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Shikoku: A Paradise Found

By Sergio Ortiz

"This is what paradise must be like," I thought while sitting in a shallow pool of whirling, scalding water with a faint and not unpleasant trace of sulfur wafting in the air. The wind rustled the pines and the river's current gurgled while the tingling notes of a shamisen floated out of unseen speakers. This was onsen - the bathing ritual that the Japanese have elevated to an artform - at its finest.

I was pampering myself at the Hotel Iya Onsen in the Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku, a lush island refreshed by wind and tide and the smallest of four major land masses comprising the Japanese archipelago. Shikoku is a charming and illusory place where a seldom seen Japan blooms like the exotic orchids that have made the island famous. Shikoku is a serene, removed and anonymous green corner of Japan that delights visitors willing to veer off the well-trodden tourist path into a realm that remains veiled in a coy, uniquely Japanese way.

Getting to the open-air springs of Iya Onsen is an adventure in itself culminating in a five-minute, 600-foot funicular cable car descent to the bed of a visually stunning gorge.

From the pool, the view of the Iya ravine seems straight out of the famous Ukiyo-e woodblock prints representative of Japanese art. Indeed, Ukiyo translates roughly to "floating world," and the Iya Onsen spa is everything the term denotes.

The thermal water in the pools surges from a natural springhead at a scalding 105 degrees and no trip to Shikoku can be complete without basking for a few hours in an onsen.

Unwinding in the rejuvenating bath, I had time to contemplate the mystery of why Shikoku remains Japan's least-visited island. It's easy on the eye, its pre-Meiji dynasty gardens are enchanting, Japan's most celebrated bathhouse (Dogo Onsen Honkan, in Ehime Prefecture) still thrives after opening its doors some 1,300 years ago and the ancient temples dotting Shikoku look like the backdrop of Japanese fairy tales.

If I had my druthers, Shikoku would be a mandatory stop for anyone wanting a genuine Japanese experience because this is where contemporary Japan seems to have sought refuge and solitude from its hectic lifestyle.
Shikoku is also something of a Japanese spiritual Mecca.

It's the birthplace of Kobo Daishi, an eight-century Buddhist scholar saint who imported Buddhism from China, invented the Japanese alphabet, and experimented with astronomy and founded temples and monasteries. If that wasn't enough, Daishi introduced the delights of tea to Japan.

His followers believe the old monk still roams the earth until the day of universal enlightenment. In his honor they regularly set off on a two-month, 870-mile pilgrimage around Shikoku to pray at every one of the island's 88 temples, believing that the trek will free them from Buddhism's 88 earthly desires, thus inching closer to nirvana. Time and finances permitting, this would be the trek of a lifetime.

I often saw Daishi's followers plodding along rural roads, all dressed in white, wearing straw conical hats, chanting and counting prayer beads.
Shikoku is a 10th-century sensation in 21st century Japan.
That feeling was reinforced the day after my soothing bath at Iya Onsen while meandering through Minamimachi Street in Wakimachi, an enticing town dating back to Japan's Edo Period. The very old street is lined with homes built in the udatsu style, an architectural whim of graceful roof extensions separating houses built by bygone indigo merchants (indigo was Shikoku's main industry for centuries,) to prevent fires from spreading.

A stroll through the pristine street made me feel as if I were walking through a Japanese museum.

Everything on Shikoku - from its magnificent orchids to the unique local cuisine - is exceptional and worthy of note. This was manifest during an outing to the Iyakei gorge where, before venturing across the Kazurabasshi hanging bridge, I sat on the riverbank watching a spectacular waterfall plummeting like a veil of flaxen silk into a river that inspired old poets.

It was a fitting scene for the poetry that is Shikoku.