The trees along the mountaintops were just beginning to show hints of autumnal gold and vermillion, the villages dotting the narrow road that wound its way inland from the coast were deserted, and everything seemed as one would have expected on a secluded island long after the summer crowds had gone.
But Shodoshima, a small island in the Seto Inland Sea off the southwest coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu, turned out to hold a few surprises when we visited on a bright and breezy day in early November.
First, we were pleasantly surprised to find signs of a budding art scene – or at least an effort to attract more attention with the help of contemporary art.
As we drove up into the mountains around the Nakayama area in central Shodoshima, we noticed an enormous structure looming ahead of us next to a patch of rice fields.
On closer inspection, it turned out to be a huge dome made of bamboo that was large enough for several dozen people to wander inside for a first-hand experience.
“Dream of Olive,” as the dome is called, is the creation of Taiwanese artist Wang Wen Chih, and is made with 4,000 pieces of locally-grown bamboo. It was among the works exhibited during this year’s Setouchi Triennale, an international art festival held every three years that attracts visitors from all over the world.
By the time we found “Dream of Olive,” though, the art festival was over and the dome had been closed to visitors.
Though less well-known than Naoshima and Teshima — two other islands in the Seto Inland Sea, which are popular destinations for contemporary art lovers — Shodoshima is one of the 12 islands that participated in the 2016 Setouchi Triennale.
Not so far away from the “Dream of Olive” site, we spotted another remnant of the art festival – a giant straw monkey (or was it a gorilla?) carrying a baby monkey on her back.
The massive structure by the Straw Art Team of the Musashino Art University was made of straw left over from the local rice harvest and struck a commanding figure in the middle of the neatly mown rice field.
We felt fortunate to have stumbled on these stunning creations, despite having missed the actual festival itself.
Another unexpected find was the cave temple at Kiyotakisan, one of the 88 temples, which make up a popular Buddhist pilgrimage on Shodoshima.
The temples are built on sites where Kobo Daishi (aka Kukai, 774-835), who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism, is said to have trained.
We spotted the temple as we were driving along the mountainous road back from a visit to a panoramic overlook above the Kankakei Gorge in the center of the island.
The cavernous temple was brightly lit inside with ceiling lanterns and candles aglow, even though it was deserted, with not a single monk or attendant in sight.
Before heading to our lodgings for the night, we stopped by at the Marukin Shoyu soy sauce factory. The deep aroma of soy sauce filled the air as we approached the so-called “soy sauce village,” near Sakate port, where Shodoshima’s soy sauce factories are concentrated.
On Shodoshima, where soy sauce production began more than 400 years ago, it is not unusual to find restaurants offering the choice of several different kinds of soy sauce.
Somewhat like wine, the difference in soy sauce types stems from a variety of factors, including the number of years a particular soy sauce has been kept in its barrel, the kind of wood used for the barrel, where the soy beans were grown and the manufacturing process employed.
The final highlight of our Shodoshima visit was our accommodation on the island, at Shimayado Mari, a traditional Japanese-style hotel. To my mind, our stay there alone made it worth considering a return trip.
I had heard great reviews of this hotel, which is an old minshuku, or guest house, that has been lovingly restored and modernized into a comfortable and stylish inn.
The old kura, or storage house, where we stayed has been designated a tangible cultural property – which means it has been recognised by the government as having high historic value – and features a large, round outdoor wooden bath.
The meticulously polished dark wood, pristine tatami mats and opaque glass doors at Shimayado Mari evoke a bygone era, in which the natural coziness of traditional Japanese homes is enhanced by the comforts of 21st century living.
Dinner at Shimayado Mari was a cornucopia of fresh ingredients, many of which were locally grown or caught, such as succulent slices of sashimi (raw fish), shiny island vegetables and seasonal matsutake mushrooms.
Our tour of Shodoshima took us to several scenic areas, such as the so-called Angel Road, where a sand path appears at low tide, and the Senmaida terraced rice fields.
But some sites, which we had been looking forward to seeing, were not as appealing as we had hoped.
One such place is Olive Park, which features a modest herb and rose garden, a replica of a Greek windmill, a canteen-like restaurant and a shop selling olive oil and other related goods.
As the birthplace of olive cultivation in Japan, it is not surprising that the Shodoshima tourism authorities would want to market the Olive Park, but the result is uninspiring.
Likewise, the area known as Maze Town, which was supposedly designed like a 14th century maze with narrow, winding streets to protect islanders from pirates, is neither a maze nor an area that offers a “nostalgic atmosphere,” as the PR pamphlet proclaims.
Most of the houses have been clearly rebuilt in the past several decades and there is little of historic interest to see.
Nevertheless, with careful planning, this scenic island can offer a variety of attractions and transport visitors back in time to an era in which the islanders’ lifestyle and aesthetic were in harmony with nature.
How to get there : From major cities in Japan, fly to Takamatsu Airport, take the limousine bus to Takamatsu Port (about 40 minutes) and a ferry to Shodoshima. The express ferry, which takes 35 minutes
from Takamatsu Port to Tonosho Port on Shodoshima is the easiest and fastest way to get there.
Where to Stay : Shimayado Mari (rooms from about Y23,500/per person)
phone : 0879-82-0086
English online booking : http://mari.co.jp/contact/online_booking_form
Japanese website : http://www.mari.co.jp/