The smallest of Shikoku's four regions, Kagawa is becoming an increasingly attractive hotspot for travellers. Relatively undiscovered, this prefecture formerly known as Sanuki offers up a marvellous mix of old and new, plus a burgeoning arts scene and one of Japan’s most recognisable noodle dishes, Sanuki udon.
Shikoku's Mt Iino is also known as Sanuki-Fuji for its resemblance to Japan's highest mountain © thanyarat07 / Getty Images
Fuelling interest in the region, Naoshima, chosen by the Benesse Corporation to house its collections of art, has morphed into a world-renowned ‘art island’ and one of Japan’s most popular visitor attractions. There are world-class art galleries and installations designed by top architects such as Andō Tadao, housing works by Japanese and international artists from Monet to Ohtake Shinrō to Andy Warhol.
The magnetism of Naoshima is rubbing off on nearby islands, and for the 2019 Setouchi Triennale festival, a total of 12 islands and two ports are involved in an ‘arts extravaganza’ that includes visual arts, music, drama and dance. Other islands involved include Teshima and Shōdo-shima and the whole region is reaping the benefits of being in the spotlight of the arts world.
On the Kagawa mainland, the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum features hundreds of Noguchi’s works, and was where the American-Japanese sculptor himself was based for many years. Another can’t-miss museum is the impressive Takamatsu City Museum of Art. Located in the city’s main shopping district, the museum is a testament to the quality arts scene in the prefecture.
Ritsurin-kōen took more than a century to complete © livcool / Getty Images
Traditions are highly valued in Shikoku, and Kagawa Prefecture offers some excellent opportunities to peek into the Japan of yesteryear.
Takamatsu city’s Ritsurin-kōen is renowned as one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens. Constructed from the mid-1600s as a walking garden for the enjoyment of the daimyō (regional lord), the park trails wind around a series of ponds, bridges and islands. Visitors can take in the Sanuki Folkcraft Museum and sip matcha (green tea) at teahouses in the gardens.
East of the city, at Yashima, is Shikoku-mura, a ‘village museum’ of traditional houses and buildings transported from all over Shikoku and neighbouring islands. The fine kabuki stage came from Shōdo-shima, famous for its traditional farmers' kabuki performances.
One of only 12 castles in Japan to have its original wooden donjon intact, Marugame Castle dates from 1597 and is known for its exquisite stone walls, moat and 1000 cherry trees that virtually explode with blossoms in spring.
Marugame Castle is most beautiful in spring © hayakato / Getty Images
Temples and shrines
In centuries past, most visitors to Shikoku were pilgrims trying to attain enlightenment on the 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku Pilgrimage. The 1400km pilgrimage circuit has been walked for 1200 years and the last 22 of the 88 temples are in Kagawa.
The great saint of Shingon Buddhism, Kōbō Daishi, who established the pilgrimage and attained enlightenment on Shikoku, was born at Zentsū-ji, Temple 75, and his home temple is an impressive place to visit.
Mountain-top Temple 66, Unpen-ji, ‘the temple in the clouds’, features 500 mesmerising life-like rakan statues and is reached by its own aerial ropeway. It’s said that everyone has a lookalike somewhere among the 500 statues and many visitors spend hours searching for theirs. Temple 85, Yakuri-ji, accessed by a retro cable-car, sits under the high cliffs of Goken-zan, east of Takamatsu, and makes a great daytrip from the city.
The last of the 88 temples, Ōkubo-ji, is in the mountains in the southeast of Kagawa, but if pilgrims want to do things properly, they still have to return to Temple 1 in Tokushima Prefecture to complete the circle of Shikoku – for a circle is like the search for enlightenment, never-ending.
Situated on Mt Zōzu, Konpira-san is worth the trek © thanyarat07 / Getty Images
Shikoku’s most celebrated Shinto shrine is Konpira-san, formally known as Kotohira-gū and dedicated to the guardian of mariners. If you tell anyone from Japan that you’ve been to Kagawa, they’ll ask if you climbed Konpira-san – there are 785 steps to the main shrine and 1368 steps to the inner shrine.
Mention Kagawa Prefecture to any fan of Japanese cuisine and you’ll hear the words – 'Aaah, Sanuki udon... the best!', or something to that effect. This is udon-ken (udon prefecture) and various versions of the thick wheat-flour noodles can be found on almost every corner. Hone-tsuki-dori is a grilled or baked chicken-on-the-bone dish, said to have originated in Marugame, that is popular prefecture-wide.
Sanuki udon was popularised in Kagawa © Photos by g4gary / Getty Images
Kagawa’s coastline is on the Inland Sea, the ‘fish tank’ between Shikoku and Honshu produces a huge variety of fresh seafood year-round that fuels the people of Kagawa. Hamachi, Japanese amberjack or yellowtail, is much-loved and often eaten on rice as hamachi-don, a Takamatsu favourite. The city’s lively central arcades and entertainment district are packed with eating and drinking establishments – try Ofukuro (translates roughly to ‘Mom’s home cooking’) on Tokiwa Shinmachi shopping street for local delights.
Shōdo-shima, one of many Inland Sea islands in the prefecture, is known throughout Japan for its production of soy sauce and olives. Popular olive-influenced dishes abound, especially ‘olive pork’ and ‘olive beef’ from stock raised on an olive-enriched feed mix.
Sitting on the northern coast of Shikoku and separated from Tokushima prefecture by a line of mountains along its southern border, Kagawa features fascinating landscapes. North of the mountains are plains dotted with countless tame-ike (water-collection ponds), essential for maintaining agricultural production in centuries past. The northern coast is surprisingly mountainous, with Goshikidai, west of Takamatsu city, an extensive lava plateau known for its picturesque scenery. The 292m-high table-top plateau of Yashima, an easily recognisable landmark to the city’s east, was the site of a decisive battle in the Genpei Wars (1180–1185) between the Taira and Minamoto clans. Kagawa even has its own version of Mt Fuji known as Sanuki-Fuji for its resemblance to Japan’s highest mountain.
A walkable sandbar known as Angel Road appears at low tide on Shōdo-shima © thanyarat07 / Getty Images
Prefectural boundaries stretch out into the Inland Sea between Shikoku and Honshu, all part of Setonaikai National Park, designated in 1934 as Japan’s first national park. Kagawa’s islands, including Naoshima, Teshima and Shōdo-shima, are all in the park. While Naoshima is firmly on visitor itineraries as a popular ‘art island’, those wishing to enjoy less-visited isles will enjoy the art installations on Teshima and mountainous Shōdo-shima’s olive groves and Kankakei Gorge.
Lonely Planet has produced this article for Kagawa Prefecture Tourism Association. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.