Kochi Ramblings

Kochi reminds me a lot of Eugene, the town I grew up in. In certain aspects, anyway. Both are on the small side, but large enough that the outside world knows about them – while you don’t have access to EVERYTHING you’d have in a larger city, you’re not completely bereft of options.

They’re both also small enough that you can get most anywhere on foot, or by bus if you don’t feel like walking. Kochi has the advantage of having a streetcar in addition to the bus system, which is dreadfully convenient.

Oh, and both start to shut down around six o’clock and are mostly dead by nine.

But, during the day anyway, Kochi is actually quite a busy place. After checking out of my hotel and stowing my backpack at the JR station, I went exploring.

Now, it’s worth mentioning here that my initial exposure to Kochi came from watching Umi Ga Kikoeru, one of the Studio Ghibli movies that I don’t think has been released in the US yet. Much of the movie focuses on the differences between Kochi people and a Tokyo native who’s forced to live there – and hates it, of course, because it’s so backwards and everyone talks weird there.

Having seen plenty of Tokyo now, I wanted to see somewhere completely different: Kochi fit the description nicely.

The Japanese are not big into superstores, which is a good thing, because Kochi is the sort of town that they drop a Wal-Mart into the middle of and watch all the local merchants die. It has several shopping districts, all full of the sort of small-but-intensely-specialized shops that typify Japan – as an example: A shop that only sells towels.

The Japanese also aren’t big into food courts; the restaurants are mixed right in with the stores. Dozens of tiny restaurants, most selling their own little food specialty, with plenty of competition for food of any type – nothing like American malls, where one fast food joint will have a monopoly on burgers, another a monopoly on tacos, and so on.

End result: The shopping streets are busy, crowded, noisy, confusing, and all-around fun. I might think differently if I had to try to make sense of them in order to buy life essentials – but, as a tourist, I quite enjoy wandering them.

Actually, if you need anything ESSENTIAL, a combini will probably carry it – if you just need a towel, right now, for whatever reason, a combini will hook you up with a plain, servicable white towel without any trouble.

But I digress. Kochi has several of these shopping districts and they were fun to explore.

I wasn’t really expecting to see anything fanboy oriented in Kochi, so it was a bit of a surprise to run into a nicely-stocked Animate. I say nicely-stocked even though I didn’t buy anything: one of the important lessons I’ve learned travelling around Japan with a backpack is that you have to carry everything you buy IN the backpack.

Also, I blew half my shopping budget on day 2 when I bought the EEE, so I’m being good.

To a point.

Did I just digress again? My apologies.

Anyway, one of the streets I was rambling down opened out into a sort of plaza with an oddly shaped building in the middle of it – I wasn’t sure what it was, but it looked funky and it drew me close.

It turned out to be – and I think it’s only this through the end of August, I don’t think that this is a permanent exhibition – the “Treasure Island of Kaiyodo” exhibition.

Kaiyodo being a manufacturer of plastic models and super-detailed action figures and, in general, many very cool things that I won’t ever own.

This, I did not expect to find in Kochi.

After a moment’s confusion where I tried to walk into the exhibit hall without paying – I didn’t yet realize what I’d walked into and thought it was just a store – I got permission to take photographs and spent a happy 40 minutes or so wandering through the exhibits taking pictures of, well, action figures. Yeah, I dropped Y500 so I could wander around and photograph toys. Anyone who has a problem with that, you’re not My People anyway.

There was also a store, thoughtfully stocked with many of the VERY SAME action figures from the exhibits – how peculiar, right? – in addition to some Kaiyodo merchandise only available at the exhibition. I passed on the Y4700 Monsieur Bome repaint figures: I’m not crazy, also the whole backpack thing.

One of the locations semi-prominently featured in Umi Ga Kikoeru is the waterfront in Kochi. I couldn’t figure out where this was, since it wasn’t on the tourist-centric map I got from the hotel. Kochi is also a bit inland, so I came to the conclusion that the characters must have been in a neighboring town in those scenes, or something.

Then I passed a sign that said “Kochi Port – 3km” at just about the same time a streetcar pulled up facing in the direction of the arrow on the sign.

I tell you, life works in mysterious ways.

For the record: When you are boarding a streetcar in Kochi, you get on through the REAR entrance and you pay when you are getting OFF. In addition, if you don’t have exact change, there’s a small change exchanger up by the driver, directly to the left of the slot you drop payment in to. I mention these things in the small hope that they may be helpful to someone else someday, probably under quite peculiar circumstances.

Or, if you’re me, you get on board through the wrong door, ask how much the fare is, try to hand it directly to the attendant, get told to put it in the small change exchanger because you’re trying to pay Y200 for a Y190 fare, get exact change that way, try to hand it to the attendant, get the fare slot pointed out to you, try to pay immediately and get met with a hand physically imposed between your change and the fare slot and a curt “pay later” instruction.

ANYWAY. For the record, on the streetcar BACK, I acquited myself better.

I got to Kochi port and wasn’t quite sure what to do next – I mean, just because movie characters can stroll on down to the waterfront doesn’t mean that you can do it in real life, especially not in the US where casually walking around a port with a camera out would almost certainly get you arrested and beaten.

Then I saw a bunch of people fishing off a dock and figured that it was probably OK to go wandering around over there.

If you need a good antidote to the high-speed life, I strongly recommend travelling to Kochi, in mid-June, on a day with clear skies and temperatures in the mid-70s, and spending some time standing on the docks watching people fish and enjoying an extremely refreshing breeze.

I recognize, having said that, that it’s not exactly a VIABLE stress cure if you don’t already happen to be on Shikoku or if it’s not June, but go for it anyway.

It took some effort to pull myself away and head back into town to look for lunch. I never did get any katsuo no tataki, the mostly-raw tuna specialty I was talking about yesterday, it turned out to be another of those regional specialities that’s not actually all that common. The one place I DID find advertising it was apparently only open for dinner; I’d walked past it the previous night and it had been brightly lit up and quite lively looking, during the day it was locked down tight.

Oh, and it also had a big whale sign, which being Japan probably wasn’t just for looks.

Attention, Japan: Whales are friends, not food.

No, really, GUYS.

I wound up eating at the station before hopping the train back to Okayama and then switching to a Shinkansen for Tokyo. Done directly like this, instead of splitting it over a couple of days and exploring as I go, it means that I lose a good seven hours right in the middle of one of my vacation days – I should take this personally, but somehow I’m quite relaxed about it.

I found the Momotaro statue while I was switching trains in Okayama, anyway, this is a meeting-people landmark in much the same way that Hachiko is in Shibuya, or so I’m told. Momotaro was mostly covered with pigeons, which is a sad fate but one that befalls all statues.

Oh, Kochi prefecture is apparently the birthplace of Anpanman, Japan’s favorite edible superhero, so some of the local trains are covered in Anpanman characters. Here’s one that happened to stop in front of me while I waited for my train back to Okayama.

It’s funny; writing all of the above, I expected the return to Tokyo to be jarring. Instead, it was surprisingly comforting – it’s nice to have half the signs in English, it’s nice not to stand out too much as a foreigner, and I actually kind of like the crowds – even at 10PM, people are still on the move, restaurants and businesses are still open, the place feels alive.

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