Japan City Guides: Oboke Gorge
A Different Japan: The Oboke Gorge and Takamatsu 大歩危
Shikoku is one of Japan's four main islands, but is less visited than any of the rest. This seems partly due to its historic isolation.
It was not until 1988 that it was connected by the spectacular Seto-Ohashi Bridge to Honshu and most Japanese people have not been there. Shikoku is traditionally a destination for pilgrims visiting its 88 Sacred Temples, but not for less traditionally minded tourists. Our visit to Takamatsu gave us only a flavour of the place - we felt that we could have stayed much longer.
Takamatsu is the capital of Kagawa prefecture, one of the four prefectures in Shikoku, and is located at the north of the island. A fairly small city of 425,000, it makes a pleasant and relaxed destination for tourists.
Getting there from Tokyo takes about 3 hours 30 minutes hours by Shinkansen and about one hour by JR 'Marine Liner' train. Arriving at the pleasantly uncrowded Takamatsu JR Station we found the Takamatsu Tourist Information Centre (Tel: 087 851 2009) a few meters away across the plaza in front of the station.
There we found an extremely helpful English-speaking staff member who not only supplied us with an excellent map and timetables for transport to the town's major attractions (all in English) but also took us outside and pointed to our business hotel, the Takamatsu Terminal. Another 50 metres away towards the sea is the Takamatsu Symbol Tower with great views of the port, the sea and the nearby islands.
The highlight of our stay, however, was not in Takamatsu or even in the prefecture of Kagawa. It was the Oboke Gorge, in Tokushima prefecture (sometimes known as Oboke-Koboke Gorge or Oboke-Iya Gorge).
This is a beautiful mountainous area where the Yoshino River in a deep ravine is surrounded by spectacular scenery. It is not readily accessible by public transport, so being without a car and not anxious to rent one, we decided to take the Bonnet Bus tour. This turned out to be a great decision.
The Bonnet Bus is a 1950s-era bus that takes tourists for an approximately five-hour trip along the Oboke Gorge and back for 200 for an adult and 700 for a child. It leaves from the Awa-Ikeda Bus Terminal every day between 1 March and 30 November.
It can be booked by calling the Shikoku Transit Information Bureau on 0883 72 1231, but as speakers of very little Japanese we found it much easier to ask at the Takamatsu TIC.
Despite its location in another prefecture, they were happy to book for us. We took the train to from Takamatsu to Awa Ikeda. A direct Shimanto train takes just over an hour and allows you time to look around the small town of Awa Ikeda.
The Bonnet Bus was leaving at 11.30am instead of 11.00am on the day we went, so we took the Shiokaze train at 9.38am, changed at Tadotsu to the Nanpu train and arrived at Awa Ikeda at 11.20am, just in time to sprint down to the nearby bus terminal. The Bonnet Bus, with its six passengers, driver and guide was awaiting us. Stopping only to pick up another passenger at a large ryokan overlooking the town, we set off on our tour of the Oboke Gorge.
The gorge is a work of astonishing beauty, with a sometimes tranquil and sometimes rough river flowing between deep ravines leading down to small rapids. The river itself is dark green, and the forests on the surrounding hills and mountains are also green, with occasional wild cherry blossoms giving them a pink tinge.
The guide's commentary is in Japanese (not surprisingly - there are not enough foreign tourists in this neck of the woods for English or Chinese or Korean language tours, or audio headphones) but one thing that we understand are the frequent references to JR and 'onsen', hot springs.
On the other side of the gorge runs the JR Dosan line, in and out of tunnels, along the edge of the gorge, over bridges, sometimes surrounded by what look like rickety wooden structures but are undoubtedly feats of engineering allowing the railway to run along the side of the gorge.
Our first stop was for a boat trip (on one of the peaceful stretches of the river). We boarded open tatami-matted boats after a walk down numerous steps to the river bank and headed upstream to view vertiginous cliffs from the bottom, secluded landing spots and (once again) translucent dark green water.
On arriving back at the jetty we climbed the steps in the other direction to lunch. After the boat trip comes lunch of fish, rice, noodles, miso soup and tea in a large tatami mat room with several other tour groups.
One of our older fellow travellers enthusiastically bit the head off the fish (a local delicacy) but we noticed that some of the extremely young travellers were as unenthusiastic as we were about this procedure.
After lunch we travelled only a few hundred metres up the road to visit the tourist information centre and mineral museum Lapis Oboke (Tel: 0883 84 1489), an unexpectedly fascinating insight into the geological history of not only the island of Shikoku but also many other countries - probably including yours.
From there we moved on to the Heike Folk Museum (Tel: 0883 84 2029) with its exhibits of life in the old days, and then to the Kazurabashi Bridge. This bridge is constructed of vines in the old mountain style (although apparently now reinforced with steel cables) across which visitors carefully tread, trying not to look down. Our last stop was to view the Manikin Pis Boy, a statue of a little boy peeing over a very, very high drop at the side of the road. Then back to Awa Ikeda in time for us, and several of our fellow travellers, to get a train directly back to Takamatsu .
The Bonnet Bus is not the only way to go to the Oboke Gorge. Trains run also to Oboke JR Station, but there are a very few buses running along the gorge. There are also other attractions in the Oboke Gorge - white water rafting, hiking, and of course visiting onsens.
There are also other attractions in Takamatsu. Highly recommended are the Ritsurin-koen and Yashima Plateau and the open air house museum Shikoku-mura.
Ritsurin-koen is a park built in the 17th century as a garden surrounding the residence of the feudal lord of Kagawa, which was then known as Sanuki. It has lakes, gardens, groves, pine trees and, in season, cherry blossom.
Ritsurin-koen is most easily accessed by bus from the bus terminal outside Takamatsu JR Station, although both JR and the other local railway, Kotoden, have nearby stations.
Yashima Plateau was the scene of a major battle between the Heike and Genji clans in the 12th century. Today it is the scene of major views of the Inland Sea, and best accessed by the Kotoden line, although the JR line that runs to Ritsurin-kōen also runs to Yashima. A shuttle bus runs from the Kotoden station to the top of the plateau.
After visiting the major cities of Tokyo or Osaka, Takamatsu and the Oboke Gorge are a delightful return to a small and beautiful world.
Takamatsu Airport has flights to Tokyo Haneda Airport (1 hour) and Fukuoka Airport (70 mins.)
From Tokyo take the Shinkansen to Okayama (3 hours, 30 mins) and then change trains for Takamatsu (55 minutes).
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