Located at the crossroads of central Shikoku on the banks of the Yoshino River and surrounded by lush green mountains, Ikeda has a long history serving as a commercial and travel hub for the region. For decades the products from the Iya Valley and outlying areas moved through here to markets elsewhere, traveling by boat down the river to Tokushima City and beyond, with the main cash crop traded out being tobacco. Reaching its heyday in the 1960s and 70s, Ikeda also became famed for its high school baseball team, and for anyone in Japan born before 1980, they will almost certainly have heard of how this obscure little town would repeatedly win and/or be the team to beat in the national championship.
Nowadays, Ikeda is a lot more subdued. The tobacco industry collapsed in the 1980s, and what was a large processing plant for the crop has now been rebuilt into the town's main shopping center. As the river has been dammed, boats no longer ply the route to Tokushima (though the lake created has a tranquil atmosphere), and its been decades since the local boys have won a baseball championship, having recently only qualified for the tournament very occasionally. The main shopping arcade which extends from the station is no longer bustling, and the large majority of shops and pubs there are either devoid of customers or simply closed up.
It still remains the areas administrative center with banking, hospital, and various other residential services, and for the traveler it continues to be a transport hub for the region, though most people only pass through or just stock up on supplies here as the more remote valleys and mountain areas lack the stores Ikeda still has to offer (few that they may be compared to larger Shikoku towns).
Ikeda could also serve as a nice place to stay if looking for a central base and if wishing for a bit more in the way of restaurants, drinking, and shopping, but the real splendor of the region in Iya and Oboke/Koboke are still quite a bit farther out, and accommodation in those places may be more in line with one's image of deep Japan.
Awa-Ikeda Station is along the JR Dosan Line , which slices across the heart of Shikoku from Kubokawa and Kochi through the Oboke and Koboke gorges in the south to Tadotsu, Takamatsu and then Okayama in the north.
From Okayama, a stop on the San'yo Shinkansen, Awa-Ikeda can be reached on the hourly Nanpu limited express service (90 minutes; ¥3510).
The JR Tokushima Line also terminates here, the trip from Tokushima taking about 70 minutes on the Tsurugisan limited express service (¥3240), or two hours by local train (¥1580).
There is no charge for these trains with the Japan Rail Pass.
From Osaka or Kobe, Hankyu Bus runs several a day from either city that go to the main Awa Ikeda Bus Terminal (阿波池田ＢＴ), located in the town center within the same parking lot as the Frespo shopping center (see "Buy"), and about a 3 or 4 minute walk to the train station. The trip to/from Osaka/Kobe takes about 4 hours and runs at about ¥4500. Discounts can be had if traveling round trip.
Long distance night buses to/from Tokyo stop at the Miyoshi Highway Bus Stop, which is located in neighboring Highashi Miyoshi-cho Town in the Mikamo district at the Yoshinogawa Service Area (aka "Highway Oasis") rest stop, about 15 minutes or so east of central Ikeda by car. This bus stop is called Miyoshi BS (三好ＢＳ) and is not a final destination, but rather a stop along the way with buses traveling between Tokyo and Kochi city. Tickets can be had for anywhere from 6000 to 12,000 yen (depending on day or seat style), and depart either direction around 9pm and arrive about 6:30am. Online English language bookings can be found at the JR Bus Kousouku website (though sometimes English bookings on the site can be tricky, so you may end up to calling their English operator or write by email).
Other long distance bus companies also service the same route as well as to Nagoya and Kyoto (and/or via Matsuyama, not Kochi), but one would need to search/book in Japanese. If you have the skills to do so, one may be able to find slightly better prices.
As far as traveling locally to/from the Miyoshi Highway bus stop in the Yoshinogawa Service Area (map here), good luck, as its a bit tricky. Though there is a local bus stop for here (called "Oasis" オアシス) located on the small concrete-enclosed regular road on the northern side of the rest area, transfer times are not very convenient for getting to/from the night buses (timetable in Japanese here). The first bus out leaves Oasis at 10:02am, arriving at Awa-Ikeda BT about 20 minutes later. On the return, buses leave Awa-Ikeda BT at 18:35, getting you to the Oasis stop about 2 hours before the night bus departures (spend your extra time having a relaxing hot spring bath offered at the rest area here for 600 yen, open till 9pm). Alternately, on a morning arrival with a night bus, one can easily walk due north from the rest area/Oasis bus stop along the small neighborhood road, and reach the larger RT 12 after about 5 or 10 minutes, then turn left for the first local bus stop about 200 meters along (though you'd get on any Ikeda bound buses on the left side, the bus stop sign is on the right side, a bit before the first traffic light), with Awa-Ikeda BT bound buses passing by at 7:18 and 8:18am (but there are no extra bus options in the evening). The nearest train station is JR Tsuji, a 25 minute total walk in the westward direction from the rest area, first turning left a few minutes past the end of the rest area to go over the Rt 266 bridge, then turning right on Rt 192 for a further 1km walk on this main road. However, if renting a car, Miyoshi Rental Car will do free pick up/drop off from the rest area (see "Get Around -By car" for car rental details).
There are seven buses per day into the Iya Valley from Ikeda, though on weekends there are a few more buses that originate from JR Oboke Station. See "Get around" below or the Iya Valley page for details.
Being in the center of Shikoku, Ikeda conveniently lies at the junction of National Roads Rt 32 (north/south Takamatsu to Kochi) and Rt 192 (east/west Tokushima to Matsuyama), which means that that one is very likely to pass through if traveling across the island.
Along the east/west Tokushima Expressway, the exit for Ikeda is named Ikawa/Ikeda IC and lies on the eastern edge of the central downtown shopping district. Just west of Ikeda, the Tokushima Expressway junctions with the Kochi Expressway (heading south) and then the Takamatsu and Matsuyama Expressways (for northern and western Shikoku)
Central Ikeda is located a few minutes south from the junction of Route 32 and Route 192 (the two roads actually overlap each other for about 3km while passing the downtown area). From the highway's Ikawa/Ikeda IC head west (left turn at the intersection after the toll booth), then after 200 meters, either turn left at the first light for the road through the center of the town, or continue straight on Route 192 westward along the river for about 5 minutes to reach Route 32 for Oboke and the Iya Valley.
Having a car is probably the best way to travel the area as buses/trains can be infrequent, while also allowing for flexibility and incomparable access to the area's best sights (buses only go on the main roads). If without your own vehicle, it should be noted that the cost of a car rental can easily be as expensive or even cheaper than buying multiple public transportation tickets, especially if more than one person is traveling together.
There are only a couple rental car companies in Ikeda, so depending on how you arrive, it may be best to secure a rental car from one of Shikoku's major cities or airports.
The car rental companies that you can make a reservation for in English is are listed below. However, these have no office in Awa Ikeda station. Only the airports and major cities in Shikoku have these rental agencies:
Budget has a unique and flexible option called Shikoku Pilgrimage Passport (四国巡礼パスポート) allowing 9, 12, and 15-day rental plans where you can either use all the days at once, or split the rental days into various trips within a one year period. Better still, with this plan cars can be picked up and dropped off at any Budget office in Shikoku or Okayama (on Honshu) for no additional cost. Nine day plans start at 37,800yen for a small car. Though Budget Japan's website offers English service, the page for this option is in Japanese only, so for English it would be better to call and reserve by phone.
The main Awa Ikeda Bus Terminal (阿波池田ＢＴ) is located about 150 meters down the road from the train station (see the posted town maps in either place to know which way), within the parking lot of the Frespo shopping center (see "Buy" below).
From here buses radiate out through the area, with buses going to/from Iyaguchi, Koboke, Oboke, and the Iya Valley (see those pages for schedule details) or find a complete schedule for all local routes out of Ikeda here (Japanese only). For local buses bound for the Highway Bus stop (Miyoshi BS -for Tokyo night buses) see here.
But be warned: buses can be infrequent, confusing, inconvenient, and expensive for groups. If going to the Iya Valley, a one way fare can run about 1300-1800 (or more if going deeper) per person, making it about 5000-7000yen for two people just to get in and out, and it doesn't include further trips to explore the valley properly. Whereas a small rental car can be had for 5000/day, and is a much better option not just for price, but also convenience and accessibility.
Most of Ikeda's sights lie in the outlying areas, particularly just south of town in the gorge area of Oboke and Koboke, as well as the famed Iya Valley. For many, Ikeda is used as a starting off point for those places.
There are few sights in the town itself, but a couple blocks just after the end of the shopping arcade (past the Awa Bank) is the historic district (don't blink as you walk by, or you might miss it). There are a few restored buildings, a shop or two, and a Tobacco Museum in a pretty old house (with a small traditional Japanese garden) that highlights the once thriving tobacco industry of the area. On some weekends this area holds an outdoor flea market of local arts and food.
A 24 hour 7/11 is located just beyond the home center.
From the train station, a generally lifeless shopping arcade extends straight in front of it. There are few stores that sell anything here anymore, just some restaurants/pubs.
An Awa Bank is located at the end of the arcade, though you may/may not be able to do a US dollar cash exchange. A JP office (Japan Post) with an ATM that takes foreign cards is located about halfway down the arcade and then one and a half blocks to the left (when going from the train station). The 7/11 also takes foreign bank cards.
The "River Station" 川の駅 has a great farmer's market, butcher, and local product vendor as well as a couple restaurants. See the listing under "Eat" below for more details.
The best as well as cheapest alcohol selection (and dry-food store) in town is located heading out on Route 192 going west towards Route 32 (to Kochi), about 300 meters from the 7/11 (not to be confused with the other 7/11 located in the town center by the home center). It is in a yellow warehouse-looking building on the left (English sign says 'Liquor and Foods') directly across from the large 'Idemitsu' gasoline station. It could be easy to miss, but it's the first building on the left side of Route 192 after the 7/11.
A noodle restaurant is located just outside the bus station.
In between the defunct shops along the shopping arcade that extends from the station are several small restaurants serving noodles, barbecue, rice dishes and other set courses.
The supermarket near the bus station sells bentos (lunch boxes).
If you find yourself stuck here for some reason, and most definitely in need of a drink, then it would probably be best to simply grab a six-pack from the supermarket or the 7/11 and just drown your sorrows on a park bench. But for a bit of social atmosphere in exchange for over-priced Asahi Super Dry, various places along the shopping arcade offer up a beer. There are also a few small bars located in the narrow blocks outside the end of the arcade just beyond the Awa Bank. Some have hostesses. The cafe/bar next to the Tobacco Museum is probably one of the only ones not exclusively filled with crusty middle-aged men. Coco Cross guesthouse also serves up drinks most evenings.