[From August Issue 2011]
Shikoku is one of Japan’s four main islands. Tokushima Prefecture is in the eastern part of this island. The population of the prefecture is approximately 800,000. Eighty percent of Tokushima is mountainous. Bordered by the ocean and rivers, it is rich in natural beauty. Because of its lush greenery and mild climate, a variety of different crops can be harvested there throughout the year. Among these crops, the sudachi (which is similar to lime) is a specialty of Tokushima. The prefecture’s charm lies in its delicious food and wild vegetation.
Tokushima also boasts Mount Tsurugi, which is known as a sacred mountain. Standing at 1,955 meters high, the mountain provides spectacular views of the sun rising through a sea of clouds. In the precincts of Ohtsurugi Shrine, near the summit, water gushes out from a natural spring. The spring is considered to be one of the top 100 water sources in Japan. Fascinated by its abundant nature, a number of foreign artists have visited Tokushima. Kamiyama, one of the largest production areas of plums in western Japan, actively encourages artists to visit and engages them in a variety of artistic activities.
A gorge cuts through the deep mountains. Driving along a highway past dizzying cliffs, you come to Iya Valley, one of Japan’s three most secluded regions. A number of poignant legends concerning the Genpei War (a battle between the Taira and Minamoto clans) are told about this beautiful village. The village is built on the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains. Terraced rice paddies appear differently in the morning and evening light. Suspension bridges called kazura-bashi made from wild vines have been designated as Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan.
The Iya River, flows from its source at Mount Tsurugi, under unsteadily swaying vine bridges. Running into Oboke-kyo gorge, the Iya River connects with the Yoshino River. The Yoshino River, flows rapidly, throwing up spray and white water rafting along it is popular. After enjoying the sport to the limit, it may be a good idea to eat Iya soba noodles while gazing down at the gorge. In summer, you can eat outside while listening to the murmur of the river.
The Yoshino River is sometimes called Shikoku Saburo, which is a male nickname. The reason being, it used to be a violent waterway and often caused floods. Old jizo statues in this area are mounted on high plinths so that they do not get submerged if there’s a flood. This violent river doesn’t just bring floods, it also deposits a huge amount of nutrients in the soil.
Because of the fertile soil brought by the Yoshino River, Tokushima used to be a major producer of indigo plants. Since the dye from those plants acts as a pesticide and also as a disinfectant, samurai warriors are said to have worn indigo-dyed underwear beneath their suits of armor. In Wakimachi, aka “Udatsu Town,” the former residences of indigo-dye merchants remain to this day. Those merchants built their houses with expensive fire protection walls called udatsu and competed with their neighbors to erect the most splendid facades.
The famous Awa Odori (The Awa Dance Festival) began 400 years ago, a period in which Tokushima flourished thanks to its monopoly of the indigo and salt trade. Awa Odori events are held in all parts of the prefecture, kicking off with Naruto-City’s Awa Odori tournament, which takes place in early August. Tokushima-City’s Awa Odori is the most popular, attracting crowds of tourists every year. The way groups of more than ten performers (ren) dance is so dynamic that you cannot help being excited when you see it.
If you visit Tokushima during the festival, you’ll hear festival music in the distance. The scent of grilled squid and dishes from food stands wafts through the air. It’s not a bad idea to wander aimlessly around the town and check out the street stalls, but if you start from Tokushima Station for Aibahama Enbujo and then walk past the yatai (food stalls) toward Mizugiwa Park, you will be able to watch the Awa Odori performance. There is a tourist information center near the station, where you can receive advice on which route to take.
While walking around the prefecture, you may come across people dressed in white wearing straw hats similar to those seen in period dramas. These are the “ohenro-san” pilgrims, who journey to visit 88 Buddhist temples located throughout Shikoku. In the past, those pilgrims must have been fiercely committed to undertaking the trip: It is said that if a pilgrim dies during the journey, their white garments serve as burial vestments and the cane, in which the spirit of Kobo-Daishi (a great teacher of Buddhism) dwells, can be used as their grave marker.
Ohenro-san travel 1,200 to 1,400 kilometers, visiting the hallowed grounds of Shikoku Hachiju Hakkasho (88 temples in Shikoku), which were built around 1,200 years ago. The journey takes about 40 days on foot and roughly ten days by car. Temples (known as fuda-sho) number one to 23 and 66 are located in Tokushima. In modern times, not only Buddhists, but also those seeking solace often undertake the journey.
If you have made it to the first fuda-sho, Ryozenji Temple, in Naruto City, you might as well go to see the uzushio (whirlpools) while you are at it. Up to 20 meters in diameter, uzushio whirl vigorously at speeds of up to 20 kilometers per hour. A cruise in which you leisurely watch these currents from a boat is very popular. You can experience yet another side of Tokushima, by sailing along the rough Naruto Strait for 30 minutes, while deeply inhaling in the fresh ocean air.
Some restaurants in Naruto City serve fresh seafood that the owners themselves have caught by setting out early in the morning in fishing boats. Fish that have endured the rapid currents of the Naruto Strait are firm and tasty. Popular dishes include fresh fish eaten raw with sudachi juice, kamameshi (rice cooked in a small iron pot) with plenty of sea bream, and miso soup with locally grown wakame seaweed.
When you come to Tokushima, don’t forget to eat Tokushima ramen. Tokushima ramen is divided into three types according to the color of its broth: white, yellow and black. It’s the black broth ramen which is famous nationwide. Thinly sliced pork is placed on the noodles instead of char siu (Chinese-style barbecued pork). Quite a few customers visit the prefecture just to eat this unusual ramen topped with a raw egg.
The journey from Tokyo to Tokushima takes one hour by air and about ten hours by overnight bus. If you’re coming from the Tokai or Kinki region, it’s convenient to cross the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge by express bus. From Wakayama Prefecture or Kyushu, you can also use a ferry. To travel around the prefecture, it’s convenient to rent a car. August is peak season so you’ll need to book a hotel room well in advance.
Text: NARUTO Kouji