Japan has announced that it will be relaxing its travel restrictions and many Singaporeans have been looking forward to taking a long-awaited vacation to the land of the rising sun.
Though one may be inclined to hit up popular cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, why not consider Kochi, one of Japan’s best-kept secrets?
For the uninitiated, Kochi is a southern prefecture on the island of Shikoku, a short plane ride from the major cities in Japan.
Between plenty of nature spots for a scenic hike, water sports and authentic Japanese cuisine, you will find yourself immersed in a very different way of life.
And this is not just a travel brochure type of hardsell – take it from people who have spent enough time there.
One such person, a Singaporean woman who has been living in Kochi for the past five years, has come up with a nifty list of specially curated recommendations to put this prefecture at the top of your travel wishlist.
1. Breathtaking nature spots, perfect for hikes and water sports
Located on the southern coast of Shikoku island, Kochi enjoys a warmer climate than most of the country, which makes it perfect for outdoor activities.
Kochi’s Niyodo River is consistently ranked as one of the most beautiful rivers in Japan, and the bright cobalt blue of its water even gets its own nickname, "Niyodo Blue".
It is no wonder why Valerie Teo, a 29-year-old Singaporean woman, chose to relocate to Kochi after moving there for work almost five years ago.
Teo, who works as a coordinator at Kochi’s Prefectural Government, did not request Kochi as one of her preferred places when she first applied for her work programme in Japan.
"I came to Kochi in August 2017. I was honestly just planning to experience Japan and go back to Singapore after a year or two, but look at me now, close to five years here in Kochi," she said.
Teo said out of the three main rivers of Kochi, she loves the Niyodo River the most:
"It is truly blue, you really have to see it for yourself! When my family came to visit me in the autumn, we stayed at Yasui Gorge, and it became my best memory of the Niyodo River. The red autumn leaves with the blue river remind me just how beautiful nature can be!"
One of the best ways to enjoy the crystal clear water of the river is to get on a kayak or a stand-up paddle board.
At the Niyodogawa Outdoor Centre, you can have an option of booking a clear kayak as well, and see fishes swimming in the clear water below.
For those who are a little more thrill-seeking, you can also go rafting along the Upper Niyodo River.
There are also opportunities to go canyoning and abseiling down the cliffs.
At the same time, pay a visit to Nakatsu Gorge, part of the Nakatsu River which is one of the tributaries of the Niyodo River.
The simple 2.3km trail will take you through a portion of the Nakatsu River, and ends at the Uryu no Taki waterfall.
2. A different side of Japanese cuisine
Teo found out one of the reasons why she, a Singaporean, was sent to Kochi, was that the prefectural government wanted to build a stronger relationship with Singapore.
Kochi already had a good trade relationship with Singapore, exporting many products such as yuzu and muskmelons, said Teo.
Kochi is the largest producer of yuzu in Japan, and for Singaporeans looking to try fresh yuzu, Kochi would be a good place to start.
Kochi’s Sunday Markets have been a fixture in the city for over 300 years, providing locals and visitors with fresh produce, street food and special crafts.
"The Sunday Market is a great place to explore if you want to enjoy the local atmosphere and see what the locals buy!", said Teo.
Aside from the fruit itself, vendors also sell cups of refreshing and sweetened yuzu juice at the market.
Another Kochi specialty you can find at the market is Inaka-sushi, or countryside sushi.
Instead of fish, the sushi is made with preserved and pickled vegetables.
The rice in the sushi is seasoned with yuzu vinegar instead of rice vinegar, and does not need to be paired with soy sauce.
Teo said that although the Sunday Market is also visited by tourists, vendors at the market keep the local spirit alive – by keeping prices "local" (read: cheaper) as well.
One of Teo’s personal recommendations for food was "Katsuo no Tataki" or seared bonito. The dish is what Kochi is most famous for.
Teo said her favourite place for seared bonito is Kuroshio Honjin, a hot spring inn in Kochi that has a restaurant which overlooks the Pacific Ocean.
The bonito is cooked over a hand-held grill over a fire fed by the straw of rice plants. It is often paired with ponzu, a citrus dipping sauce that often includes local yuzu.
It is also served with sliced raw garlic, ginger and onion.
For those who are pressed for time but still want to try Kochi’s most famous dish, Teo recommends the Katsuo no Tataki at the Hirome Market.
The Hirome Market is located in the city centre, just beside the Sunday Market.
The Hirome Market, which is open almost all year round, is also perfect if you are unable to be in Kochi city on a Sunday to visit the Sunday Market.
The Hirome Market boasts a wide range of local and international food.
The lively atmosphere inside the market is also a wonderful place to enjoy some local delicacies and sip on some sake, brewed right in Kochi itself.
3. A slower, more peaceful way of life
Teo shared that the pace of life is more relaxed in Kochi than in the big cities of Japan.
"I feel that living in a prefecture that is considered 'inaka' (rural countryside) allows me to get along with the people around here at a much personal level. You know, like the kampung lifestyle? And since I live in the central city of an ulu prefecture, I get the best of both worlds!" she said.
She said that there are things to learn in Kochi everyday.
She regularly goes for shamisen (a traditional three-string instrument) and Japanese pen calligraphy lessons.
Besides these, another craft to try out in Kochi is washi paper making.
You can try your hand at traditional Japanese papermaking, and incorporate plants and flowers into your beautiful piece of handmade paper.
For those who want to experience some real peace while on holiday, the Zen Buddhist priests at Iwamoto-ji Temple in Kochi also offer visitors a meditation session in the Shimanto River – and yes, in the river.
The temple only accepts one group a day for this unique meditation experience, where you will sit in a shallow portion of the Shimanto river, and feel the cool river water as you meditate.
The meditation experience is only offered in the warmer months between May and September.
But if you are planning to visit during winter months, a relaxing visit to the temple sauna, or a trip to the colourful grounds of the temple itself, could be just what you are looking for.
4. Interesting accommodations
For accommodation, Teo said she would recommend staying in a traditional inn or a guest house if you are planning to travel to Japan.
Her favourite accommodation when she travels to the west of Kochi is the Farm Guest House Kuro-usagi.
"The owners are really friendly, the food is great, and the night sky is amazing. I can still recall my neck complaining after I spent the whole night looking up at the stars," said Teo.
Another option is to stay in one of the onsen hotels at the Ashizuri Cape.
The Ashizuri Cape is located at the southernmost point of Shikoku, and offers 270-degree views of the Pacific Ocean.
The Mana Village, formerly known as Ashizuri Pacific Hotel Hanatsubaki, is a hotel near the cape that offers its guests outdoor onsen pools and spectacular views of the ocean.
Teo said being sent to Kochi back in 2017 was "probably the best thing that has ever happened" to her.
"It changed my life, literally. I met my soulmate in Kochi and am now happily settled down here," she added.
Learn more about Kochi
Good news for those who want to find out more about this beautiful prefecture: Kochi Prefecture will be operating a booth at the Japan Fair, organised by EU Holidays, at Suntec City Mall from Jul. 29 to 31.
There will also be another physical event organised by Kochi Prefecture Japan in October 2022 for Singaporeans to learn more. More details about the event will be released soon.
This sponsored article by Kochi Prefecture Japan makes this writer wish she was writing this in Kochi right now.
All photos via Visit Kochi Japan