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Sunny Sannomiya

Kobe has always been high on my list of places to visit, by I’ve never quite made it there in the past.  This was put to rest during this year’s Silver Week holiday, when I spent a fleeting, but sunny, day exploring around Sannomiya and its bustling Chinatown, historical elegant districts, history of foreign contact as a trading port, and memories of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

Kobe Port Tower

I found Kobe to be an elegant city, with lots to offer a visiting tourist, whether Japanese or foreign.  It seems to be overlooked from many itineraries to Japan, and maybe it should attract more visitors.

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I flew into the white-elephant Kobe Airport, built on an artificial island to the south of the city.  Keep building islands like this, and soon there will be a land bridge all the way to Shikoku.  The Port Liner monorail took me into Sannomiya, the central business and retailing district of Kobe, from where I set off on foot.

I’d bought a pocket-sized Japanese language guidebook for my quick visit, and it turned out to be very useful.  While the Lonely Planet and other English guidebooks commonly contain lengthy textual descriptions of places and recommendations of things to do, Japanese guidebooks are heavily laden with photographs – and a strong emphasis on food.  Following one of these guidebooks will provide a very different outlook on a city than an English guidebook.  And because there are more photos than text, mine was a perfect fit for my level of Japanese language ability.

I enjoyed my book’s recommendations for an old style (vintage 1950s) cafe in Motomachi for a bitter coffee – the Evian Coffee Shop – and was the only foreigner in there.  (I didn’t get the impression that any French spring water was used though…).

I then wandered through Chukagai (Chinatown), which was so busy on a public holiday that it was almost impossible to squeeze past all the people queueing up for the various restaurants.  Japanese people are far more patient than me when it comes to queues – it seems that they will queue anywhere for anything, whilst I need a lot of persuasion that it’s something worth waiting for.  I found a stall with no queue where I could buy a nikuman (pork bun) as a snack, because my guidebook had given me a different idea for where to go for lunch.

Beforehand, I took a diversion to wander around the harbourfront, where I found the landmark Kobe Port Tower (well, it’s not that hard to find a big red tower), a festival being held along the waterfront, and, most poignantly, physical remains of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.  Meriken Park has a monument a displays of Kobe in the aftermath of the disaster, and there is a stretch of foreshore that has been deliberately preserved to show how much damage the earthquake caused.  The concrete had buckled and dropped into the water.  I was in Kyoto on the morning of 17 January 1995 – maybe 60km or 70km away from here – and remember being woken as the room shook around me.  That was nothing compared to the damage in Kobe.  I paused to remember what was a terrible disaster.

Back to exploring present-day Kobe, next to Chukagai is the Kyu-ryochuchi district, where graceful old buildings remain among more modern office blocks and the city’s retail district.  This was the area where foreign consulates and trading companies once operated.  I found a cafe in the ground floor of a grand old bank building, which had no queue outside like Chukagai, but nonetheless had a good write-up in my guidebook.  Perfect for a Western-style lunch in an old art-deco setting.

Wandering back up the hill towards Sannomiya Station, I passed more grand old buildings, including the Daimaru department store in the heart of town.  Tor Road then leads up the side of the mountain to the district overlooking the city where the “Ijinkan” are located.  “Ijin” (or 異人) means “different person” and is a euphemism for “foreigner”.  It’s almost never used in day-to-day speech, which is good from my point of view, as I don’t think I’d take too kindly to being referred to as “ijin”.  The term “gaijin” is often controversial enough.  Anyway, the Ijinkan are the elegant old residences that Kobe’s foreign residents used to live in.  They are a major tourist drawcard for people who want to see how the foreigners lived.  Some of the houses are important cultural properties, and are open for the public to enter.  Many of the houses have an interesting architectural style that is not completely Western – for example they still employ Japanese roof tiles or window shutters.  This makes an interesting compromise.

My time up, I raced to a souvenir shop to pick up some obligatory foodstuffs to give as presents (I’m turning Japanese…), and left Kobe behind to explore more leisurely some other time.  Not a bad way to spend 5 hours on a sunny day.

One Comment

  1. […] visiting Sannomiya, I stayed overnight with my Akiyo, old high school host family sister and her family.  Getting […]

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