Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Japanland: Kobe

Over a year later, I think it's high time I actually finished the posts about my first visit to Japan, which was my birthday present to myself in 2013. I still haven't been to Tokyo but will be moving there in about a month, so I'm even happier now that I've just stuck with checking out the Kansai region instead of prematurely hurtling myself into that awesome, spiraling, drunken neon nightmare.

Kobe was the first place I ever visited in Japanland.

I went with a smile, a song, a bevy of cute outfits and several hundred dollars in my heart. Or bag. Or whatever. I was excited.

Actually, I was so excited that I pulled a couple of real amateur-hour stunts: I didn't look up how to get to my hostel from KIX, and I somehow forgot my phone charger. The latter I guess wasn't that big of a deal because there's virtually no free wifi in Japan, though the hostel of course had it. But I mean, like, I had to get there. 

The first of several nutritious 7/11 meals, kind of like in Taiwan

Realising once in downtown Kobe that I needed access to an Internet connection, I looked for an Internet cafe. I saw an ad for one, but couldn't quite find the building it was in. Hot, getting frustrated and carrying all my stuff on my back, I went into a 7/11 and said as simply and clearly as possible, "Hi, I'm looking for ____ Building. Do you know it?" 

After getting over the initial, obligatory deer-in-the-headlights response, the young clerk called her friend over to ask her. When neither of them knew which nearby building I meant by name, they searched on one of their phones. When that yielded no answer, they started to look slightly panic-stricken and called a more senior clerk down from upstairs. When he didn't know, he summoned two more store employees from out of the woodwork. When the 6th or 7th person arrived, it was, surprisingly and to everyones' relief, a handsome young guy who had studied in the States and spoke quite fluent English. I apologised for causing them so much trouble and thanked the newly formed coalition quite profusely as he stood halfway out the door and directed me down the road to the building I sought. Actually, he tried to walk me there, but I only let him accompany me to the nearest traffic light. Everyone waved goodbye like they would have in a scripted TV commercial. Be still, remnants of my teenage Japanophile heart.

I paid for the minimum of an hour in the cafe, and lingered for maybe 25 minutes because of the delicious, delicious air conditioning.

Then, even though I had a map, I found out that the area of Kobe I was going to was kind of the "seedy" (I mean, you know, as seedy as immaculate can get) entertainment district full of casinos, pachinko parlours, love hotels, hostess bars, etc., and that the buildings I was using as landmarks were not only franchise chains but were very close to each other, and virtually identical in appearance. 
So here's the second of three examples I immediately experienced of Japanese people being sickeningly, sickeningly helpful: I asked a very ornately-uniformed parking garage attendant with white gloves who wasn't busy for directions. Actually, there were quite a lot of uniformed security guys and attendants on that back street. It was seriously just a quiet little area of narrow alleys, and at one point there were three ornately-uniformed older dudes in white gloves who helped me cross a wee little street with no traffic on it with the utmost seriousness and professionalism. They weren't working for a hotel or anything, they were just there.

So anyway, I explained to nice parking garage guy that my phone had died and that my hand-drawn map had proven confusing and inadequate (except not anywhere near that fluently of course), and that I wondered if he knew the hostel by name. He didn't, and didn't have his phone on him, so he was like, "Excuse me for a minute," and darted across the little one-way street to the hotel a leisurely toss from where we were standing to ask the concierge at the front desk for the use of her phone. 
She clicky-clack tiptoed out in her cute little uniform so we could all look at the map together, and with similarly urgent office lady speed clickety-clacked me up to the nearest traffic light (seriously, getting tired and carrying my stuff, I had to jog a little to keep up) and explained that I was very close, but on the wrong side of the street, having effectively used the mirror image of a large casino chain as my primary landmark. I told her that her help had been amazing, and her response was, of course, to say that it wasn't very helpful at all and that she wished she could do more. I don't know how many times we then exchanged bows of ascending depth complete with cheek-cramping smiles as we drifted in opposite directions. 

And I mean, I don't even care if she was like, "God, what a dumb bitch," to parking garage guy once she got back to her desk. I still felt a little bit bad or guilty for being inducted into such an absurdly positive stereotype of the place.

After what would certainly not be the last of my hot, lengthy, heavy, meandering walks through Kobe, I couldn't get enough of the hostel I'd picked ahead of time for its super chill, bohemian atmosphere. While I haven't actually stayed in many hostels, Yume Nomad remains my favourite.

She uses one of those big bubbly Instax Mini 8 Polaroids that were trendy 
a few years back to take a pic of everyone who stays.

The young couple that runs it is super friendly. 
When I informed the wife - whose name I can't remember now and who mostly deals with the customers - that I'd somehow left my phone charger at home, she immediately offered me hers, though it was an iPhone cable and I needed USB to micro-USB (that's right, this is going to be Sickeningly Nice and Helpful Example Number Three). After searching the place up and down for one, she agreed that it was a little surprising that they didn't have something so common, and referred me to a nearby electronics shop. 
She didn't just point it out on the map, though; she drew a map of her own and carefully explained how to get there, then phoned ahead to make sure they had them, ask how much they were, and let the guy know that a clueless sweaty American girl would be purchasing one presently. But her husband, who mostly does the bartending, ended up having one and letting me use it. 

Good grief. 
See what I mean about how it's lovely and wonderful but makes you feel like shit?

Anyway, I really couldn't get enough of the hostel's decor.

Yes, unfortunately, these are/were real..

It seemed like I was going to have the dorm (I can't remember if it was 4 beds or 6) with its own bathroom and shower all to myself, until a nice Israeli girl arrived at the last minute. 

I went and got another surprisingly nutritious meal from 7/11 and parked myself on the terrace because I was too tired to deal with anything else, just before the hostel owners invited me to sit down to dinner with them. It was so heartwarming and I was sad to forsake the home cooking and company, but explaining that I had just gotten something and being visibly regretful about it was easier than explaining that I couldn't eat noodles and wouldn't eat beef or fish. 

The next morning, I'd decided that I wanted to set out for Mt. Rokko, take the cable car up and get a nice view of the city from the Mt. Rokko Garden Terrace park. Trains in Japan are not only very expensive compared to Korea, but to this day I find getting tickets much more complicated and old-fashioned as well. The prospect of commuting into and out of Tokyo every day seems daunting at best.

I knew which stop I wanted but couldn't find it on the big map in Sannomiya Station. There was a middle-aged woman lurking behind me, just waiting to swoop in as soon as I said "Uhh..", which she did. It turned out there were two stops with identical names on two different but similarly-named lines that also both left from the same platform, and she was like, "Oh no, you want THIS one," changing my selection for me. I had been sure I had the right one, but of course someone who lives there would know better, and I of course didn't think there would be two stops with the same name.. 
The end result was about a mile-long uphill walk just to get to the original station I'd wanted. Because yeah, I was right the first time, and the train system is so inefficient and confusing that even someone who lives there got it wrong. Thanks, Obama.

Wandering through one of Kobe's nicer suburbs was enjoyable in itself, though, and when I finally decided I couldn't find the cable car and asked a convenience store clerk about it, he told me it wasn't running anyway, down for maintenance or something. Blarg. 
I wasn't about to finish the hike all the way up to the mountaintop after wandering around the steep hillsides for a couple of hours, so I called it and headed back down.

Pre-fab post-modern concrete architecture as conceptualised by children

Put a koi in it!

I know this is just a drainage ditch, but isn't it interesting and pleasant? The way it ran along the gutters and alleys next to and between all the houses was interesting, too. The Japanese government has been expert at concreting over nature since the 1960's, but in certain cases, like this one, civil engineers really seem to get it right.

Japan's full of really interesting manhole covers, and Kobe seems to have more than usual. Is there a fire extinguisher in here? Because, full disclosure, I really don't even know what they mean by "cistern". That would be a pretty great safety measure after the earthquake of '95, when they had exactly zero safety measures in place.

I thought it was interesting the way the tombstones blended in with the buildings. 

I walked through the downtown area and went to a mostly-vegan cafe called Modernark for lunch. It wasn't cheap, but then, I wasn't expecting it to be. (During my last trip to Japan I went to another highly-rated and even more overpriced vegan restaurant in Osaka and all I can say is that I guess most people have yet to figure out how to make something tasty without using any animal products.)

This curry brown rice with an extra veggie patty on top and a side of yogurt and honey was pretty yummy, but not great, and not very substantial.

Teensy weensy baked goods and other very overpriced handmade products..

Next I found a cute, rustic, German-style woodcraft shop and walked through Chinatown before heading down to the scenic harbour area:

This happened after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, and they left it as part of the memorial. A few metres of what was previously the edge of the harbour park just subsided into the sea. This was nowhere near the worst of it, either: pretty much the entire expressway collapsed onto its side and looked like a giant wet lasagna noodle sheet. Everything was on fire. And to somehow make matters even worse, there was a massive tangled spider web of live electrical wires and power lines draped over every surface, every road, building, and pile of rubble, so that first responders couldn't get near much of anything to rescue anyone.

(Going back and editing this again, years later, I can say with total confidence this this will happen in Tokyo one day, and that it will be much worse because of the sheer population and building density, and the poorly-planned nature of both. Not only has the Japanese government stubbornly and insistently made it impossibly expensive to bury electrical lines and wiring for reasons that remain mysterious to me, but gas ranges are still very common, even in the Tokyo metro area, and even in new buildings. 
So, on top of this horrendous, tangled, Third-World canopy of live wires - or rather under it - you have big metal canisters of natural gas being stored outside in the open, because of course those are delivered by a guy in a little truck instead of being pumped through lines underground. Since natural gas explosions are devastating and ruptures would probably occur pretty oftenin  a place with semi-liquid, sea-level topsoil, this aspect kind of makes sense. But you know what makes even more sense? Phasing these out in favour of electric ranges. You know, literally anything other than using big canisters of natural gas stored in the open next to densely-packed apartment blocks and houses under a canopy of live wires in one of the most earthquake-prone places in the world.)

This was a cool installation that told folk/fairy tales related to the sea.

 I think these were my favourite, like giant plastic sea anemones.

Japanland is pretty weird and pretty awesome in that it's like the 1980's 
and the future at the same time.

(My jaded, years-later self editing this can confirm that Japanland is actually just the 80's, and that anything that looks like it's from the future is a superficial, soft culture marketing gimmick and/or sex toy.)

Aww, even the barricades are cute.
(Years-later editing self agrees, but no longer cares. 
Hello Kitty ones pop up sometimes, too.)

lol wow. 

#infrastructure porn

At this point the light was waning and I was getting pretty tired. I'd basically walked through all of Kobe in one day. My last stop before heading back to the hostel was the Ikuta Shrine. Interestingly, this is one of three shrines that was supposedly originally founded by the Empress Jingu in the third century.

After taking a break at the hostel and snagging myself some tofu from a nearby traditional fast food place and bar, I went out with the Israeli girl whose cool name I also can't remember now. 

More serious walkage ensued, and we were both pretty baffled when the show at the rock/metal bar I'd found online was completely done and they were closing up at about 9:30. I mean, it was the middle of the week, but seriously, wtf. It was my first taste of realising that most shit in Japan closes really early, and that you have to get an idea of where to go if you want to stay out late.

We pushed our way through myriad absurdly-dressed, costumed, and painted host boys and girls, wondering aloud - and not for the last time - how so many bars in such a small area can afford to pay so many people, especially the ones standing around outside trying to hand out ads and coupons. I wish I had some photos of their middle-aged suburban mom hair and sexy short outfits (not even of the men and then women respectively, there were lots of transvestites too), but until a few weeks ago all I've had for photos has been my Toshiba Camelio, which is not even meant for taking pictures, but rather HD video.

At one point we allowed ourselves to be coaxed into a bar that had a really cool island beach theme, was up quite a lot of steep outdoor stairs, and that was of course way too expensive; we bailed without even having one drink and ended up just having a few cocktails at a cute little classic rock bar filled with vinyls and Elvis collectibles before heading back. 

Before saying bye to Kobe I ended up going on another long, hot, meandering walk while carrying all my stuff to the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery, mostly for the free samples.

I had "lunch" under a bridge.

This pics don't do it justice, but when I saw this heron (I think?) perch in this gnarly pine tree I was just like, this is so fucking Asian, like an old ink painting on a scroll.
But with, like, you know, a freeway overpass in the background lol

It was surprisingly pretty walking along this canal. This woman and her Jack Russel, who wanted to swim around and play, were really cute.

Following the canal until it approached the bay seemed like the simplest thing to do before taking any other turns, and I'm glad it was pretty and full of interesting birds and plants, because once again I was too stubborn to pay several dollars to go only a few stops on the train and it turned out to be a much longer walk than I'd thought (surprise surprise!).

After stopping at yet another 7/11 to ask for directions again, I eventually found the brewery. There are several more in this area, but this one seemed like the biggest and best, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. I was also practically the only person in there and was even left to my own devices for a number of minutes in the tasting room.



I think I remember this yuzu variety being my favourite, which would make sense, because I'm all about the yuzu. But all of them were really tasty, and they're not even expensive. I'd love to learn a lot more about the different types of sake once I move to Japanland.
(Years-later self: yeah I never did that, sorry past self)

After getting a nice little buzz on in the middle of the day, I headed to Nara to meet up with Faith..

(Continue to Part II)

No comments:

Post a Comment