The garden of earthly delight

by Chris Bamforth

An air of seclusion still hangs over Shikoku. This is despite the building of Japan’s greatest civil-engineering white elephants — three grandiose and grandiosely debt-ridden bridge systems that span the Inland Sea and connect the island with Honshu.

The smallest of this country’s four main islands is also its least visited, and that has remained the case since the first of those bridges, the Seto Ohashi, opened in 1988, close to the Shikoku city of Takamatsu. In this city in Kagawa Prefecture, the feature that is likely to be highest on most visitor itineraries is the garden known as Ritsurin Koen. With its “three most famous views” and seven gods of good fortune, Japan has quite a fondness for odd-numbered lists, and so it is with gardens.

Strangely, Ritsurin does not figure among Japan’s Three Beautiful Gardens, but it is sprawling and agreeable. A couple of kilometers from the main station, Ritsu- rin has a reasonably central location and is a popular spot among locals. But since Ritsurin extends over 75 hectares, Japan’s largest “cultural asset” garden is easily able to absorb big visitor numbers and never seems especially crowded. Divided into two distinct sections, north and south, the garden is built around a series of 13 scenic mounds and six interconnecting ponds. Within the waters of those ponds glide small turtles and a sizable population of multicolored carp, which, despite their sizable girth of small tree trunks, visitors still feel impelled to ply with yet more sustenance from the prodigious amount of fish food on sale.

Even for those who find it hard to work up much enthusiasm for visiting yet another Japanese garden, Ritsurin is a rather charming space. Work on the park began in the 17th century and completing the thing took around a hundred years. The effort was worth it. Ritsurin is a garden of lotus ponds, graceful tea houses and pavilions, arched wooden bridges, and it features some artfully sculpted pines among its more than 29,000 trees. In style, Ritsurin is a strolling garden, its landscapes unfolding as you make your way around.

One classic technique employed here is that of “borrowed scenery,” whereby the garden planners utilize the green backdrop of Mount Shiun as a visual feature of the garden itself. Ritsurin is also rather attractive at night when tastefully lit by strung-out lines of paper lanterns or during cherry blossom season, when the air carries the delicate scent of the 500 cherry trees. After Ritsurin, the visitor is not quite done with gardens in Takamatsu since another, very much smaller, one is to be found within the grounds of Takamatsu Castle.

Located directly beside the sea, this structure, also known as Tamamo Castle, formerly boasted a five-story donjon, having been built in 1590. Like most of Takamatsu, the castle suffered heavy damage during a 1945 air raid, although a couple of turrets remain, offering a flavor of its original splendor.

Takamatsu Castle is one of only three fortresses in Japan to have a seawater-filled moat, and within its depths today lurk sea bream and sea bass. It was in these waters that the ruling Matsudaira lords demanded their samurai become adept at swimming, which back then was considered one of the martial arts.

An old military connection of a rather different kind exists a short distance outside Takamatsu in the form of Yashima. Here, one of the most famous battles was fought in the epic 12th-century struggle between the Minamoto and Taira warrior leagues for control of Japan. Yashima itself is a 290-meter-high headland that rises dramatically from the plain and juts out into the Inland Sea. Though Yashima is best known for its battle between the clans, the most significant structure atop the promontory today is the peaceful Yashimaji, the 84th temple on the famed 88-temple pilgrimage circuit around Shikoku. The best reason for coming to Yashima, though, is located at the base of its steep, pine-covered sides. This is the location of the outdoor collection of rustic architecture that goes by the name of Shikoku Mura.

Arguably the best museum on the whole island, Shikoku Mura consists of traditional buildings that have been transported from different parts of Shikoku and carefully reassembled on this superbly landscaped site on the mesa slope. Between the fun, swinging vine bridge at the base of the park and the small lighthouse at the top are the storehouses and farmhouses that offer a fair insight into life in rural Shikoku before the modern age stepped in and changed it all forever. If Shikoku Mura is the best reason for visiting Yashima, the second best is found at the entrance to the museum. Situated in an old farmhouse with various farming implements adorning its walls is the restaurant called Waraya, where the great delicacy of local noodles known as Sanuki udon is served.

“Many people think the Sanuki udon of Kagawa Prefecture is the best udon made in Japan,” explains one of the staff at Waraya. “At Waraya, we make the noodles by hand from the very best flour and serve them up in a soup stock made from dried sardines.” And you don’t need to be any great udon aficionado to realize that with these al dente, delicately flavored noodles, you really are onto something very good indeed.

Takamatsu makes for a pleasant enough spot, its provincial air, with hair salons named Salon du Jaunty, offset by its impressive high-rise development around the station, the like of which its larger north Shikoku neighbor of Matsuyama certainly doesn’t possess. Best of all, it has the rather friendly people that Shikoku is capable of producing in abundance.