If you’re a seasoned Japan visitor (or an adventurous first-timer), I would recommend trying the two least-known JR Passes: the San’in-Sanyo JR Pass, and the All-Shikoku Pass. The covers all the JR Shikoku routes and some extra private rail lines. This guide explains the JR Shikoku Rail Pass and introduces some highlights for Tokushima, Kochi, Ehime, and Kagawa Prefectures.
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Table of contents:
- Summary Ideas: All Shikoku Pass Infographic
- How to Purchase, Redeem & Use your Rail Pass
- A Sample 5-Day Shikoku Train Itinerary
- Overview of Shikoku: Awa, Tosa, Sanuki, Iyo
Summary Ideas: All Shikoku Pass Infographic
How to Purchase, Redeem & Use your Rail Pass
- Purchasing a pass overseas. You can order a voucher in your home country, which wil be mailed to you before your trip. You take that voucher and redeem it at a designated JR Shikoku train station (not JR stations outside of Shikoku) — see the list below.
- Purchasing a pass inside Japan (on Shikoku). You can redeem / purchase the pass at Takamatsu Station, Sakaide Station, Matsuyama Station, Tokushima Station, Kochi Station, and the Warp Umeda Osaka Branch (which is 10 mins walk from Osaka JR Station),
Note that this pass cannot be purchased in Tokyo. JR East, JR West, JR Kyushu, JR Shikoku, etc. are all different companies.
- When redeeming / purchasing, tell them the date you want the pass to start, otherwise it will be assumed as the same day.
- Validity: 2/3/4/5 days (i.e. Monday to Sunday inclusive, until 11:59pm)
- Types of trains valid for: all trains on non-reserved seats (express, limited express, rapid service, local). In addition, you get special pricing / free rides on other transport companies on or to Shikoku:
- Free tram rides at Matsuyama (Iyotetsu Company)
- Free tram rides at Takamatsu (Kotoden Company)
- Free tram rides in Kochi (Tosaden)
- Free private train line rides on Tosa-Kuroshio Lines in Kochi & Asato line in Tokushima
- Nangoku Express buses between Matsuyama and Kochi for a special price (normally
¥3,600) Special price:¥1,000. The Matsuyama – Kochi bus takes 2.5-3 hours, which is faster than taking the express trains.
- Nankai Ferry between Tokushima Port and Wakayama Port (normally
¥2,000) Special price ¥1,400. Show your All Shikoku Rail Pass at the ferry ticket window.
- Matsuyama Port – Hiroshima Port Ishizaki Kisen and Setonaikaikisen ferries/high-speed ships. Super Jet(normally
¥7,100) Special Price ¥3,800 and the Cruise Ferry(normally ¥3,600) Special price ¥2,000. Show your All Shikoku Rail Pass at the ferry ticket window with your passport.
- Free ride on Iyotetsu Takashimaya ferris wheel (a ¥700 value). There’s a panoramic view of the Matsuyama Castle and the Seto Inland Sea.
- How to board a train / tram: Show your pass to a station attendant at the ticket window and walk through. You may be asked to present your passport. Walk onto any JR train that has free seating or the Non-Reserved seat compartment (reserved seats must be booked in advance at a designated train, which is more of a hassle). Show your pass to the train attendant who walks by asking people for tickets. Show the station attendant to exit a station. That’s it!
- Great benefits: You can go anywhere on Shikoku whenever fits your schedule. It’s basically a hop on, hop off.
A Sample 5-Day Shikoku Train Itinerary
A 5-day sample trip is totally not enough to enjoy all of Shikoku. I think it deserves two weeks and many of my favourite places take a bit of time to get to, even with the train. In order to maximise your time there, I would suggest you start in a city and only activate the pass after you are done exploring the city and ready to go to other places.
- Day 0: Arrival City – Takamatsu
Either Matsuyama or Takamatsu. Takamatsu Airport has more charter flights now, so it might be the easier one to get to. Give yourself 2 days to enjoy Takamatsu. Eat lots of udon (I made a map). Stroll around the city centre shopping area. Visit famous locations highlighted in the anime Poco’s Udon World such as Ritsurin Garden and Yashima Temple. When you are done, get a good sleep and start the next day early with your All Shikoku Rail Pass.
- Day 1: Takamatsu > Iya Valley (overnight)
Take the train into one of Japan’s secluded valleys, known for its vine bridges. Go early. Don’t fall asleep, as this train ride alone is worth the trip as you work into the Iya Valley and Oboke Gorge areas. Get off and take the buses deeper in to see the bridges. Stroll through the forest. I suggest staying overnight in one of the ryokans. Find out more about the Iya Valley on Wikitravel. Avid hikers can spend an extra day hiking to Mount Tsurugi, but you’ll lose a day on the train!
- Day 2: Iya Valley > Kochi (and yuzu!) > Uwajima or Yawatahama
You will probably only have time for Kochi City, which is a small and down to earth city. The best parts of Kochi, such as for surfing, are not convenient from the train. While in Kochi City, have the famous “katsuotataki” seared bonito. Kochi Prefecture produces yuzu, seen as a culinary luxury around the world. When in season, it’s just another fruit, so have it fresh if you’re lucky, but otherwise stock up on yuzu juices and sauces in the super markets!When you’re done shopping and exploring, hop back on the train to your overnight stay. I think anywhere along the train line is fine, but Uwajima is a good choice because it is famous for its seafood. Try the local oysters, uni (sea urchin), steamed fish rice, and whatever fresh catches you spot! Yawatahama is also a good choice because it’s the last stop for the train you get on next.
- Day 3: Uwajima > Unomachi > Yawatahama > Iyo-Ozu > Shimonada > Matsuyama
Today, you have 2 choices: 1) taking a cool historic train ride to Matsuyama or 2) taking the same route on a regular train and hopping on and off to historic places.Optional: Unomachi is my optional pro-tip. The town is used frequently for historic movies and TV dramas, so it’s like walking through Gion in Kyoto without the tourists. I also recommend the walk to Meiseki-ji, which is Temple #43 on the Shikoku Pilgrimage and gives you a flavour for what the historic route is like (check my pilgrimage diary entry & photos here).Option 1: Yawatahama is where the Iyonada Monogatari train starts. Unlike regular JR trains, this special train requires seat reservations which need to be done in advance. The town itself is also historic, so if you arrive early, have a stroll around. Once you get on the train, enjoy the ride until you get to Matsuyama. Make sure you take note of Shimonada, previously the closest station to the sea in Japan. It has one platform and faces the open ocean.Option 2: Take regular JR trains and hop on / off until you get to Matsuyama. Iyo-Ozu is the castle town for the former Iyo Province, so you can visit the castle and walk around. If you really like the quite and the sea, you can hop off at Shimonada and watch the ocean. Note that the next train will probably be at least an hour later, so check the schedule!End your day in Matsuyama. If you’re very early, go to Dogo Onsen and soak in a historic bathhouse. NOTE, it is a bathhouse that’s a historic onsen experience rather than a luxury resort with jets.Note: The Iyonada Monogatari Train requires an additional fare. I highly recommend trying this train. (Regular one-way fare: ¥2,260 Matsuyama – Yawatahama; Discounted All Shikoku Pass Fare: ¥980 if purchased at Shikoku Rail / Warp locations).
- Matsuyama to Imabari or Mount Ishizuchi
Take an early train out of Matsuyama. You can explore Matsuyama after your Shikoku Rail Pass expires. Today, you have 2 options: checking out the Shimanami Kaido or hiking up Mount Ishizuchi.Option 1: The Shimanami Kaido is a series of train bridges that crosses the Seto Inland Sea back to the mainland. You can join a bus tour that will drive you over, but make sure you pre-book as they depart early in the morning.Option 2: Hiking up Mount Ishizuchi. Mount Ishizuchi is the tallest mountain in Western Japan and also a holy site for Shugendo. You can access it by taking the train, bus, and then a cable car up to the top of the mountain. From there, the hike to and from the peak is about 4-5 hours.If you really like mountains, you can not take the cable car, hike up the whole mountain, stay overnight on the mountain, and come back down the next day. Please check my posts on Mount Ishizuchi Route Information and How to Get Around posts.
- Day 5: Finish Off at — Matsuyama OR onwards
Depending on whether you stayed overnight outside of Matsuyama or not, you can go back to Matsuyama. I suggest trying Dogo Onsen and splurging on the private room rather than the economical ¥300 communal bath.If you like temples, then today is also a great day to visit the historic temples along the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Ishite-ji is reportedly the location where the first Shikoku Pilgrim, Emon Saburo, was born (here’s my blog post on it). Various other Shikoku temples that are right along the JR lines. There is a cluster of them around the Ishuzuchi-yama train station (check the Jpilgrim Map).If you were finished with Matsuyama and want to max out your pass, use your last day to take the train to another city and head on to your next destination. From Takamatsu, you can purchase discounted tickets to Shodoshima, Kobe, Hiroshima.
Overview of Shikoku: Awa, Tosa, Iyo, Sanuki
Though a small island, Shikoku has historic ties with the Japanese mainland and arguably has punched above its weight in the course of Japanese history. Matsuyama’s Dogo Onsen is credited as the oldest onsen in Japan, with a rumoured 3000 year old history. The island was home to the famous Shikoku Pilgrimage and Kukai, founder of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism in Japan that is headquartered on Mount Koya, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Kochi Prefecture was home to the the warlord, Chosokabe Motochika, who unified the island, as well as Sakamoto Ryoma, a legendary reformist who fought against the shogunate before the Meiji Restoration.
Like most places, in the world, the names of places have been given, taken off, and reinstated over the course of decades and centuries. The most recent systemic renaming of places in Japan happened after the Emperor Meiji seized back lands from the shogun and regional daimyo in 1868, during the Meiji Restoration. During this time, Awa Province became Tokushima Prefecture; Tosa Province became Kochi Prefecture; Sanuki Province became Kagawa Prefecture; Iyo Province became Ehime Prefecture. However, the names of places remain, in all of the Shikoku Rail stations, the cuisines and dishes. As such, knowing the history is a useful way to navigate this small island and find what you’re looking for. For example, udon hails from Kagawa Prefecture, but everyone calls it Sanuki udon, after the historic name of the area.
Awa: Tokushima Prefecture
Tokushima is where Shikoku pilgrims, o-henro, usually begin their pilgrimage. If you are interested in trying, this is a good place to start, although you could visit any temple at any time. As mentioned above, the Iya Valley is worth a day trip and overnight stay (not just for the vine bridges, but even moreso for the overnight stay in the mountains). Tokushima is also famous for the Naruto Whirlpools, which I’ve never seen.
Hikers can do a hike in the Iya Valley, or also go to Mount Tsurugi. I personally like the day hike to Shosan-ji (suitable for people who hike and are physically fit), the legendary Temple 12 in the Shikoku Pilgrimage, which you can reserve an overnight stay in if you like. Note that getting off the temple will likely require a taxi, which can be quite expensive. The trail head for Shosan-ji is at Fuji-dera, Shikoku Pilgrimage Temple #11, and you can read about it in my blog post here.
For food, Tokushima sudachi is one of my all time favourites. Sudachi is like a Japanese yuzu-green lime that is slightly bitter, but divine in the summer. Hanta Somen (半田そめん) is a source of local pride, and as someone who doesn’t even like somen, it was addictive.
Tokushima is also famous for the Awa Odori in the summer, where you can watch dancers in traditional dress with distinctive hats. They perform in competitions throughout Japan in the summer.
Tosa: Kochi Prefecture
Kochi Prefecture is probably my favourite, but it is also the least accessible on the train. Some of the places mentioned below need to be reached with a car (or a long bus ride).
It’s likely that you’ve tasted something from Kochi without realising it: bonito fish. Bonito flakes in takoyaki, for example, and the ones used in dashi, the ubiquitous Japanese fish stock that goes into soups and sauces alike. Bonito is katsuo in Japanese, so be sure to try katsuo anything, but the dish most people recommend is katsuotataki, seared bonito slices. Yuzu, now world famous, also comes from Kochi, so if you’re around the area anyway, why not hop into a supermarket and pick up a fresh sauce or juice from the supermarket.
Surfing is also a popular local activity along the coast for people in Tokushima, but especially Kochi Prefecture. The JR Station Tosa-Irino is right up against a stretch of beach. Further from the train lines is Hirano Surfing Beach.
Cape Muroto and Cape Ashizuri on the Southeastern and Southwestern ends of Kochi respectively are great places to visit if you have a car. Both have a spectacular view of the ocean and also have historic Buddhist temples close to them along the Shikoku Pilgrimage route. If you are driving, you could consider staying overnight at Cape Ashizuri, which is a bit of a resort town.
In Kochi City, visit Chukurin Temple, as the complex has bamboo groves and a garden.
Iyo: Ehime Prefecture
Ehime Prefecture probably has the biggest range of things to see. On the southern end bordering Kochi, the people of Uwajima are famously gruff (but also have renown seafood dishes). Matsuyama, in contrast, is quite a cultural place with history, crafts, and a lively downtown core with local shops.
Cultural places in Ehime for me would include a series of temples and some historic locations. Iyo-Ozu has the castle for the lord of former Iyo Province. Matsuyama has Dogo Onsen, which is reportedly 3000 years old, recorded in one of the oldest historical records, the Kojiki, and once visited by Prince Shotoku, in early (Yamato) Japanese history.
Natural places would include mountains and Aoshima, “Cat Island” for the feline lovers. As I mentioned in the itinerary above, Mount Ishizuchi is a great day hike and famous for its climbing chains and sheer peak. Cyclists can cycle across the Shimanami Kaido, an 80 kilometre stretch of bridges from Imabari City connecting Shikoku to the main island. If cycling isn’t your thing, you can take a bus across as well and the tour will stop at view points on the islands.
If you have a car, my local pro-tip is to go see the area known as Kuma Kogen, a highland plateau with perhaps the most memorable kamaage udon udon in my life. The area has resorts that I have not stayed in, but feel would be well worth the splurge as restorative recluses. While there, you must visit Daiho-ji and Iwaya-ji, Temples #44 and #45 respectively in the Shikoku Pilgrimage. If temples aren’t your thing, then at least go to Iwaya-ji, which is I believe the only temple that you cannot reach directly with a car. You need to trek up a forest to reach the site, which is built into the rock and the new wing is an impressive feat of modern engineering against the steep slopes. Visiting Buddhist temples is free and if you are a hiker, there is a mountain route between the two temples that could serve as your daily exercise.
Sanuki: Kagawa Prefecture
I have an undecided relationship with Kagawa Prefecture. It is home to one of my favourite Japanese foods of all time — sanuki udon. At the same time, the prefecture is not that friendly to foreign ohenro (pilgrims). Kagawa Prefecture is also not as scenic as the other three, but in some ways, it makes up by being far more accessible on the train.
In Takamatsu, get the 24-hour udon map, free, from the JR Takamatsu Station Information desk. It’s in Japanese. Just do it and figure it out (or read my udon walk post). Next, go to Ritsurin Garden, which is one of the most famous gardens in Japan and without the flood of tourists that Kanazawa now has. The garden is downtown and close to a Koto-den station, which is free for Shikoku Rail Pass holders. Check out Yashima-ji on a plateau with a view of the city and even make a hike out of the 30-minute hike up the slope.
Also, if you are a fan of Anpan Man fan, you have three chances to take the Anpanman Train:
- From Okayama Station in Okayama in Honshu across the Seto Ohashi Bridge to Matsuyama in Shikoku on the Yosan Line.
- From Okayama, it also goes through Kagawa Prefecture, then Kochi City to Kubokawa. The full route ends at Nakamura. This is the picturesque Dosan Line through the Iya Valley and Oboke Gorge.
- From Takamatsu (Kagawa) to Tokushima (Tokushima) on the Kotoku Line
A final train hack is you can take the Sunrise Seto train direct from Takamatsu in Kagawa all the way to Tokyo.
I’ll leave it at that for now. Have fun planning!