Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A Day In Kobe 神戸

I made my way to the Kobe for the first time yesterday, a city known for two things outside Japan: 1) Gourmet beef from pampered cows (contrary to popular rumor, the cows do not drink beer on a regular basis, but a steak will set you back about $120) and 2) The 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, which until last March had been the worst natural disaster in recent Japanese history. To the Japanese friends I asked about the city, two very different things invariably came to mind: 1) Chinatown and 2) "お洒落 "(oshare), a word that means "posh" or "fashionable." Along with Nagasaki, Yokohama, and a few others, Kobe was designated as one of the ports for trade with the outside world after the opening of Japan in the 1800's, and it retains a cosmopolitan, international atmosphere to this day. This port history also made it a destination for Chinese immigrants, although we'll see soon enough that the Kobe Chinatown of 2012 is essentially an open-air food court. 

Nestled between the mountains and the Seto Inland Sea, Kobe is a pretty, compact city. The cheapness of my camera makes it ill-suited for impressive landscape shots, unfortunately, but ideal for little visual mementos. It's proven surprisingly durable in the face of drops as well as dousings of plum sauce. Anyways, let's get started:  

I arrived at 11:30 (Kobe's less than 2 hours away from Arida by train) and immediately headed to the Chinatown, which is called Nankin-machi (南京町) after the city of Nanjing. 

As a fairly competent reader of Japanese and a complete ignoramus regarding the Chinese language, seeing written Chinese can be kind of disorienting - it just seems a little off.  
Nankin-machi is basically a continuous sprawl of delicious-smelling stalls and restaurants. After stuffing my face with the first Peking Duck wrap I encountered, I quickly realized my folly: undersized and overcooked. To taste Nankin-machi's delights, I would have to take my place in one of the half-block long lines extending out of the most popular restaurants. 

 At the oldest pork bun shop in town, the line has a line: 

The buns themselves, though, are awesome. I honestly couldn't say what they tasted like because I've never had anything quite like this mysterious Chinese alchemy: sweet, spicy, soft, chewy, savory.....

The crowded, steaming, noisy atmosphere somehow stimulates the appetite 

Ever since my cousin introduced me to Joe's Shanghai in Manhattan, I have nurtured a burning passion for Shanghai-style soup dumplings, xiao long bao ( butchered into "shorompo" by the Japanese). Seriously, of the many magical things that can be done with flesh of pig, these are, in my humble opinion, the very best. I don't know why the combination of cloudy soup and pork and chewy skin is so satisfying, but whatever the reason, it consistently induces a sense of intense pleasure and all-around well-being deep in the reptilian part of my brain. Imagine my surprise, then, to find my favorite dumplings grilled.  
These haunt my dreams. 
Now that I've gotten the dumpling related hyperbole out of my system, let's see something a little more exotic:

Sliced pig ears (" brimming with collagen!")

Pig feet, also "brimming with collagen!" I've heard that ingesting collagen does nothing to make your lips or skin look like Angelina Jolie's. Many Japanese believe otherwise, apparently,  and it's not uncommon for 7-11s to have an entire small shelf devoted to collagen-containing beverages. My friend "J" chugs a little vitamin C/collagen supplement every chance he gets for reasons too complex and disturbing for the present discussion.  
Pork belly, blow-torched to order

Observant readers may have picked up on a theme to the food in Nankin-machi

Thoroughly stuffed with at least 6 varieties of pork product, I collapsed on a bench and napped in the open air, backpack in my lap. In Osaka this sort of gluttony is so common that they have a name for it: kuidaore ( 食い倒れ), which is naturally enough comprised of the words "eat" and "fall over."  I awoke twenty minutes later, refreshed and rejuvenated, and ambled to Meriken Park on Kobe's waterfront. 

Kobe Port Tower
The park was quite empty on a chilly day save for some dog walkers and families with exceptionally well-dressed children. As a tall foreigner with dark sunglasses, I resisted the urge to photograph said children for fear of being mistaken for something other than a tourist. I did, however, snap a shot of this life-size replica of Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria:  

She was built in the early nineties to commemorate five hundred years since the Genovese's fateful voyage, and actually made the trip from Barcelona to Kobe as a sign of Spanish-Japanese friendship. I was surprised by how small the thing was - it took me only 23 steps to walk from one end to the other - and by the intensity of my own reaction to it. It's not fair to pin all the horrors that came with the conquest of the Americas on Columbus himself, and the legacy of the "discovery" of the New World is complex beyond reckoning (I for one certainly wouldn't exist without it...), but.... but I suddenly found myself very angry at this inanimate wooden object in a sunny Japanese park. We can't help but live in the world that Columbus helped create, but I'm not sure that we should be celebrating that fact.... 

Anyways, my mood cleared when I found this memorial to Japanese emigrants 25 feet away. Meriken Park has all sorts of things with plaques to occupy oneself with:

A high-tech boat that almost floats above the water.

A non-functional phallic bell tower

Just outside the park, the aptly named "Girl Riding a Dolphin."  

The dolphin looks less than pleased with the situation.

Hardly unique to Kobe, but here's an interesting little cultural tidbit for those outside Japan.  Tanuki ("raccoon dogs") often show up as tricksters in Japanese folklore, using their magical powers to shift shape and turn leaves into money, for example. Their large testicles are considered symbols of good luck in money matters, which is one of the reasons why some shopkeepers place statues of them outside their establishments. Folkloric tanuki use this testicular endowment for mischief, of course.

"Engrish" apparel is usually nonsensical, but sometimes it veers into the obscene and philosophical....

American readers will be happy to know that "pro-wrestling" is big in Japan.  

"'Hollywood' Stalker Ichikawa" is my personal favorite. 

This country has few Christians outside of Nagasaki, though both Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses have a presence here in Wakayama. Accordingly, many of the church-like buildings in Japanese cities are actually wedding chapels that satisfy the huge demand for Western-style weddings, without any of that tedious theological stuff. I've met some pretty areligious white guys who make their living as "priests" officiating such ceremonies. 

The infamous toxic fugu pufferfish are actually kinda cute (taken just outside a fancy restaurant). 

I met up with my friend N, an Arida native studying in Kobe, and she guided me to the famous Ikuta shrine. After a celebrity couple got married here (shinto style) it became popular as a wedding spot, though its popularity has waned since they divorced....

Ikuta shrine has the feeling of an oasis in the midst of the garish neon entertainment district just outside its gates. 

N escorted back to the harbor and its illuminated pathways. 

Elvis! The plaque offered no explanation as to why Kobe has such a statue, but I guess the king doesn't need a reason.... 

This is honestly the best of about ten attempts at an impressive scenic shot from the bar....
We ended the day at a posh bar on the top floor of a waterfront tower, sipping on Guinness. Not a bad town, Kobe.

Sunday, 29 January 2012


Completely unrelated to the matter at hand, but here's an old picture of my friend Yu in an Osaka McDonald's, circa 2010. 
Feeling optimistic about my progress in the Japanese language, I decided to try out reading a full-length Japanese novel and picked up the first volume of Haruki Murakami's recently released 1Q84 towards the end of last August. Over five months and 1600 pages later, I set down volume three with a puzzled sigh. That's it?!? 

("1Q84" is a Japanese pun on 1984 - both can be pronounced "ichi-kew-hachi-yon")

Murakami has been one of my favorite writers since high school, and starting his latest novel in the original Japanese (before the English translation was completed!) was.... awesome. I won't divulge too many important plot details, but the book is at its core a love story about two lonely people searching for one another other. One's an personal trainer/assassin (generally not to the same people), one's a struggling writer, and, through distinct and unusual circumstances, both become entangled with a mysterious cult. IQ84 is recognizable a piece of Murakami work from the outset, complete with obscure musical references, aimless male protagonists who enjoy ironing shirts, prurient attention to female ears, weird fetishes (one character is obsessed Sean Connery's perfectly formed bald head), weirder sex scenes, extended quotes from interesting works of literature, memorable dialogue, fake newspaper articles, and mysterious supernatural forces at work.

 It also shares thematic similarities with Underground, his excellent nonfiction book on the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo.  Consider, for example, the similarities between Aum's leader Asahara Shoko and the charismatic leader of 1Q84's cult Sakigake - both are nearly blind, charismatic, and reclusive. And, like Underground, 1Q84 tackles the weighty subject of the search for personal narrative in the vacuousness of contemporary society, though what, precisely, Murakami is trying to say on the subject with this novel is not quite clear. Which is fine. The richness of his imagined worlds can lead to plenty of hidden meaning upon closer examination, but that same richness can't be reduced to an allegory about x or y (unlike, say, some of George Orwell's books).  I became obsessed with these books in high school because they were so entertaining. I learned how to read into the deeper levels of meaning in college, but it's Murakami's ability to sustain a fascinating, amusing, intelligent narrative for hundreds of pages that makes him such an appealing writer.

This brings me to my problem with 1Q84: It's boring.

There are many flashes of brilliance in the book, many delightful details and memorable scenes. The Little People (no "Big Brother" in 1Q84) are especially vivid, mysterious creations, and the character Tamaru - a world-weary, homosexual bodyguard and all-around badass - is consistently fascinating. There are also hundreds of pages of people staring out windows waiting for something to happen. Such chapters take up a large percentage of the work (most of the last third of the book), and they serve no apparent function except to inch the plot forward at an unnecessarily slow pace. I must admit that my struggles with the Japanese language probably didn't help things, but really, much of the book is tedious and repetitive, plain and simple. I can't help but suspect that Murakami has become a victim of his own success - his stature as Japan's leading writer and perennial Nobel prize contender may have taken a toll on his editorial discipline.

Whatever the cause, it's a pretty big disappointment. Fans will find much to like within the pages of 1Q84, but they'll have to sift through some less-than-interesting chaff to find it. The whole, in other words, is less than the sum of its parts.  If you haven't picked up a Murakami book before, I recommend The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore - they're awesome.

Here's a recent profile of the author from the NY Times:


In the interest of ending on a positive note, here's an extended quote from Anton Chekhov, whose travel diaries show up in one of the more interesting segments of 1Q84:

"At Oreanda they sat on a bench, not far from the church, looked down at the sea and were silent. Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist. The tops of the hills were shrouded in motionless white clouds. The leaves of the trees never stirred, the cicadas trilled, and the monotonous dull sound of the sea, coming up from below, spoke of the rest, the eternal sleep awaiting us. So the sea roared when there was neither Yalta nor Oreanda, and so it roars and will roar, dully, indifferently when we shall be no more. And in this indifference to the life and death of each of us lives pent up the pledge of our eternal salvation, of the uninterrupted movement of life on earth and its unceasing perfection. Sitting side by side with a young woman, who in the dawn seemed so beautiful, Gomov, appeased and enchanted by the sight of the fairy scene, the sea, the mountains, the clouds, the wide sky, thought how at bottom, if it were thoroughly explored, everything on earth was beautiful, everything, except what we ourselves think and do when we forget the higher purposes of life and our own human dignity." (The Lady with the Toy Dog, 1899)"

I can't think of a passage more precious to me, and I think it supports Christopher Hitchens's assertion that literature has more to teach us about life and morality than religion does. I could go on and on about about how awesome Chekhov is, but, well, that's old news.....