Golden Week in Japan is four federal holidays that are close together at the end of April and beginning of May. It is one of three of Japan's busiest holiday seasons (the other two are New Years and Obon Week - which takes place in mid-August). The first Golden Week holiday takes place on April 29th, it is Showa Day. Showa Day is in celebration of the previous Emperor's birthday, Emperor Hirohito, who reigned from 1926 until he passed away in 1989. On May 3rd, the second holiday takes place. It is Constitution Day and it celebrates the day that the post WWII constitution went into effect in 1947. The next day, May 4th, is Greenery Day, a day to honor the environment. The last holiday in Golden Week takes place on May 5th which is Children's Day. On Children's day carp streamers and samurai dolls can be found all around Japan. Many people pray for their sons to have good health, happiness, and wisdom. While this holiday was historically geared towards boys (Girl's day is celebrated on March 3rd), to my understanding at least, it has seemed to become a more gender ambiguous holiday and is instead used as a day to celebrate all young people.
This year, 2023, we lost a day off because Showa Day took place on a Saturday. However, May 3rd-5th fell on a Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. So, I decided to take nenkyu (time off) on Monday and Tuesday to have a full 8 day break. I decided to take a road trip to the island of Shikoku. Shikoku is the smallest of Japan's four main islands with a population of about 3.6 million. It is made up of four different prefectures: Ehime, Kagawa, Tokushima, and Kochi. This island is located North East from my prefecture/island.
I left on Saturday, April 29th to begin my adventure. This was my second major road-trip in Japan, but I was still a little nervous. It was the first time that I would be far enough away that if I did have an emergency, or breakdown it wouldn't be as easy for my friends to come meet me. Breakdowns can happen to anyone, but since my current car has around 140,000 miles on it, it is something that is always in the back of my mind. Anyway, there were no disasters and I made it through the trip with *little* issues. I drove to the port in Oita and took the ferry to Ehime.
The first mistake that I made was not realizing that I had to prepurchase a ticket for the ferry ride. The only ferry that I had taken before this was the one in Kagoshima that went to Sakurajima volcano and, for that one, you don't need a ticket. The ferry from Oita to Ehime is smaller and only leaves once an hour. So as you can imagine, it is difficult to get tickets on short notice. I got really lucky and ended up booking a ticket for the same day at 5p.m. which meant that I would get to Matsuyama City (where my first hotel was located in Ehime) around 8p.m. However, because I had never been to the port in Oita, I arrived an hour early and they did let me onto the 4p.m. ferry. It was raining the whole time and there was no airflow in the ferry itself. The combination ended up making me seasick. It was the first time, that I can remember anyway, getting seasickness. It made for a pretty uncomfortable hour ride. I was so happy to finally reach Ehime.
Once I made it to land, I felt better almost instantly. The drive to Matsuyama City is about a two hour drive from the port. On the way there, you pass through a city called Ikata that has a melody road. A melody road is a short stretch of road that has grooves which creates a vibration in your tires that sounds like a song. Melody roads first came to Japan in 2004 in Hokkaido. This specific melody road in Ikata was created in 2011 and stretches 430 meters playing the melody to a song called "Mikan'no Hanasa Kuoka". Please enjoy this version of the song I found on YouTube:
After a long day of driving in the rain, I wanted to do nothing other than eat dinner and get ready for adventures the following day. I ate Japanese curry and called it a night.
The following morning I visited Isaniwa Shrine in Matsuyama City. It had quite a few big rocks that were used as stairs. Although I was okay climbing, I thought it was somewhat sketch. The view from the top was great and it was a cool shrine. Close to the shrine was a tourist hot spot in Japan: Dogo Onsen. Dogo Onsen is the oldest onsen in the country. The hot springs date back to at least 1500 years ago with the current public bath house being built in 1894. The inside of Dogo inspired Studio Ghibli's 2001 hit Spirited Away. Spirited Away is my favorite Ghibli movie. My aunt brought us to see the film when it first came out. I find it amazing how meaningful the film has continued to be throughout my life, but especially now that I live in Japan. So of course, I had to visit, even though I didn't take a bath! Because Dogo is a tourist hot spot, there were too many people for my comfort. (Upon some further investigation, it seems that the baths are actually closed off to the public at the moment anyway).
Afterwards I drove about an hour southwest to an old village called Uchiko. Uchiko prospered around 200 years ago and was known for it's wax production. Today, Yokaichi Old Town is preserved in the heart of Uchiko. The buildings all look similar to one another because they used mud and white plaster to plaster the structures which gives them a bright yellow color. You can walk around the town and visit a variety of small shops, museums, and even a traditional kabuki theater. Ehime is famous for their oranges, so I also tried some local orange juice here. It was delicious.
Not too far from Uchiko is another historic town called Ozu. Ozu is a nice area to walk around in because of the river that runs through it. While I was there I visited Ozu Castle. I have visited a handful of famous castles, but I found the stairs in Ozu Castle to be quite scary. They were extremely narrow and steep. I would've preferred to climb a ladder, to be honest. Additionally, Ozu Castle requires you to take off your shoes and they do provide "slippers" instead (this is common in many castles in Japan). I prefer to wear only my socks because the slippers are often too small for my feet and they are hard to keep on anyway. So walking up and down these stairs in only socks or slippers makes the experience even more stressful. However, Ozu wasn't overly crowded, so I could be awkward without a crowd. Also, the views were great, I was blessed with nice weather too.
The following day I checked out of my hotel early in the morning so that I could do a couple more things in Ehime before heading over to the neighboring prefecture. I started by visiting Matsuyama Castle. To get to the castle, you have to take a long walk up a hill. There is an alternative option to take a chairlift that transports you up closer to the castle and back down to the main roads instead. I took the chairlift, it was scary and fun at the same time. Matsuyama City is the most populated city in Shikoku, so as you can imagine, the castle itself was very crowded. Once I reached the top of the hill, I got some orange ice cream, everything orange in Ehime! Similar to Ozu Castle, Matsuyama had some scary stairs, but because it was so busy, there was a crowd to watch me navigate my way around the various towers.
Afterwards I headed to the eastern part of Ehime to visit Minetopia Besshi. An area where an old copper mining field used to be and has been referred to as the "Machu Picchu of the East" because of the architecture built in the steep hillside town of Niihama. You can take a tour of the mines, ride a steam train on the railways and tunnels that the miners once used, as well as try out gold panning for kids. Because I didn't have a lot of time to spend, I ended up just walking around the area on foot where I saw some beautiful flowers and very clear water. Because Minetopia is a lesser known tourist destination in Ehime, it wasn't as crowded and parking was free! So if you have a car, it is definitely worth it to take a trip out there (since it is a bit far from the train stations). Absolutely take a guided tour if you have the time!
Afterwards, I headed to my next destination: Takamatsu City in Kagawa Prefecture. By the time I made it to the city, it was in the evening. I ended up eating a burger with some Hokkaido fries from a chain I haven't been to before called Freshness Burger, which opened in 1992.
Kagawa is the Northeastern prefecture on Shikoku island. It is famous for two things: it is the smallest prefecture by area in Japan and udon! Udon is a thick noodle made from wheat flour. The beef udon from Hana Tsubaki in Sacramento was one of my favorite meals to get before moving to Japan. So, when I first got here and everyone asked "What is your favorite Japanese food?" I would always answer "Udon!" It would probably still be the same answer today, except I do really love Japanese curry and chicken nanban too...
Anyway, before doing any research about Kagawa and Shikoku in general, I knew that there were udon making schools because I saw a YouTube video with my favorite YouTuber, Chris Broad of Abroad in Japan, and his fiancé, Sharla, making udon. So, of course I was interested in taking a class! I found Nakano Udon Gakko in Takamatsu. To book a spot you can do so up to two days before your desired class time here.
Because it was Golden Week, the class that I attended was full. I got there a little late because the GPS sent me to the wrong place. Directions in Japan can be quite tricky because there are no street names.
None of the instructors could speak English and I couldn't find where I was supposed to sit. Luckily, there was one other group of foreigners in the class who ended up making space for me next to them. They too lived in Japan and were traveling around Shikoku for Golden Week. However, because they were from Tokyo, they started in Kagawa and were driving the opposite direction as I was. They too had limited Japanese, and because we were in the back of the class, we relied on the help from some kind girls next to us. The girls were from the Kansai area and were probably about university age.
After making the udon noodles, it was time to cook them! We went upstairs to a giant cafeteria type room with a lot of burners to cook the noodles. They provided us with soy sauce as a dipping sauce for the noodles as well as some ginger and green onions. There were other things that you could buy to add to the noodles as well such as fried chicken or shrimp. I just ate them how it came! The noodles tasted great! They weren't very pretty to look at though, but for my first attempt taste > appearance. Sorry for the lack of pictures! I wanted to take a video while I was making the udon, but it ended up being an extremely messy process, and overwhelming at times, so I didn't have the patience for involving cameras.
Afterwards I spent the rest of my afternoon in a park called Ritsurin Garden. Ritsurin is one of the most famous parks in all of Japan for it's size and history. It was created in 1745 (during the Edo Period) as a strolling park for the local lords. Then in 1875 it opened as a garden to the public. There are lots of ponds and streams, a variety of natural life, shops, a tea house, and you can even take a boat ride.
Afterwards, I ended my night with Japanese curry... yes again. Then I stopped at a bakery that was in my hotel, because it had super cute desserts. At the time, I wasn't quite sure what I ordered, but it ended up being a cheese cake with a raspberry topping that was covered in white chocolate and on top of a cookie. It was delicious.
The following morning I drove from Takamatsu City to a place called Nagoro Scarecrow Village in Tokushima. The drive itself was about 3 or more hours, but it felt insanely long. It was definitely the scariest drive I have ever taken in Japan. For the majority of the drive, the road was only wide enough for one car. So if another car came, it wasn't uncommon for one driver to reverse to a wider part of the road. On top of that, the turns were extremely sharp (and blind to oncoming traffic) and because the drive itself was through the mountains it was at a high altitude with no safety wall or structure preventing you to fall to your death. At one point, an oncoming car honked at me while I was slowly trying to pass by. It caused me to get so overwhelmed that when I did find space again, I pulled over. Luckily there was a river nearby so I climbed down and walked by the river to clear my mind before the last leg of my trip. Had I known about how challenging the drive was going to be, I probably would have skipped scarecrow village completely. This is a drive that should be taken with other people. With that being said, I am glad that I did take the trip out there because Scarecrow Village was probably my favorite part of the whole trip because it's unique and creepy.
Scarecrow Village is located in a small town in Iya Valley. It is far from the city center, and the bus only makes a stop out there a few times a day. So, if you don't have a car, it is pretty difficult to get to. In Scarecrow Village the scarecrows outnumber the people by about 10 to 1! This whole project was started by Ayano Tsukimi sometimes considered "The Mother of Scarecrows". She was born and raised in Nagoro, and left the village for several years before returning to be with her aging parents. Tsukimi was upset to see the population had significantly declined over the years, a trend that is quite common in Japan as people continue to move to urban areas. So, to combat the diminishing population, she began making scarecrows to replace the people who had once been there. Today, the village has a population of 37 people and is now home to over 400 scarecrows. Tsukimi has even written a book which tells the background story of each of her scarecrows: they all have their own personalities and life stories. You might even recognize some of the scarecrows, some are modeled after famous people including the former President Donald Trump and famous Japanese comedians. While this village is somewhat of a hidden treasure in Tokushima, it seems to be a tourist destination for foreigners more than Japanese people. There was a guest book there to sign and I saw signatures from all over the world including Singapore, Mexico, and Afghanistan to name a few. As you can imagine, the scarecrows are placed everywhere, from gardening and fishing outside to resting inside abandoned houses and playing games in the gym of the abandoned school. So, without further ado, please enjoy a photo gallery of some of the scarecrows in the village:
Afterwards, I made the very scary trek to Tokushima city and called it a day. The following day I went to the main tourist destination in Tokushima: The whirlpools of Naruto. The whirlpools are natural and can be seen two times a day during high tide in the morning and low tide in the evening. While it is visible from the coast, the two best places to view the whirlpools are from above (you can walk across the bridge) or from on the water itself (you can take a boat tour). There are two different boats that do tours: The Wonder Naruto and The Aqua Eddy. The Wonder Naruto is a larger boat and tickets are sold on a first come first served basis. The Aqua Eddy is a smaller boat that has an underwater observatory, but you have to make reservations to take this boat. I wanted to take The Aqua Eddy but tickets were sold out by the time I had learned about it - it is very common for everything to be booked full for weeks, if not months in advance during the holidays. So, instead, I rode The Wonder Naruto. Because it was Golden Week, it took me over an hour to purchase the ticket and finally get on a boat. However, I timed it perfectly because I ended up on the boat when the whirlpools were set to have the highest activity in the day. It was one of the coolest natural experiences I have witnessed. The water changed different shades of blue and there was a visible distinction between the different currents.
The whirlpools do make the boat slowly move in circles, but not enough to get seasick (as long as you don't get seasickness easily, I should say). If I were to go back, I would want to walk out on the bridge to get a totally different perspective! It would also probably be easier to take pictures of it from above with a long lens so that you can get a better idea of just how big the area is. Afterwards, I went to a puppet show (or Awa Ningyo Joruri in Japanese). Ningyo Joruri includes a Dayu (a singing story-teller), a Shamisen (a three-stringed classical Japanese instrument) and of course the puppet which is manipulated by Shannin-zukai (a group of three puppeteers). It is believed that Ningyo Joruri began in the 16th century on Awaji Island (somewhat off the coast of Osaka). This form of storytelling became famous in areas like Tokyo and Osaka, but it also really picked up in Tokushima too. In southern Tokushima they built a lot of outdoor puppet theaters, many remain in place today. I visited an indoor theater, Tokushima Prefectural Awa Jurobe Yashiki, which puts on two shows a day. Once in the late morning and again in the early afternoon. I caught the afternoon show.
The puppets in Tokushima are a bit different then other puppets in Japan because they have slightly bigger heads. The bigger heads allowed for greater visibility in the outdoor theaters. Today, many of the puppets that were made in the 1600-1800s are on display in the museum at Awa Jurobe Yashiki.
The show I saw was called Junrei Uta no Dan (or "Act of the Pilgrim Song"). It tells the story of a mother (Oyumi) who had to leave her daughter (Otsuru) behind in search of stolen treasure. This forced Otsuru to become a "pilgrim" without any parents to raise her. One day several years later, Otsuru arrived at Oyumi's house unknowingly. Oyumi hides her identity so that Otsuru doesn't get involved in the dangerous journey. Then, Oyumi sends the girl on her way and breaks down in tears. At the end, Oyumi changes her mind and rushes after Otsuru.
I was able to follow the storyline because there is a screen above the stage that displays subtitles in both English and Japanese! In fact, and to my surprise, many of the workers at Awa Jurobe Yashiki speak English. The performers mostly perform in Tokushima, but they also occasionally in other parts of Japan as well as other parts of the world! So, English is an important skill for them to have. One of the workers even informed me that he will be hosting an event at the International Folk Art Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico this July. While I couldn't find any puppet shows on the events page, I did find a traditional Japanese fan making event. So I assume it is his event!
Afterwards, the workers encouraged me to take a boat tour of Tokushima City. Since I didn't have any plans for the remainder of the day, I thought "why not!" And I found myself on yet another boat that day. I waited for the boat on a huge flat rock alongside the river with a woman who was traveling from Hokkaido. The boat ride was about an hour long and we went in and out of various rivers that all lead to the ocean. Some of the bridges were so close to the boat that we had to duck when going under. Other bridges had giant murals underneath that only boaters could see! It was a nice relaxing way to end my day in Tokushima!
The following day I headed to the last prefecture on my trip: Kochi! Kochi is known for it's super vibrant blue and clear waters. So of course, I decided to find an activity where I could be outside. I went on a hike in a town called Niyodogawa. Although there are some steep stairs, some narrow concrete bridges without railings, and some big rocks that are somewhat challenging to climb (off the path and close to the water), I was able to successfully complete this hike as a beginner. While researching beforehand, I read that it was important to wear shoes that have good grip because some of the path is wet. I personally didn't have any issues with the path being slippery, but it's always good to wear shoes with good grip when going on a hike anyway!
The area itself is quite spiritual, it is a Shinto area and the pathway is lined with stone statues also known as the "Seven Gods of Fortune". At the end of the hike, there is a waterfall called Uryu no Taki. Uryu is 20 meters high and the water falls into the Nakatsu River.
That evening I went to Hirome Market which is a big indoor area with a bunch of different food stalls inside and large tables where you can sit and meet locals or travelers passing through. I ended up getting some miso ramen and gyoza.
Here, I met a Japanese man who lived and worked for Motorola in Austin, Texas with his wife pre-9/11. They ended up having two daughters in the United States. As a family, they decided to move to Atlanta, Georgia so that the girls could go to a Japanese immersion school. However, shortly after, 9/11 happened. Although he had a green card and his daughters were U.S. citizens, they decided to move back to Japan because it was just too difficult to live as a foreigner in the U.S. post-9/11. He confided in me that he was worried he made the wrong decision. After listening to his story, I told him that the U.S. has changed so much since he lived there and that, I believe, it is just an overall dark place to live right now. I told him that I wished all my loved ones could leave the U.S. and have a better life somewhere else.
While I was walking back to my hotel, I found a karaoke bar where I stayed for quite awhile to sing everything from Backstreet Boys and Harry Styles to Miley Cyrus.
The following day it was raining. I was also pretty exhausted so I didn't feel up to much adventuring. But I did make it up to Kochi Castle. Kochi Castle is unique because it is the only castle where the main tower and all of the surrounding buildings have remained completely intact since it's original construction in the 1700s. It has survived wars, fires, and other natural disasters.
The following morning I had to leave the hotel before 7:00am to catch my 11:00am ferry in Ehime back to Kyushu. On top of the rain, I had to deal with Golden Week traffic. So it ended up being close to a ten hour trip to get back to Miyazaki. However, it was worth it and I would definitely do it again. My days off are quite limited and I want to make the most of my time in Japan while I am still here. The next day I had work, and I was definitely in zombie mode. Again, still worth it!