We covered Shikoku's south shore today. This is no small feat. I know Shikoku's an island, but it's not like a Hawaiian island or one of the Bahamas. It's one of Japan's four main islands. And starting this morning, we drove (or really, my Aunt Izumi drove) a tiny Toyota from Kannoura in the east to Nakamura in the southwest.
The day started in an un-ambitious manner. After breakfast at the hotel, we went to visit my Great Aunt Mina at a nearby retirement home in Kannoura. Normally I'd cringe at the idea of going to a nursing home. The thought of ever putting a loved one into something like that scares me. I didn't want to go in. But when I did, I found a very warm, friendly environment, an awesome staff, and really nice facilities overall. And then, of course, there's Mina-chan, who despite never having met me, was as sweet and nice and adorable as can be. None of that bitter-old-person-in-a-group-home stuff. It was a very moving experience. More about that at some point later...
Next, Makoto and Aunt Izumi picked up some food at a local market while I went to hunt down some bug bite cream. Japan's a humid country - especially during this unseasonably warm autumn - and I'm a known mosquito magnet. Guess who's been scratching himself like a mangy mutt for the last few days?
Riding down the coast was fine - if you like being a passenger - but only because there were plenty of brief stops to take in the sights. In fact, our first stop was no more than two minutes down the road at a startlingly turquoise-colored lagoon.
It was there when I came face to face with the deadly blowfish: Fugu. No, I didn't go for a swim or find some impromptu sushi stand. My mom gathered up some dead fugu that had washed ashore and waved 'em around at me, as though I'd be scared. Sure, they're poisonous, but if she's holding them, how can they be a threat to me? My mom must think I'm really dumb...
Anyway, I acted like I was scared halfway to death. Then I guilted her about it, and played off that guilt so that we wouldn't have to stay in the suburbs of Tokyo next week. That's right. Thanks to some dead blowfish, some superior acting skills, and the fact that earlier in my life something like that actually would have made me soil myself, I'm all good with Mom now.
Ok, all that is a lie. As we were both playing with dead fugu after she initially swung it at me like some maritime nunchaku, we had a little heart to heart, and even she agreed that staying outside of Tokyo would suck. Yay Mom! I'm not that much of a prick to emotionally manipulate my mom, either, if that's what you were thinking.
A few more minutes down the coastal road and we were at Shikaoka, locally famous for its meoto-iwa, or "wedded rocks," a Shinto tradition that it seems nobody has answers about. Either way, it's one of those cool sights you just have to see at some point, if not for its supreme natural beauty then for the strange human behavior behind how it's adorned. My mom and aunt used to picnic here back in the day when visiting Mina-chan, so we did the same, digging into some inari, futomaki, and... oh, dammit, is that more raw fish again!? Ok, it was good. Really good. And dining al fresco with a view like this, I would've been fine if I'd been served a can of cat food.
It was another couple of very scenic hours to Kochi, where we detoured over to a toll road. My, my, my what a difference that makes. From slow, narrow, cramped roads to an actual multi-lane highway... It was like we changed countries entirely in the span of a few seconds. Now we were cruisin'... And the scenery was just as beautiful... And I thought to myself, "Maybe we will get home at a decent time!" And two minutes in, we stopped.
What the...? A rest area? But we just got on the highway! I don't care if Makoto wants ice cream, I -- wait, is that yuzu flavored ice cream? And sweet potato flavor? And grilled eggplant flavor? And tomato flavor? Oh, hell yeah. Hook me up with that yuzu! Mmmm... umm.. bleh.
I was suddenly reminded of for-fucks-sake-will-someone-please-explain-why-it's-so-popular Mitchell's Ice Cream in San Francisco. They've got a stunning variety of flavors, with ice cream quality that may as well be from Hormel. Or Purina. Shitty, air-injected, powdery gunk with nasty mouth feel. That's how this stuff was. But damn, the flavors make Mitchell's look amateur by comparison.
Oh well. At least we had the pleasure of being at a freakin' whale-themed rest area. There were whale benches, signs in the shape of whales, and these cute cartoon style whales you can clamber upon if you're a toddler. Or stoned. Kochi is very proud of its whales. There are whale symbols everywhere, and if you've got $50 burning a hole in your pocket, any number of sea captains will take you whale watching. Which is something I'll be bearing in mind as I spend the next five or so days here.
The following couple hours or so of the drive were blissfully unmarred by stops and starts - just smooth highway sailing with more of those ridiculous views. So far I've been to Osaka, which is the kick-back metropolitan part of Japan. Kyoto's the historical part. I'll be headed to Tokyo for the trendy, fast-paced cosmopolitan thing. Kochi prefecture and Shikoku in general? This is the rough-and-tumble part of Japan. Rugged coastlines. Dramatic mountains. Little by way of luxuries. Trains are slow. Buses are slower. At least there's this toll highway to get us home, near Nakamura.
It was just before the home stretch that we stopped again, this time in the small town of Taisho. While it's not anywhere as big as Tokyo's Tsukiji, the Taisho fish market is supposedly as famous in Japan, especially for its selection of the Kochi specialty - katsuo, known better to you and I as bonito. In the States, we usually see bonito dried or shredded or vacuum packed, and it's pretty tasty then. Here, you get it fresher than Michael Jackson at a Gymboree store. So fresh that the local way to eat it is as a tataki (seared outside, raw inside), so that's what we bought. We also picked up some tobi (flying fish), some squid, and a few other goodies.
And here's where I lose all my pro-environment, pro-ecology, sustainable-everything cred. Amongst all the fresh fish, I noticed one of the stands had what looked like sukiyaki beef. It seemed a bit odd, but then I remembered that this being the small town's one central market, one comes here for everything. Including red meat. I came back by the stall again and realized the sign said "Kujira." At ¥700 per 2-serving tray, this seemed like a steal. I forked over ¥1,400 (about $11) for two trays, had it packed in ice, and went on my merry way, knowing in the next couple of days, we'll be having a very rare treat.
Oh yeah - kujira means "whale."
I know, I know. Fuck you too, hippie.