Some time-out in Takamatsu

I’ve been coming to Japan either as a visitor or resident for nearly 20 years now. On most trips, I go to the same places, stay at the same hotels and walk the same hikes. Japan is a huge country though, and I always want to see more. Each time I come here, I always try to visit somewhere new, to be a wide-eyed tourist again.

On this trip I took a day off to explore Takamatsu, the main city on north coast of Shikoku, in the middle of the Inland Sea. With a population of less than half a million, Takamatsu is small enough to explore on foot, but big enough to spend a few days, especially if you take day trips to the nearby islands like the ‘art-island’ Naoshima.

In the space of a morning, I visited Takamatsu’s famous garden, climbed its famous hill and ate its famous lunch.

Japanese gardens rarely disappoint. From small private gardens such as Nomura in Kanazawa and Gio-ji in Kyoto, to large stroll gardens from the former Daimyo estates such as Kiyokawa and garden. The best gardens have a magical calming power.

Ritsurin garden in Takamatsu is one of the best. Set against the side of a forested-hill, I strolled for an hour alongside bamboo-lined streams and around pine-ringed lakes following birds, photographing flowers and enjoying every moment of the soothing surroundings.  

Open from sunrise, if you go early enough, it feels like you have the whole place to yourself.

Leaving the serenity of the garden, I took a ride on the historic Kotoden Electric Railroad, a 100 year old line built to carry commuters and worshippers to Kotohira Shrine. My journey took me a the foot of Yashima 屋島 (Rooftop-island).  

From the station, a steep 40 minute climb through the woods took me to Temple 84 of the 88 temples on the 1,400km long Shikoku Temple Pilgrimage. Stop at the top for amazing views of the Inland Sea, and for stories of ancient battles fought here, including the tale of Yoshitsune, the 12th century samurai warrior who famously dropped his bow in the sea in the middle of the Battle of Yashima.

An English sign at the temple also introduced me to a Shrine worshipping Tasaburo,  who apparently is “respected as the general head of Badgers in Shikoku”. It was an honour to meet his spirit.

Takamatsu is famous for うどん udon (thick, wheat flour) noodles, a bit like Brighton is famous for fish and chips but on a much bigger scale.  Udon is so popular and emblematic that udon maps are available at Tourist Information, udon taxis can take you to the best udon joints, and the airport even has a tap serving free udon dashi (broth).

Using my udon map for guidance, I headed to Mendokoro Wataya, joining a fast-moving lunchtime queue of 30-40 office-workers. As a セルフ self-service restaurant, there is no need to wait for service. Diners queue up, choose their own broth and toppings, pay for it, find somewhere to sit and eat it and return their tray before some tourists have decided where to hang their coat.

It was cheap, tasty and a real experience shared with dozens of locals. The communal atmosphere and wide open seating made it feel like a school canteen. I’ve never experienced anything like it on the mainland of Honshu, and it helped turn me into a wide-eyed tourist again.