The Awa-Odori summer festival in Tokushima city is one of Japan’s most cherished festivals, and one of its most popular, attracting about 1.3 million visitors a year to soak in the atmosphere of a city transformed for four days by infectious rhythms and lively dancing. For those that can’t make it to Tokushima between the 12th and 15th of August, there’s still a chance to experience the festive atmosphere at Awa-Odori Kaikan. Here, a professional dance troupe will not only give a stirring Awa-Odori performance, but they also encourage the audience to join them on stage to teach them this relatively simple, but super-fun way to get your body moving Tokushima style. For those intrigued by Awa-Odori, there is also a comprehensive museum, and a well-stocked gift shop of artisanal goods.
The three-day trip we map out here introduces some of the very best aesthetically, physically, and intellectually rich time-slip experiences to be found anywhere in Japan. From working up a sweat dancing to making noodles, paddling furiously in river rapids, or visiting some of the most exquisite traditional gardens and castles remaining in Japan, this trip has something to put a smile on everyone’s face.
Awa-Odori Kaikan Hall
Inotani (Tokushima ramen)
The pursuit of the perfect bowl of Ramen noodles borders on a national obsession in Japan, with noodle fans traveling far and wide to get their fix. Only 10 minutes away from Awa-Odori Kaikan lies a mecca for Ramen aficionados, “Chuka Soba Inotani,” serving Tokushima’s own take on this national dish. Here you can expect a piping hot bowl of glutinous, slightly elastic noodles in a strong, soy-sauce-infused tonkotsu-style broth made from boiled down pork, seafood, and vegetables, and topped with slices of sweet and spicy boiled pork belly and a boiled egg. Simply delicious! While not considered a gourmet dish by the tourist market, these noodles are dearly loved by Tokushima locals, and sampling a bowl is a great way to have an authentic local experience. From here you will head off to your night’s accommodation in the Iya Valley, so it’s best to return to JR Tokushima Station to pick up your rental car, or otherwise catch a limited express train to your destination.
Accommodation: Mountain Lodge Chiiori
The first night’s accommodation, Chiiori — a 300-year-old traditional thatched-roof house nestled within the rugged mountains of Tokushima’s Iya Valley, gives you a taste of life in pre-modern Japan. While you have exclusive use of this “house that time forgot,” it doesn’t mean you will be without modern necessities, as the updated bathroom, air-conditioning, heated floor, and luxury linen will give you the feel of staying in a unique luxury hotel. Chiiori’s fully-equipped kitchen is at your disposal, so be sure to bring along what you need. If cooking for yourself is not a high priority, you can try traditional Iya cuisine from a local catering service, though be sure to book beforehand. As there is no public transport available to take you to Iya Valley, it’s best to hire a car from one of the rental-car services near the JR Tokushima Station. Another option is to take the train to JR Oboke Station, and then take a taxi for the 50 minute journey into the mountains.
Rafting at Yoshino river (Happy Raft)
The Oboke and Koboke Gorges, located in the middle of the Yoshino river near the center of Shikoku island, are famous for having some of the best whitewater rafting spots anywhere in Japan. Taking a trip down the river with the experienced guides of Happy Raft will bring a thrilling encounter with the beautiful nature and crystal clear water found in these gorges. Happy Raft operates between March and October, and can accommodate a range of needs with their one day and half day tours. You can also enjoy fun bonuses like canyoning and jumping off rocks into the aquamarine water. The closest station to Happy Raft is JR Tosa-Iwahara station, which is also a convenient starting point to explore Kagawa Prefecture.
Takamatsu City hosts the largest, and one of the most beautiful, Japanese gardens in all the country. Construction of this manicured masterpiece of nature started in 1625, and took more than a hundred years to reach its full glory. Apart from 1400 beautifully manicured pine trees, a host of cherry blossom trees, and so much more by way of vivid plant life, one of the most attractive features of the garden is the way it’s been integrated into the adjoining low lying hills, stretching up to the local peak, Mt. Shuin. Taking in this garden vista, our eyes are fooled into perceiving the view as spreading far beyond the garden’s outer wall. This scenic enhancement continues within the park, with artificial hills and six lakes adding topographical diversity and distance, miniaturizing nature onto a very Japanese scale. Taking a boat ride on the glass-like ponds is highly recommended, as is a visit to the teahouse. Sipping tea, looking over the ponds filled with dappled carp, delivers a quintessentially Japanese experience.
Nakano Udon School（Udon)
With an extraordinary abundance of noodle shops, Kagawa prefecture forms the heartland of Japan’s revered white flour Udon noodles. If you have a hankering to know more about this delicious noodle, or would like to try your hand at making some, then you can’t pass up the Nakano Udon School. Over the course of 60 to 90 minutes, you can experience softening up the dough with your feet, kneading it by hand, and then hand-cutting the noodles, all done in an energetic and fun workshop. Do all this and you earn yourself a diploma wrapped up with a rolling pin. And as a bonus, you even get to eat the fruits of your labor in the adjoining cafeteria.
Accomodation: Kiyomisanso Hanajyukai
For those seeking accommodation in Takamatsu City, we wholeheartedly recommend Kiyomisanso Hanajyukai. Located on the east side of Mineyama Park, Hanajyukai is entirely surrounded by trees and flowers, offering a new experience in every season. Taking full advantage of the ryokan’s location overlooking both Takamatsu City and the Seto Inland Sea, the outdoor and open-air baths offer 200-degree panoramic views which will hold you spellbound, even as the rejuvenating waters of the bath wash away your cares.
Transportation to and from JR Takamatsu Station included.
Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter
Take a step back in time to visit the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter in Okayama. A bustling center for trade in the Edo era, it relied on the Kurashiki river to move large amounts of goods in and out of the city’s storehouses. Walking down the quaint streets with their well-preserved buildings is a visual feast, and taking a boat ride on the canal only makes the view more impressive. Museums, traditional-style shops, and modern specialty stores will keep you browsing for hours. Maybe even take a historical stroll wearing a rental Kimono. The evening lights bring a different pace and feel to the area, along with a chance to see the magnificent illuminated buildings reflected on the still river water.
While in Okayama, don’t miss the chance to visit Okayama Korakuen, conveniently located close to JR Okayama Station. There you’ll find the pinnacle of Japanese garden design, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, and the winner of a coveted three-star rating from the Michelin Green Guide Japan. The view from the garden’s Yuishinzan Hill alone received a two-star rating. The garden is majestic, with a total area of about 144,000 square meters. As an expansive garden with a pond at its center, carefully designed walking courses, and an artificial hill, Okayama Korakuen is considered to model of the chisenkai yushiki style of garden design. In spring, enjoy plum, cherry and azalea blossoms. In summer, gaze upon Japanese iris and lotus flowers. In fall, delight to the glorious colors of maple and ginkgo leaves. This is an essential destination for visitors to Okayama, and a stunning example of Japan’s cultural heritage. An Okayama Korakuen bus is available to take you directly to and from JR Okayama Station, unless you prefer to take a tram or enjoy a relaxing stroll.
Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum
The Japanese sword is widely acknowledged as being a pinnacle of Japanese craftsmanship and artistry. In the age of Samurai, Osafune township in Okayama Prefecture was renowned throughout Japan for making the finest swords. While times have changed, sword making is still alive in Osafune-cho, and the town is home to a fine museum celebrating all things sword. At Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum, not only do you get to see some of the finest examples of sword craftsmanship in existence, you can also see modern day masters at work as well, continuing the tradition of making blades of superb quality. Although days and times are limited, it is even possible to experience making your own miniature sword, well, actually a letter opener. Regardless of size though, learning the basics of the craft under a master sword-maker’s eye is a memory to be treasured.
Nicknamed the “White Heron” because of its stark white walls rising steeply into the sky, Himeji Castle is not only the largest and most frequently visited castle in Japan, it’s the closest existing approximation of what a castle complex would have looked like in feudal times. The castle dates back to 1333, and periodic expansions have resulted in a network of 83 buildings that simultaneously give an insight into castle life, and a crash course on defensive architecture. Himeji Castle’s claim as one of the country’s most iconic structures was confirmed with World Cultural Heritage status — one of the first places in Japan to receive this recognition. Just next door is Kokoen, a wonderfully compact collection of nine different styles of traditional Japanese garden. Designed to showcase the manicured beauty of Japan’s relationship with nature in all four seasons, a stroll through the quiet garden provides a visual feast, and one well complemented by a visit to the pond-side teahouse for refreshments.