After our recent wedding in Japan, my wife and I decided to have our honeymoon in Shikoku. It was a 3-week driving trip which encompassed a large portion of the island. Whilst it was a wonderful journey through an amazingly beautiful area of Japan, it also happened to present the most challenging driving experiences of my life. Here are a few roads that you might want to seek out if you’re looking for drives that are likely to be far more adventurous than you’re used to.
The road starts in the north in Takamatsu (高松市) and finishes towards the southeast corner of Shikoku in Kaiyō (海陽). In the more populated areas, it is a normal enough Japanese prefectural road. However, once it reaches the south of Yoshinogawa (吉野川市), where the road starts leading into the mountainous area of the central Tokushima Prefecture, the character of the road changes dramatically.
I’ve never driven on a road as seemingly untouched and neglected in my life. For a start, the road’s condition is terrible at certain points. There are many sections where the road is cracked, broken, full of potholes or covered in stones and tree branches. More surprising is that parts of the road are covered in moss, giving the impression that the road hasn’t been driven on for months or longer.
The most challenging aspect for a driver though is the road’s width. There are sections which extend for numerous kilometers where the road will only be wide enough for one car, and you’ll probably burn a few calories from the stress of worrying what to do when a car approaches from the other direction. Add to that the road’s numerous twists and blind corners and you’ll quickly discover that this is not going to be a relaxing drive through the countryside.
If you can overlook the fact that your knuckles will be turning white from gripping the steering wheel so tightly, you’ll be able to appreciate being surrounded by beautiful forests, rivers, and mountains that provide a tranquility that is worth enduring such a drive.
We actually ended up on this road a few times during our journey seeking out some of Tokushima’s fantastic waterfalls and after a few hours spent driving on it, we had not encountered even one other car. The road actually has some notoriety, as we mentioned driving on it to a few locals who all seemed very familiar with it. They told us that people there avoid taking the road unless absolutely necessary.
We ended up on this road by taking a wrong turn when following verbal directions given to us for our intended destination, Mount Tsurugi (剣山).
Supa Rindo (スーパー林道) or just Rindo (林道) means forest road, also known as “fire trail” in some countries. They certainly weren’t joking when they called this one a forest road as it’s a mostly non-paved, dirt and gravel road through a desolate forest. It’s the perfect road for a 4WD or dirt bike, but as we were in my mother-in-law’s little Nissan hatchback the unexpected bumpy ride was rather uncomfortable and very slow.
The drive wasn’t as stressful as the Route 193 experience because the Rindo was generally wider with less dramatic turns. Our concerns revolved more around how rough the road was and that we shouldn’t really be driving a little suburban car on a lonely forest trail to what seemed like the middle of nowhere!
After some time we eventually came to a T-junction, not knowing which way to turn. Luckily for us, we came across two forest workers who were parked at the side of the road in a 4WD. They gave us directions, whilst undoubtedly having a little chuckle at the lost newlyweds in mum’s car, and off we went further along the gravel road. The directions weren’t for Mount Tsurugi though, as we actually ended up at the parking lot for Tsurugi’s neighboring mountain, Jirougyu (次郎笈). From there we enjoyed our climb to the top of Jirougyu and then finally hiked over to the peak of Tsurugi from up in the mountains.
Despite our misguided adventure, I strongly recommend trying to find this road if you are driving a vehicle more suited to off-road conditions. You’ll be in the midst of stunning forest scenery, surrounded by mountains, and it’s likely you will be one of only a few people out there. If you want to take a very quiet, backdoor route to Mount Tsurugi then this might be a good option for you.
This remote valley is home to locations such as Oboke Gorge (大歩危), Ochiai village (落合), suspension bridges made of mountain vines known as kazurabashi (かずら橋) and the “peeing boy” statue (小便小僧).
It’s an absolutely gorgeous area and a perfect example of why people admire Japan’s natural beauty so much. However, it is yet another area in Shikoku which features extremely narrow, cliff-side roads which snake their way through steep mountains. One of my worst fears at the time was realized when we came face to face with an oncoming bus. Luckily for us, the driver was obviously experienced in this situation as he expertly reversed the bus back to a section of road just wide enough for us to get past in our little car.
It’s not just the main thoroughfares that are challenging though. We stayed in a house that was literally clinging to the side of a mountain, and the road leading up to it was the most nerve-racking 15 minutes driving of my life. The road climbed at what seemed more than a forty-five-degree angle, was almost too narrow for our car, and we would have suffered a deadly plunge over the unfenced road edge if one wrong move was made. It was quite scary, but the accommodation was fantastic and absolutely worth the risk.
Shikoku Karst (四国カルスト) is a very picturesque mountain-top area between the Kochi and Ehime Prefectures that features sprawling meadows and interesting rock formations. You’ve probably guessed by now that from a driver’s point of view the main issue here again is narrow roads.
As this area is more popular than the others I’ve mentioned you will encounter more traffic, so be prepared to deal with oncoming cars where there isn’t enough room for two of you. Standard protocol for this is that one driver will need to reverse back until there is a shoulder or broader section of the road that is just wide enough to allow for the cars to get past each other.
Be careful though as much of the road around here has open drainage channels that run along either side of it. The usual levels of Japanese ingenuity are lacking here as these channels are the perfect size for a car’s tires to fall into if the driver strays just a little bit too far outside the edge of the lane. This is quite a problem as drivers are forced to move their cars as far as they can to one side of the road to let others pass. Sure enough, we saw a car that had stopped at the side of the road and was tilted over sideways at forty-five degrees with two wheels stuck in the channel.
These are just a few examples of the types of roads that are quite common around much of Shikoku’s countryside. I don’t want this to deter anybody from setting out on a driving journey within Shikoku though, as the spectacular beauty and peaceful isolation of these areas is hard to beat. Just be prepared for driving that can be stressful and nerve-racking at times, but well worth the effort, and it might even make you a better driver.