April 6 – 9, 2015
When I was sitting under the Nagoya TV Tower ten years ago deciding how to spend my Golden Week weekend, I went unconventional and headed south to Takamatsu for a three-day udon pilgrimage. Kagawa, the prefecture that Takamatsu is the capital of, is not a very popular tourist destination. Heck, the entire Shikoku is pretty off the beaten path, and for good reason – there is just not much to do on this mostly rural island. After surviving the ordeal I wanted no part of this place again, just like how Bran felt toward the tower where he got shoved out of the window.
Fast forward to 2015. After a few days in Okayama, our next destination was a choice between Hiroshima and Kagawa. Given our priorities of crowd avoidance and sakura, Kagawa came out on top because I knew almost nobody would be there and Shiudeyama (紫雲出山) seemed like a top-notch hanami spot.
Revisiting this place ten years later – I was genuinely surprised at how little seemed to have changed. When even Kyoto, the physical manifestation of more than a thousand-year-old Japanese history, is changing constantly due to the relentless onslaught from tourism, Takamatsu’s quiet shopping arcades and empty streets feel eerily reassuring; no matter what transpires in this crazy world of ours, there are still pockets in this planet that will by and large always stay the same. Not yet jaded by international tourism, with a few rare exceptions most eateries have no issue serving foreigners.
Gradually I developed a soft spot for this place and came to really appreciate the kindness of the locals. Japanese are known for their politeness, but they are also generally somewhat stoic and unapproachable. Not so in Kagawa. These people are extremely friendly – in a way you wouldn’t expect if you have never strayed away from Tokyo or Osaka. They will chat with you in spite of the language barrier. Their politeness is so inexorable it brings an element of unintended comedy to many mundane exchanges; I asked a stranger for direction and he bowed and apologized to me after leading me to my destination; the boy who bowed both before and after crossing a pedestrian crossing because I had the courtesy to stop as a driver; the elderly owner who grabbed my hands and stared into my eyes like a long lost son after I complimented his café; the cook who laughed uncontrollably when I asked to take his portrait then immediately asked me to share the result with him.
People. Udon. Sakura. There are more than enough reasons to spend a few days in Kagawa. Want some diversions? Try these few places that warrant a few hours each.
A Shinto shrine almost as well-known for the 785 steps of stairs to reach the main hall as its status as the headquarter of all the shrines bearing the names Kompira and Kotohira, Kotohira-gū is the most significant cultural site in Kagawa. Located at Mt Zōzu next to Kotohira, a small town 30 km south of Takamatsu, this shrine is home to Ō-mono-nushi-no-mikoto, a deity of seafaring who has the power to heal and bring good fortune to its subjects. The ema hall next to the main hall is filled with large wooden plagues and photos of fishing boats and merchant ships, but apparently this deity is not confined to Earth, as there is a plague of an astronaut coming here to give thanks for his safe voyage.
Kotohira doesn’t warrant an overnight stay, but we found a good deal with Kotohira Grand Hotel Sakuranosho (桜の抄), an onsen hotel located at the foot of Mt Zōzu. Our western-style room with full board (dinner and breakfast served at the top floor dining hall) and public onsen came at ¥21,330 per person. The quality of the hot spring was passable – I couldn’t smell any mineral and my skin felt dry after my dip – but the kaiseki dinner was pretty decent.
Ritsurin Garden 栗林公園
The concept of a stroll garden is that by following a path around the garden, visitors are able to enjoy a different view every step along the way. Many of Japan’s premier gardens are of this variety, including the big three of Kenroku-en, Koraku-en and Kairaku-en. Kenroku-en especially is lauded by many as the most beautiful garden in Japan.
Kenroku-en and Koraku-en are fine (yet been to Kairaku-en), but my pick for the best garden in Japan lays much further south in Takamatsu. Ritsurin Garden simply blows the competition out of the water. Take Koraku-en for example; along the main path are meticulously trimmed pine trees, quaint tea houses, quiet streams and a mirror-like pond. Everything projects serenity and dedication – like a still-life masterpiece by, say, Willem Claeszoon Heda. The technique is out of this world, a museum-worthy piece, but the inanimate and everyday subject lacks emotional appeal or scale. Something is lacking when a 33-acre garden resemble a 103 x 123 cm painting.
Scale is not an issue for Ritsurin Garden, which takes up 185 acres of land and benefits by being located at the foot of Mt Shiun (紫雲山). Tired of taking closeup photos of pine trees? Climb atop Fuyō-ho (飛来峰) at the park’s southeast corner for a panoramic shot of the whole park. Want something that moves for a change? Look for the resident crane at the southern lake or head to the northwest for a waterfall. Prefer to wander aimlessly for a while? Go to the northeast where the towering trees block all sunlight from penetrating to the ground.
Ritsurin Garden has everything you would expect for a Japanese garden – namely the attention to detail and an antiquated sense of artistry, in addition to a scale that none of its peers could match. If it were a painting it would be Rembrandt’s Landscape with a Castle, a landscape painting that seems fairly typical until you are drawn in by Rembrandt’s genius use of light and mood that gives the castle a scale much larger than first appeared.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage is a 1,200 km route that traces back the steps of Kōbō Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in the 8th century. Consisting 88 temples over the island’s four prefectures, the pilgrimage requires 6 weeks to complete on foot. Even by car it is an exhausting task – think about it – a daily routine of 110 km and 8 temples will still set you back 11 days.
Kagawa is home to 22 of these temples, from #67 Daikō-ji to #88 Ōkubo-ji. They scatter all over the prefecture and you are bound to come across a few no matter where you are heading. None of them is a must-see – head to Kyoto for architectural wonders – they are more like your local churches where people come to hone their spirituality. Only difference is here has a dress code of white shirt and sedge hat.
I visited #70 Motoyama-ji (本山寺) and #84 Yashima-ji (屋島寺). The former’s main hall is designated as a national treasure and the latter, located at the top of Mt Yashima, offers a panoramic view of the eastern part of Takamatsu.
You might be asking at this point – why isn’t Naoshima mentioned yet? No, I haven’t forgotten about what’s arguably the prefecture’s most famous tourist draw, but given a choice of seeing modern art and sakura I opted for the latter, figuring the latter will always be there regardless of the season.
While this doesn’t look like a good bet on paper – Kagawa has no widely known sakura sites to speak of – I ended up seeing some dazzling cherry blossoms at Shiudeyama. So while everyone rushes to Kyoto, there are actually numerous quality sakura sites all over Japan with none of the crowd.
The 352m-tall Shiudeyama is located 60 km east of Takamatsu on the northwestern outskirt of Mitoyo. At the peak is a park full of one thousand cherry trees of various kinds, which were all in full bloom when I visited. What differentiated Shiudeyama from every other sakura spots I have been was the coexistence of petals in all shades of pink, as well as peach and white.
Shiudeyama’s cherry blossom is as good as any in Kyoto, but hardly anyone was there when we visited. Icing on the cake is this park doesn’t charge any entrance fee, and now I have found my favorite sakura spot in Japan.
Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Kotohiki Park 琴弾公園
Now that we have covered Kagawa’s sole above-average sakura site, be prepared for an interruption of positive reviews. There is a good reason why Kagawa is not a sakura-viewing hot spot; besides Shiudeyama the options are downright ghastly.
Half-hour drive south from Shiudeyama, Kotohiki Park in the northern part of Kanonji is Kagawa’s only “Top 100 cherry blossom spots in Japan” as compiled by the Japan Cherry Blossom Association. It was impossible to comprehend how this ordinary local park with a few dozen cherry trees scattered around got such distinction – I will just slot this experience as another reminder that list is bullshit more often than not.
Sakura Index: 1/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Tamamo Park 玉藻公園
If you fancy some nighttime hanami in Takamatsu, your best bet would be Tamamo Park next to the rebuilt Takamatsu Castle. There are a few dozen cherry trees lit up by pink lights, but don’t come expecting the festive atmosphere like Kyoto’s Hirano-jinja or Maruyama Park – Tamamo Park is where colleagues bring their own food and quietly mingle.
Sakura Index: 2/5
Opening hours: Always open
Admission fee: Free
Awaji Yume no Butai 淡路夢舞台
Yes, Tadao Ando’s creation to commemorate the victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake is located on Awaji Island, which is part of Hyōgo Prefecture, but everyone passes by it before crossing the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge when driving from Kagawa to Osaka.
The construction of Kansai International Airport began as a land reclamation project, and much of the earth came from the northern part of Awaji Island. To rebuild and draw visitors to this area, Ando was commissioned to build a golf course and a resort. What he had in mind was something much grander – Yume no Butai (the Dream Stage) was his vision of a harmonious coexistence between human and nature. Before he could realize his plan the Kobe earthquake struck and absolutely devastated the area. He went ahead with his initial design of a conference hall, a hotel, a chapel, an outdoor theater, a botanic garden, but added 100 flower beds on top of the fault line to remember the dead.
There is no better place to admire the work of this Pulitzer Prize winner. His trademark use of concrete and emphasis on light and shadow are all over this 28 hectares of land, but Yume no Butai is more than the technicality of his design. It is a place where an once-in-a-generation architect tries to inspire his compatriots that their country can recover and become a better place even after a hollowing disaster like the Kobe earthquake.