The Hata area is in the southwestern part of Kochi, forming the bottom left corner of Shikoku island. Here the mighty Shimanto River ends its loop and flows into the Pacific Ocean in Shimanto city. The rugged coastline of this area seems to go on forever, with many beautiful bays and inlets offering dramatic vistas at any time of year. Tosashimizu, one of the towns in this area, aims to become a Geopark in 2017, reflecting the special geological character of the region.
The Shimanto River
The storied Shimanto River rises in the Koban area to the north of Hata. The river heads south then west into the mountains. As it enters the Hata area, it loops back towards the Pacific in the southwest of Kochi Prefecture. An NHK television documentary in the 1980s noted that the Shimanto was Japan’s last major river without a dam, and since then, this point has been made endlessly, often with unfortunate results in English. Nevertheless, it’s a magnificent river to behold.
The Shimanto River is known for its ‘chinkabashi’, simple, flat-topped concrete bridges without balustrades, built at riverbank level. These are fully submerged when the river is full spate, and their small profile is designed to enable the bridge to withstand any amount of floodwater. In the days before concrete, the river was crossed on little wooden ferries powered by hand. Long, gently sloping ramps went down the banks of the river where a boatman would have a hut. When the chinkabashi were built, the huts were demolished, but the ramps remain as they were.
Some of the chinkabashi are quite tall and it’s hard to imagine the river rising that much. But several times a year, the river covers them completely, and in years of heavy rainfall, the river can rise to fill nearly the whole valley. Consequently the houses in the settlements are built high above the river. The rice paddies are made closest to the river and the villagers’ vegetable plots are arranged on higher ground. Since rice was originally a commodity grown for sale and not immediate consumption, the paddies were somewhat expendable if there was serious flooding, whereas the vegetable plots were more important to survival.
The Shimanto River was central to a number of traditional industries such as forestry and fisheries. Logs cut in the mountains used to be formed into rafts and piloted down river. Many kinds of fish can be caught in the river, especially eels, which used to be caught in traps made of bamboo. Today, PVC drainpipe is used. Shrimp are also caught.
In Shimanto city, you can take a ride in a traditional Shimanto River sailboat. These beautiful craft use tall, square sails to move downwind, and a steering oar to move upwind (or for convenience, an outboard motor today). The guide offers a wealth of information in Japanese as you ply the river. It feels wonderful to ride on the wind up this beautiful river, watching the natural scenery slip by, and you can see many birds such as herons, cormorants and rock thrushes. The boatmen are happy to let you have a go at steering the boat with the big stern oar.
This dramatically picturesque cove is accessed through a forest of coastal trees that have been swept into flattened, tortured shapes by the incessant wind. When you emerge from the tunnel formed by the trees, you find yourself in a natural amphitheatre of rocks, whose layers have been thrown on their sides by crustal action, then eroded by the sea. In the centre of the scene is an outcrop higher than the rest, topped with a red shrine and torii gate.
From the cove, you can actually see the Kuroshio Current, a stream of warm water that flows from the Philippines up the south coast of Japan, bringing nutrients and concentrations of marine life. The current is visibly darker than the surrounding water, hence its name, ‘the black current’. You can see the darker water, and watch how it flows when it hits the rocks beyond the cove and creates a wake behind them. Since the path of the Kuroshio varies every day, it may appear closer to the shore or further away.
After my guide had explained the natural and geological features of the cove, he hesitantly began to address the divine and human aspect of the site. The deity worshiped here is Benzaiten, the only female member of the Seven Gods of Fortune, about whom orgiastic tales have been spun by vulgarians. Until fairly recently, the female relatives of fishermen would gather at the shrine to drink and feast, and pray for a good catch. As culmination of the prayer, they would face the sea and ‘open the kimono’ seductively, offering more in return for an abundant haul. If the wish was granted, they would reciprocate with another party by the shrine, ending in a full show.
The dynamic scenery of rocky uplift and crashing waves, combined with an unusual human history, make this a fascinating and memorable place to visit.
Tojindaba prehistoric site
Tojindaba is a prehistoric megalithic site located on a hill above Cape Ashizuri. This mysterious and impressive group of massive stones dates from the Jomon period, from about 12,000 BC to about 300 BC, when the Japanese were hunter-gatherers with a relativity complex culture. The site comprises a flat henge area that was unfortunately bulldozed flat before any excavation could be performed. From here you can see clumps of huge stones on a hillside. The henge area has a few boulders remaining. From here it’s a short walk up the hill to megaliths. The magnetic properties of these vast stones indicate that they were moved at some stage, but whether this occurred through glaciation or by human effort isn’t known. The rocks, which have interesting natural veins, also show signs of having been shaped by humans. Some of them seem to be arranged in circles, hence the site is also called a ‘stone circle’.
Whatever the history of the stones, it’s very exciting to clamber over and among such enormous boulders, located as they are with a stunning view over the coast and ocean, under an expansive sky.
Cape Ashizuri is the southernmost point of Shikoku, located at the tip of a peninsula projecting into the vast Pacific Ocean. It’s part of the Ashizuri-Uwakai National Park. A path winds around the coastline through woodland of windswept subtropical plants and camellia. The path links the seven mysteries of the cape which include a rock shaped like a turtle’s head, a rocking stone, and a bottomless well. Drop a coin into it, and listen carefully…
The Tengu no Hana observation deck offers the best view of Cape Ashizuri with its white lighthouse. The lighthouse built in 1960 is designed to look like a rocket. Ashizuri is one of the few places where the view is so uninterrupted that you can actually see the curvature of the horizon. Here you can also see the Kuroshio Current as it passes Shikoku. Ashizuri is an excellent place to see the stars at night since there’s almost no ambient light from the land.
As you walk along the coastal path, look back towards the Tengu no Hana promontary. It looks remarkably similar to a wild boar, with visible front legs, tusks, and even the tuft of hair on top of its head.
Kongofuku-ji Temple on Cape Ashizuri is one of the largest of the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Another landmark is the statue of Nakahama “John” Manjiro, who was shipwrecked near here.
The Hakusan Domon is a huge rock arch on the shoreline with a Shinto shrine above the arch. If you look carefully at the surface of rock facing the shore, you’ll discover the profile of a slightly indignant-looking young woman.
You can also enjoy Cape Ashizuri from the sea by taking a ride on a fishing boat from the nearby port. Besides provisioning fishermen on various rocks, the boat sails right into the rocky inlets along the coast, giving you a close look at the numerous caves that penetrate deep into the peninsula. One of the caves passes under the bottomless well into which you may have dropped a coin. The wild boar of Tengu no Hana is particularly spectacular from the sea.
Kongofuku-ji is Temple No. 38 on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. Located overlooking the Pacific Ocean at the tip of the Ashizuri Peninsula, it has always enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats, warriors, and noble clans like the Minamoto, Chosokabe, and Yamanouchi. Consequently it survived intact through the early Meiji years when other temples suffered damage.
Kongofuku-ji is a mélange of buildings in quite disparate styles. The temple stands in a garden of colourful stones, which are reflected in a large pond. There are numerous pines and the hill behind the temple is cloaked in windswept trees. Pilgrims who are walking the trail have to walk several days from Temple No. 37 Iwamoto-ji to get here.
The John Mung Museum
At the base of the Ashizuri Peninsula in the town of Tosashimizu is a charming museum to Nakahama Manjiro, one of the first Japanese to go to the United States. In America, he was given the nickname John Mung. He’s also called John Manjiro. The museum documents his shipwreck, rescue by an American whaler, life as a whaler himself and his time prospecting for gold. After his return to Japan, he played an important role in the Meiji Restoration. The attractive exhibits are labeled in proper English, and they afford a fascinating view of Japan’s opening to the West.
The shop and restaurant in the museum is also very welcoming. You can enjoy a wide selection of traditional American desserts, prepared with loving care according to authentic recipes. There are also various hands-on craft activities using locally available materials.
Tatsukushi is a coastal wonderland in Tosashimizu, northwest of Cape Ashizuri. The indented Pacific coast, with its blue seas and blue skies, and unspoilt towns, is truly beautiful.
The little port in Tatsukushi is home to the Seashell Gallery. Designed by architect Hayashi Masako, this airy building filled with shells and other natural artifacts gives you a strong sensation of being underwater, with the bluish natural light filtering down from above.
In the port, you can see some of the strange bamboo-shaped rocks for which the area is renowned. But if you take the glass-bottomed boat to nearby Minokoshi, you can see an amazing variety of rock formations, including fine examples of these bamboo-like rocks. In one place, layers of sandstone and mudstone have been thrown up dramatically at a forty-five degree angle, forming a steep ridge. There are also rocks covered with interesting pit marks, and you can even find the fossilized tunnels of marine crustaceans. A narrow path winds along the rocky shore, offering something interesting at every turn.
The glass-bottomed boat passes over strangely-shaped coral populated by colourful fish, octopuses, and moray eels, which seem to take an interest in the boat. The water here is an amazing translucent turquoise blue.
Kashiwajima is an island joined by a bridge to peninsula that juts out into the entrance to the Uwakai Sea. The pretty bay formed by the island is used for pearl culture. The colour of the shallow sea in this area is particularly attractive.
Aji Gekijo Chika located in central Shimanto city is an eccentric restaurant built like an amphitheatre inside. It’s name means ‘theatre of flavour’. Here you can enjoy all of the Kochi favourites like katsuo no tataki and nori tempura, as well as more unusual fare such as delicious small abalone known as ‘nagareko’, and whole mackerel sushi baked in foil. This all goes very well with the local sake.
If you fancy a change from seafood, Iburi Curry in Tosashimizu is a good lunchtime option. This roadside café has pleasant indoor and outdoor seating. There are several varieties of curry and you can select the spiciness to taste. I had the keema with five times the basic spiciness and I went away well satisfied.
The Rest Tatsukushi beside the beautiful beach at Tatsukushi has a selection of favourites like curry and rice, and katsuo no tataki. Tsukasabotan sake is also available here. The Showa period tile art in the restaurant is rather special.