Art & Culture

Discover Shikoku’s Cultural Heritage, from Traditional Arts to Local Crafts and Cuisine

Discover Shikoku’s Cultural Heritage, from Traditional Arts to Local Crafts and Cuisine

As a recent transplant to Shikoku, I've discovered a world of cultural treasures and hidden wonders awaiting on Japan's smallest main island. From traditional puppet theatre and indigo dyeing in Tokushima prefecture to Kagawa's bonsai legacy and Ehime’s whimsically crafted tea houses, here are some ways to experience the rich tapestry of Shikoku’s cultural traditions on your next visit to Japan.

Watch Traditional Japanese Puppet Theatre at the Tokushima Prefectural Awa Jurobe Yashiki

Let's begin our cultural journey in the easternmost prefecture of Shikoku to catch a show of Tokushima’s famous wooden puppet theatre.

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You can watch this nationally significant intangible folk-culture asset at Tokushima Prefectural Awa Jurobe Yashiki, where traditional puppet shows are performed daily all year (January and February performance times differ from the rest of the year, so please check the official website for the schedule.)

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While the traditional form of Japanese puppet theatre, known as bunraku, originated in Osaka during the early 17th century, the Awa Ningyo Joruri Tokushima puppet theatre style uses larger puppets that are bigger than their Osaka counterparts, initially designed for outdoor theaters where the puppet theater was dedicated to gods.

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Each puppet requires three puppeteers to operate its facial expressions, hand movements, and other intricate mechanisms that bring the puppets to life. 

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I wasn’t sure how the puppeteers, dressed entirely in black, could possibly avoid distracting the performance. But, sure enough, as the skillfully animated marionettes began to move, the puppeteers seemed to disappear into the background. I was immediately drawn into the stories told by these miniature actors made of wood, as they conveyed joy or moments of sadness with trembling shoulders, and even instants of trepidation as they extended their hands.

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Keisei Awa no Naruto is one of the popular plays performed at the theater. The story is narrated by Tayu. A girl on a pilgrimage visits the house in Osaka where Jurobe and Oyumi live in search of their master's stolen sword. As the plot unfolds, Oyumi realizes that the girl is actually the daughter she left behind in Tokushima. But they join the gang of thieves and are hunted by officials. So she decides to tell Otsuru to return home without revealing their relationship.

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Simply watching the gestures was enough to convey the touching story of Tayu, struggling to keep herself from declaring her identity to her long-lost daughter. However, if you want to follow the story more closely, Japanese and English subtitles are displayed on a monitor above the stage. 

After the performance, be sure to stick around for a photo opportunity with the puppets and the puppeteers. The photo of me sitting with the puppets is a precious keepsake of my special experience here. 

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To give you a better understanding of Tokushima’s puppetry culture, the exhibition room includes various artifacts and displays demonstrating the intricate process of painting ground-up seashells onto each puppet’s face to give it a unique luster.

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I was especially fascinated by the puppets with contraptions on their faces. With a simple pull of a finger, this puppet’s human-like face turned into a terrifying demon. Dare I say, it was terrifyingly cool!

Engage with Tokushima’s 400-Year-Old Dancing Tradition at Awa Odori Kaikan

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For over four centuries, the Awa Odori dance festival has been a vibrant cultural tradition in Tokushima, held annually from August 12 to 15.  One theory is that this dance began as a performance by farmers and peasants, evolving into one of Japan’s largest dance festivals, thanks to the support of Tokushima's prosperous indigo industry during the Edo period.

If the timing isn’t opportune for you to see this festival in person, Awa Odori Kaikan holds regular Awa Odori dances throughout the day and even offers visitors a chance to join in on a live performance with professional dancers.

The performance showcases live music accompanying men's and women's Awa Odori dance styles. While the annual festival features hundreds of Awa Odori dance troupes, also known as ren, Awa Odori Kaikan has its own dedicated ren group performing four times daily in the performance hall. Additionally, a ren from outside Awa Odori Kaikan visits in the evening, allowing you to witness one of the performing festival groups in action.

According to the Awa Odori saying, "If fools dance and fools watch, might as well dance." So it should be no surprise when you are invited to dance along during one of the performances.

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Let me squash any fear of stage fright: not only will the dancers teach you the basics of the Awa Odori dance, they are also very forgiving of all novice dancers. Trust me, as someone with little-to-no-rhythm attempting this two-beat dance, even I felt no embarrassment. Don’t miss your chance to experience first-hand Tokushima’s centuries-old cultural performance!

Awa Odori Kaikan’s exhibition hall gives you an in-depth view of the history and culture of the dance, as well as the evolution of Awa Odori over the years. 

Head to the souvenir shop by the lobby for a colorful collection of Tokushima's best-known local products and arts all in one room, including Awa indigo textiles, Awa paper, ceramics, and even boxes of their famous Naruto Kintoki sweet potato. 

Visiting Awa Odori Kaikan is an excellent way to experience one of Japan's most vibrant and exciting cultural festivals. Whether you're a fan of traditional dance or just looking for a fun and unique activity, this museum is definitely worth a visit.

Immerse Yourself in Indigo Dyeing at Ai no Yakata

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Tokushima owes much of its rich cultural and artistic heritage to the high-quality sukumo  production grown along the lower basin of the Yoshino River during the Edo period.

At its peak, Tokushima was responsible for nearly 90% of Japan's indigo production, profoundly impacting its cultural identity and history.

At Ai no Yakata, also known as the Indigo Dyeing Museum, you can craft your own indigo item using traditional indigo solution, learn about the process of indigo cultivation and indigo dye production, and peruse the old residence of the Okumura family, notable indigo merchants during Tokushima’s peak indigo era. 

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The indigo dyeing experience begins with selecting your fabric, for example, a handkerchief or tenugui (traditional Japanese hand towel made of cotton). 

There are various ways to create patterns, such as large circular designs. I chose the shibori technique, which involves tie-dyeing with elastic bands.

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First, strategically twist the fabric, fasten it to a thin wooden stick, and then wrap an elastic around it. Next, dip the fabric in the frothing vat of indigo dye for one minute, with each dip resulting in a deeper oxidized hue of the indigo blue. 

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The staff at the facility will help you achieve the pattern you desire on your fabric. Sometimes, though, the best outcomes emerge from pure chance. While I carefully tied my fabric with a specific design in mind, my loose elastic placements resulted in an amazing kaleidoscope of comets and fireballs. It's a truly unique souvenir to take back with you after your visit!

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In addition to offering hands-on experience, Ai no Yakata also features a collection of indigo-dyed fabrics and clothing on display in its newly renovated museum, as well as old models and tools that were once used to cultivate and process the sukumo indigo.

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The gift shop in front of the Ai no yakata sells various indigo-dyed products, including clothing, accessories, and home decor items. Still, nothing beats the sentimental value of an indigo-dye souvenir crafted by your own hands.

Learn the Fine Art of Miniature Trees at Takamatsu Bonsai no Sato

From Tokushima, let’s head to Takamatsu in Kagawa prefecture. While Kagawa is known for its roasted bone chicken and thick udon noodles, the prefecture’s lesser-known claim to fame, bonsai trees, plays an equally important role in representing Kagawa’s cultural diversity.

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Thanks to Takamatsu’s moderate climate, low rainfall, and consistent temperature throughout the year, Takamatsu presents an ideal environment for cultivating matsu pine trees. Along with its innovative grafting and pruning techniques adapted from fruit tree cultivation, Takamatsu has emerged as Japan's premier bonsai production hub, with a history of bonsai cultivation that dates back over two centuries.

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Since its opening in April 2020, Takamatsu Bonsai no Sato has quickly established itself as the destination for bonsai enthusiasts. There’s a free bonsai viewing experience for curious visitors and seasoned enthusiasts alike to browse its collection of meticulously pruned bonsai trees.

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From evergreen conifers to trees with seasonal leaves, flowers, the collection shows how many tree varieties can be transformed into their miniature versions: Kuromatsu (Black pine), Goyomatsu (White pine), Akamatsu (Red pine), and even trees with dangling fruit.

I couldn’t resist the temptation to select a bonsai to take home from this generous array of trees, starting at affordable rates of around 1,000 yen to massive bonsai priced at over 500,000 yen.

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Occasional events where you can attend lectures and workshops (with reservation) on bonsai cultivation are announced on their homepage.

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Finally, if your bonsai viewing experience has left you wanting more, a pamphlet inside the Bonsai no Sato facility has a directory of more than 50 Takamatsu bonsai farmers who proudly show visitors their years of bonsai craftsmanship.

Kagawa Lacquerware Craft at the Sanuki Lacquer Art Museum

Kagawa's lacquer art heritage is often overlooked, but it's certainly worth seeing for yourself. The Sanuki Lacquer Art Museum exhibits some of Kagawa's finest lacquerware artists in its cafe and gallery space.

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For the past decade, this museum has dedicated itself to drawing attention to Kagawa's declining lacquer art with a rotating exhibition of renowned local artists using the traditional techniques of Sanuki (the old province name for Kagawa). 

Although the top-floor gallery space is modest in size, it delivers beautifully curated exhibitions of Sanuki lacquer art.

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This time, the exhibit showcases kanshitsu, a dry lacquer technique involving layering hemp cloth soaked in lacquer and then shaping the surface details with a mixture of lacquer, sawdust, and powdered clay stone. To create a pattern, layers of lacquer are applied to a base, and the grooves are carved and filled with colored lacquer. The excess lacquer is removed to leave a smooth finish of the embedded pattern.

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Without hesitation, I must say that this was the most exquisite collection of lacquerware I have ever laid eyes on.

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You can also try making your very own lacquer masterpiece in the museum’s workshop. Through reservation, you can make your own chopsticks and plates using genuine urushi lacquer, the natural resin collected from the lacquer tree.

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After the gallery, head downstairs to the cafe, where your coffee will be served in one of the museum's lacquerwares. Since the region's history of lacquerware is relatively short, the museum owner has focused on more contemporary pieces to fit with today’s modern aesthetics.

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One of the benefits of the short history of lacquerware in Kagawa is the freedom it provides for experimentation. Kagawa is considered one of the first places that started using white lacquer, making it easier to add various colors that leaned toward a contemporary palette.

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Visit the Exquisite Villa of Garyu Sanso

As we journey to the western corner of Shikoku to Ehime prefecture, we encounter Garyu Sanso, an exquisitely designed villa built in the early 20th century. 

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Garyu Sanso (臥龍山荘), which could translate as "reclining dragon mountain villa", is a perfect embodiment of tranquility and peace, built just above the Hijikawa River in the old town of Ozu. Its farmhouse-like appearance and thatched roof is misleading, as this architectural marvel is a masterpiece of both its time and the present.

The villa was commissioned in the late 19th century by a wealthy businessman named Torajiro Kouchi, who invested his wealth in the building designated to serve as his retirement home. To ensure that its cultural significance was preserved, the construction process took ten years and involved the collaboration of skilled carpenters from Kyoto and local craftsmen. The captivating result of Garyu Sanso, both unique and timeless, showcases the beauty of Japanese architecture for many visitors to see.

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I first visited Garyu Sanso a few years ago and nearly dragged my partner to come with me so I could show off its lovely details myself. I won’t spoil too much for you, but some of my favorite things are the bat-shaped metal doorknobs, the stone wall stacked into an image of a fishing boat under a full moon, and the engraved signatures left behind by the blacksmith into custom nails – just a handful of details that will have me returning to Garyu Sanso time and time again. 

The Furoan hermitage is located at the far end of the grounds overlooking the river. Built to look like a ship, this hermitage is supported by a live tree using the sutebashira technique. Its structure includes other fine details, such as the ceiling made from a sheet of woven bamboo. During nights of the full moon, the river reflects light onto the ceiling, creating a rippling effect across the woven bamboo — a rare moment I wish to see at least once in my life.

Taste the Local Specialty of

Tai Meshi

: Rice and Sea Bream 

As our cultural journey comes to an end, we can't miss out on trying Ehime's local culinary specialty of tai meshi. Ehime is the largest producer of sea bream, or tai in Japanese, which has led to the creation of this home-style comfort food of minced sea bream with rice.

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Sea bream holds a special place in Japanese history, found in ruins throughout Japan, and is even mentioned in ancient documents such as the Kojiki, considered to be the oldest book in Japan. Today, tai is part of a delicious celebratory meal enjoyed with family and friends. 

Although there are variations in the style of tai meshi depending on the region of Ehime Prefecture, you can try several of Ehime’s famous sea bream specialties at Akiyoshi Dougo in Matsuyama’s Dogo Onsen district.

The most common Matsuyama-style tai meshi is cooked in an earthenware pot over an open fire, allowing you to scrape the bottom for every last bit of toasted rice. The somewhat fancier Uwajima (south of Ehime) -style tai meshi is made with raw sea bream sashimi, dipped into a sauce mixed with a raw egg, and served with sea bream somen noodles in a special sea bream stock.

I suggest trying each of the different styles to compare. Whichever option you choose, nothing will feel as complete as washing it down with some local sake to complete your tai meshi tasting experience!

If you are willing to venture off the beaten path of Japan's main tourist attractions, you can discover some truly authentic and unspoiled cultural experiences on the island of Shikoku. Whether it's joining Awa Odori dancers on stage or indulging in Ehime's local cuisine, an abundance of unique experiences await you!

Photographs and text by Mika Senda

You can get more information about the route followed in this article by checking out our itineraries in the "Plan Your Trip" section of this website.

https://www.setouchi.travel/en/plan-your-trip/itineraries/ph2-sta-st-009/

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RELATED DESTINATION

Tokushima

It has lots of tourism resources including the Naruto Strait, which has one of the largest eddying currents in the world, and the Iya Valley, which captivates everyone who sees its overwhelming natural scenery. The traditional Awa Dance Festival, which teems with 1.3 million tourists, is a must-see.