The next leg of our journey was a day trip down to Uchiko and Ozu, two towns south of Matsuyama. Uchiko is a small town with a historic district that was nearly empty while we were there. While we were there the rice fields were divided between bright green of growing fronds, and the brown and silver of mud and reflected sky, and we saw a wide variety of people and tools out working the fields. Sometimes it was a fellow in hip-waders and a low-tech hand-tiller wearing a well-seasoned straw hat, but other times they were riding shiny tractors wearing baseball caps and bluejeans. I was particularly fascinated by the rice-planting machine, like you’ll see in the photo below.
The town had a number of historic buildings — houses, but also workshops and store fronts. One building was a pharmacy, another was a wax-works, and there was also a still in-use noh theatre. The pharmacy building was particularly notable because it was built around a central courtyard garden that was very pleasant. Guest rooms at the back of the house looked out over the courtyard in front and a back garden in back. The waxworks walked us through the local method of candle-making (and other wax products.) They made their wax out of sumac here, which I hadn’t even realized was possible. The thing I always end up wondering when I go to these sorts of places is how they figured out that if they peeled, dried, boiled, mashed, mixed with seventeen other odd things, bleached, etc etc they’d get a substance you could stick a wick down and burn. At any rate, they (and the pharmacists as well) would have been one of the wealthiest members of the town, so the house was appropriately huge and impressive. The wax-making process would have been pretty stinky though, so I can only imagine that despite all its grandeur it wouldn’t have been a particularly pleasant place to live. We also found a giant reclining buddha figure at a local temple, and toured the theater, complete with its secret basement area with the turning floor of the stage and trap doors. Right when we were looking for a place to get lunch, however, all the shops and buildings shut their doors. Wondering whether given the lack of other tourists, things just closed early, we wandered back toward the train station with our stomachs growling. And then half-way back we discovered nearly the entire population of the town in a noodle shop having lunch! Trusting the locals to find good food is always a good call, so we joined them, and it was indeed delicious.
Next up was Ozu, an hour or so further south. Ozu is another sleepy little town, a little bigger than Uchiko, but not particularly accustomed to us white folks. They have a castle (surprise surprise!) but they also have a beautiful garden and historic house and tea house that sits up in the treetops over the river, a historic district, some temples, and last, but not least — cormorant fishing! Garyu Sansa (the house/garden) was lovely, although quite small. There were very strict rules about where we could take photos, where we could stand, and which directions we could point our cameras. We didn’t see any major threats to national security if we took photos without flash of some of their wood carvings etc. so despite the dire warnings from the lady we took a couple. It was a beautiful house, with one 4-season room, one wall for each season, and another that had windows lined up perfectly to channel the moonlight in on certain dates, decorated with bat-handles and moon-shapes. The ladies running the house also offered to do a tea service in the tea house for us, but concerned that if walking around the house had so many rules, a tea ceremony would require mailing our cameras to Zimbabwe, we declined, and instead sat drinking bottled tea on the tatamis.
We also trooped up another massive staircase to a local temple, which had a number of cool carvings and statues. It also has a large lighthouse, which we later learned is for ghosts! Before the temple was there, there was a smokestack in the same spot, and due to some strange happenings, the locals realized that ghosts and spirits were using it to navigate. When the tower started to fall, fearing angry lost spirits, the town erected a lighthouse over the old smokestack to help them find their way. I imagine the temple, which was built more recently, was located nearby to help placate these spirits as well.
Then at 6:30 we boarded our cormorant-watching and dinner boat! We had ordered a bento dinner from the tour company, so dinner was waiting for us when we got aboard. First we went downriver, ate our bentos, got a nice view of the famous tea house from the river, saw a fish ladder where all the herons were perched staring fixedly into the pools, and some young folks barbecuing down by the river. Our tour guides talked a lot about local culture (the dangers to young folks of swimming and diving in the river), the economy and environment (the water was low and the fish are small this year), and other random things we asked them (why do the fish jump? because they feel like it!) As dusk fell the cormorant boat caught up with us, and the two tourist boats flanked it up the river. The fire on the front of the boat is supposed to stun, shock, and panic the fish so that it’s easier for the cormorants to catch them. The cormorants dive for the fish, but they have a tie around their neck so they can’t swallow the fish, and the fisherman retrieves the fish. Unfortunately (perhaps in a demonstration of our earlier lecture on the water levels and small fish) the cormorants didn’t catch anything while we were watching them. Our guide told us that there are only four cormorant fishermen left — it’s not a popular way to make a living. The tourist interest (mostly domestic Japanese tourism) has made life a little better for the fishermen, but still, it’s not an easy job. At any rate, it was a beautiful display, and we took a lot of photos.
The next morning, back in Matsuyama, we rented a car and headed inland into the hills. We didn’t take the most direct route to Kochi, wanting to see the mountains and the coastline a bit, and even discovered a random hike down to a gorge off the side of the highway. The path down to the gorge was strange — dilapidated in many places, spotted with old round foundation ruins, and odd-looking almost-fortifications. The gorge itself was beautiful, bright green water, ribbons of waterfalls across the moss, and round deep pools among the rock. We continued driving through the mountains and stopped in a little noodle shop for lunch, where both of us managed to spatter ourselves with raw quail egg trying to crack the things into our sauce. Those little buggers are rubbery! One of those times you chalk up to “entertaining the locals” and get on with it.
We continued on to the coast which was hugged by a cloud of mugginess, and then finally into Kochi, which is a bustling little city with (you guessed it!) a castle. We found a fantastic little Izakaya for dinner. Jen, eavesdropping on their conversations, reports that all the other people in there were wondering how we found it given that it’s a fantastic but not very touristy restaurant. (The answer of course is that Jen has a Japanese restaurant app on her phone that helps us find all sorts of fantastic places.) They also were apparently highly impressed with our abilities to use chopsticks to eat our dinner without stabbing ourselves in the eyeballs. When we leave Tokyo we get this reaction a lot. At any rate, it was an adorable traditional but quirky little place, and the food was amazing. The highlight was the Katsuo Tataki, which is a seared tuna, raw in the center, served in a ponzu sauce (soy/lime citrusy sauce) with garlic. This is a local specialty, and it was A-MA-ZING. And then for dessert the Izakaya has a partnership with a local creamery, and I got salt flavor ice cream with burdock french fries. It was awesome. So we headed back to our hotel with very happy tummies!