Kochi is situated sort of in the middle of the southern coast of Shikoku Island, and getting there from the main island of Honshu requires a memorable crossing of the Seto Inland Sea via the Great Seto Bridge. Opened in 1988, the two-tiered bridge is an enormous 13.1km long (world's longest), and boasts capacity for 4 lanes of traffic on the upper deck and 4 lanes of trains on the lower deck (although only housing 2 train lines currently). It took 10 years to eventually be completed, using 2,000 construction companies and a staggering 13 million workers at a cost of US$7 billion dollars. However, the planning began as early as 1959 when a safer alternative to ferries was sought following the loss of 171 lives in a 1955 fog-covered wreck. For whatever reason it exists, to me it is an amazing engineering feat considering not only can it withstand typhoons and earthquakes, but one particularly problematic section of road is 93m above sea level to avoid any pesky fog. The Japanese do NOT do anything in halves...
While Shikoku Island may be the least visited of any of the 4 main islands of Japan, the sparsely populated lush landscapes and cloud-encrusted mountains offer a memorable and welcome change from cityscapes and agricultural fields. The train line snakes its way alongside rivers, occasionally carving its way through a badly positioned mountain where necessary - easily my favourite of the many train rides I've taken in Japan.
The southern coast is seasonally battered by its fair share of typhoons, which is precisely why my mate James (aka "Thrillsy") made it his city of choice while teaching English in Japan. You see, aside from the advantage of very surfable waves Kochi is not exactly known for much else. Considered one of the poorest areas of Japan, he assured me it was (in)famous for the highest rates of alcoholism and wife beating. Nice.
In an effort to make the most of my couple of days there, I consulted the "Tourism Office" at the main train station, but discovered my usual query of "what are the main attractions here?" only returned blank stares. Thinking it was a language barrier I tried again with a few more hand gestures but the lady interrupted me - "I understand, but I'm just thinking". Hmmm, surely she might have had this question before? Indeed, it seemed apart from a great map she was unable to offer more than "Kochi Castle, Kochi Castle!".
And so, checking out Kochi Castle and just generally walking the streets seemed to be the go. After already having had my fair share of castle saturation I was less than enthused... until I heard that Kochi Castle is unique! Intrigued, I investigated further to find that, get this, it is the only castle in Japan where you can see the front gate and the castle at the same time! Wow! I could hardly believe it! The main shopping mall was not particularly unique however - a long stretch of undercover shops much like in every other city. While it was disappointing to see that the McDonald's was easily the busiest "restaurant" around (mostly school kids), it was refreshing to see a crack squad of bike straighteners sweep through the mall... straightening people's parked bikes up! There were also some hot mall cop chicks spreading the message of mall safety and enforcing the "walk your bike" rule.
Catching up with James - now complete with new wife Erina and baby boy Kaito - was an enjoyable and informative time. It was clear he hadn't shed his "Thrillsy" ways (most memorable for me from our Indonesia tour of duty in 2001), as he was still nursing a floating rib after an awesome snowboarding stack and as often as possible would head to the coast during a typhoon while the rest of the population headed the other way. His Japanese phrase for me was "momi momi onagaishimas" (more-or-less "can I touch your breasts"), but otherwise his language skills seemed to be coming along nicely. I learned how to make Tapuyaki, a sort of grilled cheeseball containing an octopus surprise inside, and heard all about the national pastime of "love hotels". Apparently cheating on your spouse is almost accepted practice here, so special themed hotels without lobbies are available to facilitate anonymous meetings.
For a truly Japanese experience we headed to an amazing onsen hot bath via a very green and scenic coastal road. At times along the road we would spot devout pilgrims on their journey to visit the famed 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku, as has been done for around 1,000 years. It is believed all eighty-eight temples were visited by the famous Buddhist monk Kukai, who was born in Zentsuji, Shikoku in 774. However, Kukai only mentions visiting two of them in his own extant writings. The pilgrimage is traditionally completed on foot, but modern pilgrims will use cars, taxis, buses, bicycles, or motorcycles. The walking course is approximately 1,200km long, can take anywhere from 30 to 60 days to complete, and can be completed in any order.
It had decided to piss down with rain but this actually enhanced the experience of getting naked and sitting around outside in a steaming hot water rock pool, as it provided the pleasant contrast of cool rain from above. Before getting in the water we were required to first rinse ourselves thoroughly, and to cover up with a small towel we were given. The male and female onsens were separate in this case (and most commonly), but apparently sometimes are combined. Being partway up a mountain, the outside pool area offered a great view of a nearby bay, complete with clouds rolling in to at times envelop us completely. Overall the experience is relaxing and tranquil - talking is not banned but is at a minimum out of respect for others, and there was even a freezing cold pool for those wishing to mix it up a little. No photos of this area unfortunately, due to privacy of other patrons.
Making an early start from Hiroshima I once again flashed my Rail Pass and jumped on the Shinkansen - this time for Kochi, via Okayama. It is unbelievable to be able to book the two tickets with only a 20 minute stop-off in between - just enough time to get to the next platform, and simply not possible to do when flying.