Kagawa Prefecture, in the northeast of Japan’s ‘fourth island’ Shikoku, makes its most famous creation clear from your airplane window, if arriving via the airport of its capital city Takamatsu. ‘Sanuki’ reads the white Japanese script etched into the grass banks lining the runway, highlighting both the region’s former name, and its Sanuki Udon noodles which are much loved nationwide.
Bordering the Seto Inland Sea that lies between Shikoku and mainland Honshu, Kagawa has earned the nickname ‘udon prefecture’. Sanuki Udon though is but one of many delights the area has to offer travelers: Kagawa’s standing as the smallest Japanese prefecture is belied by an abundance of natural beauty, sites of historic and cultural significance, and cutting-edge contemporary art.
With the sea to its north and bordered to the south by the imposing Sanuki mountain range, Kagawa is a narrow plain bolstered by over 100 islands ranging from the tiny and uninhabited to the 12 ‘art islands’. These locations, comprising Naoshima, Shodoshima, Teshima and nine other islands, come together every three years to co-host the Setouchi Triennale. Naoshima has the most to offer art lovers in between these events, thanks to an ever-growing number of galleries and stunning outdoor installations.
Shodoshima, the largest of Kagawa’s islands, is home to a charming lighthouse, the Choshikei Monkey Park, Mediterranean-like gardens, and much more. Highlights include Angel Road, where the tide level intermittently reveals a ‘pathway’ over the sea to the tiny island of Yoshima; and the breathtaking Kankakei Gorge.
Back on mainland Kagawa the city of Takamatsu, once a feudal castle town, is best known for Ritsurin Garden. This expansive landscaped garden, replete with lakes, pavilions, and a tea house, was commissioned in the mid-1620s by a daimyo military lord. Divided into Japanese and Western-style halves, the garden utilizes the wooded Mt. Shiun as a masterful ‘borrowed scenery’ background.
East of Takamatsu is the Yashima Plateau, a 293m-high volcanic hill with a flat, rooftop-like peak. Scene of the bloody 1185 Battle of Yashima between the Heike and Genji clans, the now peaceful plateau offers a superb view out over Takamatsu and the Inland Sea beyond.
Yashima is also home to Yashima-ji temple, the 84th location on the 88-stop pilgrimage, known as the Shikoku Henro, that Buddhist adherents have been undertaking for over 1,200 years. Kagawa contains 23 of the temples making up the circuit, and especially significant among these is Zentsu-ji. Located west of Takamatsu, this temple is the birthplace of Kobo Daishi whose followers originated the pilgrimage. North of Zentsu-ji, towards the coast, lie Marugame Castle and the MIMOCA contemporary art museum. South of Zentsu-ji and further inland are the magnificent hilltop shrine Kotohira-gu, and Japan’s oldest extant kabuki theater the Konpira Kabuki.
Elsewhere Kagawa boasts a wealth of museums covering everything from local folklore to the work of renowned industrial designer Isamu Noguchi. Many hands-on experiences are offered too, where you can try making traditional sweets, uchiwa fans, and those ubiquitous Sanuki Udon noodles.