On Shikoku they have a drinking game called “Bekuhai”. I am no longer entirely sure of the rules, or that there actually are any rules, but I do remember the special sake cups designed for the game feature booby traps to make you drink more and faster. Some have holes in their bottoms so the sake runs out if you put them down, others are shaped like faces with grotesque long noses so that you can’t put them down even if you want to. But I do remember that when the sake is a good as it is on this relatively unvisited island in the Japanese “Inland Sea”, you don’t complain.
I first encountered the cups in the smoky chaos of Hirome Ichiba, the main food hall of the island capital, Kochi, and later in numerous characterful izakaya (pubs) across Tosa and Tokushima prefectures (the southern and eastern of Shikoku’s four regions), and again at the otherwise refined environs of a traditional ryokan during a multi-course kaiseki meal.
I drank a lot on Shikoku – I blame the locals, who are infamous drinkers, renowned throughout Japan for their thirst and capacity. In fact, a survey of friends in Tokyo confirmed “drinking” as their primary characteristic.
At 140 miles long, Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, about five hours by train from Tokyo, or an hour by plane, and since the 1980s has been connected to the main island of Honshu by suspension bridges. Despite this, many of those same surveyed Tokyoites had never visited it, and even fewer foreigners make it here. It still has the feel of the remote hideaway it once was, cut off by the ever-churning whirlpools of the Inland Sea, its forested mountains home to pirates and exiles, now inhabited by people who still consider themselves slightly “other”.
If you’ve done Tokyo and Kyoto and are perhaps on your second or third visit to Japan, I recommend it. The landscape is bewitching and the so-called “Black Current” – which flows past the spectacular southern coast – supplies some of the best seafood in Japan, served as sawachi-ryori, the Japanese equivalent of a plateau de fruits de mer; or katsuo no tataki – scarlet-fleshed bonito lightly seared over a straw fire and, unusually for Japan, with lashings of garlic.
The people are pretty chilled by Japanese standards too, although their dogs are less so: Tosa, the old name for Kochi, is famed for its local breed of fighting dogs. More happily, the local Sanuki udon is fantastic: a bowl of thick, soft, white wheat noodles, served here with a sauce rather than in a soup as udon usually is in Tokyo (such distinctions being of great importance to the Japanese).
I’d been told there was an udon taxi operating in the town of Kotohira which, if you were lucky enough to hail it, would take you to the driver’s favourite restaurants. One morning, I struck out from the gorgeous ryokan where I was staying and was almost immediately passed by the udon taxi. It disappeared out of sight before I had registered the plastic bowl of udon on its roof, but I managed to find it, parked, a few hundred yards up the street. I climbed in, said the magic word, and a few minutes later I was sitting in Nishikiya Udon eating the most delicious bowl of noodles I think I have ever had, for less than the equivalent of three quid. Afterwards, a few yards down the high street I stopped to watch another udon chef, Kiyotaka Iwasaki, who was writhing strangely behind his counter. It turned out he was kneading his fridge-cold dough with his feet to make it more malleable (it was in plastic bags).
Iwasaki had been making udon for 23 years, he told me, and asked where I was from.“I love Paul McCartney!” he exclaimed, and began to sing the opening bars of “And I Love Her”. This kicked off a kind of a Beatles tennis match in which I would sing one of their songs and he would reply with another. Now, that wouldn’t happen in Tokyo.
Shikoku is also known for its 88 Temple Route, a pilgrims’ trail upon which many retirees embark once they have finished their careers (it takes 40-60 days), but has plenty of other historical sites, including castles (Kochi’s is a stunner) and museums.
I had really come for the food, though. Kochi’s Sunday market is the perfect showcase for the bounty of the island. The largest market of its kind in Japan, it was founded in the 1690s, and still runs for almost a mile through the city centre, with stalls selling local produce and products, fruits and vegetables, some I had never encountered before. They eat Japanese knotweed in this part of the island, for instance, which could be one way to solve the epidemic in our own isles.
There were citrus fruit galore at the market. The king of them all is the yuzu, which arrived in Japan from China via Korea in the 800s. These days it is beloved of patissières, mixologists and chefs in the West, though still rare and costly in Europe in its natural state. Around half of Japan’s total production of this super-fragrant lemon-like fruit comes from Shikoku, and a good proportion of that is from the region close to the town of Umaji, listed as among Japan’s most beautiful.
I travelled there along the road beside the Yasuda River up into the mountains (yuzu trees like a bit of chill in the air, it seems). At the Umaji yuzu information centre, I learned of the myriad products they make from this little fruit: the juice, of course, but also tea, jam, ponzu, miso, vinegars and various beauty unguents. The Japanese put the squeezed hulls of the fruit in their baths to release its heavenly perfume, and they even sell the pips, toasted. My favourite yuzu product is yuzu kosho, a pungent condiment made from salted rinds and chilli. It’s perfect with fish or rice and I reckon it could be the next big thing in terms of Japanese food products.
A spring fling with Shikoku
I visited a yuzu farmer, Hiroyuki Shimota. Now in his sixties, Shimota turned to yuzu farming when the rice paddies became too strenuous. He explained that it takes 15-20 years before a yuzu tree bears fruit. “Watch out for the thorns,” he said, just as I impaled a finger. The thorns do not deter Shimota’s greatest enemies: deer which chew the bark, and wild rabbits which devour the saplings. “I don’t make much money from yuzu,” he told me. “But 85 per cent of the land here is forest, and it is very satisfying when you see these yellow fruit defeating the forest.”
Further inland, the character of Shikoku changes. Here, gruesome legends of spirits and ghosts are told to children to keep them away from white water and perilous precipices. In the autumn and winter the brooding mountains are often shrouded in mist but it is still a great time to visit. In autumn, and again in spring, the changing foliage renders the views riotously captivating. The cherry trees blossom a week or so earlier here: a good way to avoid the crowds and high hotel rates on the mainland in late March/early May.
My final stop before heading back to Tokyo was at the village of Nagoro. A victim of Japan’s urban migration and depopulation, this small town straddling a river in the Iya valley has been revived by improbable means: local woman Ayano Tsukimi, 66, has repopulated it with around 180 kakashi, or dolls – life-sized figures too sophisticated to be called scarecrows – which she has placed in the fields, bus stops and even a disused school over the last few years, turning the town into a tourist destination in its own right.
“I didn’t really intend to repopulate the village,” she told me, as we sat in front of a diorama of a dozen or so of her figures in the village hall. “But I’ve been so happy to have all these new visitors.” Tsukimi tells me that she often talks to her dolls and that they come alive. At night, she says, they dance. Dancing dolls? On Shikoku, it would not surprise me in the least.
InsideJapan (0117 370 9751; insidejapantours.com) offers a 14-night tour of Shikoku from £1,660pp excluding flights. The nearest big airport is Osaka’s Kansai International, served by Air France, Emirates, KLM, Lufthansa or Qatar Airways via their respective hubs.
Kotohira Kadan (kotohira-kadan.jp). A 400-year-old ryokan with doubles from £136, half board.
Sunriver Ooboke Onsen Hotel (oobokeonsen.jp). Doubles from £97, half board.
Umaji Community Centre (umaj.gr.jp). Rates from £30pp.
Hotel Iya Onsen (iyaonsen.co.jp). A stunning onsen (hot spring bath) ryokan overlooking the Iya Valley. Doubles from £200, half board.
Richmond Hotel Kochi (kochi.richmondhotel.jp). Doubles from £57, including breakfast.
The Palace Hotel, Tokyo (palacehoteltokyo.com). Doubles from £325, room only