What I ate in Shikoku

I haven`t done any food related posts yet, which is surprising since food is such a big deal here. Every area in Japan has its own food speciality that is part of its tourism and many people will visit a place just to eat its local dish. Just like in Italy, a lot of value is put on regional differences, and some dishes can only be had in the places where they were created. I had read up about the foods typical to Shikoku because I knew that after my trip I would be asked by my co-workers if I ate them.

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For our first few days in Shikoku we survived mainly off rice balls bought in convenience stores as we were doing our pilgrimage and visiting different attractions. The first fancy dish we had was at the cafe on Inujima where we had soba noodles with kabotcha (pumpkin) and anko (a sweet paste made from red azuki beans that`s very common in traditional Japanese confectionery), served with pickled daikon (a kind of turnip) and green tea. It was nice but very sweet and not particularly filling. Unfortunately, this was not a day that we were going to be sated. When we were on Teshima, we were more concerned with getting to our remote guesthouse before it got dark than finding somewhere to eat. So that meant when we got there and saw that there was nothing, all we had to eat were the remains of our store-bought supplies.

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We soldiered on until lunchtime the next day, luckily the amazing views of Teshima kept us enthralled, until we got to Uno Port and stuffed ourselves with pizza followed by a dainty dessert.

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From then on however, we had a host of new foods to try everywhere we went. In Ritsurin park in Takamatsu I had a mid-morning snack of cherry dango (a kind of dough made from rice) that were heated around a grill and served with a slather of anko. I had eaten the top one before I remembered to take a picture.

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Takamatsu is famous for its udon noodles which are supposed to be firmer than the ones you get elsewhere in Japan. I just got a regular serving of udon but the picture below is of Jenny’s which was flavoured with yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit, that was absolutely delicious.

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We had our greatest culinary experiences in Kochi, and we were welcomed to our guesthouse with a sake-testing event. Kochi is the capital of sake-drinking in Japan and the owner of the guesthouse used to work at a sake brewery in Hyogo prefecture. I’m not a big sake drinker, but I enjoyed trying the different types and it was great to learn a bit about it as well. The process of making sake is different to other types of alcohol, and different types of sake are made depending on how much of the hull of the rice grain is polished, and if the rice/water/mould mixture is filtered, pasteurized or if more alcohol is added to it.

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The next day at the food market in Kochi was a literal feast. There were so many kinds of foods there that we didn’t know where to start. The photo above shows a shop selling whale, which I abstained from. Kochi’s most famous dish is katsuo no tataki, bonito fish that is quickly seared over a straw fire right in front of you. It’s sprinkled with salt granules and served on a plate with onions, spring onions, garlic and a yuzu dipping sauce. I got the set which came with rice and miso soup. It was so good.

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We also had some deep-fried gyoza which are dumplings filled with a pork and herb mixture. Most commonly they are just pan-fried so that they’re only crispy on one or both sides, but these ones were crispy all over. Gyoza are great comfort food and I think of them as the Japanese (or Chinese) version of sausages.

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On to Ehime prefecture which has a hard time keeping up with its culinary neighbour as the food it’s known for is the mandarin orange. I did have a nice meal in a ramen shop in Matsuyama where I had tantanmen, noodles in spicy broth with minced pork on top. Quite a lot of Japan’s cuisine is from China, although they don’t like to admit it.

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And finally, although this wasn’t technically in Shikoku, at our guesthouse in Onomichi, we had the Japanese classic dish of curry rice. Japanese curries aren’t like any others you’ll find because they were actually influenced by English cuisine! Back in the Meiji era when India was still part of the British Empire, the Navy would add curry powder to their stews, so Japan took this on as curry, which is why it’s more like a stew than a curry.

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This is just the food I ate on my trip, some of which were regional specialties, others are ubiquitous Japanese fare, but Japanese food is a lot more varied than people might think. Sure, the flavours can be milder than in other cultures, but they do like to experiment.

Bridges, Islands and Gorges

Shikoku is famous for its natural beauty and we certainly experienced it as we travelled around. The morning we arrived in Tokushima after our night bus, we went up to Naruto to visit the Onaruto bridge that connects Shikoku to Awaji Island. This area is famous for the whirlpools that form in the narrow strait between the two islands. It wasn`t yet a full moon when we were there so the whirlpools weren`t at their strongest, unfortunately. There are a few ways of seeing the whirlpools – from viewpoints up on a hill, from boats that can sail by them, and from a viewing deck underneath the bridge.

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This is what the whirlpools can look like.

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In my last post I wrote about the art of the islands in the Seto Inland Sea, but here are some pictures of the setting. Below is the island of Inujima with its old copper refinery. Walking through the brick ruins reminded me of Ostia Antica in Rome.

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Above is the jetty extending from the beach at our guesthouse in Teshima. We were the only ones staying at the holiday camp that looked like its heyday had passed.

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Teshima and its bigger neighbour Shodoshima are famous for their olive groves, and as we were touring the island it was easy to think we were in the Mediterranean. We were able to appreciate the beautiful views with ease thanks to our motorized bicycles.

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The day we left Takamatsu was wet with a light but constant rain, and before we travelled down to Kochi, we visited Ritsurin Koen park, which is Takamatsu`s top attraction. I think it`s even nicer than Kenrokuen in Kanazawa. I love visiting Japanese gardens in the rain, especially when there are traditional teahouses you can sit in and look out onto the glistening vegetation and droplet-patterned ponds. It`s very peaceful and there tend to be fewer visitors around.

When we were planning our trip first, we had wanted to spend a day exploring the Iya Valley in the centre of Shikoku, but it proved to be quite difficult to arrange, as the best way to explore it is by car and neither of us can drive. Plus it was raining the day we were going through there so we satisfied ourselves with seeing it from the comfort of our train. The train hugged the side of the valley so we could see the steep hills fall away, and because of the rainy weather, the clouds rested on the hills, giving the impression that the sky was touching the earth and there was no space in between.

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The next day instead was a perfect summer`s day in Kochi and we went to the Botanical Gardens beside the Chikurinji temple.

Getting the train up from Kochi to Matsuyama was also a highlight, because we spent several hours travelling through mountains and snaking alongside gorges in a one-carriage local train that stopped at every tiny one-platform station along the way, as we looked out at cherrry-blossom-lined hills bathed in afternoon sun that gradually faded to dusk.

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Our final nature adventure was the Shimanami Kaido, a road that goes from Imabari in Shikoku to Onomichi in Honshu and goes through several small islands on the way. The road is 70km long and is the only bridge connecting Shikoku and Honshu that can be traversed by foot or bicycle. We were determined to do it by bicycle even though we were pressed for time because we had gone to Ishiteji in Matsuyama in the morning and then had to get the train to Imabari. We had already sent off our large backpacks by delivery service to our guesthouse in Onomichi. There are bicycle rental depots on each island, but it was difficult to to get to the one in Imabari because it would mean taking an infrequent bus or another train and a thirty minute walk to the depot. We decided to take the ferry from Imabari to Oshima and rent a bicycle there because the depot was close to the port. Unfortunately I had no way to check the ferry timetable in advance so we were waiting in Imabari for an hour, trying to avoid the crazy old people that like to hang out in ports.

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When we finally got to Oshima it was already midday and the woman at the depot was a little reluctant to rent us bicycles because she was worried that we wouldn`t make it across before the other depot closed. We didn`t mind not making it all the way to Onomichi by bicycle but we were sure that we would be able to make it to the one in Innoshima before the depot closed at 6. Then we would be able to take a ferry or a bus the rest of the way. I could tell the woman still had her doubts but she gave us bicycles and we thought we were so lucky to get the last two mountain bikes in her shop. However, it soon became apparent that these bikes were terrible. Each bike had 18 gears but none of them made it any easier to go up and down hills. Before long my back was aching from leaning over the handlebars. And Jenny`s seat was broken which made her wobble as she was pedalling.

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We barely made it to the other side of the island, cycling really slowly and concentrating on the road and on pedalling. We decided to give them back at the next depot, see if they had any other bikes or else we would just get a ferry the rest of the way. This depot only had three-gear mama charis (just your regular kind of town bike) but seen as we had yet to cycle across one of the bridges we thought we`d give them a go and we could return them at the depot on the next island if they turned out to be worse than the mountain bikes. As soon as we cycled away we knew this was a million times better. Three gears were all we needed and because we were sitting upright we could actually enjoy the scenery that was the reason for us doing this cycle.

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It was a glorious day and the cycle wasn`t very strenuous as the only steep hills were the ones leading up to the entry to the bridges, for some of which we got off and walked up to stretch our legs. On the islands the cycle lane diverges from the expressway to go through the little villages and the way is marked with a blue line on the road. It took us a while to find our terminal bicycle depot however because it was off the cycle path, but thanks to google maps and asking the locals we were able to find it. We got the feeling that not many people finished their cycle at this depot because the people working there had to think for a while to tell us how to get to Onomichi, but in the end we got a taxi to take us to the bus stop where not long after we got on a bus to Onomichi, feeling very tired but satisfied that we had completed our journey even if we didn`t make it the whole way by bicycle.

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