She was still smiling, but now had a new confused expression on her face. I sensed her hand tightening on my documents. ‘But why there? How do you know these places? Who told you about them?’ she asked, intrigued.
I reminded myself this was customs, not immigration, and it was surely more curiosity than concern. I laughed, somewhat nervously, and explained how I love exploring the lesser visited parts of the country. Being Japan, the smile never faded, and she handed back my forms and waved me on my way to get my connecting flight to Kochi. Away from the bustle of Tokyo, Kochi is a land of nature, a land of green and blue. Home to epic pilgrimages of beautiful temples, water-sport adventures, traditional Japanese experiences, lots of hidden gems and a wellness destination in its own right.
If you are looking for a more authentic side of Japan, with plenty of mother natures finest work thrown in, here is a guide to plan a visit to the region, that can easily keep you entertained for more than a week!
Top things to do in Kochi Prefecture
The Kochi Prefecture can be broken down in to various regions, but to keep it simple, here I’ve detailed it as North, Central, City and South. The capital of the Prefecture is also known as Kochi, which can make things confusing, and while there is public transport, a car will help if you want to pack plenty of the below into your trip. Check my ‘getting around’ advice below to further plan your trip.
The capital of the region, Kochi City is a relatively compact city, and you can explore the highlights in one day.
There is a reason this Castle, one of around a hundred in Japan, is so unique. Once upon a time, some five thousand castles could be found across the country, and Kōchi Castle is one of the best-preserved you can find here nowadays. Construction of the Castle dates back to 1601, but following a tragic fire that near destroyed it, it was fully restored to all its glory during the Edo period.
Kochi Castle Museum of History
Sitting just across from the castle itself is the Museum of History, where you’ll learn all about the prefecture and the Tosa rule.
Yosakoi dance centre (and festival)
Every August the city of Kochi comes alive for the Yasakoi dance festival with some 300 groups performing to crowds of thousands. The streets and corners of the city are taken over, as competitions to crown the best play out on domestic news channels.
Dating back to 1954, the festival was a chance to bring everyone together after a painful time. It’s blossomed and grown over the years, and now takes place worldwide, although it originals hail from Kochi. Elaborate costumes and well-rehearsed routines are more significant and bolder than when the festival first started, but the rules remain the same.
The dance must use the Naruko, a type of clapper within the dance. The music can be as wished but must include part of the original song. Also, a vehicle acting as a float must accompany the group playing the music. The dance groups can be up to 150-strong, and this makes for a flurry of colour and music over the days the event runs.
If you don’t visit Kochi during the festival, but want to learn more about the Yosakoi, a brand new museum is now open, and although a lot of the information isn’t in English, guides can help, or you can just have a go at the dance in the ‘classroom’, see the bright costumes, and watch performance videos from years gone by.
Museum & Festival Info | On foot
Sunday Market (and fried sweet potato)
If you find yourself in Kochi on a Sunday morning be sure to visit the Sunday Market, which runs along the length of one of Kochi City main streets, with the traffic diverted. Here you’ll find some small gifts, but it it is mainly a local farmers market serving food and drink. Be sure to try the local specialities, the ginger ale and the delicious fried sweet potato snacks, they will be worth the wait in line for.
The hub of evening activity in Kochi is the lively Hirome Market. The people of Kochi love to drink, and they have some very cool drinking games to prove it. Here you’ll find everything from region to national dishes, in both cheaper, street food style, and more fancy table service restaurants.
This beautiful temple is on of the 88 on the island wide pilgrimage, and if you’re lucky, like I was, you’ll encounter one of these groups of pilgrims in their conical hats and white outfits here. The temple itself is a red, five-tier pagoda, set amongst the stunning setting of colourful trees and peaceful park.
Makino Botanical Gardens
Located just next to the temple are the Makino Botanical Gardens, a tranquil place and being not far from the airport, a good place to stop off before your flight out of Kochi if you have some spare time.
Kochi Prefecture – North
Mainly defined by farm lands and the striking rock formations of Muroto Global Geo-park, the north of Kochi Prefecture is a place to relax, embrace the ocean, and pamper yourself.
Just off the side of the road is Ioki Cave, and you could very easily miss it. Park up at the little car-park where you’ll be able to don some Wellington Boots before crossing the road and disappearing into a different world. A short walk through the open rock face will bring you to little waterfalls, bamboo trees, and lush vegetation – almost unbelievable given its road side location!
Utoco Deep Sea Therapy Centre and Spa
See below in the ‘Hotel’ section – but this is one of the most relaxing and beautiful resorts I’ve ever stayed in!
Muroto Global Geopark
The Muroto Global Geopark is UNESCO listed and this beautiful space of green trees meeting dramatic coastline is best explored on foot or by bicylces. Thousands of years of ocean activity has developed condensed rocks in all sorts of patterns, and between this nature and the wellness resorts, it’s a perfect ‘get away from it all’ kinda place.
Another stop on the island wide pilgrimage, from Hotsumisakiji you get some breathtaking views over the ocean and Muroto Geopark, head to the nearby lighthouse to really take it in. Inside the temple are a few wooden structures, including the bell rung by those on the pilgrimage which the caretaker allowed me to ring. It’s a very peaceful and spiritual spot amongst nature.
Sea House Restaurant
This beautiful restaurant is quite simple inside with its menu, but the glass and metal box of a restaurant hanging over the cliffside provides incredible views in all direction, including down, to the silver sands and blues of the ocean. Great for Instagram, bad for vertigo!
Location | Car or nearest station: Nishibun Train station and a short walk along the coast
One of the coolest ways to get around the North of Kochi where the train lines run are the open-sided trains. It should be noted only a couple of services a day run with the open-sided trains, so be sure to get the correct information and timings for the day. You’ll board and sit as normal, but once the train is moving, you are able to step onto the deck and breath in the ocean breeze, just be prepared for the tunnels to destroy your ears!
More Info | Various boarding points along the coast
Ekin Museum (and festival)
The Ekin Museum offers an insight into the artwork and life of Hirose Kinzō (also known as Ekin), a disgraced official painter whose career turning into something quite interesting after his royal downfall. Ekin was born into a working-class family in Kochi but eventually wound up as a head painter for the important family at the height of the Tosa Domain. He was accused of forging work, and fired from his role, then disappearing from the public eye for ten years.
Eventually, he reappeared with this very unique, and sometimes quite disturbing artworks, projecting multiple scenes from one story onto one large canvas.
While copies of the works can be seen in the museum year-round, In July, a festival takes place on the streets of Akaokacho, where the original paintings are taken outside and illuminated by candlelight in the traditional way. Locals and regional tourists especially flock for this eerie evening of arts and entertainment, so if you find yourself in Kochi in July, check out the festival dates to join in.
Kochi Prefecture – Central
The central part of Kochi is defined by green trees and rich rice terraces, incredibly clear waters, adorable little towns and karst mountains.
Nakatsu Gorge and Valley
The Nakatsu Valley was the first stop of our mountain day, as we headed to the tea-terraces and national parks. This short hike takes you into the valley, past the giant rocks resting in the crystal clear waters. Blue and green pools are broken by colourful plants and buddha statues, before reaching a waterfall at the end, highlighting the unique purple colour of the rocks in the valley. There is an extended hike you can do, going steeper and further into the valley.
Niydo Blue and River
Niydo Blue is a colour, known in Japan, due to the waters here. I spent most of my time with the waters of Shimanto, but the Niydo area offers water-sports and activities as an alternative.
Asunaro Matcha Noodle Restaurant
At Asunaro, a cafe which commanded an impeccable view of the terraces, mountains and a vast lake, we braved the outside winter temperatures wrapped in blankets to appreciate the vistas fully. The tasty green both with thick juicy noodles we were served was exquisite, and the high antioxidant, metabolism-boosting, mind-calming Matcha dish went down a treat.
Tengu Highlands forest therapy road
In Japan, wellness rules, and the Tengu Highlands forest therapy road is a fancy name for a pathed walk through the forest of the national park, where trees and fresh-air are the order of the day for your wellness therapy.
Shikoku Karst Natural Park
Full of karst rock formations, forest, and vast empty spaces at altitude, the Shikoku Karst National Park stretches across the Kochi boundaries and was about as un-Japan like as I imagined, almost like Switzerland at times. Given it’s a bit out the way, it’s certainly more popular with domestic tourists looking for a mountain escape, than international tourists.
Yusuhara Town and Library
What I wasn’t expecting during my trip to Japan was to stumble upon a library designed by no-less than the man behind the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Stadium, Kengo Kuma.
Located in the beautiful village of Yusuhara, made even more magnificent thanks to it’s forested mountain setting and buried electricity cables, rather than over hanging like much of the region, this picturesque library is a homage to the woodwork the renowned artists likes to design with. In fact, there are more buildings of his work here, including a museum in his dedication. The library itself is a warm, open place, with dramatic wooden beams erupting from the ceiling, a grand piano at the entrance, and cosy corners to settle into. The wooden cube-like design outside is equally as striking, and it fits in perfectly with the nature of this region, which is well worth a visit for many other reasons beyond the library.
Motoyama Montbell Village
Set along the Yoshino river, Motoyama is a region inland, and I headed here to visit the recently opened Montbell Village, yep, same as the outdoor sport cloth retailer. This woodland park offers camping and comfortable wooden lodges, with water-sports and nature activities awaiting on the river.
Location | Car or nearest station: Matsumura Bus Stop
Aikawa Tanada terraced rice fields & Keigetsu Sake Brewery
Firstly, this spot is quite stunning. Surrounded by rice terraces, you’ll also find a winery (surprised me too!) nearby.
Keigetsu Brewery is renowned and has even won the world gold award for Sake; such is the quality of its produce. While there are countless Sake houses across the country, if you haven’t yet visited one and have a car, this is a great place to come for a sampling, and if you are really lucky, able to secure a tour of the traditional production house.
You’ll learn about polishing numbers which reflect on the quality of the sake, be able to taste various types, and, as I said if you can, join a tour with the Sake brewery to learn more about the methods from the master.
Cooking Katsuo no Tataki (Seared Bonito) at Kuretaishomachi Market
You go to the fresh fish stalls and select what you fancy to eat; this is then cooked and prepared for you and served up in the cute warm room where tea and other drinks can be added to complete the meal.
What is really cool though, is if you ask nicely you’ll probably be allowed to cook Katsuo no Tataki, the famous local dish, yourself. Leftover hay is thrust into the flames, and this hay added the flavour to the fish. It’s quickly sealed on both sides over the flame, before being expertly sliced and served with an adapted soy sauce and wasabi and salt. It was cool to get stuck into the market scene and have a go at making my own version of this local speciality, a type of seared sushi. By all accounts, I think i did a pretty good job too!
Kochi Prefecture – South
From underwater observatories on dramatic coastal walks, to the serene Shimanto river well equipped for water-sports, I’ve saved my favourite part of the Kochi Prefecture for last!
The Shimanto River winds slowly through the countryside. A beautiful calm and mirror like surface early in the day, with mist loitering around just after sunset. Small villages and towns await along the river banks, easily explored by bicycles with roads and paths crossing the river in the form of submersible bridges, quite a design idea. The river is one of two standout water attractions in the region, and, in my view, best explored by Kayak.
Perhaps the most memorable experience for me in Kochi was this knife-making experience, located in a small workshop alongside the river.
Led by a master blacksmith, Prof. Hayashi, this hands-on experience will see you go through all stages of the knife making process, from burning hot pokers to etching the final memory on the handle. This small knife-making workshop is set amongst the greenery, and without knowing the spot on the map, you could easily miss it.
We spent a few hours (usually the experience lasts a day, but can be adapted if short on time) getting up to insanely hot temperatures, sanding and filing the iron, hammering and shaping it, until eventually it resembled a perfect knife, handle and all. The great thing about this experience is it was all run in English, which isn’t always the case in Japan, and it made it even more special being able to interact and ask lots of questions.
More Info | Car or a cycle ride from one of the nearby places above
Kayaking & Cycling in Shimanto
As I mentioned above, Kayaking, Canoeing and Cycling are surely the best ways to enjoy the Shimanto river. There are plenty of places to hire a Kayak and join a group or a guide along the river, and the local cycling system is fantastic, as not only are the roads relatively clear and there are rest stops with toilets and tables, but also because the bicycles can be dropped off at various points.
Tatsukushi and Underwater Observatory
This is a super cool spot I found on Atlas Obscura, one of a few remaining underwater observatories which goes down into the ocean, so you are looking at a wild ‘aquarium’ rather than animals in captivity.
Whale and Dolphin watching IN THE WILD
There is in Kochi sadly a captive dolphin experience, but if you want to see whales or dolphins you can do so in the wild, with a few different boat tour options leaving in the south of Kochi Prefecture.
Where to stay in Kochi Prefecture
I moved around a fair bit during my trip to Kochi, and got a good feel for the different types of accommodation on offer. Below are the favourites of those which I stayed at, although there are plenty of other options throughout the region.
Getting to Kochi
Getting to Kochi is relatively easy from Tokyo and other large cities. Here are some of the options available to you.
From Tokyo, there are multiple connections per day from both airports, on different airlines such as ANA and JAL. There are also, less regular, flight connections from Kobe, Fukuoka, Kansai and Nagoya.
Use a search engine such as Skyscanner, when looking for domestic flights if you opt to fly to Kochi.
Japan’s rail routes and bullet trains are famous world round for a reason, meaning transport by train, while perhaps not the fastest option, is certainly possible into the Kochi Region. The Visit Kochi Travel Planner is a great resource, as you can select where you are travelling from, and then it will tell you the best train connection options.
Getting around Kochi Prefecture
Kochi Prefecture doesn’t have the all singing and dancing train routes that some of the larger regions has, but it is entirely possible to explore between the main sights by bus and train connections. The train routes between attractions can be limited, however, by needing to change to different lines. It’s quite a complex system, especially when you through in the buses, and while I’ve highlighted the main stops up above, be sure to check out Rome2Rio to research the best route for you.
The Shikoku Rail is one of the most scenic, heading inland, and on the coast for the most part you have the cool Gomen Nahari & Yodo Line. Bus options are also there, with the MY-YU bus being for tourists to sight see from the capital city, Kochi, while domestic local bus routes can be checked out here.
Carry an international license when driving and have relevant insurance.
Kochi blog posts
With a more in-depth look at what you can experience in Kochi, I hope these blog posts and articles will help make your trip planning even more successful.
Kochi weather & climate
The climate in Kochi is still relatively pleasant even in the winter months when I visited, that said, for those planning to do more water sports, the warmer months are more ideal. Kochi sometimes is hit by Tsunamis, although evacuation routes and man-made platform stations are detailed everywhere, showing how prepared the region is incase of natural disaster.
When to visit Kochi Prefecture
Peak Season: July, August and September are peak summer months here, when the weather is hitting above 30 degrees celsius and nearly all activites are open.
Shoulder Season: April, May, June, and October seem prime time to visit, as most attractions are open, and the weather is a pleasant temperature.
Off Season: The winter season, especially late December and January sees some activities close down, the weather IMO was still fine to explore, and the prices were more welcoming (except over the New Year Holiday – Western Christmas is not a public holiday in Japan).