Certain journeys that one may undertake in the course of a lifetime remain more vivid than others. As we walk through the streets of our hometowns, it is sometimes easy to forget the details of the landscape around us. Perhaps because they are familiar scenes, we tend to take them for granted and park the images into the short-term retention zones of our brain.
Other journeys, however, linger, perhaps they are even enhanced by the passage of time. While details may fade, certain fragments remain buried deep in the subconscious, ready to be triggered and reawakened at a moment’s notice by the hint of a familiar scene, a scent, or by a figurative hand stroked gently across the emotional strings that we all possess within us.
Recently presented with the opportunity to extend my stay in western Japan after a short business trip to Osaka, I chose to venture to Shikoku (四国) the smallest of Japan’s 4 main islands and, until fairly recently, certainly the most remote. At the suggestion of a close friend, I was persuaded to visit Kochi (高知) which is the principle city in the prefecture of the same name. The entire population of Kochi Prefecture is only slightly more than 750,000 people, which places it close to the bottom in terms of overall population amongst all the 47 administrative regions of Japan. While this relative lack of population density affords a traveler on a more leisurely schedule the opportunity to enjoy some of Japan’s most scenic mountains and some of its wildest rivers without the typical tourist crush, the limitation on my time for this visit meant that I would focus on visiting Kochi city proper and the Katsurahama (桂浜）area.
It wasn’t too hard to be persuaded to make Kochi the choice for my trip. I had made my only previous trip to Shikoku, 27 years ago, to the same place and I was very eager to take a “sentimental journey”. I remembered Kochi as a triumphant trip made during Japan’s late spring holidays, so-called “Golden Week” near the conclusion of my junior year at university (3rd year) homestay study in Osaka. That trip was made when I was not yet 20, and, after only 1 year of classroom and 1 and 1/2 semesters of immersive learning while living in Kansai (関西), my Japanese knowledge was still pretty rudimentary. At that time, before apps, before smartphones, before any semblance of a user friendly interface to the Internet, visiting the less-travelled parts of Japan was considerably more adventurous.
Back then, it took a lot, almost all of my energies actually, to find my way from proverbial “Point A” to “Point B”, consulting my hand-held dictionary furiously as I went. I do distinctly remember the remoteness of the place. At the time, my travelling companion and I had taken a ferry from Osaka to Shikoku and then a train through Shikoku to reach Kochi. As I remember it, being as it was the late 1980’s the bridges that now span the Setonaikai (瀬戸内海) were not yet completed. Travel to and from Shikoku was either by boat, or by air. As a student, air travel was out of the question, so by boat we went, which afforded exposure to a group of Buddhist pilgrims on their way to visit holy sites in Shikoku, the famed Shikoku Hachijyuhachikasho Meguri (四国八十八ヶ所巡り).
The lack of connectivity also seemed to slow everything down, no more so than in Kochi, which being the most remote of the “large” cities in Shikoku, and being cut off from the rest of the island by mountains, and facing the Pacific Ocean, almost seemed to be only just clinging to Japan itself.
So, although my trip would be much shorter this time, and confined mostly to the city center, I was very eager to see what, if anything, had changed, and perhaps, if just for a few moments, to reminisce. In addition, seeing as my Japanese language skills were more advanced, I was eager to dig deeper than I could have dared to imagine during my first visit.
Taking the short flight from Osaka Itami Airport (伊丹空港), I landed in Kochi (which is serviced by Japan’s two major airlines primarily with a number of flights to destinations around Japan daily) and was immediately struck by how well Kochi now seems prepared to receive visitors. Directly outside the baggage claim area was a fully multi-lingual information booth listing attractions not just in Kochi city proper, but across the prefecture. It was clear immediately that the prefecture government was putting a lot of effort into attracting tourist dollars.
Arrival Area at Kochi Airport
There seemed to be no shortage of appeals to a wide variety of visitor interests. This included “outdoors” types of recreation, historical site visits, food and beverage coupons, as well as gift offers. Undoubtedly, this coordinated appeal for tourist Yen was something I had not remotely recalled during my original trip. There’s something here for everyone. Other than pilgrimage associated sites, the prefecture is clearly seeking to bolster its ties to favorite native son Matsumoto Ryoma (松本竜馬). Ryoma was a leading figure in the civil war that broke out which eventually lead to the Meiji Restoration/Meiji Isshin (明治維新).
The airport is named for him, and all over the city, one can find posters promoting Kochi as a place to enjoy “Ryoma No Kyujitsu” (竜馬の休日) which is a word-play based on the Japanese title of the Audrey Hepburn moving “Roman Holiday”. This website is a key resource for anyone planning a visit to Kochi. Places where he was active, or where he visited, or where certain historical events in his life can be found throughout town.
Ryoma No Kyujitsu
Targeting perhaps a younger demographic, the prefecture also has a “Kochike All Stars” (高知家ALL STARS) campaign which has appointed contemporary celebrities as promotional ambassadors for the prefecture. The “all stars” blog site is here but in Japanese language only.
As I was there for what amounted to an extended layover, I had dispensed with all the preparations and decided I would just try to enjoy the discovery of things I had either no mind to pay attention to the last time through or otherwise was not attuned to due to language barrier or whatever reasons.
And so the tutorial about all things Kochi began in earnest.
Even though my travel was designed to be spontaneous, I had decided on a few priorities. First, I would make sure to visit Katsurahama, memories of which were still the freshest of any from my earlier journey. I also resolved that I would walk as much of the city as possible, that I would avail myself of at least a few of what seemed to be plentiful public spaces, such as museums, and finally, I’d sample local foods as much as possible.
Inside A Kochi Streetcar Is Like Travelling Back In TimePerhaps for convenience more than any other reason, I opted to stay at one of the city’s larger western-style hotels. I won’t detail the amenities at my chose hotel in this article, but, cursory examination of the availability of lodging in Kochi indicates to me that travelers of all tastes and budget can find something to suit them (from guest houses, to proper hotels, both western-style and traditional Japanese). It is possible to book rooms at a variety of hotels, etc. from the airport upon arrival, although depending on season, and your propensity for handling travel inconvenience, this may not be a preferred way to handling lodging arrangements as there is the odd chance of arriving and having very limited choice during high/peak travel periods. Consulting the Ryoma No Kyujitsu website is a recommended approach to understand the available options in advance of your trip.
Beginning with my arrival into town by a shuttle bus that runs between the airport and “downtown”, there are several aspects of the cityscape which are strikingly different from the crowded jumble of metro Tokyo. For starters, the area in and around Kochi seemed remarkably flat. Although I’m not a geologist, it seemed to the naked eye that Kochi is for all intents a valley cradled by mountains on three sides and the ocean to the south. This made for easy walking as hills and other geographic obstacles were generally absent. The city is very compact, which means that most major destinations are reachable quickly.
Transit is available in many forms, but traveling by subway is not an option. Instead, Kochi still deploys streetcars, some of which seem to be of considerable vintage, and are a primary means, along with buses, of getting around. The grid is very simple and straightforward and landmarks are in many cases just a short walking distance from stations which are, somewhat harrowingly, located in the middle of the street.
Kochi Castle In Early SpringKochi can lay claim to being one of Japan’s “castle towns” and Kochijo (高知城)
is still a sight to behold. If you manage to ascend to the top floor of the castle you can enjoy a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, which, after all, was the point of putting the castle there in the first place. While walking towards the castle I was made aware of Kochi’s contribution, which I had not appreciated fully, to contemporary Japanese history.
Besides Ryoma, Kochi was the birthplace or home for extended periods to some of Japanese leading historical and literary figures of the Meiji (明治) and Showa (昭和) periods. Kochi is referred to by some as the “Manga Kingdom” (漫画王国) for the many cartoon writers who have come from this area and similarly as the “birthplace” of Manga in Japan. Considering the impact of manga on Japanese contemporary culture and the subsequent impact that exporting manga culture has had on the rest of the world, I was eager to validate these local claims.
As such, one of the stops I made was to the Kochi Kenmin Bunka Plaza (高知県民文化プラザ). This museum has an entire floor dedicated to manga artists in the Kochi area. I It also houses a permanent exhibition of the manga artist Yokoyama Ryuichi (横山隆一), considered by some to the “original” manga artist. His manga “Fuku-chan” (フクちゃん) is arguably the 1st mass circulated manga in Japan and anybody who sees this exhibit will instantly recognize the common thread between this manga and what contemporary Japanese enjoy reading in magazines and watching in programs.
Manga lovers could surely spend hours here and I came away from my stroll through the gallery with the feeling of having learned a lot about the roots of manga and their truly extraordinary impact which continues to be felt in Japan and around the world today.
A short taxi ride from the center of the city brings you to the Museum of Art, Kochi. This is a contemporary art museum which hosts temporary and permanent exhibitions of both international and local artists. I was intrigued by this museum on account of its striking and somewhat eclectic exterior designed. The building seems very outsized for a regional city of Kochi’s size. Upon entering, it became clear to me that, in addition to its galleries, it has seminar/lecture/event facilities as well as an extensive library of art and photography books. Visiting the library alone would be reward for any aficionado of the global contemporary art. My visit coincided with an exhibition of textiles from the Scandinavian designer marimekko. The exhibition was extremely informative and provided an insight into a subject I previously had precious little insight.
The Museum of Art, Kochi, A Surprising Find…
Despite the appeal of the two museums, they were ultimately a very nice distraction from my primary goal, which was to visit (revisit) Katsurahama. So, upon returning to Kochi Station, I took the trolley as long as possible, and then transferred to a bus for the approximately 40 minute ride to Katsurahama.
Along the route to Katsurahama I was able to take in and learn some more Kochi trivia. First there is the rather humorous hariyamabashi (はりやま橋). Apparently rated as one of Japan’s most “disappointing” bridges, the “attraction” did not itself, disappoint. Apparently, Kochi’s citizens have a sense of humor about it themselves as all around the city you could find references to the small, short bridge with apologies being made to visitors for it being so underwhelming.
Judge for yourself.
Another piece of trivia I picked up was that Kochi was the birthplace of the famous children’s cartoon hero Anpan Man (アンパンマン). There is an Anpan Man museum in Kochi which would surely be of interested to anybody who has children under the age of 10 who have spent any reasonable amount of time in Japan. Since the “Anpan” family is a virtually ubiquitous presence among schoolchildren in Japan, it will certainly make me sound smarter the next time I’m ask to discuss the origin of Anpan Man when talking about aspects of Japanese popular culture with friends.
Arriving at Katsurahama proper in the late afternoon, and as it was still early spring, the Sun was already past its peak with the shadows lengthening.
Perhaps the most accurate description of Katsurahama is that it is a place of natural beauty which is striving to overcome the continuous imprint of the people who come to see and experience it. The beach remains as picturesque as ever. One has to struggle a bit to overcome the sight of the aquarium/water park built adjacent to the beach front, however, and near the beach are a collection of gift shop and restaurants which seem to have been built around the time of my previous visit and not necessarily renovated or maintained to any great degree since then.
Perhaps my visit timing was good, though, as the visitor population was sparse on this particular day. I could easily imagine a crush of tourists on a holiday weekend or perhaps even a slightly warmer day. So, it would certainly seem to be the case that, if possible, Katsurahama is best visited during mid-week or not when there is a holiday weekend on the calendar.
Unquestionably, the view from and of Katsurahama is breathtaking from several points. On this particular day, the beach was perfect for a stroll and for a bit of reminiscing. The coast seemed remarkably unchanged from when I visited previously, easily permitting me to somewhat wistfully project in my mind’s eye the image of strolling along the water’s edge with someone special, the rhythm of the waves as a they gently lapped the beach, the smell of the ocean, the look in the eye of that special person and thinking about time passed, and memories waiting to be made.
A Splendid VistaLeaving the beachfront, I took a side path up to one of the most prominent cliffs to take in the statue of Matsumoto Ryoma himself. This had been built up to me by a taxi driver who I’d spoken to earlier in the day, so, I had grand expectations as I made my way along the path to the monument. Upon seeing it, I can say that, while yes, it was an impressive monument to a man who certainly has an important place in Japan’s history, I guess I was a little nonplussed. I suppose I had kind of an image of the Colossus of Rhodes so when I came upon the actual bronze itself, it wasn’t quite what I’d pictured. I could have prepared myself I suppose by Googling pictures of the site in advance, but, I suppose that would have detracted from the fun of the discovery, even if it was a little bit below my expectation. If nothing else, the promontory upon which the statue rests affords one more incredible view of the beach, so, if not for the statue itself, I’d recommend making the short climb to enjoy the view.
I needed a break from my nostalgic mood so I wanted to do one more thing before heading back to town and my hotel. One thing that I had wanted to do so very badly at the time of my first visit, but which had eluded me for reasons now long forgotten. Visit the Tosa Inu Park (とさいぬパーク) for some playtime with Tosa (土佐) “fighting” dogs.
While the term “dog fighting” conjures up in the minds of many people a very dark image, this practice is actually very well established, and quite out in the open, in Japan. Tosaken (土佐犬) are huge dogs (the biggest can approach 80 Kg.) and are prized for their role in highly ritualized “fighting” tournaments which are treated much like Sumo (相撲) wrestling, complete with Yokozuna (横綱) dogs. In marked contrast to the savagery of dog fighting practiced in other parts of the world, bouts between Tosa dogs are essentially tests of endurance where the winner is declared when one dog retreats from the ring. Other ways to “lose” bouts include growling, lying down, whimpering, and biting. So just to be clear, according the rules as explained to me, biting of one animal by another results in a loss by the animal that initiated the bite. While this correspondent did not witness a bout in person, the topic is quite openly discussed amongst local people, belying a certain confidence about the relatively benign nature of this kind of canine contest. The center allows guests to visit a nursery for petting time with puppies and this was certainly not to be missed.
Momo chanThe particular dog I was introduced to was a very friendly 2 month old “Momo-chan” (桃ちゃん). She certainly didn’t seem to have the disposition of a wrestling champion, and perhaps she won’t actually make it to the ring. I was told that only a small percentage of dogs actually become “wrestlers”. Whether or not Momo makes it to the spotlight, I’ll have no way of knowing, but she certainly had already perfected the art of licking potential opponents to death.
Returning to the center of Kochi, what remained for my whirlwind tour was to sample the local cuisine. Tosa Ryori (土佐料理) is remarkable for a few particular dishes, but the most famous is probably Katsuo No Tatataki (鰹のタタキ), a lightly breaded sliced bonito dish. It seems as though the people of Kochi really enjoy their regional specialties as the city center is filled with restaurants selling some version of this dish. It is also worth noting that, for the truly intrepid, many of the same restaurants offer whale on the menu. While this is a nod the region’s recent past as a whaling center, there was no particular effort on the part of the restaurants to hide the whale dishes on the menu.
Katsuo TatakiIn days past Tosa Bay (土佐湾) was famous as a whaling center. Certain whale species made annual appearances off the cost and were hunted accordingly. Despite Japan’s still contentious relationship with global anti-whaling protocols, whaling is no longer practiced here. There are seasonal opportunities to enjoy whale watching cruises, although, there are no guarantees of spotting a leviathan during any given cruise. The meal itself was very satisfying. Other local dishes include various squid preparations and, for sweets lovers, Kanzashi (かんざし), which is a traditional sweet not to be confused with the hair ornament of the same spelling! There is much to this areas cuisine that my short time in the area didn’t allow me to sample. I’d encourage those who visit and have more time to dine ambitiously.
Unlike Tokyo, although I entered my chosen restaurant at what I thought was the prime dinner hour, I had no trouble getting a table without waiting or a reservation. The streets were largely deserted by 20:00 and the walk back to my hotel was very quiet. Based on my limited experience, it would seem that the spontaneous traveler to Kochi will have no issue finding a very pleasant dining experience in “walk-up” fashion. One final note about dinner. While dining in close proximity to other tables, I was able to pick-up some of the queues of the local dialect. Kochi or Tosa dialect of Japanese, at least to my ear, seemed to be a slightly harsher version of Kansai dialect which will be familiar to visitor to Osaka. Unfortunately, my visit did not afford me enough time to dig into the nuances of this area of interest. It’s always good to leave something to explore for the next trip, I guess. Linguistically inclined travelers will undoubtedly revel in the opportunity to hear yet another niche Japanese dialect!
And, so, as I relaxed in my room and reflected upon the day just past, I felt that, for a day trip, I’d accomplished a lot.
Kochi at Sunset
At the same time, like with any other short visit one might make anywhere, I also felt like I’d still only scratched the surface of what this place had to offer. The 27 years of experience across Japan which I’ve accumulated between my previous visit and this one notwithstanding, I leave Kochi understanding that the more I learn about Japan, the more still that there is yet to be discovered. I also gained a new appreciation of the fact that while you can’t travel back in time, it is certainly possible to enjoy the warmth that the fusion of faded memories in combination with a timeless landscape affords. Kochi, and certainly Katsurahama, provides the ideal backdrop from which to experience this unique, personal harmony.