Postcards from Japan: Shikoku island best bits, off-road travel tips and the loveliness of locals, with Sam Barclay of HJT

Japan is very well known for the bright neon lights of its cities but far away from the hubbub of the larger metropolitan areas lies a much quieter, rural Japan. Upwards of 60% of Japan is classified as woodland (and around 73% as mountain) so the truth is those big cities are only far less than 50% of the picture. Sam was born and raid in Somerset, UK, but after moving to the remote region of Shimane as a part of the JET programme, he fell in love (in more ways than one!). Now he lives on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands, where he runs tours as Hidden Japan Travel for visitors looking to dig a little deeper.

Hi, thanks for talking to us today. Could you tell us a little about yourself? 

Sure, I was born and raised in the south-west of the UK surrounded by wild nature and a great sense of community…maybe that’s why I feel so at home on Shikoku. After graduating university I joined the JET programme. As part of the application, you specify three preferred locations. I left that section blank, deciding to leave it to fate. I got really lucky, ending up in a small mountain town called Tsuwano, in Shimane prefecture. Wonderful people, fascinating culture; it was a life changing two years. After that I made my way to Shikoku, the least visited of Japan’s main islands. This became my home, and with every remote beach, festival in the mountains, or walk into a wild gorge I grew to love it even more. 
A few years later, I co-founded a travel company here called Hidden Japan Travel. We’ve been running for a few years now and it’s a real pleasure to show guests the nature, culture, and cuisine of this amazing island. We focus on outdoor adventure tours as well as food and culture experiences. I feel very lucky to do something I love in a place that’s so special to me.  
 
How did you end up working and living in Japan and what is it like? 
What inspired you to start Hidden Japan Travel with Miho? 
That’s a great question. Living and working in Japan is fantastic - I feel very fortunate.
I started Hidden Japan Travel with Miho, and we both love to be outdoors, so when we’re not leading or organising tours, we use the time to cycle into the mountains, camp on a beach, or fish in the Seto Inland Sea and to unwind and reconnect with the nature here.  
Hidden Japan Travel kind of evolved out of these pastimes. As we explored Shikoku - towns, cities, remote locations - we realised that for all the beauty on offer here, there are so few travellers. We wanted to show off our home and also help our guests have unique, authentic, experiences. Shikoku is a lovely place to explore, but it’s tough to get around without local knowledge and transportation. There’s no Shinkansen and the public transport, while reliable, doesn’t really get you to all the interesting places. We are excited to help travellers experience remote locations and introduce them to the people who make those places so special.   
For example, we take small groups to a remote gorge to learn the art of making soba noodles from an old lady. She opens her house to us and uses only organic ingredients she mainly grows herself, including the buckwheat for the noodles and the bamboo for the plates! Another tour takes people across the Shimanami Kaido (bridges crossing the Seto Inland Sea) on a multiday cycle ride. We give guests our own information booklet full of local knowledge and we only use small traditional inns run by islanders. Japan can seem really ‘foreign’ at times, and it can be hard to get inside the culture. We believe great travel is about participating, not just observing. That’s why Miho and I started Hidden Japan Travel and we love it. 
 
What places would you recommend to people visiting Shikoku for the first time?  
It really depends on what type of thing you’re into. If you want to take it easy, then a city like Matsuyama is perfect. It has the oldest hot spring in Japan and one of the few ‘original’ castles to have survived from the Edo period. It’s also nice to take a boat out to one of the small islands off the coast, Nakajima or Gogoshima, for example. It’s a total change of pace and a short 20-minute journey will transport you to the wonderful Japanese 'inaka' – with school kids yelling “hello” and strangers greeting you on the street. It’ll show you a different side of Japan - a quiet sense of beauty and community that’s so prominent here on Shikoku. 
If you like being outdoors, then Shikoku also has much to offer! Personally, I love to get out and explore the expanse of wild nature we have here. Kochi and Tokushima have fantastic beaches with world-class surfing, there’s also excellent white-water rafting in Tokushima, sea kayaking in Ehime (we have a sea kayaking and cycling tour in fact), and canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding on rivers across the island. Out of the water, there’s great hiking in Ehime, with Mt. Ishizuchi, the highest point in western Japan at 6503 ft. Then there’s the Shimanami Kaido, which has been voted one of the best cycling routes in the world and is one of the three national cycling routes of Japan. That’s a 70km journey across 6 islands, 6 bridges, and 1 ferry. It’s truly spectacular. If walking is more your thing, doing a small part (or the whole thing if you’ve got the time) of the 88-temple pilgrimage is a wonderful way to see interesting parts of the island, experience the generosity of the locals as they offer you gifts to help you on your journey, and explore tranquil temples.  
Some places are increasingly well-known, the Iya Valley, with its impossibly steep walls and bridges made of vines, and Naoshima, with its world-famous art installations, are examples that spring to mind. But, they’re still definitely worth visiting. Yet, there are other places too, less visited perhaps, but just as inspiring. The Shimanto River, the Niyodo River, Shikoku Karst…I could go on and on!  
 
Can you give us any travel tips for exploring Shikoku and how to get around to experience an authentic Japan trip with your family?  
I mean, you could contact Hidden Japan Travel!
We have worked with families of all types and ages, making our tours accessible and also developing bespoke packages around the needs of specific groups. Another tip is to make getting to Shikoku as much fun as your time here – cycle over the Shimanami Kaido, take a night ferry from Honshu or Kyushu. It might take a bit of time to get where you want to go on Shikoku, so make the journey part of the destination. If you are in a rush, then there are quite a few low-cost carriers who fly between the airports of Shikoku and Japan’s major hubs. Oh, and the all-Shikoku rail pass is a great way to get around while you’re here.  
More fundamentally, my advice is to get out of your comfort zone. It can be scary to eat in restaurants without English menus or stay in traditional inns without private baths…but aren’t these experiences the reasons you want to come to Japan? Having experiences that you could only have in this one place is what good travel is about. We always listen to the needs of our guests and totally understand that some foods or cultures might be a step too far…but we also try to offer opportunities to experience this authentic side of Shikoku, and foster a deeper appreciation.   
 
What kind of experiences shouldn’t be missed when we visit the area? 
Besides the great outdoors and the cuisine, there’re also some incredible experiences to be had. For instance, there are some great temple stays and enough hot springs to keep you clean for years. The perfect way to while away lazy evenings – from outdoor baths overlooking the sea to hot spring complexes in the middle of the forest…the waters here are warm and welcoming!  
Then there are the festivals! If you can time your trip here with one of these spectacles, you’re in for a treat. There’s the Awa Odori and Yosakoi dances of Tokushima and Kochi. Then the autumn festivals, where we have some of the last 'kenka mikoshi' in Japan.
'Mikoshi' are religious monuments carried on shoulders and walked around cities to the sounds of beating drums, chanting, and the whistles of the leaders standing on top of the portable shrines, 3 meters in the air. The 'kenka' bit refers to fighting, as the shrines are smashed into one another, wood chips flying, to honour the gods inside. 
Besides these experiences, I personally love just sitting in a local café, restaurant, pub, or bath house, chatting to the local people there. It’s those moments that make me really appreciate Shikoku. It’s not a theme park or a constructed façade of how life used to be, but a window onto authentic Japan. English might be rare here, but any effort you make to speak even a few words of Japanese will be appreciated and may lead to a lifelong memory.
 
What is your favourite Japanese food? 
That’s an impossible question to answer! The thing I love about Japanese food is that it’s seasonal, experiential, and super local. The food you get at a specific restaurant at a specific time of year is unique and can’t be replicated.
So, at Hidden Japan Travel, we have a food and culture tour of Matsuyama city, in Ehime prefecture. We go to a really small restaurant that serves a local variety of okonomiyaki, like in Hiroshima and Osaka, but this is a lesser known variety. Sitting at the counter of an hidden diner, chatting to the old lady who’s preparing a dish that you can only get in that small town - it's perfect! Eating becomes a multisensory experience – yes, it’s really tasty, but you remember so much more than the food. 
Shikoku does have some great food, though. The fish is amazing – the currents of the Seto Inland Sea are some of the fastest in Japan and are said to give the fish here a delicious texture. And one more thing! Each of the four prefectures of Shikoku has a signature dish. You’ve got tai meshi (sea bream over rice) in Ehime, udon noodles from Sanuki in Kagawa, katsuo no tataki (horse mackerel sashimi seared over a straw fire) from Kochi, and ramen from Tokushima.
Travel across Shikoku's four prefectures is a culinary adventure.   
 
Before we say goodbye, this month we’re focusing on the word ‘natsukashii’, meaning 'nostalgic' or 'full of fond memories'. What is your favourite natsukashii memory from Japan? 
My favourite memories of Japan are all about people. I’ve seen quite a bit of the country (including 21 places called Kashima, but that’s another story...).
Inevitably when I look back on any travel I’ve done, it’s the people and the interactions I’ve had with them that stand out.
 
That said, a few years ago I was cycling with Miho over a small island called Gogoshima, just off the coast of Matsuyama City, in Ehime prefecture. We started along the sea front but soon kicked up onto a narrow road leading into the hills. We passed a group of 10 or so fisherman sitting at a crudely constructed table (think planks of wood over beer crates), barbequing fresh seafood, and having a drink in the sun. They motioned for us to stop and to pull up chairs. 2 hours later we were still there chatting, eating, and getting to know new friends.
Needless to say, we didn’t do any more cycling that day, but every time I ride on that island and turn up that narrow mountain track, I get a lovely 'natsukashii' feeling and am transported back to that day in the sun. It’s a memory that reminds me why I love Shikoku and why I do what I do. It’s fantastic to help people explore the Japanese countryside, to see remote places, and interact with the people who make those places so incredible.  
 
Thanks for your time, Sam! 
If anyone is interested in finding out more or planning a Shikoku experience, be sure to check out Hidden Japan Travel's website, Facebook or Instagram!
 

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