Saturday morning, I awoke early enough to enjoy the complimentary hotel breakfast. Afterwards, we piled into a van for some sightseeing. The change in temperature and humidity one felt when walking out the hotel doors was like a kick in the face. It reminded me of summers in Iowa, where you sweat all the way from your car to the supermarket doors, only to have the air conditioning freeze you once you’re inside; one extreme to another. Ironically, southern Japan in the summertime didn’t feel quite as bad as the Midwest, but it was definitely damn hot.
Our first stop was Katsurahama (桂浜), an amazingly beautiful beach. Before I even got a look at the water, I was shocked by the deafening volume produced by the local cicadas. They were so loud that I actually had a hard time hearing my travel companions when they were standing right next to me. We climbed stairs up to a point where the water was in view and then I was immensely impressed.
The waves at Katsurahama were HUGE! Just watching the sea evoked a strange feeling, like I had finally arrived in the land of my childhood fantasy. Wave after wave crashed on the rocks, sending a spray of mist into the air, and all I could image was a character from Samurai Showdown, practicing his swordsmanship. In the distance, I could see a small Shinto shrine on a cliff, its bright orange structure popping out from the sea blue behind it. We didn’t visit the shrine, but I image it is the epicenter of awesome. From my travels so far, no single place embodies the mysticism of Japan for me more than Katsurahama.
The reason we had walked to this spot was actually to see the iconic statue of Sakamoto Ryōma (坂本 龍馬). Ryōma was an avant-garde samurai who had been credited with helping bring about the Meiji Restoration—the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the rapid modernization of Japan. He was assassinated just before the Meiji Restoration got started, at the age of 33, which I’m sure helped solidify his idealized image as a handsome, young revolutionary. Ryōma favored egalitarianism and saw the feudal system as a block to progress. However, he didn’t completely reject samurai ideals. Apparently he carried a modern weapon, a Smith & Wesson revolver, but he continued to dress in samurai garb. His mix of tradition and modernity has made him a classic character in both history and Japanese popular culture.
Ryōma was born in Kōchi and Kōchi is extremely proud of him. At this point, Ryōma has become the symbol of Kōchi. (To me, the repeated use of Ryōma‘s image is reminiscent of the image of George Washington in the States.) This is evident not just from his massive statue at Katsurahama, but also from every gift shop in the prefecture. They have every Ryōma-themed product imaginable; key chains, cell phone charms, t-shirts, hats, boxer briefs, statues, action figures, bobble heads, mugs, sake sets, candy and other food products, naruko, umbrellas (with handles that look like the hilt of a katana), and—the very best of all—toilet paper. It probably helps that Ryōma’s story has been told over and over in Japanese media, most recently in the NHK historical drama, Ryōmaden.
Before leaving Katsurahama, we did some shopping for omiyage (おみやげ – souvenir) at one such gift shop. Gift giving is a big part of Japanese culture, and often times (if not all the time), a traveler will bring back some token gift for his coworkers from where he’s been. My fellow teachers had given me omiyage multiple times in the short time I’ve been in Shakotan, so I wanted to return the favor. I ended up buying a couple packages of an okashi (お菓子 – confections, sweets, candy) representative of Kōchi.
Besides the Ryōma stuff, there also seemed to be many dog-theme decorations and omiyage around Katsurahama. I thought this was especially odd, since the dogs pictured were beastly-looking pit bulls, or a similar breed. My friends told me that one thing Katsurahama was famous for was dog fighting, and they still do it to this day. I was told I could watch a dogfight and even place bets, if I so desired. That made me kind of sad.
Next on the agenda was a visit to historic Kōchi Castle (高知城). I couldn’t have been more pumped to visit an authentic Japan castle, and Kōchi didn’t disappoint. Just climbing the massive stone steps gave me flashbacks of the ninja video game series, Tenchu. Even though the castle is now in the middle of a metropolitan area, the cicadas were again unbelievably loud. Constructed out of giant stone blocks, the majestic castle rose above move the city, situated on a hill top right in the middle of the area.
As we neared the castle entrance, we passed several food carts selling “ice crean.” I thought that this was just an Engrish typo, but Yamazaki-san explained to me that Kōchi had a unique dessert that was like ice cream, but a bit different, hence the odd name. We ended up buying some on our way out (in fact, Chikaru had two) and I was surprised by its consistency. Ice crean is frozen concoction that’s somewhere between ice cream and sorbet, and if you ask me, more on the sorbet side. If you order a flavor like chocolate or matcha, and you’re expecting creamy goodness, you will be disappointed; ice crean is more icy than creamy. I wonder if the name is actually an Engrish typo and the name they had intended was “ice clean.”
Near the ice crean vendors there was also a tent set up that constantly sprayed a gentle mist from its awning. The summer air was quite hot and humid, but the mist was cool and refreshing. I’m always impressed by the little touches in Japan.
We bought our tickets for the castle and checked our shoes at the door. Slippers were provided for indoor footwear. A man at the entrance also handed out cold oshibori (お絞り – wet towels), which everyone used to wipe the sweat from their faces. Once inside, we strolled about the castle and climbed floor after floor, up to the very top. Like any good historical site, the inside of the castle now contained many educational displays, including several dioramas of the castle and surrounding area in the feudal era. The models were so detailed that the effect was rather surreal; a castle within a castle. (I wondered if the model also contained a model castle inside: Inception.) A couple models actually depicted Japanese whalers catching and dismembering huge whales. That made me kind of sad.
After the awesomeness of Kōchi Castle, we walked around the town a bit and stopped at a food court for lunch. The building we entered was kind of like a mall, I suppose, although it was an odd collection of little shops within a cramped building. I think bazaar would be better word for it. There were tons of food options, but I wasn’t feeling especially hungry, so I bought some takoyaki for only 400 yen. I walked around the shops with one of the other dancers, a younger guy named Masato. We saw plenty of Ryōma products, as well as whale hunting-themed knickknacks.
In one of the gift shops, I was mesmerized by a bright yellow drink in a self stirring cold drink dispenser. The color was a radiant, almost neon yellow, reminiscent of Mountain Dew, but the liquid appeared to have some seeds in it. Masato-kun told me that it was yuzu tea (柚子茶), a drink made from a yellow citrus fruit called yuzu (柚子). I had never heard of yuzu, so I asked more questions. It wasn’t a lemon and it wasn’t an orange, it was different fruit that was native to Shikoku. It was tart and used in drinks like juices, teas, and sake. Intrigued, I had to buy a cup of this mystery tea. It was fantastic! Tart and sweet at the same time, it was like the golden child of lemonade and orange juice. If you ever get a chance to sample a yuzu drink, I highly recommend it.
Our group walked further into the city, passing through the Obiyamachi (帯屋町) shopping arcade, which was strongly reminiscent of Sapporo’s shopping arcade, Tanukikoji (狸小路). While there, we stopped into Astaire Dance Studio, situated on the third floor of a building in which all the other space looked gutted. Perhaps the building was amid renovations and the dance studio was the first business to start operating, I never did find out. The woman running the dance studio seemed to old friends with some people in our group, and we all sat down on the dance floor and drank iced coffee together. Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel to get dressed in our Yosakoi costumes and get ready to dance.
Stepping outside of the hotel in full Yosakoi garb, the heat was immediately a source of mild discomfort. The weather in Sapporo had been cool enough that the outfit was quite nice to wear, but in the hot Kōchi sun, the heat was unrelenting, and the costume proved to be a bit warm. Thanks to a slight breeze and the occasional stop in the shade, the weather wasn’t unbearable.
The Shakotan dancers walked for quite ways, finally meeting up our Kōchi teammates at a spot where all the Yosakoi teams were doing group photos. After we had our picture taken, the plan was explained to me. We were going to perform the Sōran down the street, parade-style like we done in Sapporo’s festival. This time, we were going to do the song ten times in a row. This sounded doable, although I knew the sun would be draining. Luckily, our group had two big coolers of drinks (one for alcoholic beverages and one for soft drinks) in our car, so anytime the parade stopped, we could grab a drink. Before we even got started, I downed a can of green tea.
Getting to dance the Sōran again was a real treat that I thoroughly enjoyed. As the parade wore on though, the sun shining on the concrete made the narrow Japanese street hotter and hotter. Every time there was a break in the action, I would grab another bottle of iced tea and hide in the shade. Considering how much I was sweating, replacing fluids was pretty important. Water would have been preferable, but the tea, with no sugar and—according to the label—no caffeine, was a decent substitute. By the time we got to the last couple run-throughs, I even indulged in a little 250ml can of Sapporo beer.
During one performance of the parade, Yasuda-san, who had been acting as emcee, gave me the microphone and had me actually sing the Sōran Bushi (ソーラン節) instead of dance. Since I still didn’t know all the lyrics by heart, he told me to just sing “la-la-la”, which I did. Afterwards, many of the dancers praised my singing, some of them apparently not noticing that missed half of the words. They really are very polite.
After our run of parading, our team arrived at the festival’s main stage. The area appeared to be a sports park, with space for two dirt baseball fields. A stage had been erected, several picnic tables set up, and the tents of random vendors snaked along the outside border. At first I walked around with my Shakotan friends, checking out what carnival food was being sold, but eventually the blistering sun was too much for me. I walked back to a shady area where I found the rest of our team having a bento dinner. Instantly I had a bento box and beer in hand, and was seated on the ground with old lady friends.
At 6:20pm, our team had our performance on the main stage. The powers that be had decided to place me in the front row, slightly to the right of center stage, so I was very visible. As we walked up onto the stage, the woman emceeing the event looked legitimately surprised to see a white guy in the group. Before we danced, Mayor Matsui came up to say a few words of introduction. For some reason, he took the opportunity to point me out specifically, and the emcee lady asked me a couple questions. So there I was, basically speaking to an audience of like 800 people, in my terrible Japanese. Over all though, I think I sounded alright. We began to do our dance and one of the city officials who was sitting in the front row, ran up and placed a medal around my neck. It reminded me of the Sapporo Matsuri.
Once we were offstage, someone told me that my medal entitled me to a prize. I was led to the prize table to receive my festival swag, and they gave me an envelope. Yamazaki-san inspected the envelope for me and laughed; I had won free admission to the official Anpanman Museum in Kōchi, to which we would surely not be going. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts.
After all the Yosakoi teams had danced on the main stage—and there were only ten teams in total—trophies were awarded. Our Shakotan-Kami team received third place, and I was one of the two team members chosen to accept our trophy on stage. Again, the emcee lady took the opportunity to talk with the gaikokujin (外国人 – foreign national) and I did a decent job of conversing in front of the crowd. While showing the trophy to my teammates, another clearly-not-Japanese fellow walked up to talk to me; his name was Pablo and he was from Spain. He had been doing research at a local university and was surprised to see another non-Japanese person in Kōchi. As he explained, there were very few foreigners that resided in the area and he knew of all them. A cute lady friend accompanied Pablo and when I greeted her, she laughed and clarified that she wasn’t Japanese. She was from China, and was actually a fellow researcher at the same university. I’m pretty sure we were the only three foreigners present at the festival.
At that point, the Shakotan folks decided to head out. Chikaru and I grabbed a couple “ice crean” cones, and our group ventured out into the darkness. First we went back to the hotel to change, and then we got some food at a random izakaya. After dinner, Yamazaki-san and Chikaru decided to retire for the evening. The rest of us headed to Snack Rakuto for more fun and drinking.
Much like the previous night, we sang karaoke. There was a group of anime otaku (アニメオタク) there who were singing only to anime themes and songs from video games. I should explain; an “otaku” is dork, geek, or nerd whose extreme, overwhelming enthusiasm for something makes them a social pariah. The word originally meant “your house” (お宅) and the term started be used for anime dorks that essentially never left their homes. A person can be labeled an otaku for being obsessed with any particular hobby or form of entertainment, but in the US it is usually only applied to anime/manga variety of nerds.
When I eventually sang, the otaku group seemed really impressed, and suddenly wanted to be friends. They requested songs for me to sing, starting with Take Me Home Country Roads, and I did my best to oblige. My fondest memory of the evening was singing All You Need Is Love, with the whole row joining in and drunkenly swaying back and forth to the rhythm. It was like love really is all you need; a beautiful moment.
On Sunday we had a bit of time in the morning before we had to fly home, so the whole Shakotan delegation, dancers and officials alike, drove downtown. We checked out a museum of sorts, a local exhibit for the NHK Drama “Ryōmaden” (龍馬伝). Ryōmaden was another retelling of Sakamoto Ryōma’s story, so it made sense that Kōchi was supporting it. The exhibit was a set from the actual show that you could walk around and check out. Had I ever seen the show before, I probably would have been even more enthusiastic. In one area, you could dress in samurai clothes, stand by a pedestal, and have your picture taken; in effect recreating Ryōma’s famous picture with you as Ryōma.
The exhibit had another gift shop full of Ryōma trinkets, even bigger than the others I had seen. Just outside the building, a group of dancers performed Yosakoi dances on a daily schedule, to promote dance style that Kōchi had produced. And of course, there was “ice crean” as well.
From there it was off to Kōchi Ryōma Airport and the journey home. For some reason, our plane was delayed an hour or so, so we killed time there. As you’d expect, the Kōchi Ryōma Airport has plenty of Ryōma gifts too. We said our goodbyes to our Kōchi friends and I promised that I would visit again someday. I also took the opportunity to buy another yuzu drink while I had the chance. It’s so good…