Trip Start Apr 28, 2010
Trip End Oct 15, 2010

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Where I stayed
Toko City Hotel Shin Osaka

Flag of Japan  , Kinki,
Thursday, June 10, 2010

Taking no more than the 40 minutes from Kyoto to Osaka, Kobe lies the same distance from Osaka, letting us keep our Osaka digs as home base. Yaya discovered a free laundry machine in the basement of the Toko Hotel which magically not only washes but also dries, so we're remaining loyal to the nice staff and pleasant neighborhood here. (High on my reasons to stay: a market a block away that has some amazing 'han-gaku’ or half-price food sales after 9 pm. An entire grilled fish for $2? My kind of town!)

I was especially interested in Kobe, having heard that it’s a very popular city with foreigners. We almost changed our minds when a hearty Ozzy we bunked with our first night in Kyoto pronounced "Kuh-bay" boring as dirt. By that, I assumed, he hadn’t found the bars to his liking and there he had a point.

I imagined Kobe similar to his Melbourne while Osaka was more like Sydney, rowdy and free-wheeling. Melbourne, like Kobe I suspected, is definitely more subdued with a kind of elegant dignity. We walked the ten minutes from our hotel to Shin-Osaka station, the popular Shinkansen (‘bullet train’) stop, and wanted to find out what the allure was all about.

But arriving at the train platform to Kobe, we found a most un-Japanese scene of chaos and confusion. Loudspeakers were barking and people checked their watches, muttering. Muttering for a Japanese, I knew, indicates a state of high anxiety. Either World War 3 had broken out or…even more unthinkable….the trains were running late.

Sure enough, the signboards started flashing the grim news: all the trains going our way were half an hour to an hour late. I’m sure the Japanese thought their world was nearing collapse. Fortunately, for us, not having reservations on any particular train, we could just wait for whatever train next came along and hop aboard. Within about 10 minutes, one finally did arrive and off we went.

On board, I just had to ask. Yaya thought I was jumping to conclusions but I assured her, in Japan there is simply no way machinery could have caused such a delay in maintenance-obsessed Nippon. No, this was a human event and, I suspected, a grisly one. Sure enough, the young man I asked about the cause of the delays reminded me of a word I’d forgotten since leaving Japan, happily: ‘jisatsu’.

My understanding is that despite a reputation for it, the Japanese commit suicide no more than other members of developed societies, less than in, say, dreary Scandinavian countries with their endless winters. But, with no real proscriptions against suicide in their religions (Shinto and Buddhist) and plenty of economic pressure these days due to the recession, it’s not surprising that some folks just give up. And when they decide to, high-speed trains are an easy out when they come whizzing through local stations at full tilt. Ugh.

Fortunately, Kobe changed the rather grim mood on the train in a twinkling. The ever-efficient tourist office gave us a thorough walking plan to cover the highlights and we dutifully followed their advice. Our first stop was to be the ‘ijinkan’ or ‘foreigners’ homes’ perched on the verdant hills behind the city. These homes, built by the wealthy foreign traders that made Kobe Japan’s international port town in the 19th Century, have been lovingly restored and offered spectacular views of the magnificent harbor.

The climb wasn’t bad and the hills surprisingly close, making me think that Kobe couldn’t grow much but probably instead, hugged the coastline. Still, it’s not very big, perhaps due to the after-effects of the massive 1995 earthquake which brought home to the world just what a dangerous part of the world Japan sits on. (In fact, I was fairly certain we’d experience a few tremors during our stay here but so far, nothing, pleasing Yaya no end.)

The hills behind the ‘ijinkan’ were lush and jammed full of foliage, impenetrable forest, I thought. It really did make for a lovely backdrop for a good-sized city. Yes, we agreed, Kobe was a keeper. We saw a group of elderly Japanese gathered at a small temple so headed to see what made it so popular. I noticed a sign and altar in front of a large tree and promptly invented in my mind a story of how the temple must be in homage to a special tree that had some magical properties and was beloved by residents. I asked the old woman in charge of the site about the tree and she responded, “No, it’s just a big old tree. Nothing special. But no pictures.” I was crushed by her honesty.

Leaving the winding lanes of Kitano and descending back down to the city, we again commented on how livable the city felt. For my part, the fact that it had TWO Indian buffet restaurants was a major selling point. For Yaya, it was more the tasteful shops lining the upscale shopping street. Particularly interesting was a conversation we had in one art gallery with two professors of ‘noh’ theater, hosting a mask show. They explained patiently that ‘noh’ is considered the most refined of the Japanese performing arts while ‘kabuki’, with its garish costumes, is the people’s theater, appearing a century later, about 400 years ago. A recording of a ‘noh’ performance reminded these foreigners of just how inaccessible the stuff is to the western mind….

Yaya wanted to visit Kobe’s famous and thriving Chinatown. (Why? I thought. We’ll be in the real thing in a few days.) Nevertheless, we wandered through the same herb shops and knick-knack stores familiar to everyone who’s seen any Chinatown anywhere. Ignoring Lonely Planet’s advice to avoid the overpriced restaurants, we had lunch in one and were indeed disappointed until we found a crowd at one small joint and joined the fray. Inside, we found the tastiest ‘nikuman’ meat buns I can remember having. Turns out the little place has been #1 in buns for over 70 years, with good reason!

Japan is famous for its ‘shoten-gai’ or shopping streets, often covered to protect strollers from bad weather. The streets can go for kilometers with store after store after store making even the heartiest consumer bleary-eyed. At least America’s shopping malls offer different levels and superstores. Japan’s streets are lined with stores nearly the same size, all displaying hundreds of different models of their specialty. Need shoes? The store will have what you want in every possible permutation…except anything over a size 10. I know; I’m looking for a size 11. Maybe in Hong Kong….

It’s one thing to stroll past shops with culturally different wares and I can’t wait to see the surely-fascinating markets of China, but too often Japan’s ‘shoten-gai’ just offend me, seeing the unapologetic consumerism of the people so clearly on display. Maybe it’s my Calvinist roots, but I just find the baubles and gee-gaws dangled in front of Japanese shoppers grossly hedonistic and crass. If I see one more Louis Vitton bag I think I’ll scream.

So I was probably a bit grumpy as we passed through the interminable ‘shoten-gai’ of Motomachi, of which, of course, Kobe-ites are proud as punch. Surviving the onslaught of Hello Kitty paraphernalia, we emerged at the port, which I’d hoped would be working but seemed quite indeed. We saw the earthquake monument with excellent video which showed all that it had done in 1995 and how the city had rebuilt entirely in 2 short years, amazing considering the damage. The waterside park featured a few experimental boats, mounted so junior-engineers could be inspired to build future tributes to Japanese workmanship. I thought, this is what a proud culture does: show it’s young what forbears have done and dare them to do better.  The name of one prototype jet-boat was the ‘Yamato’, the oldest and proudest of the many names for the nation of Japan. It’s no coincidence that it was also the name of Japan’s mightiest destroyer in World War 2, the ship that struck terror into America’s fleet. They say for the Japanese, the war never ended; only the frontlines have changed….

Rounding out Kobe’s attractions was an amusement park but we declined despite the tourist office promising us a spectacular light show there at night. We’d gotten a taste of Kobe and found it modest but most-attractive. Close to the action of Osaka and the culture of Kyoto, yet far enough away to find some tranquility, we rate it ‘most livable’ of all Japanese cities and the best place for Westerners to spend quality time with the culture, while enjoying enough foreign flavor to feel familiar. Put this one on your ‘must-see’ list!
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George Sickler on

Hola John and Yaya,

More extremely interesting and entertaining information, guys. I've never been to Japan, but am beginning to get the urge. That was a particularly interesting comment a few "chapters" back, incidentally, about the difficulty in getting fresh vegetables.

In 1969, while working in D.C., the husband of a gal in the office had retired from the military but stayed in Occupied Japan. He introduced the Japanese to hydroponic (SP?) farming, or growing vegetables successfully without soil. Anyway, he was to agriculture as W. Edwards Demming was as the guru who introduced Japanese manufacturing management to quality processes. Or so the wife said.

I'm kidding, but perhaps the chemicals used in the growing process post-WWII is a reason why the Japanese are still relatively short.

Not much going on in San Miguel. We did find the key to the Shelter and had a fantastic party . Everybody promises to pitch-in and repair all the damage before you get back.

(Again, KIDDING! ) Hasta luego and best regards, George

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