On the so-called Island of Well Being in Kagawa prefecture, there is a Japanese resort that knows how to make Westerners feel comfortable while preserving a very Japanese peace of mind.
It has been said that the introduction of three must-haves: the washing machine, refrigerator and TV, revolutionized Japan back in the 60s by giving the middle class newfound leisure time. The Olivean Sports Resort, built during the 80s real estate boom, offers three newer musts – golf, tennis and French cuisine – to occupy the leisure time of the contemporary Japanese. What makes the quirky Olivean Resort of interest to foreign guests is its location on isolated Shodoshima, an island with history, scenery and cultural significance that are wonderfully, uniquely Japanese.
Shodoshima (shima means island), tucked between rural Shikoku island and Japan’s busy main island of Honshu, has played a quiet role in Japanese history. During the 8th century, when envoys sent to China by the Imperial family brought back the new religion of Buddhism, the monk Kukai-a introduced Shingon Buddhism to Shikoku’s fishermen. He taught that enlightenment could be achieved through the recitation of Buddhist scriptures, and inspired construction of the 88 temples that make Shikoku the focus of month-long pilgrimages. The “mini-route” of 88 temples and worship sites recreated on neighboring Shodoshima can be visited in just one week, making the island a popular pilgrimage destination for Japanese families today.
In the 15th century, Portuguese traders introduced another new religion, Christianity, to Japan but it was banned by the Shogun Tokugawa during the Edo period. Christians took refuge on Shodoshima, establishing its reputation as an island of peace and tolerance. Centuries of isolation followed. After the US and Europe demanded that Japan open its borders to trade, many Western cultural influences arrived, changing the Japanese lifestyle forever.
A Japanese Resort that Keeps Foreigners In Mind
The 111-room Olivean Resort reflects some of these influences in its block architecture and “Western” style rooms. A purely Japanese interpretation of 70s Americana, the resort’s immaculate decor features pastel, floral print curtains and brocade upholstery. Two beds (in the Japanese style, larger than a single but smaller than a double), a bureau of drawers and a work desk occupy the entry side of each Western-style guestroom, which can accommodate up to a four-person family. The spacious seating area contains two eight-foot-long couches fit to sleep tall and narrow children, a table, and two armchairs, all artfully arranged to take advantage of the balcony’s beautiful views of the tennis courts, grounds and Seto Inland Sea.
In contrast, the hotel’s elegant Japanese rooms are equally spacious but sparsely furnished, with a field of pristine tatami straw matting on the raised floor and very low lacquer furniture. Families use the living space for relaxing, sitting, dining and watching the flat panel TV. Each evening, housekeepers push aside the furniture and make up the beds – comfortably dense futon mattresses with duvets and pillows – side by side along the tatami matting. On the lowest floor, with a direct view of the resort’s blossoming plum and maple trees, these rooms offer a serenity in their otherness that the Western rooms cannot. As a pilgrim seeking enlightenment about Japanese culture, I felt better just sleeping here.
Whether you’re in a Western or a Japanese room, you’ll notice some details that underscore how delightfully Japanese the Olivean truly is. It’s not only how every staff person bows when you pass, or that the video arcade has more dads than kids. The toilet in every guestroom, though it may look familiar, is actually a marvel of Japanese ingenuity. It automatically starts an internal waterfall when sat upon, to mask any embarrassing sounds. There are buttons for a seat warmer, bidet spray, buttocks spray and water pressure control. At the sink’s faucet, instead of pulling up on the handle to start the water, you have to push down. The bureau contains a comfy, if small, pair of striped cotton pajamas with drawstring waist for use around the hotel. Slippers are meant to be put on at the room’s entrance, after you’ve left your shoes at the door. The fluffy pillows are actually marvelous Japanese makura, or neck supporters that shape quickly to the user because they are filled with buckwheat hulls. And seen from every window is the towering white Dai Kannon statue, a standing Buddha dominating Umagoe Hill near the resort grounds.
Japanese Pleasure For The Five Senses
One of the Olivean’s highlights is the so-called Spa, but the Western traveler will see instead a Japanese bath or onsen, a public massage area where therapists apply gentle Shiatsu or Swedish techniques to guests in pajamas, and a beauty salon. The large, attractive slate onsen is a room of pools – some hot, one cold, some whirlpools – surrounded by glass walls leading to a scenic outdoor bathing area. This deluxe communal bathing facility warrants a daily visit. All ages are welcome, though men and women bathe separately and children till about age 6 bathe with their mothers.
Foreigners should consider all the other for-a-fee facilities and activities optional, unless you’re on the package plan: 19 all-weather tennis courts, a hillside 8-hole Pitch and Putt golf course with clubs for rent, an 18-hole minigolf course, large outdoor pool on the first floor deck (summers only), dog run (pets are welcome), car rentals (though a guide is highly recommended), large gift shop, nail salon, three restaurants, several private karaoke rooms, and a futuristic games room.
Although the resort boasts of fine French cuisine, most foreign visitors (even the French) will appreciate the Olivean’s Japanese fare. Two seaview restaurants offer a bountiful Asian breakfast buffet: rice porridge, puddings, dried and pickled fish and vegetables, salad, dumplings and myriad condiments, separated from tables of continental cuisine and fresh-baked breads by an island of fresh fruit.
Don’t miss the Olivean’s kaiseki feast, a 13-course tasting menu that features seasonal local produce and fresh fish. Over the course of a few hours, tiny ceramic bowls and hand-fired dishes with peaks of tofu and sesame, trees of ginger or bamboo, and rivers of fine noodles or seaweed are brought out by attentive, kimono-clad waitresses. Families will marvel at the graceful presentation and enjoy the variety of dumplings, sashimi, sushi, tempura and soup (to name the most familiar items) in addition to more unusual treats, sake, juice or tea.
The resort also arranges for guests to dine in a local home. This very special evening was hosted during our stay by Ms. Oka, the resort’s accountant. Her home was just 10 minutes but worlds away, past terraced rice fields, in a traditional village of tile-roofed homes with large tatami entertainment rooms. Seated on the floor around her teak table, we watched and learned the fine art of sukiyaki made with Sanuki beef (considered better than the prized Kobe beef), mirin (a derivative of the local soy sauce), and local organic vegetables, stirred quickly together in a pot of boiling broth at the center of the table.
Shodoshima’s Scenery & Culture
With three full days and nights on the island, you’ll be able to tour several Shinto shrines, do some hiking, dine well, soak in the onsen, and still have time to relax, the essence of well being.
We recommend visiting Kankakei Gorge in the Setan I Kai National Park and a stroll along winding paved paths downhill. As the fog lifts, vistas of Shodo’s busy ports, some factories, and the timeless limestone peaks of Japanese scroll paintings appear. The Front 12 Views, as one trail is known, runs gently for 2.3 km past a dozen scenic rocky crags carved over three million years, each named and revered for its natural beauty. We particularly enjoyed Gyokujyunpou: “the rock takes the form of a bamboo shoot standing toward the heavens” as our map explained. Relatives with mobility issues can begin their visit halfway up at the ropeway station, then ride a gondola above the golden monkeys who scamper among the dense foliage.
Families should not pass up an opportunity to visit the Marukin Soy Sauce Historical Museum in the picturesque port of Uchinomi. In a simple, easy-to-comprehend bilingual display, the company that has processed soy beans from Osaka into soy sauce since 1897 explains how it’s done. A painstaking process of harvesting, roasting, mashing, fermenting, aging and crushing a wheat, soy, malt and sea water mixture leads eventually to the divine, multi-faceted nectar that Chinese take-out has belittled. Though the working Marukin factory next door cannot be toured, the museum’s gift shop is great. We picked up a package of hand-made udon noodles there and when we cooked them back in New York, found that the huge coil was actually one very, very long strand. With the museum’s pictorial map of Uchinomi, you can find where to sample local ice cream, visit monuments and markets, and follow a bike trail through town.
Most intriguing are the stops at several of the 88 religious sites on the island. At Nishinotaki (#42), after a brief walk up to the highest altar to admire the views, visitors may take a stone path into a mysterious cave housing another shrine and tuck Yen coins into the rocky crevasses to make their wishes come true. Temple #54, Hoshoin, shares its perch among the lemon groves with a 1,500-year-old “sacred” juniper tree nearly 17 meters in circumference. A very special excursion to Emonnotaki allows Olivean guests to share in the blessings ceremony performed by its high priest amidst the incense of burning olive branches and the pounding of drums. Takenaga-san, the resort’s excellent guide, put everything into context so that we got the most from each experience.
When to Go
Shodoshima is known for having the most “Mediterranean” climate in Japan, largely because olive trees from Greece planted in 1907 flourished only on its soil. (The Grecian connection continues to grow in a colonnaded Peace Park above the port, the Olive Park with its white windmill, and in Shodo’s status as a “sister island” to Milos in the Cyclades.) Mediterranean maybe, but it is not unusual to see snow flurries in the winter months. Come spring, pilgrims flock to the island to visit the 88 shrines before rice planting begins. In mid to late April, the cherry trees that cover the island burst into bloom. June and July can be rainy and the summer months are hot and humid, though cooling breezes from the Seto Inland Sea make it more comfortable. August, when Japanese come for swimming and hiking, is the busiest season. In autumn, the olives are harvested and the Japanese maples turn from green to flame red in the island’s most beautiful display. In May and October, farmers tend to kabuki, and present traditional masked drama live at two Shinto shrines.
Getting To Shodoshima
One of Shodoshima’s greatest assets is its isolation, and getting to the island takes some time. From Kyoto, travelers can board the JR Shinkansen or bullet train Nozumi to Okayama, a few stops away. You’ll have to transfer from Okayama station to Takamatsu, the port on Shikoku Island, by a double-decker local train. Try to sit up top for the best view of the Seto Ohashi, once the longest suspension bridge in the world. From Takamatsu, there are frequent hyrdrofoils (30 minutes) or large car ferries (60 minutes) to the port of Tonosho. Look for the cheerful People In Peace bronze statue of a teacher and her dozen students, inspired by the anti-war novel “Twenty-Four Eyes,” by Tsuboi Sakae. Made in 1954 into a film that introduced the rest of Japan to the tranquil island, “Twenty-Four Eyes” was remade in 1987 and the remaining sets are open to the public.
Many Australians (Olivean Resort is a sister property to Ayers Rock) fly from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to the modern Takamatsu Airport. Families traveling with a lot of luggage will find the comfortable express bus between Kyoto and Takamatsu, traversing Awaji Island, the best option. This takes about 3 hours. Guests of the Olivean Resort are met at the Takamatsu airport by bus, or at the railroad station for the walk to the ferry pier.
Arrive at the onsen in pajamas or casual clothes. In the locker room, you’ll find a locked storage bin, large bath towels, smaller scrubbing clothes and often, a crib to leave baby sleeping. Soap, shampoo and conditioner are in the bathing room. At all Japanese baths, after disrobing, guests seat themselves on low stools in front of a bathing area. Use the small wash bowl to gather water for scrubbing; use the adjustable hand shower for rinsing. Once squeaky clean, you may relax in the whirling or still hot pools or, at the Olivean, venture out under the stars (see above).
Bookings can be made through travel agents or with the Hotel Olivean, Tonosho, Shodoshima, Kagawa Prefecture, Japan (81/879/65-2311; www.olivean.com/english). Rates for a seaview Western or Japanese room run US $$$$$ double occupancy.
Several tour operators (such as ANA; JALPAK; JTB; Kintetsu International; and Nippon Travel) sell four-day, fully escorted packages to the island, including room, meals and many of the special activities and programs noted above.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.