The city of Tokushima is the most convenient entry point to Shikoku, located just a couple hours from Osaka by bus and with more flights per day to the rest of Japan than anywhere else on the island. The Naruto Whirlpools, which are just as bizarre and amazing as their name makes them sound, are about 30 minutes from the center of the city—and, incidentally, directly underneath the expressway that leads to the mainland—which makes the fact that they exist at all even more bizarre and amazing.
The good news, of course, is that these whirlpools are the result of temporary current aberrations, and are not persistent in nature. Otherwise, they'd suck your boat (and, maybe, the city of Tokushima) right in!
Shikoku Pilgrimage Route
Naruto Whirlpools might be Shikoku's strangest attraction, but its most famous one is without a doubt the Shikoku Pilgrimage, a 750-mile route around the island that connects some 88 temples and other holy sites that are related with Kukai, a famous Buddhist monk. Although the route traditionally attracts the faithful, it's becoming something of a tourist attraction these days, albeit mainly among Asian (and, especially, Japanese tourists).
Depending on whether you walk or cycle the route, it takes between 30 or 60 days, with spring (cherry blossoms) and fall (brilliant colors) being the most beautiful times to visit. If you're already in Tokushima to see the Naruto Whirlpools, a convenient way to stop along the pilgrimage route is to visit nearby Ryozenji, pictured above.
To be sure, since Shikoku is the least populous of Japan's main islands in addition to being its smallest, geographically-speaking, it might seem strange to travel here for the purpose of seeing architecture. But in addition to the selection of temples sampled above, Shikoku is home to some of Japan's most magnificent castles, including those in the cities of Matsuyama, Marugame and Ozu.
It's the castle of Kochi, however, which is technically the most impressive: It is the only castle in Japan that still has its original palace and keep, the enclosure at the top from which samurais used to defend the royal family, and now serves as a killer viewpoint to look down on sprawling Kochi, which itself tends to surprise many visitors to Shikoku.
In spite of Shikoku being an island and all of its large cities being on or near the coast, many of Shikoku's most beautiful locales are inland, in some cases substantially. Take the Yoshino River, which begins atop Mount Kamegamori in the center of the island, flowing east to empty into the sea just outside of Tokushima. The Yoshino's claim to fame is how clear and crystalline its waters are, often more beautiful than the sea itself.
While the Yoshino River is best explored during summer, when its cool waters provide a welcome reprieve from the heat to adventurers who raft upon it, you can appreciate its beauty year-round: The sapphire waters of the river contrast to the emerald greens of summer, the pearlescent whites of winter, the bright oranges and yellows of fall and the pastel colors of spring.
An onsen hot spring, in and of itself, is nothing special in Japan—the country is home to literally thousands of them. What's special about Dogo Onsen, located southeast of the city of Matsuyama in its current suburbs and former outskirts, is that main honkan, or public bath building itself. Although it actually dates only to the late 19th century, with the Yushinden portion of it reserved for the Imperial family, the architectural style of the building evokes a much earlier period in Japanese history, albeit not as far back as the first mentions of Dogo Onsen in literature, which occurred more than 1,200 years ago.
Remarkably, the building still opens daily, so as long as you can endure stripping naked in front of dozens of other adults (of your own gender—don't get too worried!), you can have the same experience Japanese people have been having for centuries.
If Dogo Onsen provides reprieve from the sprawl of Matsuyama, then you won't believe your eyes when you step into the Ritsurin Garden: It's right in the heart of Takamatsu, and is an oasis of tranquility and solitude that belies its location. Construction of Ritsurin Garden dates back to the 17th century, under the feudal lord of Takamatsu, and took nearly 100 years to complete. The garden is not only huge (it occupies 75 hectares) but offers a diverse range of activities, whether you choose to explore historical residences, go out on one of the many lakes in a traditional boat, feed the resident koi fish, walk across old bridges or even dine in the on-site restaurant, which serves a mix of Japanese and Western dishes.
Like most places in Japan, the garden is most renowned for its beauty in late March and early April, when the sakura cherry blossoms are in full bloom, but February is also a nice time to visit: It's when the brighter pink ume plum blossoms come out, but is generally less crowded.
Known as Kotohira-gu in Japanese, Konpira Shrine takes its name from the Konpira Onsen, which sits very nearby. Although the shrine is surprisingly not an official part of the aforementioned Shikoku Pilgrimage route, it's nonetheless deserving of a stop on your individual journey around the island, if only for the exercise it provides: Reaching the top requires you to scale 1,368 steps, a particularly daunting task during the hotter months of the year.
As is the case with many items on this list of amazing Shikoku attractions, Konpira Shrine is amazing no matter when you visit. However, it is home to a disproportionate number of sakura trees, which makes is particularly beautiful during the last week of March and the first week of April and also in October and November, when fall colors emerge.