INTERNATIONAL KOBE NESTLES NICELY NEAR THE SEA
Trip Start Apr 28, 2010
52Trip End Oct 15, 2010
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Where I stayed
Toko City Hotel Shin Osaka
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
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
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
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
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
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!