area of Kukai’s birth, following the legendary priest’s life, his pupils following in their master’s footsteps led to the founding of the now famous 88-temple pilgrimage.
In the modern-era the pilgrimage has “modernized” and is something of a tourist event in contrast to being merely a religious practice as many visitors now travel round in cars, on bicycles, and even in guided group tours on buses.
A total of 300,000 or so pilgrims are believed to visit the temples each year with their unique clothing of white costumes and straw hats one of the most famous scenes related to Shikoku.