During September’s Silver Week I had the pleasure of travelling to Shikoku for the first time. My mission was to explore Kochi Prefecture for three days courtesy of the Japan Explorer Pass with Japan Airlines – an affordable and convenient way to travel all around Japan for a flat fare of 10,800 yen. Japan Airlines (JAL) operates five flights to Kochi every day from Tokyo Haneda, and with the Explorer Pass, you’ll be flying in style at a bargain price.
Now I’m here to give you ten of the best reasons why you need to book this little-known prefecture into your travel schedule asap.
1. There are outdoor activities galore
Kochi has so many adventure sports and outdoor activities that even a couch potato like me was tempted into the sun. GoodRiver were kind enough to give me canoeing lessons, part of their River Cruise program, on the clear blue waters of the Niyodogawa River in Central/Eastern Kochi. Hardcore water babies can try the whitewater rafting too. Other activities such as kayaking, snorkeling and canyoning are all specialities of Western Kochi. For those concerned about having English speaking guides, Happy Raft is a Kochi-based company owned by an Australian.
2. The food is fresh, cheap and downright delicious
Fish caught that morning usually ends up on your plate by noon. Grapes, in season when I visited, were not only plump and juicy, but could be bought for 300 yen a batch at markets alongside other locally grown fruit and vegetables.
One of the oldest markets in Japan (with more than 300 years history) takes place every Sunday outside the gates of Kochi Castle and extends down Otesuji Avenue. Get there early to make the most of the freshest and cheapest bargains. It should also be noted that Kochi does cafe culture even better than the capital does (in my opinion!). During my stay I tried freshly caught local pike and pasta dishes (amongst others) made with ingredients grown on nearby farms.
3. You’re gonna have a whale of a time
Who would pass up on the opportunity to go whale and dolphin watching? From Usa Shiokaze Park in Tosa, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures from April to late-October (weather depending). Tours normally last for 5 hours at a cost of 6000 yen for adults. More info and inquiries can be found on the Usa Whale Watching Association’s website.
4. You can go stamp crazy with the Ryoma Pass
Kochi Visitors & Convention Association have come up with a fun initiative for tourists to get the most out of their stay. The Ryoma Pass is named after Kochi’s most famous resident, Ryoma Sakamoto, and allows you to collect stamps in a passport-inspired book from various local attractions or shops. The more stamps you collect; the better discounts you can get around the city. Get yours at JR Kochi Station’s Tourism Information Centre.
5. Indiana Jones can move over, there’s a new explorer in town
Whatever the weather, exploring the 150 million-year-old limestone caves at Ryugadou will make you feel like Indiana Jones. Huge stalactite structures will tower over you while a stream runs through the cave and bursts at intervals out of one of the numerous majestic waterfalls. A 2-hour adventure course is also on offer for avid explorers. For more information on how to book a course in advance (normal tickets can be purchased on the day), check out JAL’s Guide.
6. There’s a castle in the sky
Overlooking the city of Kochi is one of only 12 surviving castles in Japan that date back to the 1600s and before. Take one of the city’s trams to Kochijo-mae tram stop (15 minutes from Kochi Station) and walk through the beautifully restored battlements. Exhibits showing its history can be found within the castle itself but travellers will soon have access to a brand-new museum opening in March 2017. The castle is open daily from 9am to 5pm (except over the New Year’s holiday period.)
7. You’ll reach enlightenment
Shikoku’s 88 Temple Pilgrimage is famed throughout Japan and the trail runs all through Kochi’s spectacular mountains and along its dramatic coast. Taking about 3-4 weeks on average to complete is maybe too long for the average traveller but you can sample being “Ohenro” (the term used for pilgrims) by renting the equipment from the Nankoku City Tourist Association for a very reasonable 2500 yen for up to 8 days (you pay the same amount whether you borrow for one or more days). From the city centre, temples 29 to 31 make an idyllic walking tour of the region. Be ready to be spurred on by locals and fellow ohenro who make a great effort to cheer you on during your journey.
8. The museums are excellent
Museums in Kochi offer so much more than the standard carefully-curated affair. Take the Yosakoi Museum and Ekin Museum for example. One tells the history of a vibrant dance tradition (originating in Kochi) and also runs workshops that allow you to make your own naruko – wooden clappers used by the dancers to create that hypnotic beat. The other exhibits the macabre paintings of Ekin, the Edo-period artist famous for his representations of the gruesome reality of samurai battles and demonic happenings of Japanese folklore.
9. Glory-hallelujah views await
Botanical gardens, panoramic views of the Shikoku coastline over lunch and impressive temple complexes: Godaisan has it all. Chikurin-ji Temple is number 31 of the 88 Shikoku Temple Pilgrimage and is associated with academic success. The elegant five-story pagoda can be viewed peeking through the forest canopy for miles around.
The Makino Botanical Gardens are home for over 3000 species of flora and fauna – I saw my first ever hummingbird here – and can take an entire afternoon to walk around if you also visit the quaint museum dedicated to the man who started it all, botanist Tomitaro Makino.
10. It’s easy to make friends with the locals
Kochi locals enjoy their reputation of having a good time and Hirome Market (Hirome Ichiba) is the place to be on a Saturday afternoon. The drinks are flowing and the food is sizzling as early as 1pm in this huge open-planned izakaya. Different shops and stalls have set up here, an eclectic mix also represented in the customers it attracts. Locals are much more friendly than they are in the big cities so grab some gyoza and a pint of beer – time to start making friends!
There’s never been a better time to head off the beaten path and visit Kochi before everyone else catches on to how awesome it is. Plus, it’s so comfortable and cheap to reach with the Japan Explorer Pass that you practically need to go.
So what are you waiting for? Go on. Do it. You know you want to.