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From Sipping Sake To Slipping Into An Onsen — What To Do In Shikoku, Japan

Traveling on high-speed bullet trains through Japan’s cultural, structural, and natural wonders has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. For years, I’d look at Instagram images of the gorgeous, pink cherry blossoms or intricate temple designs or bowls of steamy tonkatsu ramen and hate everyone who visited the island nation without me.

I was supposed to be on that trip eating sushi! When is it my turn?

This fall, I finally got my chance. I took a trip to Shikoku — the smallest of the eight Japanese islands, full of incredibly scenic hiking trails, rivers, temples, shrines, and small-town feels. This is a quainter, quieter Japan. Sure, Tokyo is a must-visit, but if you’re in search of a road-less-traveled, ultra-local feel, you’ll love these experiences in Shikoku.

1. Make Your Own Paper at Inochō Paper Museum

Chelsea Frank

I’m not much of a visual artist. In fact, I hate making art. I don’t like small objects I have to hold gingerly and I don’t like making game-time decisions with permanent markers. But paper making? I could get into that. At this paper making workshop in Kochi’s Agawa district, I was able to put my art biases aside to learn how to make Tosa washi, a kind of traditional paper specific to this region. You basically wade your hands through a bunch of gooey water filled with raw paper materials, collect the pulp into a bamboo frame, wait for it to thicken, and then press it on to a drying rack.

As it dries, you head into their garden to collect small flowers and stems, press them onto your Pinterest-esque creation, and let it dry into new, DIY stationery. It’s the sort of calming, quiet artisanal experience that forces you to slow down a little.

2. Sip Sake at An Old Sake Brewery

Chelsea Frank

The oldest sake maker in the Tokushima prefecture (dating back to 1804), The Honke Matsuura Sake Brewing Factory in Naruto is legitimately owned by former pirates. From stealing treasure to creating a sake named one of the top 10 in the world? Talk about a glow up.

Here, you can learn about the production of sake, taste some samples, and hang out with an adorable tour guide who kept showing us a picture of his sake in The Blade Runner. My parents have never been as proud of anything I’ve accomplished as much as my new sake friend was of this cameo. Admission is free but a reservation is required!

3. Visit the Himeji Castle

Himeji is one of the most elegant castles you’ll find in Japan. It was also featured in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice, which is very cool. It was never destroyed by war, natural disaster, or fire, so it’s preserved as one of the original twelve castles in the country. When I approached the picturesque, white behemoth of a structure, I was amazed by its size and then immediately bewildered by how tiny each staircase is. Trying to climb all the way up to the top to see the view, my 5’4 body kept having to crouch down in order to avoid being concussed by a ceiling. What is this, a castle for ants?

Fun fact: there’s some crazy ghost story surrounding this castle’s well, but you’ll have to ask a local guide to tell you. They told me I can’t spill the tea.

4. Take A Dip in a 5-Star Onsen

Chelsea Frank

Staying at Wanoyado Hotel Iyaonsen was incredible. Getting to Wanoyado Hotel Iyaonsen was insane. After winding through tiny, narrow Shikoku mountainous roads in a torrential downpour, listening to a bunch of girls scream, “I really didn’t feel like dying today!” we finally arrived to this incredibly scenic 5-star hotel — the only hotel in Iya Valley, in fact.

The hotel rooms are a mix of Western and traditional Japanese style (Ryukyu tatami mats on the floor), and it has its own private, natural onsen (a Japanese hot spring/bath). You take a private cable car down to get to the onsen, which feels quite luxurious but also like you may plummet to your death. I’ll never forget my 7 AM misty morning onsen soak with a bunch of naked strangers, watching the rainfall on the yellow, red, and green hillsides.

5. Shop at Kochi Sunday Market

I loved this farmers-meets-flea market in Kochi. At nearly a mile long, it’s actually the longest market in all of Japan and has been a weekly tradition for over 300 years. You’ll find tons of fruits (the apples are freaking huge. I know that’s weird to point out, but they’re like, comically large). I accidentally tried horse, which was chewy. There are loads of teas, crafts, and treats to sample, and pretty much nobody speaks English. I saw like, two white people the entire time I was in Kochi, which, as a white person, was a welcome break.

I also saw a bunch of swords for sale, in case that’s your thing.

6. Squat Around Ryugado Cave

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Thought to be 150 billion years old (creationists, don’t @ me), entering Mt. Sampo’s limestone cave feels like you’re entering into prehistoric caveman times because… well, you are. You maneuver through the main route (think rock paths, small stair-cases, and narrow tunnels) of the cave for about two hours, trying not slip, hit your head, or end up eaten by bats. Small waterfalls will greet you around corners, fossilized creations of dwellers-past will allure you, and claustrophobia will excite you!

It’s a chilly and fascinating journey through time, ending with a time-lapse of how scientists believe the cave was formed over the billions of years projected onto the side of the limestone rock (with insane visuals). It’s great if you’re into mushrooms but can’t legally do mushrooms

7. Experience Terror at Kazura Bridge (Vine Bridge)

Walking across this bridge was one of those moments where you ask yourself “am I adventurous, or am I just suicidal?” This vine bridge is made entirely of – you guessed it – vines woven together, stretching 150 feet across the Iya River. You have to carefully examine each step, staring down 50 feet to the river through the giant gaps in the bridge, praying you don’t drop your phone (or you know, yourself).

It was thrilling, blood pumping, and I’ll absolutely never do that bullshit again. But you totally should!

8. Watch Sports and Eat Local Stuff at Hirome Market

Chelsea Frank

My favorite market in Kochi, the Hirome Market is a zoo of sushi, green tea ice cream, Japanese candy, wines, and bowls of steamy soups. You should absolutely try the bonito fish, which is from the mackerel family and eaten more in Kochi than any other part of Japan. After visiting the Kochi Castle (another castle to check out, if you’re into that kind of thing), we headed over to Hirome and entered what felt like an EDM festival for raw tuna. Good luck finding a place to sit, but standing around watching people scream at the rugby match on TV while gorging on gyoza is an experience not to be missed.

9. Pay Respect at Mt.Godai, Chikurinji Temple

Chelsea Frank

You can’t travel to Shikoku without checking out a temple! Shikoku is actually known for its 88 temple pilgrimage, which attracts Buddhists from all over the world who journey by foot to pay respect at each of the sites. When we visited this temple, we actually met a nice German girl who was on number 37 of her 88 temple feat. Tired, dirty, but immensely focused, you could tell this pilgrimage is beyond meaningful for anyone who embarks on it. I can’t even walk my dog around the block without being ready for a nap, so, respect.

At Chikurinji Temple, you can walk through the gorgeous, mossy surroundings, learn about the different Shinto and Buddhist traditions, and observe the ornate architecture. It’s very peaceful, very beautiful, and a gateway into understanding many of the traditions that make up Japanese culture.

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Once you’ve explored all that Shikoku has to offer (bonus tip: if you have time, check out the Naruto Whirlpools in the Naruto Straight for a high tide meets low tide natural phenomenon) you can easily head back to Osaka via train or flight. But before heading home through Kansai International Airport, be sure to venture out to explore the cool, bustling city known for its incredible food scene. Try the Takoyaki — fried balls of octopus or okonomiyaki, an omelet-meets-pancake filled with a variety of meat.

In fact, why don’t you just suck it up and get a Japan Rail Pass. We both know with all that Japan has to offer, you’re not leaving any time soon.

Devin Berko
Devin Berko
Devin Berko
Devin Berko

Uproxx was hosted by Shikoku Tourism. However, they did not review or approve this story. You can learn more about the Uproxx Press Trip policy here.

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