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The smallest of Japan's four main islands, Shikoku is also the one least visited by foreigners. That's surprising considering the natural beauty of its rugged mountains, its mild climate, and its most famous monuments -- 88 sacred Buddhist temples. Many Japanese wish to make a pilgrimage to all 88 temples at least once in their lifetime as a tribute to the great Buddhist priest Kobo Daishi, who was born on Shikoku in 774 and who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism.

This pilgrimage has been popular since the Edo Period, as many believe that a successful completion of the tour exonerates Buddhist followers from rebirth. It used to take almost 2 months to visit all 88 temples on foot. Even today, you can see pilgrims making their rounds dressed in white -- only now they're more likely to go by organized tour buses, which cut travel time down to 2 weeks.

Getting to Shikoku -- For centuries, the only way to reach Shikoku was by boat. However, the 1988 completion of the Seto Ohashi Bridge, which links Shikoku with Okayama Prefecture and accommodates both cars and trains, changed Shikoku forever. In 1999, the completion of a series of bridges spanning six scenic islands in the Seto Inland Sea connected Shikoku with Hiroshima Prefecture (complete with cycling paths offering scenic views and now one of Shikoku's hottest attractions), followed by a third bridge, for cars only, linking Shikoku with Kobe.

In any case, Shikoku is no longer as far off the beaten track as it used to be, because access is now so easy. Shinkansen travelers can simply transfer in Okayama to trains bound for either Takamatsu or Matsuyama. The energetic can even cycle from Honshu to Shikoku on the Shimanami Kaido, the bike path stretching from Hiroshima Prefecture to Ehime Prefecture.