This spontaneous road trip began with a late-night insomnia episode. Long story made short: I couldn't fall asleep on one particularly cold and windy winter night in January, so I started browsing the internet. One thing led to another, and basically I committed to buying a car just before the sun started shining again. Not only did I commit to buying a car, but I also committed myself to a road trip across Shikoku Island, a part of Japan that I had never seen before. And hey, what better way to travel than picking up a used car in some super random place and having to bring it home?
I spent some time planning my trip, making a list of everything I would like to see along the way. Now, what made this trip so tricky was that by the rule of law, when using a temporary license plate, you must complete the entire journey within 120 hours, AND you must take a direct route while traveling only in one direction throughout the journey! Thus, a lot of research and careful planning beforehand was required.
Not long after, I boarded a flight to Matsuyama City in Ehime Prefecture, and boarded a train bound for the town of Uwajima. I was feeling both anxious and excited to meet the seller outside the station, pick up my trophy, and kickstart the 1000 km drive back to Tokyo.
Starting from Uwajima, a lovely town with just over 86000 residents near the ocean, I arrived at 4 in the afternoon. By the time I met up with the seller, driven to his home to inspect and pick up the car from the station, the time was pushing close to 6 PM. I was expecting rush hour traffic jams left right and centre just like Tokyo; instead, the roads were eerily empty with barely any pedestrians on the sidewalks! Not wanting to miss all the sceneries while driving alone in the dark, I decided to find dinner and stayed overnight at Uwajima.
The next morning, I woke up to birds chirping and singing, still not a single soul in sight on the streets, and the salted oceanic breeze smelled so incredibly lovely. My route plan was simple: follow highway 56 tracing the southern coastline of Shikoku all the way to Tokushima. From Tokushima, get on the ferry for Wakayama Port. From Wakayama Port, make my way through Nara towards Nagoya, get on the highway and paddle to the metal all the way back to Tokyo. Driving along Highway 56 through Kochi and Tokushima prefectures reminded me so much of Oahu in Hawaii palm trees and white sandy beaches lined along rugged coastlines for miles after miles that never seemed to end. Every so often, we'd pass by a tiny coastal town, where I could pull into a local convenience store to use the washroom, fuel up on snacks and drinks. The drive itself was so incredibly scenic, so much more beautiful than what I had imagined.
Initially, one of the more frustrating issues with driving in Shikoku was constantly finding myself trapped behind locals driving ridiculously slowly on one-land roads. The fantastic island vibes also meant that everything here functions on the island clock: the locals are never in any kind of rush or hurry. For a caffeine-powered Tokyoite used to running and dashing throughout the capital city where every second counted, it took me a while to calm down and relax, breathe in the ocean, and cherish the sunshine. After all, it's all about the journey rather than the destination.
Along the way, every now and then I'd notice random locals walking on the sides of the highway, and very occasionally they would stop and stare at me as I drove past them. At first, I was confused. Why were these people walking in the middle of nowhere to begin with, and why did they stare me down as I drove by them? Then I educated myself on the "88 Temples Pilgrimage" unique to Shikoku, a very popular once-in-a-lifetime voyage for the most able-bodied and dedicated Japanese travelers, who would dress in traditional robes, wearing the Kasa (traditional cone-shaped straw hat) and Geta (traditional wooden flip-flops) and walk through the ancient pilgrimage route that spans across the entire Shikoku Island, stopping at 88 temples along the way over a total distance of 1400 km! The voyagers standing on the side of the highway staring me down were hitchhikers asking for a lift, but Japanese hitchhikers don't use the universal hitchhiking gesture by holding out their thumbs, which I would've immediately understood and pulled over given the right circumstances.
After 4 hours of driving, it was time to start thinking about lunch. Being so close to the ocean, seafood was in my thoughts. In Kochi, the "famous dish" of the prefecture is Katsuo, a very delicate fish with chewy red flesh. Katsuo is somewhat of an acquired taste, looks and tastes like tuna, but it is a meatier fish leaving a subtle but lingering fishy aftertaste when consumed raw. Usually, Katsuo is served as sliced sashimi top with raw onions, green onions, dashed with a light vinaigrette and seasoned with salt and pepper, and served with rice, pickles and miso soup. I found a restaurant right by the ocean with plenty of fishing boats docked, it was as fresh as the meal could get.
After lunch near the town of Kuroshio, the drive along Highway 56 moved inland towards Susaki City. Once I reached Susaki, I switched onto a little peninsula just off the coast. The detour was an incredibly scenic drive, certainly brought back memories from the Pacific Coast Highway drive through Big Sur in California as I drove alongside the tall and intimidating cliffs by the ocean, while the sunlight was reflecting off the surface of the ocean, creating a shiny glare right near the horizon.
Later that day, I arrived at Shoryuji Temple, an ancient Buddhist Temple believed to exert divine powers on calming the angry seas, preventing deaths and sufferings caused by the ocean. This temple itself is over 1000 years old, surrounded by lush green tropical nature while radiating an inexplicable sense of calmness and peace upon visitors entering its courtyard.
Perhaps I spent a little too much time at Shoryuji as I did not get to Kochi City until quite late that day. I was able to stop and get a quick photo of this old school tram running in Kochi City. These vintage trams are running everywhere in the city, they are slow and clunky, taking their sweet old time just as it had been doing for the past hundred years or more.
After a quick dinner at Kochi City, I continued to drive for another 2 hours in the evening and finally made it to my hotel for the evening at the town of Muroto. I stayed at a cute little Spanish-themed hotel owned by a Japanese-Spanish couple, who decided to build a life as far away from any urban chaotic cities as they could possibly afford.
The next morning was off to a bright and early start. It was a misty and foggy morning where I almost couldn't see where the road led to, but as soon as the sun came out, the fog cleared up and instantaneously it felt like I was back in Hawaii for the day.
Continuing onwards to the town of Mugi, I made a quick stop to visit Kegonshushokan Temple. Located on top of a hill overlooking the entire town and coastline, the hike to the main court of the temple offers a fantastic panoramic view. The pagoda tower is uniquely shaped and brightly colored, very distinctive looking and definitely made the hike worthy.
From this point, it would only take an hour and a half of driving to reach Tokushima Port. The first half of the journey was still pretty scenic, with lots of windy roads through rural mountains. Once I got closer and closer to Tokushima, the highway became wider with more traffic, and the rural sceneries quickly converted to urban strip malls and apartment buildings. By the time I reached Tokushima City, I felt like I was back in Tokyo all over again. Sitting in traffic, pedestrians everywhere, and the typical "big box" stores such as Bic Camera and Book Off lined the sides of the streets.
A trip to Tokushima wouldn't be complete without a piping hot bowl of Tokushima Ramen, as recommended by a dear friend who is a self-proclaimed ramen enthusiast who travels the country for the purpose of tasting ramen from every prefecture! The Tokushima Ramen is visually pleasing with thin pork slices braised in concentrated soy sauce laid on top of thinner noodles, soaked in a sophisticated Miso broth that had a nice garlicky umami, topped with the usual ramen toppings, namely yakinori (seaweed), bamboo shoots, green onions, marinated ginger, and last but not least, a perfect half-boiled ramen egg with runny yolks streaming into the broth.
Finally, it was time to say goodbye to Shikoku. Halfway home, with less than 50 hours before my car needed to be parked at home in Tokyo! As my Japanese friends would say to me: Otsukaresamadeshita! "You've worked hard", a very common polite expression to acknowledge one's efforts and progress.
Thank you Shikoku for the gentle ocean breeze, the gorgeous coastal views, the laidback island vibes, and the fantastic gourmet experiences. For more detailed information about Kochi and Tokushima Prefectures, and the entire Shikoku Islands in general, please visit Wanderplans and search for Shikoku prefecture! As Japan gradually relaxes its border rules, we are ready to welcome visitors from all over the world once again, so start planning, dream big and create your dream itinerary to Japan right now!