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Articles Blog

Kochi, Japan

Karyn Planett

Revolutionary and Pilgrim, Seafood and Paper

Of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is the most lightly populated as well as the smallest.  Found to the east of Kyushu Island just south of Honshu Island, it measures slightly over 7,200 square miles. Shikoku sits on the Seto Inland Sea almost wrapped in the embrace of Kyushu and Honshu Islands with the Pacific Ocean at its eastern flank.  And, it was this remoteness that made it an ideal place for political prisoners as well as spiritual leaders, hence a mixed bag of historical figures set in a dramatic, mountainous backdrop.

Revolutionary and Pilgrim

Sakamoto Ryoma is a name you’ll hear as you explore Kochi.  Born here in 1835 when it was called Tosa, Ryoma fled at the age of 28 without sanctioned authority from the officials, which was an offense in those days.  His goal was to convince warring factions to unite and rise up against the feudal military government of the shôgun. They did so and succeeded in creating an “Eight-Point Program” that installed the framework for a modernized Japan.  The emperor was ultimately given back his power in what was described as a bloodless coup.  These events are known as the Meiji Restoration of 1868.  Ryoma is recognized as an important revolutionary figure that spearheaded the demise of this 700-year feudal government, creating a new legal structure and parliamentary system as well as a diplomatic office.

Sadly, Sakamoto Ryoma was assassinated in Kyoto only one month later.  He died at the age of 33 yet his story lives on in the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum found on the grounds of the Urado Castle Park in Katsurahama.  And note that Ryoma is so respected by his fellow countrymen that they refer to him by his first name only.  An impressive statue of Ryoma is an important highlight for most Kochi visitors.

Another important figure born on Shikoku Island is Kōbō Daishi (who was originally named Kukai) in 774.  He became one of Japan’s most famous citizens.  He was a trusted advisor to the emperor.  He mastered the art of calligraphy and is revered as one of the best three calligraphers ever to have lived, even introducing Japan to an innovative style of calligraphy.  He was a scholar, educator, poet and a priest.  It’s noted he also engineered dams.  And, at a young age, he began to seek “the truth” through Buddhism, eventually casting off his worldly possessions and retreating to the mountains.

Today, Kōbō Daishi is respected much like a saint and believers from around the world come to this island on pilgrimages.  Few actually walk the entire 1,400-kilometer route where the Great Master Daishi walked visiting all 108 temples and shrines.  Others prefer the 1,100-kilometer route to 88 main pilgrimage temples.  As they walk they recite the pilgrim’s motto, which is “Dogyō Ninin” (We Two, Traveling Together) seeking the path to nirvana.  It’s estimated 200,000 make some portion of this journey each year.  Some come just to visit the Cape Muroto cave where it’s said this monk gained enlightenment.

Seafood and Paper

The Japanese people love fish and Kochi is famous for a specific fish dish called katsuo no tataki.  Fresh skipjack tuna, also known as bonito, is lightly broiled then sliced and served with soya sauce-laced ginger and garlic dressed with fresh spring onions all with a splash of citrus and vinegar.  At isakaya eateries—casual places where locals drink and dine—this favorite is usually found on their menus.

Proper menus in formal restaurants, however, are sometimes handwritten on hand-made washi paper crafted locally.  The term “washi” means … “Japanese (wa) paper (shi).  It’s believed that Buddhist monks introduced the art of papermaking into Japan in 610 AD.  Until then, it was perfected by the Chinese and was not introduced to the Europeans until the 13th century.  And it’s claimed that some 100,000 families were crafting paper by hand in the late 1800s.  Mechanization and modernization have impacted this industry and few families today even engage in the practice.  Those who do still use the inner barks of a trio of indigenous plants … the delicate gampi, the strong kozo (paper mulberry), and the soft mitsumata that lends a graceful element to the paper.  The complicated process produces paper that is excellent for bookbinding, printing, umbrellas and origami, even paper jewelry.

And if all this isn’t enough for your travel journal, discover the story of a 14 year-old local boy named Nakahama “John” Manjiro who went to sea to help support his family following his father’s death.  Shipwrecked then rescued by a New Bedford whaler, the “John Howland” captained by William Whitfield, the boy sailed to Fairhaven in 1843 where he learned to read, write, even navigate.  After a stint in the California goldfields and time in Hawaii, he and former shipmates returned to Japan where he was arrested.  The Japanese government then recognized him as an important bridge to the west. He lectured on American democracy and even influenced Sakamoto Ryoma.  President Coolidge said of Manjiro’s return to Japan, “it was as if America had sent its first ambassador.”