Shaking off some early morning grogginess, we left the warmth of our cottage and headed down the driveway into the chilly morning drizzle, our usual view of the valley obscured by a thick, white cloud. Roxy (our van) roared to life and we headed down the wet and windy mountain road. With a quick stop for a vending machine coffee, we were on our way. As the caffeine coursed through our systems, we began to formulate a plan. After all we’d never been to Kochi, or it’s famed Sunday market and though it was beginning to rain harder, we were determined to make the most of our visit. The Yoshinogawa River on our left began to widen, before branching off into the Ananaigawa River as we continued south. The towering mountains of the Iya Valley began to shrink until we were in unfamiliar rolling hills. Soon enough the windy mountain roads were in the rear view mirror and multi-lane suburban throughways guided us closer to the city. The rest of the world started to stir and more cars joined us along our route.
Per a friends instructions we parked at Aeon Mall. In desperate need of another coffee, some breakfast, and a pee, we wandered into the mall for a quick poke around. We returned to Roxy, having succeeded in our quests, to finalize our plans. I bit into my half price (50¥!) sandwich to discover it was filled with coleslaw. Not really the breakfast of champions. The rain had lightened a bit so with a belly full of slaw and coffee, into the city we wandered. Aeon Mall is a solid 3kms from the market, which didn’t bother us in the least. Firstly it offered a chance for a little exercise, and secondly a chance to see a different area of Kochi.
A delightful little bakery opened as we were passing so we popped in to get a little something sweet. We settled on a filled doughnut (please don’t be anko – sweeened red bean paste!) and as we went to leave were ushered back into the shop where the baker handed us a baguette filled with peanut butter. With many arigatogozaimasu’s we left and continued ambling through the sleepy rain sodden streets.
Kochi, though not a particularly pretty city, is pleasant enough to walk around. Having spent nearly all of our time in the mountains, it offered a different look and feel to our experience so far and we were quite happy for the change of scenery. Upon arriving at the market the rain picked up again. Outdoors, the tarp covered market stalls offered very little shelter. Into the sea of umbrellas we waded, ducking into whatever shelter we could find, discussing the merits of different vegetables to give the appearance that we were serious buyers and not just taking up space. There is a magnificent range of fruits and vegetables on offer. From cheap everyday needs like onions, garlic, pakchoy, and daikon to wildly expensive fruit like 6,000¥ melons and 3,000¥ mangoes, there really is a huge variety on offer here. It’s not all fruit and veg though. There are crispy French style breads, mochi, grilled meats, prepackaged sushi boxes, and plenty of fried snacks available as well. Making a mental note of all the things I wanted for lunch, we decided to get out of the rain for a bit and check out the famous Hirome Market.
Over 60 vendors occupy the space and a warm and friendly atmosphere fills the air as you enter. It was still early as we made our way around, yet the place buzzed with locals and foreigners alike. People chatted over morning Asahi’s and gyozas, whilst katsuo (bonito) vendors showed off beautiful cuts of fish, most likely caught fresh that morning. Crowds gathered around glass enclosed fires where chefs expertly seared pieces of bonito making Kochi’s most famous food, katsuo tataki (seared bonito). Still too early for lunch, we exited the market and walked around the arcade.
Hundreds of shops fill the arcade, many inexplicable and unnecessarily named in French. In need of another coffee, a funky building caught our eyes. A coffee shop which can only be described as Alice in Wonderland meets Japanese folklore, Mephistopheles is equal parts cozy and odd. The coffee is decent though and had just the right amount of caffeine to add some pep in our step.
After a bit more walking around it was getting on to lunch time which excites me beyond belief. There were so many things I wanted, no NEEDED, to taste. Back to Hirome Market. It would seem everyone else had the same idea as us and the place was absolutely packed. However, there was a relatively short line at a place selling an assortment of fried foods, most of which we couldn’t accurately identify. We chose a small selection of random treats by pointing and using our limited Japanese vocabulary then went to find somewhere a little less crowded to eat.
Just outside the market was a dance troop preparing to perform so we dug into our snacks and waited. The items we chose turned out to be a pork and onion skewer, a breaded and fried slice of ham, and some sort of Japanese croquette (easily the winner). Three separate dance teams, who were all very entertaining, performed as we ate giving us a sense that we were also taking a bit of culture in. It was lovely.
Before the day got away from us, we still wanted to visit Kochi Castle. Built in the Edo period, it’s one of just twelve to have survived the feudal age! So we felt an obligation to see it. Luckily our route there took us through a bit of the Sunday market we hadn’t yet visited. I stopped at a vendor selling various trees and plants to inquire about a kumquat tree. I asked for the price and when he said they were just 1,200¥ each I couldn’t hide my excitement. I bought one. Tree in hand, we entered the castle grounds. I drew many looks from locals and tourists alike. There I was, a giant (5’10” what’s up), a beard, soaking wet, holding a small tree with orange fruit, walking around the grounds of a Japanese castle. I suppose it was all a bit strange.
The castle though beautiful was not at its best with a grey rainy sky behind it and after snapping a few obligatory photos and vowing to return on a sunnier day, we went in search of more delicious treats. Our first stop was at Melon de Melon (again with the French!) which is actually aptly named because it serves up a wonderful Japanese baked good called melonpan. It’s like brioche meets sugar cookie. It’s delicious and you should try one. I just knew I had to get some bonito so upon arriving back at Hirome Market, I randomly picked one of the vendors. Now, I love tataki, and I know it’s what Kochi is famous for, but I really love sashimi. I asked the guy working there which he preferred and much to my delight he said the sashimi. So it was I found myself walking away with six beautiful slices of fish.
Amy grabbed a couple of sticks of takoyaki (octopus balls) on our way out and we searched for a bench to enjoy our feast. Inside the box with my fish was a bit of raw garlic, some soy sauce, and a packet of wasabi. I was told I had to try the bonito with a piece of raw garlic, so for my first taste that’s what I did. I’ve got to admit I was a bit skeptical about the garlic. It has such a strong taste when raw I was worried it would completely overpower the bonito. I was wrong. It was absolutely delightful. The strength meshed well with the soft texture and freshness of the fish. Amy, not usually a huge fish fan (she’s coming around though), tried some and liked it very much I’m pleased to say. I devoured the rest, pausing momentarily with each bite to fight back tears of wonder and joy. How could anything be so simple and yet so beautiful? For a minute I’d completely forgotten about our takoyaki which sat on the bench between us begging to be eaten. We obliged. Each stick was flavored differently. One had pickled ginger and green onion (the more traditional way), and the other had corn, onion, and red pepper(?). Both were delicious, but Amy and I both agreed the traditional one was better. With the Sunday market winding down, we decided to have one last walk through the stalls enroute back to Aeon. I also thought the locals would like one last look at the gaijin (foreigner) carrying a kumquat tree around. We purchased some onions and a few other essential vegetables to support the local farmers (who happily pointed and smiled at my tree) and made one last food stop.
I couldn’t walk past the smoky smell of meat grilling on a fire twice in one day, so I stopped now to do a little sampling. I grabbed a few skewers of pork and chicken and ate them as we walked. Cheap, cheerful, and tasty. Just the way I like it. With the market stalls behind us in the distance, someone turned the rain on full blast for our 3km walk back to the car. Soaked to the bone we changed into the only dry clothes we had the foresight to bring, socks and shoes. It was better than nothing and we felt a little morale boost. After a wander around Aeon mall a bit, we hit the supermarket to do our weekly shop. Hey, it can’t be adventure 24/7. With Roxy loaded up and my tree safely secured in the back, it was time to head home. Despite the rain we consider the adventure a success. Was it based almost entirely around food? Absolutely. Kochi Castle is a huge tourist draw, but you can’t go to Kochi without food being a major part of your day. The bonito, takoyaki, melonpan, grilled meat, and even the coffee highlighted a day otherwise dampened by the weather. We’ll return another time, on a sunny day, and explore more of the city, visit the castle and take some photos of it at its best with a blue sky behind it. We’ll go to the beach, visit a temple and walk around one of the parks. I’m sure it will be wonderful. We’ll also return to get some tataki and whatever other delicacies Kochi has to offer!