With the borders reopening after years of waiting, the number of visitors showing up at major sightseeing spots around Japan is increasing. After having had usually-crowded places like Sensoji Temple or Kiyomizudera to oneself, this sudden return to "business as usual" can be a shock.
So why not head a little further afield, to Kochi Prefecture on the little island of Shikoku, and discover the beauty and peace of this still-relatively untrodden path?
Ride the Sleeper Train to Shikoku
Often casual visitors think that reaching Japan's smallest main island is difficult, but a bit of pro knowledge can easily help resolve those doubts. There are regular domestic flights to Kochi Airport… however, this is a bit boring.
The journey itself should be part of the experience, and the Sunrise Seto sleeper train (one of the few remaining in Japan, and is even covered by the JR Pass) is just that. For just a little more than a regular bullet train ticket (and less than a plane ticket) you can book a private room, and travel in comfort all the way from Tokyo Station to Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture, where you can switch to the Dosan Line that takes you straight to Kochi via the glorious scenery of Oboke and Koboke, or spend a few hours explore the Ritsurin Garden or climbing the 1368 Steps to mighty Kotohira Shrine.
Explore the Sights and Flavors of Kochi City
Whenever possible, I recommend spending Sunday morning in Kochi City, so hopping on the 21:50 sleeper train from Tokyo on Saturday will give you plenty of time to get to the city in time for the Sunday Market, which has been a fixture on the city's social calendar for over 300 years. It is also the longest street market in Japan, stretching over 1.3km from the foot of Kochi Castle. The hyper-local feel and availability of unique street foods is the draw here, so make sure to bring your appetite!
Join the swiftly moving line at the fragrant imoten stall, where you will walk away with a bag of fluffy, perfectly fried sweet potato tempura bites. Peruse the stalls run by friendly farmers, until you find a grandmotherly figure selling inaka sushi, an only-in-Kochi variety of Japan's most iconic dish, featuring nigiri of pickled vegetables on pillows of rice flavored with yuzu citrus. The imo mochi (soft dumplings made with sweet potato), hot and cold drinks made with spicy Tosa ginger and grilled sticks of locally raised beef, among dozens of other tempting treats, compete for your attention.
Can't make it on Sunday? Then pop into the Obiyamachi shopping arcades and get your caffeine fix at Mephistopheles, where you can enjoy Kochi's tradition of "morning sets" with plenty of fresh bread, hearty soups and eggs to start your day in a whimsical atmosphere.
Once you feel full, or want to make a little room for a second round, head up to Kochi Castle, which is particularly gorgeous in the spring when the cherry blossoms as the base bloom in pink and white. Dating back to the 17th century, it is the only castle in Japan where the original castle tower and main keep are still intact, and it is one of only 12 original castles in the country. Go inside and climb up to the top to take in the details of the castle architecture, and say hello to the statues of legendary shachi sea creatures (half fish, half dragon), gazing down on the city from the roof.
A 15 minute walk back down the market, beneath the palm trees, takes you to Harimayabashi (look for the tiny red bridge), where the My-Yu Bus stops regularly, taking visitors to nearby Mt. Godai. Besides overlooking the city, with its many shining waterways, this small peak is also home to two of Kochi City's major claims to fame.
The first is Chikurin-ji Temple, which is the 31st stop on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage. It was established in 724 and the name literally means the "bamboo temple," which is apt as after climbing the tall stone steps, you are welcomed into a garden of thick moss, a rather magical prelude to the main temple and soaring red pagoda. During the fall and spring make sure you spring for a ticket to see the 14th-century garden, a National Place of Scenic Beauty that is very much like some of Kyoto's most photogenic spots, without the loud crowds of the ancient capital.
The second must-visit is right next door: the Makino Botanical Garden, a 6-hectare marvel of looping paths that honor local son Dr. Tomitaro Makino, the "father of Japanese botany," featuring 3000 different types of plants. Be sure to check the re-creation of Makino's office in the elegant rounded buildings before exploring the grounds, including the greenhouse that has a touch of Laputa to it.
Into the Lush River Valley in Kubokawa
You can stay overnight in Kochi City, where we recommend the Joseikan (particularly for the special button in the baths, which briefly allows you to light up Kochi Castle!) or head straight on to Kubokawa, one hour west on a scenic Dosan Line train ride.
Located along the pure Shimanto, Japan's last undammed river, this quiet little town with retro buildings and a surprising number of sweet shops is an ideal base for a retreat, thanks to the presence of Iwamoto-ji Temple, the 37th temple on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage.
It is also the most artistic temple you may ever see, as the grounds (and one of the shukubo temple lodging rooms) are decorated with pop art by creator SHETA, and the ceiling of the main hall is bright with 575 paintings that run the gamut from Buddhist figures to cats, buffalo, cabbages and even a portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Despite being founded in the 8th century, the temple has a distinctly open and modern bent, which is also clear in the meditation experiences they offer to visitors.
During clear days during the warmer months, the priest will lead you in meditation sessions held in the Shimanto River. The feel of the clean water running by and the quiet, punctuated only by the sounds of the river and birds, help make achieving a serene mind much easier, even for those who usually have difficulty with the practice.
Afterwards treat yourself to a warm drink and a traditional wagashi sweet at Kominka Café Hanpei, a 120-year old house that has been prettily restored and has large windows overlooking the gardens. Stay overnight to enjoy the blissful quiet, either at the simple accommodation at Iwamoto-ji Temple, or splurge a little to stay in the glossy wooden embrace of the Ki no Hotel, the newest annex of the historic Mima Ryokan.
In the morning, rent an e-bike from the tourism information center, and take a peaceful ride down to the Ittohyo Chinkabashi, one of the submersible bridges that are so iconic. Pick up a couple pieces of chiffon cake from the vending machine outside the Oyatsu Kobo Aru cake shop as a snack, and head along the Shimanto River, staying on the side where Kataoka Shrine is located.
The farming roads are flat and almost completely free of traffic, lined with pretty traditional houses, rice fields and the occasional little shop or noodle shop, which has made this route a long favorite of long-distance bikers. You feel yourself disappearing into the Ghibli-esque landscape, and in under an hour will be at the little bridge which, due to its railless design, also doesn't get in the way of enjoying the glowing emerald and blue hues of the pure Shimanto.
Once you have meandered your way back to Kubokawa, don't forget to stop by the tiny, retro Hiromido sweets shop, for a reward of one of their delicious 110 yen choux creme.
In the Footsteps of Samurai in Aki
However, river valleys and meditation do not appeal to all, so if you are looking for something a bit different, about one hour east of Kochi City by train you will find the former castle town of Aki.
The ride goes quickly thanks to the views of the Pacific Ocean, and before you know it you arrive at Aki Station, where you can rent a bike to start exploring. Head to the enclosures of the castle ruins, and wander through the Doi Kachu area, where the lanes are lined with the houses of samurai who served the lord of the castle. The traditional houses and attractive bamboo walls look like they haven't changed for centuries.
Nearby is the Nora Dokei field clock, the unofficial symbol of Aki. The four-faced clock was completed in the 1880s and created by Genma Hatakenaka, a landowner who disassembled and reassembled an American-made clock countless times until he was able to recreate the mechanisms. The wooden clock tower rises above an attractive private home, which also has a charming café where you can try the local specialty chirimen don: tiny, freshly-caught whitebait lightly dried using an iron pot, served on top of a warm bowl of rice. With a delicate flavor, even folks who aren't usually keen on seafood are likely to enjoy this dish.
Uchiharano Park is about 3 km from the samurai district and is well-worth the ride. It was once part of the Goto family's gardens, who were retainers of the powerful Tosa domain that ruled over modern-day Kochi. The garden is thought to have been established between 1673 to 1680. In April 15,000 pink and red azaleas bloom around the park and lake, and in the spring the cherry trees are also a sight to behold. In early summer you can find ponds full of irises, later followed by wisteria.
Before hopping on the train back to Kochi City, which departs about once per hour, get a cone of only-in-Aki roasted eggplant-flavored ice cream at the shop below the station.
From Kochi you can head to your next destination in Shikoku, or perhaps head back toward the mainland to explore Okayama and the Kansai region. But the peaceful nature and feeling of timelessness in Kochi are sure to stay with you for a long time.
Want to know more? Head over to: www.visitkochijapan.com