Kobe, Japan. 23 October 2017
I arrived in Japan two days ago and it hasn’t stopped raining since I got here. One of my dearest friends, Erol, lives in Tokyo and although Japan was never on my list of countries to visit, it made sense to make the most of his residency here. I was going to visit Japan in early 2018, however a change of circumstances for me, means that I will be moving to Europe in the new year. So while I am still in the region, I’m going to places I want to visit that are only a few hours away by plane rather than an all day journey from the UK.
I got to my hotel in Tokyo quite late on Saturday evening, so we just had time for a chatty supper, as we were getting up early on Sunday to get the train to Kobe.
If one thinks of Japanese public transport, it is of the Shinkansen, or ‘bullet train’. Shinkansen means ‘new trunk line’, and refers to the high-speed rail line network the trains runs on. Operational since 1964, Tokaido Shinkansen was the world’s first high-speed commercial train line. It now runs 342 trains, carrying 424,000 passengers a day, or 155 million passengers a year, it is the busiest, high-speed train line in the world. The trains have a maximum operating speed of 285 kilometres an hour, there hasn’t been any accidents resulting in fatalities or injuries to passengers since 1964. The average annual delay is 0.9 minutes, this includes issues outside the control of the train, such as natural disasters like earth quakes or typhoons. We got the Shinkansen to Kobe, it didn’t feel like we were travelling at high speed, it was comfortable and very quiet.
Kobe is the capital of the Hyogo prefecture in the south of Honshu Island, on Osaka Bay. It a major port of Japan, a leading industrial centre, a railway hub and a cultural centre. It is has a population of around 1.5 million. When we arrived in Kobe it was still raining so we were limited to what we could do. We went to China Town, and it is not lost on me that the first post I write on Japan is about a China town.
During our wander around we came across a slot house, primarily because the when the doors opened the noise caught my attention. Inside a slot house or pachinko parlour are rows and rows of machines, players buy pachinko balls in case of pachinko and tokens for slot machines. The players don’t take their eyes off the screen and don’t talk to each other, seemingly completely mesmerised by what is happening on the screen in front of them. The place we went into was hot, hideously smoky and smelly, the majority of players were smoking, and noisy. The noise, all coming from the machines, is horrendous, and we couldn’t hear each other talk when we went inside so I could take these photos. In this slot house there is also what appeared to be a ‘rest’ area, with seating and tables away from the machines, where people were sitting and reading.
Fed up of walking around in the rain we went up Kobe Port Tower. 108 meters tall, the tower resembles a Japanese hand drum and is the world’s first sightseeing tower built with a pipe structure. The viewing platform is enclosed and this, together with the weather meant taking decent photos was a challenge.
Our plan for the evening was to go to a Kobe beef restaurant, as Erol wanted to have Kobe beef, in Kobe. However, as Typhoon Lan, the reason for all the rain, had now made landfall, most shops and restaurants were closing early as the wind speed had increased and was causing havoc, blowing debris and humans around. We did find a ramen noodle place open, had supper and just about managed to get back to the hotel without getting blown over. The typhoon had weakened to a category 2 storm by the time it hit Kobe, so it could have been much worse. The wind was so severe we could feel the hotel sway.
The next morning the typhoon had past and the sun was shining, so our itinerary was back on track and we went to see Nunobiki Falls. On the way to the falls we passed a tree that had blown down and crushed part of a shrine, and there was lots of debris in roads and on pavements.
Nunobiki Falls is considered one of the great ‘divine falls’ with an important significance in Japanese literature and Japanese art. It’s actually four waterfalls, and our walk up lots of steep, slippery, stone steps and getting soaked by the spray from the falls, was rewarded when we got to the top and saw great views over Kobe.
According to the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book of classical Japanese history, which chronicles the early history of Japan, the Ikuta Shrine is one of the oldest in Japan, founded in 201 by Empress Jingu. In ancient Japan, Kambe are the members of a community attached to a Shinto shrine and responsible for maintaining it’s rice paddies. The word Kambe written in Kanji is also pronounced as Kobe, as the city grew around the temple, the area around the shrine took the name that now refers to the whole city, Kobe.
Our last stop in Kobe was to have lunch somewhere so Erol could have Kobe beef. I don’t eat red meat so this doesn’t appeal to me at all, I did get that if one is to try Kobe beef surely the best place is where it originates from. Thanks to the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association for the detailed information about Kobe beef on their website, which I have used here. Incidentally the word ‘Wagyu’ refers to all Japanese beef cattle, ‘Wa’ means Japanese or Japanese-style and ‘gyu’ means cattle.
Kobe beef refers to cuts taken from the Tajima strain of Wagyu cattle raised in Hyogo Prefecture in Japan. Even among “Tajima-gyu” (Tajima cattle), only the chosen few that satisfy the specific quality criteria set out by the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association deserve the title “Kobe Beef”. Calves are given only the very best feed – rice straw, maize, barley and other cereals – and receive only fresh, clean water to drink. The fine, delicate meat has a high degree of fat marbling that melts at low temperatures, together with tender fibres and its own uniquely refined sweetness and aroma.
A prerequisite of beef to be officially certified “Kobe beef” is that the bullock or virgin Tajima cow has been born in Hyogo Prefecture from a Tajima cow having a pure lineage, bred and raised by a designated farmer in the prefecture, and slaughtered at one of the slaughterhouses in the prefecture.
I’d been warned by Erol that usually a Kobe beef restaurant will only serve Kobe beef, so I had prepared myself for just a bowl of rice, (I’m such a martyr!) while Erol feasted on beef. Well we found a great Kobe beef restaurant, when we advised the waiting staff I didn’t eat meat, she showed me the fish page of the menu, deep joy. We made our menu choices and Erol’s beef was brought out to him to see it, with an offer to take a photo of it, which we duly did before it was cooked to his liking by the chef. My fish platter was perfectly cooked and was delicious, some of the best fish I have eaten, Erol said his beef was the best he had ever tasted. So with full tummies, and smiley faces we boarded the train to our next destination, Kyoto.