Takamatsu: a pleasant surprise
These days when Japan is mentioned in the news, it's usually about the state of the economy and the inevitable impact of such skewed demographics that it almost seems like Japan is in some sort of creeping demise, a slow motion train wreck that you can't look away from. When I came to Japan this year for a working holiday, this was front of mind.
After spending a bit of time in Japan, I'm now used to seeing a lot of old people everywhere, as though the country were one huge retirement village. There is no doubt that Japan will struggle over the next few decades as its severely ageing population leads to negative population growth.
This Japanese adventure started in Osaka, where in a thriving metropolis with several small 'centres' for business, nightlife and lifestyle, everywhere you looked there was a significantly higher proportion of seniors compared to younger people. When in Osaka, I heard stories of how the rural and more remote areas of Japan are becoming deserted, with young people leaving their childhood towns for the bigger cities, leaving behind the older folks in amongst abandoned houses and businesses.
Many people I met in Osaka were surprised to learn that the next stop on the journey was Takamatsu - a port town on the smallest of Japan's four main islands, Shikoku, and a pleasant ferry ride from Kobe (you can read about jumbo ferry adventures here). This island is famous for the pilgrimage to 88 different shrines around the island (kind of like Japan's El Camino de Santiago) and probably not high on everyone's list unless you're really into hiking and/or shrines.
Now, in Australia, as soon as you go out of the main city centres, you can expect small country towns with at least four pubs, a motel or two and a dodgy Chinese restaurant. In my most recent home of Canberra - Australia's glorious capital city - it's common to not see a soul on your way home from the shops. So I had this image in my mind when leaving the well-worn tourist path and the bright lights of Osaka for 'tiny' Takamatsu.
Expecting a quiet, somewhat rural escape, complete with jolly old men and spooky abandoned houses, this place is far from a sleepy backwater. There is so much life here, even in early spring when it is still fairly chilly, that puts Australian small towns (Canberra included) to shame. There is an abundance of young people that is really still surprising to me after already three weeks here. There was a rock music festival featuring local bands that went for three days straight, complete with a live radio stage set up in the middle of the main shopping street that caught me completely off guard - aren't the young people meant to be leaving these shores for more exciting places?
The liveliness I've seen here may have something to do with the Setouchi Triennale though - an art festival held every three years on the islands of Japan's inland sea, with Takamatsu one of the main port hubs. The goal of the festival is to breathe new life into the region by promoting contemporary Japanese artists and the local cultures of each of the islands. The surrounding islands host art installations and can be reached by ferries from Takamatsu and Uno port. Coming to Takamatsu when this festival is on is really a great stroke of luck - completely coincidental and unintentional. It also means I'm unable to gauge whether the life I've seen in this city is here all the time, or just a product of the festival. Either way, this town is awesome.
Takamatsu sits on the north coast of the Sanuki plains - the lowlands of the northern part of Shikoku. A region famous for udon. This place goes nuts for these noodles - the prefecture in which Takamatsu falls (Kagawa) has the highest consumption of udon per capita than anywhere else in Japan. And for a couple of dollars for a bowl of tasty noodles in soup (¥200 is the going rate for a small bowl, which is about AU$2.40) who wouldn't eat udon for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
One of the highlights of this town, though, is the incredibly useful, efficient and cost-effective bicycle hire system. Just outside of the main JR station is an odd little staircase and ramp down to a bicycle parking lot. Inside the parking lot you can register to hire bikes - they take your details, you watch a briefing video, and then they issue you a card. For ¥100 (just over a dollar) you can hire a bike for six hours, or if you want to go the full twenty-four it'll only cost you ¥200. The beauty of this system is that there are several other bike pick-up/drop-off points where you can hire, return or swap your bike - all with that little card they issued you! And since Takamatsu sits on a plain, it's all pretty flat terrain to get you just about anywhere within a radius of how far you're willing to cycle. Brilliant!
The real gem of this town though, is the nationally renowned Ritsurin Garden, built by the local feudal lords during the Edo Period (what else was there to do, really!). I was lucky enough to be there during sakura season, but I hear there is a great autumn colour display from around October. The garden was immaculately curated and has several different sections, and even a pond upon which you can take a relaxing boat ride if you please. One of my favourite spots was a hill designed to reflect Mt Fuji. Gardens and parks in Japan are truly lovely places to hang out, and Ritsurin Garden is just beautiful.
This town has truly been the definition of a pleasant surprise - lovely people, beautiful scenery and the most delicious udon you'll ever eat. There's plenty going on here without the sometimes overwhelming largesse of the main cities. Oh, and did I mention there's castle ruins? Don't get me wrong, there are more than a few abandoned buildings around, as you'll find all over Japan (the ones on top of Mt Yashima, especially the abandoned cable car, are particularly creepy). But the most surprising part is the seeming optimism flowing out from what you might expect to be a defeated, downtrodden population in despair about Japan's demographic fate, an attitude I'm hoping has worn off on me just a little.