It has beautiful scenery, a laid-back atmosphere, friendly people and several notable sights, yet SHIKOKU , Japan's fourth main island, is usually at the bottom of most visitors' itineraries - if it appears at all. This is a shame, since this tranquil island, which nestles in the crook between Honshu and Kyushu, offers elements of traditional Japan that are often hard to find elsewhere. An ancient Buddhist pilgrimage, original castles and distinctive arts and crafts are some of Shikoku's attractions - but equally appealing is the island's rural, less frantically modern pace of life and its little-visited villages. You'll need a week or so to get around all Shikoku's four prefectures. If you only have a day, though, head straight for either of the island's justly famous draws: Matsuyama's splendid castle and hot springs at Dogo and the landscape gardens of Ritsurin-koen in Takamatsu.
According to legend, Shikoku was the second island (after Awaji-shima) born to Izanagi and Izanami, the gods who are considered to be Japan's parents. Its ancient name was Iyo-no-futana and it was divided into four main areas: Awa (now Tokushima-ken), Iyo (Ehime-ken), Sanuki (Kagawa-ken) and Tosa (Kochi-ken). These epithets are still used today when referring to the different prefectures' cuisines and traditional arts. Apart from being the scene of a decisive battle between the Taira and Minamoto clans in the twelfth century , Shikoku has had a relatively peaceful history, due in part to its isolation from the rest of Japan. This ended with the opening of the Seto Ohashi in 1989, a series of six bridges which leapfrogs the islands of the Inland Sea and carries both trains and cars. It has now been joined by the Akashi Kaikyo Ohashi - the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world - connecting Shikoku to Honshu via Awaji-shima, the island to the west of Tokushima, and the Nishi Seto Expressway, running along ten bridges spanning nine islands between Onomichi in Hiroshima-ken and Imabari on the island's northern coast.
Most of Shikoku's population of around four million is to be found in its four prefectural capitals: Takamatsu, Tokushima, Kochi and Matsuyama. The island is split by a vast mountain range that runs from Tsurugi-san in the east, to Ishizuchi-san, Shikoku's tallest peak, in the west. The northern coast, facing the Inland Sea, is heavily developed, in contrast to the predominantly rural south, where the unimpeded kuroshio (black current) of the Pacific Ocean has carved a rugged coastline of sheer cliffs and outsized boulders. The climate throughout the island is generally mild, although the coasts can be lashed by typhoons and the mountains see snow in the winter.
Shikoku's best all-round destination is Matsuyama, but you're more than likely to begin your journey around the island in Kagawa-ken on the northern coast, after crossing the Seto Ohashi. Stop in Takamatsu to visit the delightful gardens of Ritsurin-koen , the Yashima plateau, immediately east of the city, site of a historic clan battle, and, in the west of the prefecture, the shrine at Kotohira . If you have a bit more time, take a trip out to one of the nearby Inland Sea islands, such as Shodo-shima or Nao-shima . Eastern Shikoku and the central, secluded Iya valley are part of Tokushima-ken , famous for its capital city Tokushima's annual Awa Odori dance festival, the whirlpools at Naruto and the turtles who come to lay their eggs at Hiwasa each summer. Shikoku's southern coast, fanning out between the capes at Ashizuri and Muroto, is covered by Kochi-ken , where fighting sumo dogs and long-tailed roosters are the local attractions, along with an original castle in the capital, Kochi. Flowing through the west of prefecture is the Shimantogawa , one of Japan's most beautiful rivers. Matsuyama , the capital of the eastern prefecture of Ehime-ken , is justly famous for its castle - one of the best in Japan - and the onsen at Dogo, where emperors and commoners have come to bathe for centuries. Just outside Matsuyama, the small towns of Uwajima and Uchiko , relatively untouched by industrialization, give glimpses of a Japan long since past.
Despite being off the beaten track, Shikoku has good tourist facilities. In the prefectural capitals you'll find a decent range of hotels, restaurants and bars, not to mention international centres and tourist information offices, while the island's famous 88-temple pilgrimage , means that even in the countryside you're unlikely to be stuck for accommodation. Getting around by public transport is easy enough, though a rented car will obviously give you more flexibility and really comes into its own if you want to get to the villages of the Iya Valley or explore Western Kochi-ken and the Simanto-gawa area. Train services are not as frequent as on the mainland, but the island's compact size means you can easily cross it in a day.
Of the several discount schemes that you may find useful while travelling in Shikoku, JR's Young Weekend Card gives 16- to 29-year-olds forty percent off all rail travel on the island from after 5pm on Friday until midnight on Sunday and public holidays. The card costs ¥500 and is available from all JR stations and is worth looking into if you don't qualify for a JR rail pass. Also useful are the Seto Inland Sea Welcome Card for Ehime-ken and the similar Kagawa Welcome Card. These free cards, which last a year and provide discounts of up to twenty percent on a good range of hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions, are available from all the major tourist information offices and come with handy information booklets in English, Korean and Chinese.