A journey to Shikoku with JENESYS 2.0: Kōchi, Japan

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Earlier this year I went on a once in a lifetime trip to Japan on the JENESYS 2.0 programme (to read all about it on my first post click here). Part of this involved a trip to regional Japan to experience every day life outside of the bustling, tourist-strewn hub of Tokyo, to spend time with a host family in Japan suburbia. 

When you travel, you experience a city from a different perspective to the locals. Of course, this is in part because you are a tourist, and no matter how hard you dig you will always be a tourist. But this is also because more often than not, you will stay where it is most convenient, where you will be able to travel easily and where you can make the most of your holiday time - whether this be near a popular transport centre or in the middle of the city. You never really get to live like the locals. 

Our regional stay enabled us to do just that - spend our time with Japanese locals, take part in traditional cultural activities and eat authentic home-cooked Japanese food. You could be forgiven for thinking it's all about Tempura, Sushi and Ramen here. 

Kōchi is a prefecture on Shikoku, the lesser known southern island of Japan that is about an 80 minute flight from Tokyo's Haneda airport. Closer to the equator, we stayed in Ōtoyo in the Nagaoka Disctrict, a quiet, secluded town of rolling hills, picturesque mountains and lush, dense greenery. Accessible by road or train from Takamatsu airport, through it runs the Yoshinogawa River and has a population of which 50% is over the age of 65, the only municipality in Shikoku to boast such an amazing demographic.


 This sleepy town has handful of roads on which clusters of houses sit picture perfect, side by side, but many live scattered about in the hills, cloistered, surrounded by metres and metres of the most beautiful scenery one could wish for.

It was in and around this town that we explored for two days. Time seemed to stand still and stretch on for forever; that's the beauty of country life. 

Upon arriving in Ōtoyo we travelled up a never-ending, impossibly narrow, steep and windy road that took us to Yutorist Park situated on the very top of a mountain; a 'park in the sky'. Windmills dotted the park, landscaped with rows and rows of poppies of bright purple, pink and red that paved the way up a flight of stairs leading to a view of the whole park and all that lay below. 

Yutorist Park, Otoyo

It was here that we ate our first meal in Kōchi, a bento box of the district's finest foods like nothing I'd ever tried before. The rice had pebbles of colour engrained into it, and upon taking a mouthful crackled and popped on the tongue. We discovered that it was not simply rice, but a shellfish and seafood-marbled mixture in which were scattered pieces of tiny whitebait and little cockles. Scattered on top of this, and strewn in the fruit jelly, were Ginburo beans. Each prefecture in Japan is famous for a certain culinary specialty; in Ōtoyo it is this purple relative of the green bean. It was sweet in a way that complemented the rice well, and the very fact that it only grows in this town has us delighted and savouring every last bean. 


The cutlet (top right) consisted of a red meat, cooked to a light pink and encased in a slightly soft crumb. We were told as we were enjoying it that the meat was in fact local deer, farmed only kilometres away. It was tender, reminiscent of beef with a gamey flavour. Next to this was a piece of karaage (fried chicken), and on the right staple pickles, boiled egg, fish cake and even a plain short spaghetti 'salad'!

Mountain views of the rice paddies and countryside

That night we were taken to Kajigamori Lodge, a traditional-style lodge up high in the mountains, run by friendly locals who added a homey touch to our stay by running the kitchen as well as the lodge. At dinner time we sat down in the communal dining room to have them serve us nabe (hot pot), and for breakfast the next day we woke to find them, cheerful-faced and donned in aprons, passing around tea and hot soup.

Futon and Kotatsu in the Tatami room!

The lodge had traditional tatami mat rooms that were separated by paper screens. At night we dragged linen out that was stowed away to set up futon, and bathed in the traditional Japanese style (shower first, then a soak in the bath). In our tatami rooms we were even fortunate enough to have kotatsu, a traditional Japanese table with a heater underneath and soft blanket on top to keep in the heat in the cold weather. 

Nabemono, often shortened to Nabe, is an overarching term for Japanese hot pot; Nabe translating loosely to 'cooking pot' and mono meaning 'thing'. Traditionally eaten during Winter, it is perfect for communal eating and cooked right on the table. The base is a light or strong stock, bubbling away in a large ceramic pot on a portable stove with an array of fresh ingredients served on the side. We were presented with an assortment of vegetables such as carrot, spring onion, cabbage, a variety of mushrooms (enoki, shitake), tofu and fresh udon. 

These were cooked gently in the simmering stock, then placed in a bowl along with some of the infused broth and eaten in small portions. While being enjoyed, more ingredients are added to the pot so that once everyone has finished eating, they are able to move on to another hot bowl. Typically one begins with the vegetables to build up the stock, then add the noodles last so that they are able to soak up the wonderfully flavoured broth.

Getting some Nabe action!

On the side was lightly fried 'katsu' style mackerel, this had a lot of tiny bones so was quite fiddly. A small bowl of rice and miso nasu (miso eggplant) rounded off the meal. This was one of my few encounters with nabe, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There is just something so gratifying about gathering around a table with strangers to cook a meal, it's a feeling that really brings people together. Not to mention the joy you gain from cooking your own dinner, and the fun you have while doing it!

Breakfast at Kajigamori Lodge

Breakfast the next day was laid out beautifully when we arrived, an assortment of little dishes that we were able to graze on and enjoy both together and separately. One was a warming, pale yellow sweet corn soup - yes, they do have sweet corn soup in Japan! - which was thick and wholesome. Sweet, salty cones of sheet white onigiri were arranged in rows; these were real onigiri, slightly warm in the centre and ever so sticky to the touch. A pair of shiny golden milk buns, which were a little too sweet for me, sat alongside bite-sized pieces of orange, banana (still in the peel!), strawberry and lemon. Spot the Kraft strawberry jam on the plate! Finally, a small dish of peppered cabbage, green pea and carrot salad, potatoes and a boiled egg. This was the trademark of Japanese breakfasts for me, perfectly prepared and presented. All these little dishes, though they didn't look very big, were more than enough to fill me up for the rest of the morning.

Beautiful rice paddies in Otoyo

That day we were assigned to our host families, with whom we would stay with for one night. Having only studied Japanese for 3 months at the time, I was in a group of 3 other girls my age and as none of them spoke any Japanese, I was quite nervous. Our host family was made up of an old woman and man, who reminded me of my grandparents and I felt immediately at ease. It was a bit of a struggle to communicate with them; this involved lots of hand actions and mmm-hmming. 

The breathtaking view from our host family's house in Otoyo

Despite the language barrier, we felt very much at home in their beautiful little house on the side of the hills overlooking the valley. They were farmers, spending most days out in vegetable garden in the front of their house, and had two adult children, one of whom was an English teacher. Their house, was a mixture of traditional and modern, with sliding paper walls, the traditional drop-floor dining table, a tatami room as well as a TV, computer, printer and spacious bathroom. Perhaps what I found most enetertaining about their home was the electronic toilet, which had a toilet lid that automatically lifted up when the door was opened! Sugoii (cool)!!

The barrier that language formed, food broke down. After settling in with our bags, we sat down to a snack of oranges and anko wagashi, red bean mochi encased in a layer of sesame. They were one of my favourite sweets in all the time I spent there, and I even bought a box home upon my return to Australia. We spent that afternoon helping our host mother, Setsuko, peel and chop vegetables for dinner. 

We watched as she set up a portable induction stove in the adjoining 'second kitchen' and prepare various ingredients for what looked like some deep-frying. And we were right! She pulled out a tupperware (they have tupperware in Japan!) container to reveal bite-sized pieces of chicken, marinated in some garlic, salt, pepper and flour...karaage! She was kind enough to trust us with the chopsticks and help fry the chicken.


We'd peeled and chopped up a variety of vegetables - carrot, potato, onion and peppers, to a thin julienne. Setsuko added salt to this to draw out the moisture, then after 10 minutes a sprinkling of flour. This created a thin batter that binded individual pieces together, and from this she moulded patties that were deep-fried to a golden crisp. These were called kakiage and were very similar to vegetable tempura

To finish off our dinner banquet, Setsuko had made sushi sarado, sushi rice mixed with kewpie mayonnaise, corn, ham and lettuce. She showed us how to wrap up the rice in a sheet of nori like a hand roll, which was tangy, crunchy and salty all in one bite - truly a dish that epitomises the mixing of Japanese and Western cuisine.  

The kakiage was crunchy on the outside and chewy within, and I couldn't stop going back for more. It reminded me of potato french fries,with the added bonus of carrot, sweet onion and peas. The chicken was tender and had the perfect balance of salt and spice, placed on a platter alongside refreshing cabbage.

The island of Shikoku is famous for it's seafood, in particular bonito. On the table there was also a tray of sashimi, darkened on the outside with a ring that bordered a ruby-red flesh. Only later did I realise that it was bonito that I'd eaten, fresh from the shop. If you can see behind that in the picture below, these sits a pile of bread. These were homemade bagels (yes, bagels!), made by our host father's brother's wife. They were wonderfully, joyfully chewy and soft, some were marbled with beady seeds that I loved. 

 A delicious home-cooked dinner

Setsuko made such an effort to prepare this meal as our welcome dinner, and throughout the whole time we were at the table she made sure we were able to sample everything and constantly offered more. She reminded me so much of my own grandmother. Everything we ate that night had just that home-cooked touch that made it so different to any other meal we had on our trip. It was just like eating at home, except we were eating food that we'd never eaten before, which was worlds away from the food we ate in Tokyo. This was real home cooking. 

We went to bed that night on futon, stomachs full and content. The next morning we woke up to find Setsuko busy in the kitchen, and a sight before our eyes made out jaws drop. 

Now this is how you do breakfast. She must have been up at least an hour earlier than us to lovingly prepare this meal, and while we ate she ate opposite up, watching us all the time to see if we liked it. In fact, I absolutely loved every bit of it. As well as the staple bowl of perfectly cooked rice, she'd made chicken soup with cress and cubed, jelly-like tofu, larger pillows of silken tofu garnished with shallot, and to the right of that a piece of chicken tenderloin cooked with sweet soy and accompanied by pickled greens. We were given soy and ponzu to dress our tofu with, and the ponzu was tangy and sweet. To refresh our palettes, a bowl of peas marinated in mirin and soy, and some pieces of tomato, shredded cabbage and cucumber that has a softer, meatier texture than the ones in Sydney. A delicate, filling and wholesome meal this was to start off the day. 

 As part of our farm stay, we had a farm experience helping our host parents weed their vegetable garden. It was a beautiful, cute little area, arched over with wire stakes. Upon weeding we got to glimpse the wonderful produce they were growing right in their own front garden - baby eggplants and sweet, green peppers, some of which we'd cooked with the previous night in the kakiage

The hot Kochi sun beat down on our backs as we worked up a sweat weeding. Setsuko came out to bring us gloves and arm protectors, which were long pieces of cloth through which we threaded our arm and draped over the tops of our hands to hook onto our fingers to protect our arms from the harsh sun. How cute!

Lunch that day was somen - thin, vermicelli-like noodles dipped in a mixture of mirin and soy. They were my favourite noodles, refreshing and cold, as well as leftover karaage and kakiage from the previous night. We also were given red bean jelly as a refreshment, which was quite unusual - savoury but sweet at the same time. At the end of our farm stay there were tears shed parting with Setsuko and Yassan, they had been so warm and generous in lending us their homes for the night and letting us taste the best Japanese food I'd ever had. Throughout the stay they always made sure we were comfortable and, most importantly, never hungry. Although we didn't get to speak with them very much, aside from the basic good morning and hai (yes) or iie (no), the connection I felt with them was so deep and special. I think it was because they reminded me so much of my own family and grandparents at home, and because it was my first time away from home alone it was like they became my own parents. I will never forget the wonderful memories I had made with them, and their kindness and generosity in reaching out to us and for caring so much about us. We'd only stayed with them for one night - no more than 24 hours - but time seemed to go by so slowly and that was by far the highlight of my trip, and an experience I will treasure forever.

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