Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku Island is almost 800 kilometers away from Tokyo. That’s like traveling from Manila to Benguet and back, THEN up again! But since we were coming from Osaka, it took only about an hour of travel by bullet train.
From Okayama Station, we boarded the Nanpu train heading into the hinterlands of Kochi at around 3pm. We almost missed it because we were waiting for the 3.05pm train to arrive. Take note: the times indicated on the schedule are the departure times! So board a train at least five minutes before the indicated time on the schedule!
We were in for quite a pleasant shock, as the Nanpu traveled an extremely scenic route that took our breaths away. The train whizzed along on a great bridge over an inland sea, going into tunnels, overlooking pretty little towns at the foot of mountains dotted with sakura trees in bloom. Several stops along the way gave us a stationary view of these quaint little towns. As we got nearer and nearer to Kochi, a clear river came up alongside us, as though in greeting. Mika would later tell us that Kochi was home to two of the cleanest rivers in all of Japan, the Shimanto and Niyodo.
At around 5.30 in the afternoon, the Nanpu pulled up at Kochi Station in Shikoku Island.
Kochi city was quiet. The buildings were all low – no skyscraper anywhere. The great expanse of sky was the first thing you noticed, and the Kochi Station was built as though to greet that sky for all time.
My friend Mika collected us at a little past 6. We gave each other warm hugs.
We had come a very loooong way from home!
We then piled into Mika’s car and set out for the first event of the night: the cultural night at Kochi Castle, one of several in Japan still in their centuries-old original state.
On the way, we searched for some parking space, avoiding the already-packed castle grounds. We ended up parking some 10 minutes away, at a mechanized parking tower along the main road. It amazed me no end. Thanks to some superior mechanical engineering, your car was hauled up to the tower, and then brought down when needed. Mika was amused by my amazement.
Yes, I’m that kind of person. I never take any kind of marvelous for granted.
We witnessed many families picnicking under the sakura trees. The practice was called “hanami,” and it would go on all over Japan as long as the revered trees were in bloom.
Then we went to a place called Habotan to have our dinner. It was packed with locals and didn’t seem very tourist-friendly – no English language posters in sight. We felt very privileged to have Mika with us to translate all exchanges she was having in English. The highlight of the dinner was the serving of whale. Yes, in Kochi, whale hunting is allowed. It is part of the culture.
Then after a quick stop to a drugstore, we set out for Mika’s home. We had no idea where she was taking us. From the city, she went on a winding road going up the mountains. It was pretty dark along the way.
After about half an hour of travel, we reached a hilly village with very narrow paths. Houses lined either side of the roads. You’d think they were all unoccupied because of the deep quiet.
Then, we pulled up in front of what looked like a traditional house. It was dark and drizzling and cold, and there was fog all over, so I could only glean the outlines of her home. You could hear the sound of a river flowing at the foot of the hill. It felt magical.
With the aid of a cellphone torch, we found our way towards the front door. We removed our shoes and wore house slippers that Mika had readied by the door.
Finally, we had arrived at Mika’s home.
Mika enlisted the help of her friend and neighbor Masa, a professional photographer, to take some shots of the trip. The ones he shot are watermarked “mk.”
Our next stop was the Yokogurayama Natural Forest Museum, hidden away in the mountains of Ochi. We were the only visitors that day. The rain didn’t let up, perhaps for good reason. The weather showcased the fine points of Tadao Ando’s world-class minimalist architecture. Infinity pools outside the building collected the rain and we could see this phenomenon from the inside via a great floor-to-ceiling glass window. We could see the droplets on the window, and feel the beautiful, fragile sadness all around us. There were trees all around – it was a natural museum after all. I remembered all the Murakami and Mishima novels I’d ever read – not the specific storylines, but the strange, sad way they made me feel. An exiled, outcast, edge-of-the-world kind of emotion. Much like the way the museum itself probably felt, tucked away in these quiet mountains.
After dropping off Masa at his home, Mika was back again on the wheel. We dropped by a supermarket downtown to purchase ingredients for dinner. Robert had volunteered to cook some sinigang and chicken adobo. Everyone was excited to sit down and eat!
Back in Tosayama, Mika and Robert got to work in the kitchen. Robert was impressed with Mika’s cookware. Her knife had a vein on it, a sign of excellent high-grade steel. Kochi has a fine tradition of making knives and cutlery, said Mika. Schedule permitting, she would try to bring us to a traditional smith.
On the third day, the Kochi sun finally came out! Yehey!
Mika put some upbeat Japanese music on as we drove on the highway and up Mt. Godaisan, where an observatory and a temple were located. I looked all around. The countryside was planted to many cedar, maple and bamboo trees, with the ever-present sakura trees here and there. A creek flowed beneath the road, clear and blue-green. Mika sang on the wheel. It was going to be an awesome day.
By the time we were done touring Godaisan, it was already past 12 noon and we were going hungry. After getting some tawid-gutom ice cream at a souvenir shop near the parking lot, Mika decided to bring us to her favorite clam and meat restaurant for lunch.
Along the way, we passed by a small cemetery located beside…a grocery. WTF. Mika explained that in Japanese cosmology, the living and the dead co-existed side by side – in most cases, quite literally.
Then, we found ourselves on a hairpin turn, a steep elbow that led to Usa (pronounced Woo-sa) beach. The view was breathtaking.
We pulled up at a restaurant near this beach. It was called Hagi No Chaya. We were greeted by all types of sea creatures in an area at the entrance.
Then we were on the road again, to yet another temple called the Seiryu-ji or Blue Dragon Temple. Once in a while, we would see a pilgrim or two walking along the road, in requisite white garb, cane and backpack on hand. The whole of Shikoku Island is an important pilgrimage site, home to 88 temples that draw thousands of tourists every year.
Again, we hopped on the car and traveled up another mountain to spend the sunset at a whale sighting viewdeck located along the Yokonami Kuro-Shio Skyline road. Two feral cats kept Alon and Sofie entertained, while low-flying kites kept Robert furiously clicking on his camera. Meanwhile, Mika and I took selfies by the windswept sea and soaked in the peaceful sights.
Mika then got a text from Masa inviting all of us to come over to his home. We agreed, but not before doing a most important stopover: a bath at a traditional onsen (natural hot spring).
We couldn’t take a decent photo of the place due to the low-light, so do check out the name Auberge Tosayama online instead! This is actually a hotel. According to Mika, the onsen in the hotel was built by hand by members of the Tosayama community. It’s an amazing, warmly-lit place designed in a log cabin style.
Refreshed and feeling a little sleepy from the bath, we all got on the car and made for home. Masa lived just a few minutes away from Mika. He and his wife Tomoko owned two houses; the one he received us in was actually an airbnb, the only airbnb in the whole of Tosayama (Masa calls it the Sakura House – your guess why will be a correct one!) They had three beautiful sons, one of whom was intently working on his science assignment when we arrived.
Kokoro kara sou omotta, Kochi!
Me and my family will never forget you! Arigato gozaimashita for everything.
For your very own custom Kochi Experience in Japan, please contact Mika Mukai via KOCHI ENCOUNTERS: JAPAN on Facebook or Twitter.
WOW. You’ve made it THIS far. Congratulations! You are amazing!
If you’re just like us and still can’t get over Japan’s amazing railway system, here’s some more reading for you: