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.

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