Greetings, from post-Japan! We spent a romping, shivering, five days in Japan, split between Kobe, a beautiful port city in the south, and Tokyo, the great island’s current capital city farther north – more on Tokyo later.
We arrived in Kobe around sunrise, and after the heat from crossing the Pacific for weeks, the brutal cold was a rude awakening. We ventured onto the deck to watch the journey into port in our short sleeves and quickly turned right back around and dug our winter coats out of the suitcases. We got back outside just in time to see the 15-piece (or so) band setting up – to greet us!
The conductor was one of the only performers wearing gloves, and in between each song, the poor musicians jumped around and stuffed one hand at a time into pockets while the other froze and held on to the instrument. We watched from the top deck at first, and listened as the students who had assembled yelled “arigato!” (“thank you” in Japanese”) after each number.
After the excitement of the welcome party, we waited for some time after the excitement of the welcome crew for immigration, which was pretty intense – silence required as you wait in line, no cell phones whatsoever (or they requisition them), and be quick in line to step up and present your passport. After a little talk with the immigrant officer, webcam-type photo, and fingerprint scan, you’re all done! So, obviously I don’t have pictures of this. For Americans at least, this was still a pretty painless immigration since we didn’t need to apply for a visa ahead of time, aside from the landing form, like you’d fill out on a plane arriving in Western Europe.
Once through immigration, we left on our city orientation tour. Our guide, Keemee, was a delightful woman who regaled us with stories of her childhood spent growing up next door to “Mr. Honda” as she called him. As in the super huge massively popular car company, Honda. Apparently her father, who was working for a big power company in a stable job, was offered a position with his neighbor in what was originally a bicycle shop. He declined and, well, Keemee teased that her family didn’t leave next door to Mr. Honda for much longer. Keemee spoke fondly of the short time she lived in New York and assured us of the positive US-Japan relations we would experience. We shortly arrived at our first stop, Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum, where they’ve been brewing sake (rice wine) since 1743. We watched a short film on the history of the area and how the brewery came to be, as well as learned how sake is made. After a brief tasting of six different sakes – don’t worry, the portions were small! – and we tried rice ice cream.
The bus delivered us back to the middle of town, and Keemee shared information about the once small harbor town’s history. She complimented the Western architects who developed the streets and buildings since – as she explained – the Japanese are very good at sake, cars, trains, and food, but not so good at city planning!
We arrived downtown where a group of us wandered for our first taste of Japanese cuisine – Japanese food post coming soon! With success in the form of being ready to waddle out of the restaurant, we rolled our way back to the tour group and ended the tour in Meriken Park at the harbor. Our last views were the intentionally un-fixed earthquake damage from 1995. Parts of poles, metal supports, and rubble are showcased in a roped off area that’s lined with placards describing the event and providing the scary statistics of the damage wrought along the coast. But Japan is resilient! The area has been in a state of development and rebuilding that kept us busy for a few more days.
Our second day led us to the equivalent of a big city’s Hop-On-Hop-Off bus, where we trekked to the surrounding hills of the city, far from the coast. To get the rest of the way up, however, we took the cable car! My first thought when I hear “cable car” is a San Francisco type of trolley. This is more like a suspended orb hanging from a cable, and it was awesome.
The cable car delivered you to the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens, a still blooming array of flowers and manicured grounds that sprawled down the mountain side. We wandered through the event hall at the top with shops, stopping for a quick snack. We traipsed back down the hill and admired the changing view as we strolled, taking in the props and Japanese ingenuity of the photo stalls crafted along the way.
Once at the middle, we picked up the cable car to the bottom where we continued our march downhill and into the city. We bounced around looking for food and after not too long of looking, we settled on the same place from the day before, picked up dessert from a bakery, and waddled into Chinatown. Once in Chinatown, the markets were in full swing and merchants were hawking their tasty wares from street stalls and the buyers around them were chowing down, so we munched happily and enjoyed as we strolled the shops and popped out the other end of the shopping district.
Shopping district might not be the best description. These almost open-air malls were large domed tunnels running through what would have otherwise been alleyways. Complete with their own artwork and graffiti, these tunnels house any and everything from brand name clothing and shoes, to housewares and goods, restaurants and tea shops, and national and foreign artisan goods. We, of course, made way for the bookshop – more on this in later posts.
In addition to the shopping stalls and tunnels, there are a great many designer boutiques and department stores. The biggest and most impressive mall we’d been directed to was Daimaru, a 9-floor department store, complete with a marketplace/café in the basement floor, and a Valentine’s Day chocolate tasting on top. But the night wasn’t done. Fat and happy from gorging all day, we began to wander back to the ship. Until we crossed paths with another SASer (pronounced “sass-er”) who invited us to sushi. So of course we accepted!
With that, we concluded our full day of running around logging 15 miles or so worth of steps, the first of many long treks. Having explored Kobe, we were set to board the bullet train (!!!) to Tokyo the next morning to spend the rest of our time in Japan.
To the big city we go,