Visitors flock to the tourist-filled cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Nara… but what other adventures are there to find in the southern reaches of Japan?
Adventurous souls looking to see a wilder side of Japan will find plenty to whet their appetites in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands. Surprisingly, you don’t even have to fly or take a boat, as bullet trains go directly from Osaka and Kyoto down to the sunny city of Okayama, from where the Dosan train line (or regular buses) can take you on scenic rides down to Takamatsu, the capital of Kagawa Prefecture, which is best known for the Ritsurin Garden, endless steps of Kotohira Shrine and as one of the gateways to the Setouchi Triennale Art Festival.
Or, you can ride further into the heart of Shikoku to Kochi Prefecture, an ideal base for visitors seeking outdoors adventures beyond where your average tourist dares to tread.
Take in the Sights and Flavors of Kochi City
Kochi City is the first port of call for most visitors (except perhaps the pilgrims circling the island on the famous 1200 km Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage), and offers plenty to see in one day. If possible, try to align your visit so you can check out the weekly Sunday Market, which besides being the longest street market in Japan at around 1.3km and having a 300-year history, is a joy for foodies of all ages. Among the many stalls run by local producers, you will find delicious Kochi treats like veggie-based inaka sushi, bags of freshly fried sweet potato tempura (or mochi made from the same ingredient), the retro aisukurin sorbets, skewers of grilled fish and meat… you are certain not to leave hungry.
In case you can’t stop by on Sunday, check out the food (and sake!) stalls of nearby Hirome Market, before taking a wander by lofty Kochi Castle. A quick bus ride away Mt. Godai awaits,where you will find the serene beauty of Chikurin-ji Temple and flower-filled Makino Botanical Garden, dedicated to the local son and “father of Japanese botany” Dr. Tomitaro Makino.
After getting bearings in Kochi City, it is time to choose your own adventure….literally!
Just Around the Riverbend: Niyodogawa-cho
Pick up a rental car near the station (or check the somewhat limited train and bus connections), and make the easy drive of just over an hour to Nakatsu Gorge, where you can witness the incredible glowing “Niyodo Blue” color of the Niyodo River and its tributaries.
There is an easy 2.3 km hiking loop along the gorge, dotted with statues of the shichifukujin (or seven lucky gods) and wreathed with scarlet and gold leaves during the fall. But for a closer and more exhilarating experience, opt for a canyoning tour with Niyodo Adventure, which takes you to hidden parts of the valley (including the lair of a legendary dragon god!) and provides plenty of thrills with jumps, natural slides and paths underneath waterfalls. The water is so clean and smooth that it feels like you are playing in a river of fancy mineral water!
For those a little intimidated by canyoning, the very English-friendly team at Niyodo Adventure also offers pack rafting adventures along the Niyodo River, which has just enough rapids to be fun while still being accessible to first-timers.
A one hour hike (or 15 minute drive for those with wheels), will take you to Blue Brew, a craft brewery run by former teachers and Los Angelinos Ken and Masako Mukai. Despite the charmingly pocket-sized space, Ken creates an impressive array of ales that make use of locally grown ingredients and the area’s pure water. The smooth 2410 Belgian White ale has notes of sansho and ginger, while the popular 439 IPA gets a refreshing kick from green tea. In the evenings you can sip and relax by the fire pit, lulled by the sound of the nearby stream.
Of course drinking and driving do not mix, so unless you have a designated driver, walk across the bridge and stay overnight at Shimona no Sato, a former school that has been transformed into a quirky inn. The large dinners and breakfasts will give you a true taste of Kochi home-cooking, and often include freshly-caught river fish and mountain vegetables. For those who prefer to sleep under the stars, bring camping gear and spend the night at the nearby Yumenomori Park camping site, which has all the basic amenities you need.
For other river adventures in Kochi, check out this comprehensive run-down:
Cycling the Shimanto River
Almost entirely flat, with long stretches of paved farming roads with minimal traffic, it is no surprise that bike rides along the 196 km Shimanto River have been a favorite with Japanese cyclists for many years.
One of the most popular sections is between the headwaters near the town of Tsuno (about 1.5 hours by train and bus from Kochi City), which then continues on for 150 km following the gentle turns of Japan’s last undammed river. Along the way you will come across many chinkabashi, the rail-less submersible bridges that are an iconic part of Kochi’s river valley landscapes, along with pretty farmhouses, forests and perhaps even a white-dressed ohenro (pilgrim) or two.
There are a number of towns dotted along the way that make excellent stops for a good night of rest. Kubokawa, about 40 km from the headwaters, is home to artistic Iwamoto-ji Temple, which besides being the 37th temple of the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage, also has a colorful ceiling comprised of 575 painted tiles, along with pop art brightening the grounds. Get a cup of tea and wagashi sweet in the beautifully preserved Kominka Cafe Hanpei before checking into the gorgeous Ki no Hotel, which was built in 2018 as a new addition to the adjacent historical Mima Ryokan.
The next obvious spot to stop before tackling the final 50km ride to the mouth of the river in the city of Shimanto is little Nishitosa, where the well-appointed Hotel Seira Shimanto (and its soothing hot springs, which your muscles will thank you for) also happens to run an observatory, where thanks to the minimal light pollution on clear nights you can get fantastic views of the stars.
You can organize the trip yourself, or save yourself the bother and book a cycling tour with Kochi Escapes, which includes transport from Kochi Airport, a support van and other helpful services so all you have to do is focus on pedaling and enjoying the ride.
On the Rooftop of Shikoku at the Ishizuchi Mountain Range
For keen hikers, there are few things more exciting than crossing a steep ridgeline where you can get 360 degree views. The Ishizuchi Mountain Range offers plenty of thrills and a number of different peaks and trails to suit everyone from casual hikers to masters of the mountains.
The range stretches for 50 km along the border between Kochi and Ehime prefectures. The main peak is Mt.Ishizuchi, which rises to 1,982m and is the highest mountain in western Japan (and all of Shikoku).
The intriguingly named UFO Line road gives hikers easy access to some of the best hikes from the Kochi side, both of which can make perfect day hikes, although you may be tempted to stay overnight at the gorgeous Shirasa mountain lodge to stargaze.
Mt. Kamegamori is an impressive 1,897m and is one of the top 10 highest mountains in western Japan. This one is a good option for those in search of a shorter hike with a lot of bang for your buck, because despite its altitude it can be climbed with relative ease and has fantastic views of the other peaks of the mountain range.The trailhead is located at 1,670 meters, starting by the Kamegamori parking area along the UFO Line, which is about a 2 hour drive from the town of Ino just outside Kochi City.
Since you start out high up, to reach the peak you only need to hike up to an extra 230 meters in elevation, so the hike can be completed in about 3 hours. Hike up through slopes covered in bamboo grass to the first summit, Otokoyama at 1,838 meters, and then tackle the short climb to the very highest point, Onnayama.
For something a little closer and a little more challenging, try Mt. Iyo-Fuji. This 1,756m peak has some of the grandiosity of the better-known Mt.Fuji, but with long stretches of ridgeline that offer 360 degree views of Mt. Ishizuchi and all the way to the Seto Inland Sea. There is parking and bathrooms right by the trailhead at the south entrance to the Mt. Kanpuzan Tunnel, from where it takes about 4~5 hours round trip to the summit.
The initial section through the forest is pretty steep, but once you reach the ridgeline you have a very pleasant hike with fantastic views, and one last scramble up to the peak. Make sure your phone is fully charged, as the views of the mountaintop trail will have you taking photos left and right.
If you are searching for adventures away from the crowds of Kansai, keep Kochi’s wild and beautiful landscapes in mind. For more inspiration, check out: https://visitkochijapan.com/en/osakatokochi/.