From Tokyo to Kochi: an unforgettable adventure around Japan’s amazing railways (last of three parts)

 

okayama station

 

art shot trash station

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!

train2

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.

oboke from nanpu

 

sofie making face in nanpu
Sofie clowns around inside the Nanpu.

train to kochi

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.

kochi train station

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.

high tech parking kochi
High-tech parking, with Alon checking out the vendo.

 

kochi grocery
More of Kochi City!
sakura night view kochi 2
A view of sakura at night, at the Kochi Castle grounds

 

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.

hanami in kochi
Hanami at Kochi Castle grounds

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.

whale meat

 

mika and us at first resto stop
With Mika, a dear friend I’d met some twenty years earlier in Tokyo. She does private tours for people visiting Kochi.

 

big blazer in kochi mall
The Japanese concept of a clothing ad! At Obiya-Machi, a strip that sees many bazaars and artsy events on Sunday mornings.

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 crib
Mika’s crib in Tosayama, a village of less than a thousand residents.

 

Tosayama1
Spectacular view from Mika’s house.
way to kochi
The road going down to Kochi City from Tosayama.
Tosayama2
Members of the Tosayama community meet at least once a month to discuss the replanting of trees, construction of common facilities, waste management concerns, etc. It’s a closely-knit community, says Mika.
breathtaking mountain view from car window tosayama
With Mika’s student, looking out across the mountains of Tosayama.

 

sakura lined
I asked Mika why the Sakura is so important to the Japanese. It’s because its flowers bloom and then, after a week or so at most, they’re gone -and then back again after a year. Beauty, impermanence and then, renewal: these are what the Sakura trees stand for.

 

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.”

 

weather in kochi ino signage
Dramatic weather on our way to Ino, another district in Kochi about fifteen minutes away.
registering for washi making ino
Registering for the papermaking class at QRAUD in Ino.

 

 

sofie makes paper
Sofie and I make some first-class Tosa washi. The fibers of the washi come from a plant unique to Kochi…upon which an extraordinary amount of hard manual labor had already been applied, long before we came in.
sofie washi 5
Sofie presses some fresh flower petals onto her washi.
mika ayumi washi 4
Batik-designed washi.

ayumi solo 4

sof and me washi

sof me holding washi
Loving Sofie’s washi. She was going to write on one to give to her best friend back home!
ayumi mika sof and me holding our washi 3
Holding up our beautiful washi, underneath amazingly lifelike wooden bird carvings, in gorgeous rainy weather. Heartburst.
alon sof playing with cat
Crazy about cats…
signage of second resto stop in kochi
The name of the ramen house where we had lunch!
me at ramen resto in kochi
Ramen, to be eaten with fried rice, was the specialty. Not for the calorie-minded!

 

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.

sof and me at natural museum

yokugorohama natural museum

meteorite
Alien rocks: the museum is home to several pieces of rare meteorite.

ayumi and alon natural museum

 

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!

dole bananas in kochi grocery
A much more hardcore traveler than us: Philippine bananas all the way from Davao!

 

ryoma on eggs
Sakamoto Ryoma, one of Japan’s national heroes, was born in Kochi…and is ready to be eaten anytime!

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.

 

sinigang
Sinigang na Hipon. Look at how pretty the radish and shrimps look – not to mention yummy as well!

 

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.

bridge in kochi

warehouses kochi

kochi observatory view
A view of Kochi from the Mt. Godaisan observatory. Kochi is actually the sister city of our very own Benguet.
kochi city overlook from door
Kochi has been immortalized in the Studio Ghibli film Ocean Waves.
sofie talks to japanese
Sofie with her tita Mika and a friendly Japanese couple.
mika sof me kochi observatory
We’ve all come a long way from home!
me mika and pilgrims on stairs chikurin
On our way up Chikurin Temple.
alon with statue chikurin
Alon keeps a god company.

 

bonsai park godaisan
Bonsai garden.
strange tree at godaisan
What a tree!
grave markers
Grave markers.

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.

hairpin USA beach

biking along USA beach
Bikers enjoying the view of Usa beach.

 

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.

lobster

alon grilling squid

 

closeup seafood grill

sofie selfie with mika alon at katsurahama lunch
Sofie takes a selfie!

group photo hagi no chaya

 

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.

alon blue dragon
Alon, looking very tiny below the steps of Blue Dragon Temple.
us with pilgrim blue dragon or chikurin
Talking to a pilgrim.
sof usa beach closeup
Sofie at Usa beach.

 

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.

me and mika backs sea viewdeck

whale sighting signage

robert sea viewdeck kochi
Everywhere I point, I see nothing but beauty, remarked the husband, whose love of photography was instantly rekindled during this trip.

feral cat with view kochi

kite 5

kochi sea view 3

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.

family pic with mika at masas

 

singing again at masas
Me singing Yuki No Hana in acapella. My Japanese friends were quite impressed. Even Masa’s son had to do a double take. My enunciation was spot on, they remarked. Woohoo! Success! Arigato!

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.


 

Dear Reader,

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:

http://www.japanpolicyforum.jp/archives/discussions/pt20100930163209.html

 

 

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