Culinary Trip of a Lifetime to Kochi, Shikoku Island
Culinary Trip of a Lifetime to Kochi, Shikoku Island
The Japanese language is filled with a lot of beautiful, almost poetic words which carry a deep meaning. One of them is kire kire which translates into “beautiful memories.” These are the exact words I want to use while describing my trip to Kochi Prefecture. It was a trip complete with fun-filled days and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, stunning unadulterated nature, mouthwatering food and the hospitality that is hard to beat. You hear this about every corner of Japan, but somehow Kochi seems to step up a notch.
Located on a small but rich island of Shikoku and still remaining a relatively untapped gem of Japan, Kochi Prefecture offers all the ingredients of an unforgettable travel experience. It is a perfect place to see a more timid, rural side of Japan. Below are all the reasons to love Kochi Prefecture and my tips on how to plan a long weekend to this beautiful part of the country.
Destination: Kochi City
Transportation: I hopped on a short and comfortable ANA flight from Haneda Airport and touched down in less than an hour.
Hotel: Hotel Takasago, conveniently located close to the Kochi station with easy access to other sights, is a great place to stay. Spacious tatami and western-style rooms are available.
Tips: Upon arrival, do visit the Kochi tourism information center called Kochi Tabi Hiroba located at the south entrance of Kochi Station. Their welcoming English-speaking staff will gladly set you up with tons of useful tips so that you make the most of your vacation in Kochi. I also highly recommend renting a car. While the majority of the spots listed below are accessible by public transport, you will have much more flexibility and save time with a rental car. Kochi is all about outdoors and nature, so having the freedom to drive around and savor it all will set you up for a great trip.
Things to see and do in Kochi City:
Niyodo River and Lunch at Restaurant Aogi
Upon arrival, we hopped into a car and headed to the west of the city to have our first taste of revered local cuisine and marvel at the natural beauty of Niyodo River, which is known for its miraculously clear and pure water. You can start by taking a short cruise on a yakata-bune boat (find more details about it here). With growling stomachs and onset of rain, we skipped the latter and, instead, cozied up in Aogi, a quaint mom-and-pop shop perched on the clifftop overlooking the winding river. You’re instantly wrapped in a sense of comfort as you enter the place. The views from the full-size windows are stunning, but my interest was piqued by the hustle inside the open kitchen, where the sweet old hostess was cooking up a storm for her guests. They have plenty of delectable meal sets cooked with the freshest local ingredients. Sukiyaki meal set that I ordered featured delicious meat in homely sauce accompanied with a variety of vegetables, pickles, miso soup and rice. It was the best culinary welcome I could have asked for. It simply cannot get better than this, I thought. It didn’t take long to discover I was wrong.
In desperate need to walk off all the food we just consumed, we ventured off to sightsee. I’d highly recommend spending a full day sightseeing in Kochi because this city has plenty to offer and wow you with. One of the noteworthy highlights here was the Kochi Castle which overlooks the city featuring a beautiful Edo-period architecture. Don’t be lazy to explore the interior and climb to the top, the 360-degree views are amazing.
Being one of the 88 temples on Shikoku Island set up by Kobo Daishi, a revered Buddhist monk, Chikurin-ji Temple is a sacred pilgrimage site and the main temple in Kochi Prefecture. Close to the temple is the famous Makino Botanical Garden. Alternatively, you can take in the panoramic views of the city from Kenritsu Godaisan Observation Deck. They even have a cute café there for you to relax and sip on a cup of coffee.
Ino-cho Paper Museum
As biased as I may sound (my addiction to stationary and paper products is notorious), a visit to Ino-cho Paper Museum was easily one of my top three experiences in Kochi. You will be able to learn about the history of traditional Japanese Tosa Washi paper, which has been an industry along the Niyodo River for more than a thousand years. Most importantly, I partook in nagashizuki papermaking workshop and made my own washi paper. How cool is that?! Just make sure you don’t spend all of your daily pocket allowance in their souvenir shop like I did.
Hirome Market first opened in 1998 as a place to showcase local food and culture, and quickly became a favorite hangout place for locals and expats alike. Image a spacious indoor space lined up with around 60 eateries that serve affordable and drool-worthy food and sake in a casual, buzzy atmosphere. Possibilities to indulge here are endless, a chance of getting drunk – completely inevitable.
It didn’t take me long to learn that Kochi is the place where even a bowl of plain rice has a distinct taste and it is delicious on its own. Lack of industrial pollutants and abundance of rich natural soil and water yield unequaled culinary delights. And the deeper you go into the rural areas and little port towns, better it gets.
A list of local specialties is virtually endless. Whether you opt for tosa wagyu beef (Tosa Akaushi is one of the rarest breeds in Japan), seafood (shellfish, alfonsino, river eel, sweetfish and mackerel come to mind), or vegetables and fruit (Kochi is one of the biggest producers of yuzu), it will be a taste you are guaranteed to remember for a very long time.
But what is one thing you must try while in Kochi? Undoubtedly katsuo! Unlike mainland Japan, where maguro (tuna) is the primary fish, Kochi Prefecture prides itself with katsuo (also known as, bonito or shipjack tuna) which is a stable in local cuisine and served in almost every restaurant. Order katsuo no tataki, a slightly seared bonito which comes garnished with yuzu ponzu sauce, garlic and onions. My mouth still waters as I write about it.
Now let’s talk about adult beverages. Calling itself “the land of sake”, it’s no surprise that sake is an indispensable drink here. The locals are known for their okyaku culture. It is a tradition of feasting and partying at any major or minor event (this very much reminded me of my home country Georgia which has a similar tradition of supra). Kochi-jin, or the locals of Kochi, are some of the most hospitable, communicative and fun-loving people I have met in Japan. Unlike the mainland, people here are more relaxed and easy-going and they most definitely like to treat their guests.
If you happen to be hosted by a kochi-jin, they will be on a mission to get you well-fed and drunk. In fact, they consider themselves to be a bad host if you don’t drop on the floor at the end of the day after feasting. Thankfully, our host spared us a bit since it was partially a work trip.
If you would like to taste the best of local brewers, I highly recommend visiting a cozy bar close to Hirome Market called Tosashi Sake Bar. Our host insisted on ordering a total of 12 types of sake. We tasted each one and voted which one was “the best.” And then re-ordered a glass of our favorites. Now you understand why walking back to the hotel sober is impossible.
The original plan for our second day was to drive towards the south-west to take full advantage of local outdoor activities. Even though Kochi is a coastal prefecture bordered by Tosa Bay, 84% of its land is covered by forest. This coupled with an abundance of rivers, makes it a haven for nature lovers. The Shimanto River is said to be the last remaining clear stream in Japan devoid of any dams. The quality of water of Niyodo River has been rated the best in Japan, while Yoshino River boasts with one of the clearest waters in the prefecture.
No wonder that Kochi offers an abundance of river activities including rafting, canoeing, fly fishing, and regular fishing. Happy Raft is one of the most popular companies that can organize great adventures for families and friends. If you’re not into river activities you can also take advantage of hiking, camping, paragliding or biking (rentals are available at the station. Additionally, you can take a very cool “adventure course” in the famous Ryuga Cave, which is a roughly 4-km limestone cave designated as a historic site.
During our visit, the weather didn’t cooperate at all (read: gloomiest of skies, endless showers and landslides) so we simply took a car ride along Shimanto River, the same road we planned to bike and canoe along. Despite the horrid weather, I loved driving along the winding scenic roads past the roaming river, lush forests, and moss-covered temples.
After an hour or two of driving, our host brought us to Shaenjiri, a local roadside spot run by the sweetest grandmas. They cook their hearts out every single day serving home-cooked dishes all prepared with the produce sourced from their farms. I made sure to buy a jar of home-cooked marinated pickled ume (Japanese plum), cause it was ah-mazing.
We then continued to a small blacksmith workshop Kurogane tucked away in the forest along the river. I had no idea what to expect but it ended up being one of the best experiences of my life.
As the rain continued to pour, we spent four hours learning from the master blacksmith Nobuya Hayashi about tatara ironmaking and forged our own Japanese knives. Hayashi-san is incredibly friendly, speaks English well and guides you step by step through the entire process. It is a physically demanding and no-frills job, but definitely worth it if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty. It was one of those experiences that made me feel like I was a travel documentarian who seeks once-in-a-lifetime experiences in the remote parts of the world for her TV show (by the way, I’d totally take that job!). That knife will definitely be one of our family heirlooms from now on, especially because Hayashi-san inscribed our family name on it in Japanese.
After five hours of a vigorous work, we drove all the way to Kuroshio, a small seaside town, to stay truthful to out ‘eat-sightsee-repeat’ theme. We quickly checked into a seaside Hotel Nest West (western and traditional tatami rooms, sento baths and great breakfast available), before settling into one of the local izakayas by the Tosa-Irino station for some late-night delectables (you bet we ordered more katsuo) and sake.
We woke up to yet another gloomy day and, after a slow morning at Nest West, we headed out to explore the fisherman’s town of Nakatosa.
A tour of Nakatosa provides a perfect insight into the rustic lifestyle of Kochi with its quaint streets and authentic atmosphere of a fishing town, known for its unique pole-and-line fishing method. One of the few local spots worth visiting is Nishioka Shuzo sake brewery which is housed within the oldest sake brewery building in the prefecture dating back to the Edo period. You can also experience a homestay at one of the four fisherman’s guesthouses and go fishing with your host.
For lunch, we stopped by the historic Taisho-Machi Market, which has been around since 1880 and is located in the 400-year-old fishermen’s district of Kure. The market is a small maze of arcades and outdoor stalls selling seafood, locally farmed vegetables and fruit, and souvenirs, as well as the inviting restaurants serving the freshly cooked local dishes.
We got to meet with the head of the market who had just returned from fishing and boasted with unusually big catch of katsuo. We were also told that this is arguably one of the best places to taste katsuo sashimi on Shikoku Island and all of Japan. He led us to the back of the market where we had a chance to sear katsuo with our own hands (in a special brick oven fired with hay to give fish that appetizing smoky flavor), after which he cut it up for us and served to our table. It tasted incredible.
This seemingly rural part of Kochi also attracts local tourists with its numerous water activities: surfing, snorkeling and diving, whale watching and deep-sea fishing.
Alas, we had to head back and took a scenic route to the airport along Kochi’s southern coast.
As I was boarding the flight back to Tokyo, with my jeans fitting a bit tighter from ridiculous amount of food I had consumed and my heart full from the implausible hospitality I was exposed to, I once again was reminded why I fell in love with Japan. It’s the welcoming locals who awe you with their politeness and respect for their culture; it’s the abundance of one-of-a-kind sights; it’s the breathtaking beauty of changing seasons; it’s the utmost respect to rules and people around; it’s the seamless harmony of the old and the new; it’s the love for luxurious simplicity; it’s the quality of food that ruins your palate forever. Japan is an amazing place that captivates your heart and turns every day into kire kire, a beautiful memory, and I hope you will all get to experience it someday.
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