Netted by the charms of fishy Kochi

by Chris Bamforth

Arched around the underbelly of Shikoku and following the great indentation of Tosa Bay carved into that island by the Pacific, Kochi Prefecture is one of those places over which a sense of isolation has long seemed to hang.

At one time, the impenetrable mountains of central Shikoku meant that Tosa (Kochi’s old provincial name) was approachable only by sea. Traveling there from the then-capital Kyoto was an arduous, hazardous business through pirate-infested waters.

While the worst that modern travelers have to face on the flight to the prefectural capital of Kochi might be a nasty spot of turbulence, it’s clear upon arriving in this subtropical southern city of palm-flanked avenues that they’ve reached a different sort of Japan.

Part of Kochi’s climatic warmth derives from those nearby Pacific waters. Along the southern coast of Shikoku flows Japan’s largest ocean current, the Kuroshio (Black Stream), the culprit responsible, partly at least, for the all-too-familiar mugginess of the Japanese summer. But the Kuroshio also provides Japan with some of its most fertile fishing grounds, and it is along the Kuroshio that the katsuo (skipjack tuna — usually inaccurately translated in English as bonito) migrates. The katsuo ascend the Kuroshio in spring and return in autumn, which is when, as returning katsuo (modori-gatsuo), they have their finest flavor. The traditional method of catching the fish is the ecologically sound, greatly strenuous method of ippon-zuri, the picturesque technique whereby 5-kg fish are yanked straight out of the water by fishermen hefting 4-meter poles. Katsuo is a central feature of the assorted seafood dish sawachi-ryori, and those who eat it may have a job trying to recall having had a more satisfying meal in Japan. The only drawback with sawachi-ryori is that politically correct diners need to be careful in picking out the frequent chunks of whale meat (all the fruit of scientific research, you understand).

Tataki is the favored way of eating katsuo, which involves searing the outer flesh slightly before consuming it as sashimi — typically flavored by thick slices of garlic. The traditional way of searing the fish involves holding it over a great fire of burning straw. This crowd-pleasing method can be viewed in the always-lively market that starts near Kochi’s landmark red bridge Harimayabashi. Cooking really doesn’t come much more pyrotechnically spectacular. Also somewhat spectacular in the market are the astoundingly cheap prices Kochi people pay for their fish — with a meter-long torpedo of yellowtail going for 1,000 yen.

Standing a short distance from the market is the city’s best-known building Kochi Castle. Compared with some grand bastions around Japan, Kochi Castle is a dainty affair. But size isn’t everything with castles. Kochi’s castle is no latter-day concrete reconstruction, but thoroughly authentic, and it does manage to exert a statuesque grandeur even though its dimensions lean toward the pint size. Just 49 meters above sea level, it doesn’t tower over the town in the Kafkaesque fashion of many hill castles, but it does lend a strong historical focus to Kochi.

Kochi’s inhabitants are as proud of their most famous son, Ryoma Sakamoto, as their castle. Indeed, it’s hard to walk down a street in Kochi without seeing Ryoma’s name or photo depicting his scowling features adorning some business or product. Ryoma owes his fame to the fact that he was one of the prime movers in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which saw the ditching of the shoguns who had ruled since the early 17th century.

Ryoma never lived to see the result of his labors, though, since he was assassinated shortly before Emperor Meiji came to power. Those who want to get the full story on the man behind the scowl should go to Katsurahama, a half-hour bus ride outside the city, where the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum is housed in a stunning modern building, executed in bold colors and an unusual, cantilever design. There, the visitor can leisurely leaf through the 1,500 books written about the man and see a model of the Smith & Wesson he was as fond of brandishing as his samurai sword. You can also see the blood-spattered folding screen from the Kyoto inn where 32-year-old Ryoma met his end at the hands of an assassin.

Overlooking a beach near the museum stands a large statue of Ryoma, who, staring like a visionary into the middle distance and with his hand tucked purposefully into his kimono, looks like a cross between Che Guevara and Napoleon. The statue is the de rigueur sight for all visitors to Katsurahama, as it is the de rigueur photo backdrop for those arriving on a group tour.

The crescent-shaped pebbly beach is well known as a local beauty spot and, despite the inevitable crowds drawn to such places, retains its charm, ending as it does in a shrine on a small promontory surmounted by pines.

Here, and everywhere around Kochi, it’s hard not to like the people you encounter. They have a friendly, ebullient nature and are keen to aid a stranger they suspect may need a little help. Part of that conviviality is seen in their remarkable fondness for the sake that they do such a good job of brewing — and that part of their character is also hard to dislike. All in all, they seem comfortably content to be that little bit divorced from the mainstream of things.