Seeing Through the Smoke


Justin Dobbs


Justin Dobbs is the 2024 AJET Mikan Blog Writer & Copy Editor. He is a first year JET based on the edge of Ehime in Shikokuchuo. Coming from a writing/communications background in suburban Georgia, he is excited to write about the JET experience in a place with such amazing natural beauty. It hasn’t been very long since coming here, but the kindness of the people and seemingly endless places to discover in Shikoku make it the perfect canvas for storytelling. Justin enjoys hiking, cycling, coffee, and getting lost exploring the island.

“Japan’s best paper city” is both Shikokuchuo’s main slogan and the only thing people tend to know about it. That, coupled with its iconic smoke stacks towering for miles in the distance makes it easy to write off as just another factory town. In fact, I’m sure many of you have felt the same way if your town follows the “place is famous for x” formula. However, the thing about areas like this is that they’re almost never as paper thin as they first appear.

Admittedly, arriving at this little-known city on the edge of Ehime didn’t leave the best first impression. When the wind blows the wrong way, you get hit with the unmistakable sour smell of freshly made paper, and the factory pipes/machinery engulf part of the Kawanoe and Mishima areas like some overgrown vine. Yet, the more time I spend here the more I find myself completely endeared with this place in a way that I hardly could have expected.

For starters, Shikokuchuo features the “best castle in Japan”, at least that’s what the JETs around here call it. In reality Kawanoejou is a beautiful, if not awkwardly placed, little castle nestled within a shining ocean view, the cozy city, and a sprawling factory landscape. If you’ve been to the likes of Himeji, Osaka, or Matsuyama you might not give it more than a passing glance. Yet, to me, it feels so much bigger. It’s not just “some” castle, it’s “my” weird castle. The contrast between the urban and traditional featured in this landmark has become an amusing representation of the strangeness that makes cities like this so special. 

Just twenty minutes away from this industrial sprawl, you’ll come across the locally famous Kiri-no-Mori tucked away in the mountains. It features museums, temples and restaurants offering scenic views of the Umatate River. Walking around all the little shops you can try their specialty daifuku and freshly brewed Shingu tea. In fact, for a free tea-tasting experience you can visit a shop just up the road called 脇製茶場 (wakisei-chaba). While it doesn’t exactly fit with one’s image of the “paper town”, the presence of such a tranquil space right in the heart of an industrial town really shows how diverse places like this can truly be.

Oddly enough though, one of the biggest perks of living in Shikokuchuo is its location. As the name implies, the city is in the chūō (中央) or center of Shikoku. It is the only part of Ehime that borders the three other Shikoku prefectures, Kagawa, Tokushima and Kochi, making it nearly equidistant to the island’s four major cities. This unique location gives it a mixed identity, being somewhat isolated from the other parts of Ehime while having easier access to the rest of the island. 

Travel up the coast thirty minutes and you’re in Kagawa near Umpenji temple, Chichibugahama beach, and the shrine in the sky – Takaya jinja. Go the same distance over to Tokushima and you arrive at the Iya Valley with three vine bridges and a scarecrow village. Or, head down to Kochi on a Sunday for Japan’s biggest and longest lasting open-air market. No matter which way you go it’s hard not to run into something interesting that you didn’t know about before.

The point is, even though Shikokuchuo, or any lesser-known town, may not have the Tokyo Skytree or some other famous landmark right around the corner, what you do find with a bit of exploration is often even better. Who knew Yawatahama had an Olympic grade mountain biking course, or that Saijo had the best climbing gym on the island? I certainly didn’t! In fact, I recently went into the mountains of Niihama and ended up at a place locally called “the Machu Picchu of Japan”. It may not have been quite on par with the original, but the ancient stonework in the ruins of an old copper mine precariously set on a cliffside made for a dramatic scene that I’d be hard-pressed to forget.

Discovering these hidden gems is one of the best parts about life here. Sure, maybe the town you’ve been placed in looks a bit rough around the edges. It may have a few unsightly bits to it, or seemingly nothing at all. Yet, when you see through the smoke of inaka (countryside) life, you start to uncover what makes your unassuming slice of Japan so beloved by the people there. It’s a beautiful bridge you walk across every day, that moss-covered shrine tucked away in the woods, the park behind town with the ocean view. All these things are what make the JET experience so great; you just have to go looking. 

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