Japan's Shikoku has pilgrim routes, lively cities, odd villages, luxe onsens and - in summer - a feast of joyful festivals.
Bamboo fronds swaying,
mists rise over the forest,
bathing the valley.
(My attempt at Haiku, the famous 17 syllable form of poem first written in Matsuyama, Shikoku, Japan.)
Beyond the bright lights of Tokyo or Kyoto lies the smallest and most seldom visited of Japan's four main islands, Shikoku. Here visitors will discover a quieter and more traditional Japan, and a place that dresses in dramatically different colours according to the season.
In autumn, vast forests are ablaze with crimson and yellow; in winter, snowflakes mingle with the steam rising from mineral-rich mountain baths; in spring streets and gardens turn fragrant with the flush of blossoms.
In summer, when I visit, the weather is hot and humid, interspersed with heavy rain showers and the odd typhoon.
While the weather keeps most international visitors away, the month of August is the revered season of Obon, the ancient Buddhist "Festival of the Dead".
Despite its name, this is a joyful three-day period when the spirits of ancestors are thought to come home to visit their living relatives. Lanterns are hung to guide these homesick ghosts, and locals return in large numbers to their villages and hometowns to be with their families.
Leaves and blossoms may be more subdued, but this is a time when the people burst into colour, and Shikoku's lively regional cities swarm with beautifully costumed dancers, musicians and performers, bright as butterflies in the streets.
Away from the pageantry of the summer festivals, there is much more to discover in the vibrant Japanese cities of Matsuyama, Kochi, Takamatsu and Tokushima. Here, there is a sense of old and new happily co-existing, where quirky shops and bars, bustling markets and busy restaurants stand next to ancient temples, castles and gardens.
Our journey begins in Matsuyama, where a statue of one of Japan's most revered buddhist figures, Kobo Daishi, looms high over Ishiteji Temple.
While being shown through the temple buildings and gardens we are led to the entrance of a dimly lit 200-metre-long tunnel in a cave. We follow a line of 88 doll-like buddha statues and emerge to find a shrine, bathed in sunlight.
This miniature path to enlightenment represents one of Japan's most important pilgrimages, Shikoku Henro, a journey connecting the island's 88 temples, passing through remote villages and mountainous wilderness.
The 1200-kilometre pilgrimage can be traced back to the 12th century, and takes about six weeks on foot. Pilgrims typically dress in white, carry a staff and wear a sedge hat, making them easily recognisable to locals who will welcome them along the way, offering food, shelter and gifts.
Shikoku 88 isn't easy; one particularly gruelling section is called "Henro Korogashi", which translates to "pilgrims fall down". And while not nearly as well known as the big European pilgrimages, there seems to be no desire to turn the trek into some sort of Japanese Camino.
Tourism Shikoku's website bears this word of caution, laced with charming Japanese politeness: "This pilgrimage should not be considered as a stamp-gathering relay, but as a religious journey." Stamp gatherers, you have been warned!
The next stop on our own pilgrimage is to meet a young man whose family has been brewing sake in Matsuyama since 1895. Kousuke Minakuchi is quietly determined to preserve the ancient arts of sake making, which hold an important place in Shikoku's culture and ceremonies.
Minakuchi explains it is the soft, mineral-infused "mother water" flowing from the island's mountains that gives the local sake its distinct sweetness. We decided it would be rude not to try it, even though it's only 10 o'clock in the morning.
Talk turns to festivals and Minakuchi shows us Youtube videos of a riotous festival held in autumn in Matsuyama. In this truly alarming spectacle, thousands of people rampage through the streets carrying portable "fighting" shrines, violently charging at each other and clashing the shrines together. It's very dangerous, Minakuchi tells us pleasantly. People can be badly injured. Even killed. Anyone for another sake?
After lunching on the local speciality of sea bream we're on to our next destination, the city of Kochi. Arriving in the evening, we are taken to the famous Hirome Market, an orderly jumble of stalls and bars serving street food and fresh produce where throngs of happy diners jostle for seats at communal tables. The atmosphere is an orderly yet unhurried chaos as people eat, drink and line up for local specialities, such as the theatrically prepared katsuo no tataki, or seared bonito tuna.
As we make our way from the market to the main dance stage for the annual Yosakoi Festival the crowd becomes thicker with brightly coloured costumes and traditional dress. The atmosphere is buzzing as the dancers mill around, practising their moves and nervously fixing each other's hair and costumes.
More than 20,000 dancers descend on the city to take part, each with distinctive costumes and dance styles. We are told people prepare all year for this event, and the pride and excitement beams from every face.
The next morning we head out of Kochi and watch as the town quickly gives way to rural areas of rice paddies, lotus fields, farms and traditional thatched houses.
Soon we are winding our way along the narrow, twisting roads through the secluded Iya Valley, the great natural treasure of Shikoku. Translating to "ancestor valley", this is a rare wilderness of wild rivers and tall mountains beside the great Oboke and Koboke Gorges, or "big step danger" and "little step danger" respectively.
This is an area of bubbling hot springs, hidden forest temples and tiny, seemingly forgotten rural villages. The valley was once a hideout for retreating samurai, and in places rivers are still strung with 800-year-old wisteria vine bridges, constructed so they could be easily cut if an enemy set foot on them.
On the day we walk across the most famous of these bridges, the Kazurabashi, a sword-brandishing enemy creeping up from behind is the least of our worries. A typhoon is in progress and the swollen Iya River is in full flight, rushing and roaring 14 metres below us. The noise of the water is one thing, but we also have a clear view of its mighty power through the nerve-wrackingly wide gaps in the wooden slats of the bridge.
The bridge sways uneasily with every step and it's a long, white-knuckle 45 metres. Reaching the end I feel exhilarated, and also grateful to learn the walk is a one-way loop; I don't have to cross back over the bridge!
Sideways rain aside, the drive through the valley is mesmerising as the roads climb and descend through forests of maple, cedar and bamboo, with waterfalls tumbling down from the mountain tops.
We stop in the small locality of Nagoro, the bizarre "scarecrow village". The story goes that artist Tsukimi Ayano, in response to seeing so many locals leaving her town, began to fashion stuffed lifesize scarecrow dolls, of which there are now hundreds.
Artistically impressive, yet slightly creepy, the scarecrows can be seen going about their business in the fields or relaxing inside the town hall. Though we are assured it's quite the tourist attraction in the high season, we were the only living, breathing people there on the day of our visit.
We wave goodbye to this town full of ghosts, which serves to echo the preoccupation here with the presence of long-lost ancestors.
Another thing you have to watch out for in these parts is the mountain-dwelling spirit Konaki-jiji, who dresses like an old man in a straw raincoat and carries a walking stick. Underneath that costume, he is dressed as a child. When he spots someone passing he cries like a distressed baby. If a kind person tries to pick up the "child" to comfort it, the spirit clings on tight, becoming heavier and heavier until the good samaritan is crushed to death under its weight. Stop it!
We arrive at our hotel, the Hotel Iyaonsen, which is perched high on a hillside in isolated splendour. Typhoon rains are still smashing the mountainside. Sadly for us, the cable car that usually takes hotel guests to the famous outdoor onsens in the river below has been cancelled on account of the weather.
We are still able to take a dip in the waters of the large and luxurious hotel onsen, which boasts floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of the mountains.
There are quite a few rules to know about before entering an onsen, involving disrobing, donning the provided Yukata (Summer Kimono), putting on slippers (the onsen slippers, not the "toilet slippers") arriving at the onsen, disrobing, storing of Yukata and slippers, pre-washing of body and tying up of hair. Eventually I get in the water. My inner prude is relieved to find that I have the massive fizzing mineral water baths virtually to myself while watching the storm lash the mountainside through the glass.
That evening we are treated to a spectacular dinner in the elegant traditional dining area where we sample the local seafood, meats, vegetables and noodles of the valley.
Our next stop is the city of Takamatsu where we base ourselves for the annual Awa Odori Festival, held in the already booked-out city of Tokushima. The three-day dance event is the pinnacle of Shikoku's summer festivals and attracts 1.3 million people (not counting returning ancestor spirits and mountain goblins).
We find a city transformed into a dance arena with beautifully dressed dancers everywhere, and streets and riverbanks lined with pop-up bars and food stalls. The exuberant locals are in full-on party mode.
Awa Odori started in 1586, when, during a celebration for the opening of a castle, the crowd had way too much sake and began to "weave and stumble" back and forth, seizing on any available objects to use as musical instruments. So was born the motto of this festival: The dancers are fools, the watchers are fools, both are fools, so why not dance?
This is pretty good advice, which we decide to take, because bumbling spectators are invited to join the massed street parade held at the end of the day. Challenge accepted, we become part of a sweaty heaving mass of amateurs, our imperfect moves kindly encouraged by the impeccably composed and costumed locals.
There is time for a cold beer from a street stall as a reward for our efforts. In a crowd of about a million people, there is no hint of aggression or trouble, only smiles, waves and thumbs up - an atmosphere of joyful anarchy. Their pride and excitement is infectious.
This was my first trip to Japan but hopefully not the last. Apart from all the big things, here are the little things I liked:
1. The relatively short 10-hour flight with no visa required.
2. The money was easy to work out for the maths-challenged: 100 yen = about $1.
3. They take public toilets over-the-top seriously; facilities are ubiquitous, spotlessly clean, and come with rules and recommendations.
4. The people. In Shikoku very few local people spoke English, but they were unfailingly helpful, softly spoken and polite.
But back to the "father of haiku", poet Shiki Masaoka. In today's Matsuyama 80 post boxes are sprinkled throughout the city to allow people to deposit their own haikus.
I wonder if I will find poetry easier than dancing. Here goes...
Follow your own path
taking big or little steps
use your feet to dance!
Getting there: Japan Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Matsuyama via Tokyo.
Staying there: Rooms at Hotel Iyaonsen start at about $250 per person a night, see iyaonsen.co.jp/en
Festivals: The Yosakoi Festival takes place from August 9 to 12. The Awa Odori Festival is on from August 12 to 15.
The writer was a guest of Japan National Tourism Organisation.
This article first appeared in Explore.