If you're spending more than a day in Takamatsu, these major attractions are worth the trek.
If you have 4 hours to spare, one of the best historical side trips you can take is to Kotohira, home of Japan's oldest kabuki theater and of Kotohiragu Shrine, 892 Kotohira-cho (tel. 0877/75-2121), one of Japan's oldest and most popular shrines (also known as Kompira Shrine). It takes about an hour to reach Kotohira by JR train from Takamatsu, but that isn't the end of it -- the shrine itself is at the top of 785 granite steps, which on average take 40 minutes to ascend. If that's too much for you, you can hire one of the porters who wait at the bottom of the steps, but they'll take you only to the omon (main gate), which is reached after climbing 365 steps. It costs ¥5,300 one-way and ¥6,800 round-trip to ride in these palanquins. What decadence.
Otherwise, begin the long trek up to Kotohiragu Shrine by taking the JR Kotohira Station's only exit. Walk straight past a small park (with a wooden tower lighthouse that served as a beacon for traveling pilgrims in the Edo Period), and pass the Kotoden Station. (You can also travel from Takamatsu in 1 hr. by Kotoden streetcar.) Turn left at the T-junction with a post office. You'll soon see, to the right, a sloping, narrow street lined with souvenir shops (though I wouldn't buy anything on the way up). Eventually, you'll reach the first flight of stairs. If you're making a detour to the kabuki theater, turn left after the 22nd step, from which the theater is only a 3-minute walk uphill on the right.
At about the 475th step (in case you're counting), just past the stables to the right, you'll find Shoin, built in 1659 to receive important visitors. Its doors and alcoves contain paintings by Maruyama Okyko, a famous 18th-century landscape artist, making the building an Important Cultural Property. Especially famous is the painting of two tigers drinking from a stream. It's open daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm; admission is ¥500 for adults, ¥200 for students, and free for children. After another 15-minute workout, you'll reach Hongu, the main shrine, where you'll be rewarded with a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside as well as of the shrine itself. Popularly known as Kompira-San, Kotohiragu Shrine was originally founded in the 11th century but has been rebuilt many times, with the main shrine buildings re-erected about 100 years ago. It's dedicated to the Shinto god of seafarers and voyagers (look for the Votive Picture Pavilion with photos of ships and other vessels that have asked for blessings) and, in recent years, has even become revered as the protector of foreign travelers. For my part, I was just thankful for having successfully traveled the stairs to the shrine. And to be honest, the shrine itself is not the main draw; most of the three million annual hikers, it seems, come for the hike itself and the comradeship it inspires. If you're still game (and want to say you went the entire distance), you can continue another 583 steps to Okunoyashiro. You can say your prayers here, but the inner shrine is closed to the public. Kotohiragu Shrine is open daily from sunrise to sunset (7pm in summer; 5pm in winter).
Because you're in the vicinity, you should make every effort to see the highly recommended Kompira Grand Playhouse (Komnpira O-Shibai or Kanamaruza), 241 Otsu, Kotohira-cho (tel. 0877/73-3846), which was built to entertain the masses flocking to Kotohiragu Shrine. Located about 300m (985 ft.) to the left of the 22nd step as you ascend, and then up the hill on the right, it's the oldest existing kabuki stage in Japan, stunning in its simplicity and delightful in its construction. As there was no electricity when it was built in 1835, the sides of the hall are rows of shoji screens and wooden coverings, which can be opened and closed to control the amount of light reaching the stage. Notice the check-in counter at the entrance for geta (wooden sandals), tatami seating, paper lanterns, and revolving stage, which was turned by four men in the basement (be sure to check out the basement). You can also tour the various makeup and dressing rooms behind the stage and watch a video in Japanese. It's open daily from 9am to 5pm (except for 16 days in Apr when kabuki is performed to sellout crowds) and charges an admission of ¥500 for adults, ¥300 for junior-high and high-school students, and ¥200 for children (the Shikoku Passport offers a discount). Ask for the English-language handout.
Doggedly Faithful -- In the olden days, faithful who could not manage a trip to Kotohiragu Shrine in person would set a barrel adrift at sea, along with an offering and a plea for passing fishermen to take the offering to the shrine on their next pilgrimage. The more resourceful would even send dogs on the pilgrimage, with a tag that read "Kotohira Pilgrimage" and a pouch of money around their necks. Travelers who encountered the dogs used the money to buy the animals food and passage on boats until the dogs reached their destination.
Benesse Art Site Naoshima
Naoshima, a small island in the Seto Inland Sea, is devoted to contemporary art in a big way, with two striking museums, interactive installations housed in traditional buildings, and outdoor sculptures spread throughout the island, making it the nation's major destination for cutting-edge art in Japan. But more than that, Naoshima is a place of discovery, with a unique symbiotic relationship between natural scenic beauty and art. Plan on at least 6 hours for the experience, including the 50-minute ferry from Takamatsu. Note that for art venues closed on Monday, if Monday is a national holiday, they stay open but will close the next day, on Tuesday, instead.
Shikoku Kisen ferries (tel. 087/821-6798) depart Takamatsu Port five times daily (¥970 for a round-trip ticket) for Miyanoura Port on Naoshima (you can also reach Naoshima from Uno in Okayama Prefecture's in 20 min.; one-way fare: ¥280). At Miyanoura there's a Tourist Information Center (Umino-eki Naoshima), open daily 8:30am to 6pm and offering an English-language map of the island, rental bikes (¥500 for the day), and schedules for buses that travel to all art sites (bus fare: ¥100 per ride).
From Miyanoura Port, you can take the bus 5 minutes (stop: Nokyo-mae, in front of JA Bank) or walk 30 minutes to Honmura, where you'll find a handful of Art House Projects, old buildings that have been remodeled by artists into interactive art installations. At Kadoya (by Miyajima Tatsuo), you'll see a 200-year-old farmhouse that contains a darkened room with a shallow pool of water and submerged colored numbers that blink on and off at varying frequencies, with the speed of each number controlled by an islander and each number representing a human life. Go'o Jinja is an Edo-Era shrine that has been transformed by Sugimoto Hiroshi, with glass stairs, white rocks, and a narrow underground passageway that leads to a tomblike space. Ishibashi is a restored family home of a salt-producing family now housing paintings by Senji Hiroshi, while Gokaisho, where residents once gathered to play the Japanese game go, contains Suda Yoshiro's Camelia artwork. Haisha is a transformed dental clinic now housing sculptures and graphic art, but my favorite is Minamidera, a stark wooden building designed by famed architect Tadao Ando, with an installation by James Turrell called Backside of the Moon. After being led into a pitch-black room by staff, you wait about 10 minutes until your eyes adjust, when you see a faint glow ahead. You're told you can walk to the light to touch it, only to find . . . well, you'll have to "see" for yourself. Art House Projects are open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4:30pm and cost ¥1,000 for a combination ticket for all six (children 14 and younger get in free to all of Naoshima's art museums). Buy your ticket at the tourist office above, at Ueda's Tobacconist (across from Nokyo-mae bus stop), or the Honmura Lounge & Archive beside the bus stop.
From Honmura, it's a 10-minute bus ride and a walk uphill to Benesse House ★★★, a museum designed by Tadao Ando and containing an expensive hotel (tel. 087/892-3223; rates begin at ¥34,650 for a twin), cafe, restaurant, and art by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and others who created site-specific art that takes Ando's architecture and Naoshima's natural beauty into consideration. It's open daily 8am to 9pm, with admission costing ¥1,000.
The nearby Chichu Art Museum (tel. 087/892-3755; www.chichu.jp), 3 minutes away by bus (there's a free shuttle bus btw. the two museums weekends and holidays) or a 30-minute walk, was also designed by Ando. It's a striking concrete structure with sharp angles, contemplative spaces, and only a few works of art, including a room of Monet paintings, light installations by James Turrell, and a room by Walter De Maria containing a huge granite ball and gold-leaf-covered bars. This museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm (to 5pm Oct-Feb) and costs ¥2,000. From here, the bus back to Miyanoura Port takes 20 minutes.
Information on Benesse Art Site Naoshima is available at tel. 087/892-2887 or www.naoshima-is.co.jp. General information on Naoshima is available from the Naoshima Tourism Association at tel. 087/892-2299 or www.naoshima.net.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.