15 Things to Do and See in Kochi City
Located on the island of Shikoku, Kochi is rather out of the way, and, sadly, often overlooked for its more famous neighbors. However, those who visit Kochi City will not be disappointed. While Kochi may lack world famous landmarks, Kochi’s attractions are varied and many. There’s delicious seafood, an original castle, a stunning garden, and quirky museums. There’s sure to be something to please everyone in this lovely city. Here are some of my recommendations for things to see and try in Kochi.
1. Kochi Castle
Kochi Castle is one of the few remaining original castles in Japan, meaning that it survived both the Edo and Meiji eras when many castles were destroyed. Even amongst the original castles, Kochi is notable for being one of only three where the original main gate survives. Kochi Castle is unique in one other way: it is the only castle where the lord's reception suite remains. The castle has a long history, with construction starting in 1600 though most of the keep was rebuilt in 1748. While it is on the smaller side when compared to Himeji or Matsuyama, it is well preserved with nice displays inside and beautiful views. The castle itself is set in a pleasant park that is a popular picnic and hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) spot. Kochi Castle is a short walk from Kochijomae tram stop or you can walk in about twenty minutes from the Harimayabashi area.
2. Kochi Castle Museum of History
While most castles in Japan double as a museum, Kochi actually has a separate museum dedicated to the history of the castle. The museum chronicles the history of the Tosa kingdom from the Warring States period through the Meiji Reformation. It includes the typical artwork, historical documents, and national treasures, and kids can also get the chance to dress up in samurai armour. The third floor also houses an observatory with a beautiful view of the castle. History buffs will no doubt enjoy learning more about the castle and its town as well as the Tosa kingdom. A combined ticket with the castle costs 730 yen for permanent exhibits only or 890 yen during special exhibits. By itself, it's 700 or 500 yen for special exhibits or permanent only respectively though the My Yu bus pass offers a discount. The museum is located right across the street from the castle, making it easy to combine the two.
3. Makino Botanical Garden
The Makino Botanical Garden was created to honor Makino Tomitaro, who is considered the father of Japanese botany. This spacious and beautiful park is a perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city; one can easily spend a few hours exploring the grounds. It includes all kinds of gardens — a greenhouse, cherry blossom groves, medicinal plants, rose gardens — as well as ponds, a large lawn perfect for picnics, exhibition rooms, and cafes. Due to the size, you can always find something blooming. Even when it isn’t bursting with flowers though, it’s a pleasant and relaxing walk. It's located on the top of Godaisan, so the stunning view alone is worth the trip. Entrance is 720 yen (discount with bus pass), and it is best accessed via the My Yu bus, where it is twenty minutes or so outside of the city.
4. Chikurinji Temple
Chikurinji, built in 724, is one of the stops of the Shikoku pilgrimage, and as the bodhisattva enshrined there is associated with wisdom, many students come here as well to pray for academic success. While the temple building itself may pale in comparison to the more famous temples in Kyoto, the five story pagoda is gorgeous and well worth seeing. The tree lined approach through the spectacular old wooden gate, passing by moss-covered lanterns, is incredibly atmospheric. In fact, the grounds are more interesting than the temple itself, and it’s worth a wander to see the small pond and collection of Buddha statues. While the temple and much of its grounds are free, the paid area also includes a treasure house that includes many Buddhist statues, and a gorgeous Japanese style garden. The temple is on the My Yu bus route, and if you are visiting the botanical garden, simply exit from the south exit (re-entry possible), where the temple is steps away.
5. Yosakoi Museum
Yosakoi is a large dance festival that has been held every August since 1954. In the festival teams all dance to the “Yosokoi Naruko Dancing” song, utilizing naruko clappers. Now, any music is acceptable as long as it includes parts of Yosokoi Naruko Dancing. For those who can't visit Kochi during the festival, the Yosakoi museum is a great option. The first room introduces the festival and it's history, and while there is sadly no English text descriptions, you can still enjoy the dioramas and photos. Then you progress through a hall displaying posters for the festival through the ages before you reach the larger area where the fun really begins. Here you can watch a video of the festival dances from its beginning until now, and see the costumes and naruko clappers (which you can even make yourself for a fee). You can also try the dance for yourself; a video guides you through the steps and you can borrow costumes and noisemakers. The museum may not be large, but it is the perfect introduction to the Yosakoi festival and will leave you eager to see it for yourself. The free museum is located right outside the Harimayabashi bus terminal, near the entrance to the shopping arcades.
6. Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum
The Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum honors the legacy of Yokoyama Ryuichi, the first cartoonist to be deemed a person of cultural merit. The museum has many fun comic strips you can read as well as fun, interactive exhibits on his popular character, Fuku-chan. Additionally, Yokoyama's studio and quirky home bar and toy collection are also presented. For an extra fee, you can visit the fifth floor that contains an eclectic assortment of objects that meant something to Yokoyama. Even the museum information admits that some of these things may seem like junk to us, and, indeed, many of the things included (like a rather terrifying cat onesie or a strand of leg hair) would be very out of place in most museums. That said, it is sure to bring a smile to your face. Even with no knowledge of the character or the author, the museum is delightful and will bring out your inner child. While I had never even heard of Yokoyama Ryuichi or Fuku-chan before visiting Kochi, I was quickly charmed by the character and the museum, and it ended up being a highlight of the trip. Entrance is 430 yen, but for manga fans on a budget, there is also a free manga library where you can read manga by Kochi authors. The museum is located in Bunka Plaza, a five minute walk from Harimayabashi tram stop and a few minutes away from the Yosakoi museum.
7. Obiyamachi Shopping Arcades
Kochi's shopping arcades are extensive, and make walking to various tourist sites more exciting. You can find everything you could want, and it's a great place to get a bite to eat or shop for souvenirs. One popular souvenir is the naruko noisemaker. These were traditionally used to scare off birds in rice fields, but now they are an essential part of the Yosakoi dance, and all teams are required to use them. Additionally, some days you can find vendors selling fresh produce and other goods. Lastly be sure to look up and admire the wonderful banners hanging from the ceiling. The arcades start close to Kochi Station and take you through the Harimayabashi area all the way to the castle.
8. Harimayabashi Bridge
Harimayabashi may seem rather unimpressive at first. After all, the bridge is small at only 20 meters long. However, the bridge is famed not because of its look but due to its role in a local folktale and song. According to the legend, a monk from Chikurinji fell in love with a local woman. However, due to his position as a monk, their love was forbidden, forcing them to meet in secret. One day, though, he was spotted buying his lover a hairpin at Harimayabashi, revealing their affair and forcing the couple into exile. The song describing this sad tale of love became a part of the Yosakoi festival song, cementing itself into Kochi local culture. In the 60s, a song by Peggy Hayama was based off it, which even inspired a film adaptation, jolting the bridge and love story into national fame. Now, the bridge is one of Kochi’s main attractions, and many tourists buy hairpins here, just like in the story.
9. Hirome Ichiba Market
Hirome Ichiba is a unique market and food court. While the building may seem small, it houses over 60 shops, many of which are restaurants or izakaya (Japanese-style pubs). Seating is done on long shared tables and benches. It's a great place to enjoy local cuisine and meet new people, and the food court style restaurants make it easy to sample many different things and to socialize. It's not just food and drink though. You can also buy everything from fresh produce to souvenirs. It's located right in front of the castle park, at the end of the shopping arcades, so access is easy. You can't miss the maneki neko beckoning cat welcoming you inside.
10. Katsuo no Tataki (Seared Bonito).
Kochi's most famous food is katsuo, or bonito fish. Katsuo no tataki is a fish dish which is served slightly seared, sliced, and seasoned with salt or soy sauce, vinegar, and citrus. Garlic and green onions are often added. The result is a dish that is as beautiful as it is delicious. It is not difficult to find, as many izakaya and restaurants around Hariyamabashi and Katsurahama serve the dish. The best season is late March to May or from September to November. If you want something to take home, Kochi also specializes in katsuobushi, or dried bonito flakes. This is a popular seasoning and soup stock and a necessary item in any Japanese kitchen.
Katsurahama is a scenic beach a little outside of Kochi City center. Due to the strong current, swimming is prohibited but fortunately there are other things to do in the area. One of the main sites is the Sakamoto Ryoma museum. Sakamoto, a Kochi native, was part of the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate. One of his main achievements was helping to create an alliance between two hostile clans, Choshu (present day Yamagata) and Satsuma (Kagoshima). When the end of the shogunate was imminent, he also helped with the negotiations of the shogun's resignation. If that's not enough, he is considered the father of the Japanese imperial navy, and his ideas were influential in the new parliamentary system, which he unfortunately did not live to see. In short, he is an important figure in Japanese history, and the museum details his life and legacy. Unfortunately, the museum is closed for renovations until early 2018, so history buffs visiting Kochi this year are out of luck. Katsurahama does have more things to offer though. The Tosa Dog Museum introduces the tosa dog, which resembles a mastiff, and the history of dog fighting in the area. On weekends, high ranked dogs perform the ring entering ceremony and dog fights are held periodically. For animal lovers uncomfortable with that idea, there is also a small aquarium that offers a chance to feed or interact with some of the animals. Katsurahama is about 35 minutes away from Kochi Station and is best accessed via the Kochiken Kotsu bus or the My Yu bus.
12. Ryoma Coffee
If you want to celebrate Kochi's famous figure, Ryoma coffee is a great way to go. The cappuccino or latte features a portrait of Sakamoto Ryoma drawn into the milk, a sophisticated departure from the more common cute latte art. The coffee is both highly photogenic and tasty. You can find coffee shops advertising their Ryoma latte art around Hariyamabashi. Alternatively, a good spot is the stylish Cocochi in Kochi station. The menu also includes omurice ('omelette rice'), pasta, pancakes, and waffles and the 460 yen Ryoma cappuccino is quite affordable. While it may not be a must see destination itself, it's the perfect spot to relax while waiting for your train or bus.
13. Sansuien Hot Springs
Kochi may not be a renowned onsen (hot spring) town, but that doesn't mean that there are not any exceptional onsen. One good option is Sansuien, which is one of the first onsen in Kochi. This hotel offers both indoor and outdoor baths for men and woman, and hotel guests can also get private baths. While the hotel and baths may lack the history of more famous onsen resorts, the baths are still beautiful and relaxing with many health benefits. Entrance is from 10-4 for day trippers and costs 900 yen, with discounts for groups of three or more or on the 26th of each month. It's a short walk from Kochi prefectural office tram stop and is close to the castle, making it a great way to relax after climbing up to the castle.
Yuzu is a popular citrus fruit in Japan with many uses. While the fruit is rarely eaten, the zest can be used as a garnish, and yuzu makes delicious tea. Yuzu can also be found in dipping sauces, vinegar, and sometimes even in ramen broths for extra flavor. In the winter, a yuzu bath is a popular way to keep warm. It is believed that it helps ward off colds, and the yuzu aroma makes the bath extra relaxing. Yuzu is one of Kochi's famous exports, so of course there are many yuzu products in Kochi that are hard to find elsewhere. One popular drink is called Gokkun, a tasty yuzu honey drink. You can even find Yuzu flavored beer in Hirome Ichiba. Of course, you can also buy the fruits themselves or yuzu flavored sweets in omiyage (souvenir) shops.
15. Sunday Market
If you are in Kochi on a weekend, the Sunday market is not to be missed. The market opened in 1690, making it the oldest outdoor market in Japan. The market spans 1 kilometer from Otesuji avenue to Kochi Castle and includes over 500 stalls. Vegetables, fruit, and other local produce is the most popular thing sold, but you can also buy fish, handicrafts, and knives. It’s a great place to sample local dishes and get a taste of local life. The market opens bright and early in the morning, and for the best selection, earlier is better. If you aren’t in Kochi on a Sunday, fear not because the popularity of the market has inspired other smaller ones to pop up on weekdays as well.
While Kochi may not be as densely populated as Tokyo or overflowing with sightseeing spots like Kyoto, it’s a charming city with a lot to offer. If you find yourself in the southern part of Japan, Kochi is worth a visit. From Tokyo or Osaka, it can be accessed by plane, overnight bus, or a bullet train to Okayama, where a transfer to a limited express is required. Kochi is also connected to Matsuyama, Tokushima, Takamatsu, and Okayama by highway bus. Kochi is an easy city to navigate, with many of the sites clustered around the Harimayabashi area. It’s even possible to walk from the Yokoyama Manga Museum to the Yosakoi museum, through the shopping arcades and the Harimayabashi area all the way to the castle and Hirome Ichiba. Katsurahama and the Makino Garden area do require the My Yu bus, which does not run everyday. On the bright side, foreigners get the all day bus pass for half price, and the pass itself will get you discounts to almost all of the attractions listed here plus many others.