The fire is supposed to be searing my skipjack tuna, but I feel as if it’s my cheeks that are cooking instead.
Turning away from the intense heat, I extend my arm as far as it can go while still keeping my speared hunk of fish in the flames. The young employee manning the grill at Tosa Tataki Dojo — a restaurant complex on the fringe of Kochi city in southern Shikoku — stokes the fire with yet another armload of straw and gestures for me to flip my fish. I brace myself for the wave of heat and mentally count down the last few seconds of this scorching yet quintessential Kochi experience.
The Kuroshio current that runs just a few kilometers from my lunch locale brings the meaty skipjack tuna to Kochi’s shores. This oceanic phenomenon has made katsuo, the Japanese name for the species, one of Kochi’s biggest industries. Raw, seared, dried and shaved into the flakes known as bonito that are used in nearly every preparation of dashi (broth) around the country, there seems to be no wrong way to consume the famed fish. While I’ve already picked up my obligatory bag of bonito at Tosa’s adjacent shop, I’m keen to try a fresher version for my main meal.
Thankfully, the best tataki (sliced and in this case lightly seared fish) takes no more than a minute or two, and at the young man’s signal, I gratefully escape the flames and heave over my lunch to his white-haired colleague at a nearby cutting board. Deftly, he carves off a half-dozen thick slices of fish and grins at me to select my toppings. Green onions, white onions, garlic raw enough to make you cry, sea salt and a wedge of the local citrus all get loaded onto my plate. I choose a place at the counter against a wall plastered with what I assume to be the signatures of national celebrities.
They’ve all tasted Kochi’s most prized product and now, as the first bite of slightly smoky yet delightfully chewy tuna mixes with my saliva and the ponzu (citrusy sauce) I dribbled over top at the last second, so have I.
Kochi sits in the cradle of the southern coast of Shikoku, a city of waving palms and welcoming people. In the Edo Period (1603-1868), it was one of the nation’s most isolated cities, a last port of call before the relative unknown of the Pacific. These days, Kochi is well connected to Japan’s largest cities by air, and yet it’s not exactly the pivot around which travelers in Japan turn. Only the intrepid adventurer seems to make it this far.
This trip marks my first time in Kochi as well, but I’m game to seek out something beyond the typically touted highlights of Kochi Castle — one of the original dozen fortresses left in Japan — and the sights surrounding the life of Ryoma Sakamoto. It seems Sakamoto, the shogun-overthrowing statesman from the mid-19th century, has monuments everywhere in his native Kochi. His face, however, is conspicuously absent from the grounds of the Makino Botanical Garden, a short drive away on the slopes of Mount Godai.
Rather, the local man on the pedestal here — quite literally, as his statue looms over the tulip beds in the south garden — is botanist Tomitaro Makino. Born just outside Kochi in 1862, Makino launched the Botanical Magazine Tokyo, amazingly still in print today, and authored the well-regarded and oft-consulted “Flora of Japan” in 1940. During his lifetime, he traveled widely around the archipelago and is credited with naming over 1,500 endemic species of plants.
What Makino would have thought of his eponymous garden is unknown; he died a year before it opened. I’d like to think he would have been as delighted with it as I am, unable to keep from nearly crowing aloud when each turn in the path reveals yet another scene straight out of a watercolor painting. Tulips, hyacinths, phlox. I dredge up the names from a childhood spent living with an amateur gardener, though the small panels bearing bilingual scientific names assist a bit.
In the spring, the garden’s sakura (cherry blossom) grove is an understandable highlight, though the puffy pink blooms are in no way the only stars of the show. Rather, everything seems to flow together like a river of paint splotches. Impressionist genius Claude Monet himself would have been hard-pressed to come up with a prettier scene.
When a biting breeze sweeps over the hilltop, I find the perfect refuge in the steamy interior of the garden’s glassed-in conservatory. Stone paths twist through the jungle-like environment and orchids sprout from hanging branches. A few tables are tucked invitingly near a series of waterfalls and it’s tempting to spend the rest of the afternoon here in the recreated tropics.
Compared to the riotous hues of the botanical garden, the mossy grounds of nearby Chikurinji Temple feel highly subdued. White is the predominant color here, mostly sported by visiting pilgrims eager to tick off temple No. 31 of Shikoku’s famed 88-temple circuit. Founded in 724, Chikurinji’s unassuming main hall still dates from 1644. The temple is traditionally popular with students appealing to the spirits for academic success, though none seem to be around today to petition for better grades.
I wander through the massive entrance gate and up the hill to the five-story pagoda, a modern structure just a few decades old, before doubling back to enter the main hall. A porch along the back of the building would be ideal for lingering over the views of the temple’s traditional garden but my appetite gets the better of me. Elevating earthly concerns over spiritual ones, I retreat to my car and set off in search of food.
A slightly convoluted one-way road system sees me descending to the foot of Mount Godai before returning to its heights again for a visit to the mountain’s observatory. It’s worth the roundabout travel route simply for the stunning views over the entire city and the mountains that soar up behind it. A cement viewing platform juts out from the main building, making me feel like I’m cavorting with the clouds. One level down in Cafe Panorama, I sate my hunger pangs with a slice of dense pear cake and a steaming cup of cocoa. Installing myself at the counter that runs along the cafe’s picture windows, I nurse my beverage for as long as I can, drinking in the amazing view as well. Below, I can just make out the silhouette of Kochi Castle in the crowded urban blocks of the city center. While I won’t neglect a visit to its grounds tomorrow, the peaks beyond are beckoning as well.
This might be the outer edge of Japan in some minds, but I prefer to consider it the gateway to a host of new adventures.
While central Kochi is easily navigated on foot or by tram, the My-Yu tourist bus that leaves from outside Kochi Station makes stops at both Mount Godai and far-flung Katsurahama Beach. An all-day pass costs ¥1,000. From the beach, you can either walk or catch a taxi to Tosa Tataki Dojo. Grilling (and eating) your own portion of skipjack tuna is an excellent deal at ¥1,200.
The birthplace of kids’ favorite bread man
You don’t have to be a kid to appreciate Kochi’s commitment to honoring Takashi Yanase, the Kochi-born creator of Anpanman. This revered manga artist’s characters can be found everywhere in the city — emblazoned on the sides of trams, as bronze statues sitting next to you on public benches and as mosaics adorning the walls of the downtown district. Kochi Station even plays the Anpanman theme song over the loudspeaker when certain local trains arrive.
True fans shouldn’t miss a visit to the Anpanman museum, located a 40-minute drive east of Kochi city in the tiny town of Kami. The main exhibition boasts vintage posters, oil paintings of the series’ main characters and dozens of original pen-and-ink drawings. On the ground floor, wander through a recreation of Anpanman’s creator and baker Uncle Jam’s kitchen or villain Baikinman’s underground lair. A miniature village sporting the entire cast of characters gives visitors an excellent overview of the world Yanase created. Outside, youngsters can burn off some steam at the Anpanman-themed playground, in the shadow of a statue of this beloved childhood hero.