If you're drawn to the mysteries of rural Japan, seek out the mysteries of Shikoku: the smallest of Japan's four main islands. A world apart from the crowded pavements and neon-spangled skyscrapers of the big cities; this itinerary promises stunning natural beauty, from hidden valleys and untouched rivers to mountains and jagged coastlines.
Our Mystical Shikoku itinerary circumnavigates the valleys and mountains of beautiful rural Shikoku, including time on the art island of Naoshima as well as stays in historic Kyoto and super-modern Osaka.
Day 01: Arrive in Osaka - Transfer to Kyoto
The rest of your first afternoon will be free for you to start exploring the plethora of sights in this ancient city. Try to spot a geisha in Gion, count the rocks at Ryoan-ji Temple or admire the 1,001 'kannon' statues at Sanjusangendo Temple.
Day 02: Kyoto
On your first full day in Kyoto you will have eight hours to explore the city with a private local guide. Home to many of Japan's finest temples, shrines and gardens - including a whopping 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Kyoto is the undisputed cultural heart of Japan. The itinerary for the day is not fixed in advance, and your guide will help you plan a day filled with Kyoto's famous sights and hidden gems.
Day 03: Kyoto
Day three of your itinerary will be free for you to either continue exploring Kyoto or to take a day trip out of the city. You might like to take a traditional boat ride down the Hozugawa River to the bamboo groves of the Arashiyama district in northwest Kyoto, or perhaps take a break from the temples and shrines by checking out the ultra-modern Kyoto Station building.
Alternatively, you could make a day trip to nearby Nara to see the famous Great Buddha statue or visit Uji to admire Byodoin Temple.
Day 04: Kyoto - Takamatsu
Travel by train across the huge, double-decker Seto-Ohashi Bridge to Shikoku Island today to begin your adventures in rural Japan. Your first stop will be Takamatsu where you'll check into your Hotel for two nights.
Takamatsu is home to Ritsurin Gardens - some of the best landscape gardens in Japan. You may also like to visit one of the several interesting museums in Takamatsu, including the Sanuki Folkcraft Museum and a sculpture garden designed by Isamu Noguchi. The plateau of Yashima, an ancient battle ground with views of the Inland Sea, and nearby Shikoku-Mura, a collection of traditional houses displaying Shikoku architecture, are also of interest.
Day 05: Takamatsu
Today you will catch the ferry to Naoshima, a tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea renowned for its art exhibitions. Benesse House Museum, designed by the famous Japanese architect Tadao Ando, is the main draw and boasts works by Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Bruce Nauman and Jasper Jones. This beautiful island also has a host of outdoor art installations to discover as well as some incredible natural scenery.
Day 06: Takamatsu - Kotohira
Today you will head to the charming town of Kotohira, home of Shikoku's most famous shrine, Konpira-san, which sits on a hillside overlooking the town. On arrival you'll check into a riverside Ryokan.
This afternoon you may choose to take on the challenge of climbing the 800 steps to the inner sanctum of the shrine. The effort is well worth it, as you will be rewarded with fantastic views from the top and friendly encouragement from the Japanese visitors making the climb with you!
Other sights include the Kanamaru-za kabuki theatre (one of Japan's oldest), and a sake museum. Tonight you will have an included Japanese-style meal at your riverside ryokan inn.
Day 07: Kotohira - Matsuyama
Today you will travel west along the northern coast of Shikoku to the pleasant town of Matsuyama and check into your Hotel on arrival.
Matsuyama is famous for its excellent original castle and for Dogo Onsen: Japan's oldest hot spring bathhouse. This really is the perfect time for an introduction to the Japanese pastime of hot spring bathing! Be sure to catch a ride on the restored Botchan Ressha, a diesel-powered replica of the old steam trains that used to run in Matsuyama in the nineteenth century.
Days 08-09: Matsuyama - Ekawasaki
Today you'll find yourself deep in rural Shikoku as you make your way to Ekawasaki for a peaceful two-night stay by the Shimanto-gawa - Japan's last free-flowing river. Your accommodation here will be at a simple, family-run minshuku inn - a great place to meet people, enjoy some delicious home-cooked food and support the local economy.
On your second day in Ekawasaki you will be taking a canoe trip down the Shimanto-gawa River. Under the care of certified instructors, you will cruise down this magnificent river for 8 km on a four-hour journey that will allow you to experience a side of the country that few foreign visitors ever get to witness.
Days 10-11: Ekawasaki - Kochi
Today you'll travel along the beautiful southern coast of Shikoku to Kochi where you'll check into your Hotel for two nights. Kochi is a city with a relaxed atmosphere and a certain sense of the exotic - with its lively street markets and palm tree-lined streets. This is the capital of the most rural prefecture in Japan.
Nearby, on Mount Godaisan sits Chikuren-ji Temple, one of the 88 temples that form the Shikoku Pilgrimage route. Just to the south of the city lies Katsurahama Beach, a sweeping stretch of sand anchored between pine tree forests and rock coastal scenery.
Today you will have a full day to explore Kochi. Between April and October, you could get up early to join a whale-watching boat trip. Food lovers will enjoy exploring Kochi's market on a Sunday, where local farmers and fisherman will be out displaying their produce come rain or shine. Alternatively, try the Hirome market where you can take in the atmosphere whilst sitting along the communal wooden tables with the locals eating and drinking into the night.
Day 12: Kochi - Iya Valley
After your stay in Kochi you'll leave the coast behind and head west into the mysterious valleys and forested hills of central Shikoku. The Iya Valley is one of Japan's most isolated regions, with steep hills and plunging valleys that were used as hidden retreats for warring clans and political dissidents in days gone by.
Today the area is accessible but largely undeveloped, characterised by vast valleys dotted with sleepy villages and tiny hamlets. Your accommodation will be at a family-run minshuku inn in the heart of the mountains - a great base for walks and relaxation with a Japanese-style dinner included.
Day 13: Iya Valley - Tokushima
Today proceed to Tokushima and check into a family run minshuku inn. Today the area is accessible but largely undeveloped, characterised by vast valleys dotted with sleepy villages and tiny hamlets. Your accommodation minshuku inn in the heart of the mountains is a great base for walks and relaxation with a Japanese-style dinner included.
Visit the Awa Odori dance centre and take in the views from Mount Bizan in Tokushima City before taking a short local train ride out to Tatsue-ji in the countryside nearby. Tatsue-ji Temple is number 19 on the famous 88-temple pilgrimage circuit of Shikoku. You will have the chance to interact with henro Japanese pilgrims making their way around the circuit, visiting every temple along the way.
Day 14: Tokushima - Osaka
Today you will bid farewell to Shikoku and travel by bus back to Honshu, Japan's main island. Here you'll swap rural villages for ultra-modern Osaka, the largest city in the Kansai region. On arrival you'll check into your Hotel.
Osaka is famous throughout Japan for its hearty food and drink and its enthusiastic party spirit - so what better way to celebrate the end of your trip in style than by letting your hair down and joining the locals for some good food, good drinks, and a guaranteed good time?
Day 15: Depart Osaka
On your last morning you will make the short transfer back to Kansai International Airport for your flight home. In just two short weeks you will have seen a side of Japan that few foreigners and even many Japanese have never experienced!