Weather: A beautiful sunny day with a strong breeze. Perfect for a drive.
MP3 track of the day: Riding along in my auto mobile - Chuck Berry
I'd prepared as much as I could, to get the maximum out of my car hire. I'd planned my route, found out where Costco was (more on that later), bought drinks and snacks for the journey and packed my bag in such a way as for it to have the things I would need straight away at the top. I woke up and had my breakfast early and found myself at my car hire shop – which was a two minute walk from my hotel – at 8:01am.
The paper work was done in eight minutes; I managed to set the satellite navigation – for my first location - within a further minute and a half and, after a thorough car inspection, I was off … though at a slow pace. My first location was the 'Akashi Straits Suspension Bridge' and, to get there, I had to fight my way through Hyogo's – the prefecture for which Kobe is the capital – manic southern urban sprawl. This part of the journey consisted of the usual four-lane road, traffic lights, houses and a highway suspended in the air above me by huge concrete pylons. As there isn't much to say at the moment, I thought that I would tell you a bit about the car I had been given. I found myself driving – and I am not making this up – the Mazda 'Carol'. Now, I am quite sure that with a name like 'carol', my 'beast of a car' isn't conjuring up images of raw speed and excellent handling … and neither should it. The car I was driving had been designed from the floor to the sealing for the over 80's driver. The upholstery went well with most dresses from the 1930's; the top speed was almost hitting 48 miles an hour and, 0-48 would take the same amount of time as it would to walk forty-eight miles. This meant that there was no danger of any old person 'feeling dizzy' when they put their false-foot onto the accelerator. 'Old person's smell' had been built in as 'standard' and all of the gauges and buttons had writing big enough so that it could be read from outer-space. Finally, there was the satellite navigation. It was touch screen however, if aimed your finger correctly at the button you wanted to press, you would actually get the menu for the button above the one you wanted. It took me a while to discover that, in order to get the satnav to do what you wanted it to do, you had to press just below the button you needed. I guess that this is very handy for those who can't see too well however, it was driving me insane. I decided to call the satnav 'Margery'. The car was spectacularly over-taken by every man, beast and vegetable I came across however, I had to admit, that for 'pottering about' it wasn't too bad.
After about forty minutes, I arrived at the bridge I'd come to see. At 3.91 km, the Akashi Straits Suspension bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the world – or so my 2010 guidebook tells me. Luckily for me, a beautiful park had been built around the 'mainland' side of the bridge, and there was a car park where I could leave Carol and Margery to discuss bitterly about the £1.30 car parking charges. Once away from the car, I discovered that the wind was blowing quite fiercely therefore, I needed to zip up my coat quite tightly around myself. The sun was still rising which made taking photos from the east side of the bridge the best option. With the sun behind me the suspension bridge was my main target and, luckily, a few fluffy white clouds popped into view to help breakup the beautiful blue sky behind the bridge. I was enjoying myself immensely however, time was short and I wanted to get my 'monies worth' out of the car. I walked under the suspension bridge and gazed up at all of the metal parts wondering how on Earth it didn't all come crashing down.
With my photos taken I did think about driving across the bridge however, conscious of time, I decided against it. Anyway, I was pretty sure that the island I could see in the distance was a part of another one of my holidays (now I am back in my hotel, I can tell you that it isn't. I was supposed to drive across onto the island … and I had the time). I got back into my car and asked 'Margery' to set a course for Costco.
You see, where I live – in the north – my nearest Costco is over two hours away and, once Margery had found the place, I discovered that I was only a fifteen minute drive from it. Plus, though it wasn't on the exact route I needed to take, the warehouse was in the right direction. I therefore started the 'old girl' up and off we went … at a 'nice and gentle' speed of 28 miles an hour.
When I visited the Costco closest to my apartment – it only opened this year – I was very disappointed in regards to the amount of 'British' food it stocked. I had hoped that, being in an area with a lot more foreigners, the choice of foreign food might have been greater however, sadly no. I scanned the chocolate section to find all of the things I could get 'up north'. I therefore went to the 'chilled' section to buy a box of five 'Mexican wraps', which I had tried on my previous visit to Costco and loved. With my lunch – and probably dinner – sorted I almost bought a box of twenty-eight cookies however, their 'eat-by-date' was only two days away and so I knew that there was no way I could eat all of them in that short amount of time. I proceeded back to my car, twenty-two minutes after I'd parked it, with just a box of Mexican wraps. Carol and Margery were not at all pleased with my choice of lunch. Carol said that she wouldn't touch that 'foreign muck', and Margery stated that spicy food made her eyes feel saw.
Being around 10am, Margery was getting tired. I got her to get me to the main road I had originally planned to take north, and then I took over. I think satnav's are great for 'in town driving' however, once out in the country, I much prefer to use a map and, the road which I was currently following, short up north almost as straight as an arrow though, it still took a little while before the urban south melted away and the rural north came into view. This occurred as soon as I started to wind my way past Kansai's central mountains. Tiny compared to other mountains within this country, these small mounds with their vertical tree-covered sides, blocked visibility and formed some stunning valleys. I 'plodded along', with rice fields on each side of me. The communities responsible for these rice fields could be found hugging the mountainside, leaving as much flat land as possible for their crop. The traffic had thinned, traffic lights had become more sparse and I – plus Carol and Margery – were having a grand day out. My only issue was time.
The numbers on Carol's MASSIVE clock soon turned over to read 11, and I was still on 'page one' of three. In order to reach my goal – Kansai's northern coastline – I had to travel across three pages within my map by 1pm. 1pm was the time that I would have to think about returning to Kobe as that was the 'halfway point' of my car rental.
12 O'clock flew by and I was only halfway up the second page. I decided that I needed to stop and 're-adjust' my planned route. I found a convenience store and gingerly pulled into a parking space so that I wouldn't upset Carol's delicate stomach. I put a few possible routes into Margery to allow her to tell me how long she thought they would take. In the end I asked Margery to take me off my original course and to head 'north-west', towards the closest part of Kansai's northern coastline in relation to where I currently was. I followed that route until the clock stroke 1pm.
At 1pm I'd made it to the sleepy town of Fukuchiyama. I was still a good forty-five minutes from the coast. I got Margery to tell me how long it would take for me to drive back to Kobe and, if I left that instant, I would arrive back in Kobe at 4:45pm. I had to get fuel plus battle the traffic therefore, I thought that I didn't really have the time to see the sea. I wasn't too gutted. In four days time I would be hiring another car in Kyoto, and heading to the northern coast once more – though a little further east – and, when I visit western Honshu, I would have to travel along Kansai's northern coast to get there. I therefore ordered Margery to plan a convoluted route back which would get me to Kobe at 5pm (with a whole hour spare to battle the traffic). I made sure that the roads I would travel back south along were different to the ones I'd already seen.
I must driven a lot quicker to what Margery is used to because, after forty minutes, her 'predicted time of arrival' had short down to 4:28pm. This happened so much that, at one point, my 'arrival time' was at 3:58pm. Due to this, I got out my map and noticed that there was a mountain pass close to where I was currently located. I indicated right and zig-zagged my way to the top.
Carol started screaming and Margery was starting to complain about getting car sick as I rapidly descended down the mountain pass. Every apex was perfectly hit as I tried to claw back some time within the 'forth stage' of Japan's mountain rally. I was Matthew Otter, from Great Britain, driving the 'high performance' Mazda Carol and looking for a possible gold. Once down I continued through Hyogo's beautiful rural prefecture. So far, almost everything I have seen within this prefecture, I've liked. It really does have it all and these small towns and villages in the north are just the perfect way to escape the manic city life.
As I was approaching the outskirts of the 'urban south', Margery was still adamant that I would be dropping my car off two hours before my rental period was up. There were some grumblings from the old two about 'wasting money' however, I'd seen as much as I could and, really, what was the point in just riding around in my car – burning fuel – if I didn't have a goal. With hindsight I should have crossed the bridge earlier today but, I didn't. I therefore continued towards Kobe and, as I did, the traffic increased.
From reading 4pm at one point, I actually arrived back at my rental place at 4:35pm … only ten minutes earlier than Margery had originally predicted. The traffic had been grid-locked at some major junctions and it wasn't at all pleasant to be fighting my way through it. It wouldn't have bothered me so much, if lanes kept going in the same direction as they showed from the outset. Many-a-time I was driving in a, what I thought was, 'straight' lane … only for it to change to a 'left-hand turn only' lane without any warning. It's the changing lanes that annoys me … and totally confuses Carol. Once I'd given back my car I proceeded back to my hotel room to ponder, think and try to build a plan of action for tomorrow.
First of all; was the hiring of a car today really worth it? In total it cost me around £55.00 for the car and the petrol. Personally I would say yes for two reasons. Firstly I enjoyed the change from walking, or taking public transport, to having a drive. Secondly, it allowed me to see – though briefly – a large portion of the Hyogo Prefecture. Some people I've spoken to, are trying to visit all prefectures within Japan; they claim to have finished Hyogo Prefecture by visiting Kobe only. Personally I would disagree that, by only visiting one city within a prefecture, you have 'seen' the prefecture. The hiring of a car allows you to wander around and see the parts of a county, state or prefecture which aren't in any guidebooks. Nothing I saw within the north of Hyogo was staggering and yet, nothing was that boring either. I would say that, today, I witnessed the ordinary life of people who live within this prefecture and for that, I would say that the car was worth the investment.
As for tonight, I have two options. My favourite is kicking back in my hotel room for my final night catching up on Christmas TV and eat the Mexican wraps I have left. This would allow me to have an early night and, as a result, get up early tomorrow. My other plan is to find a cinema and watch the latest Star Wars film … but I can do that at home.
Tomorrow is another headache. Currently I am thinking of getting up early and, depending on the weather, getting to Kobe's cable car station by the time the first one departs. I shall then spend only a few minutes at the top - taking photographs - before heading to Kobe's main museum for a fleeting look around. I shall then catch the next train to Kyoto and hope to arrive early in the afternoon. If the weather is poor then I may just visit Kobe's museum and head to Kyoto earlier than I've planned.
So this is the end of my first stop. I have thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Kobe and it really is a city I can see myself coming back to. There is plenty to see within, and around, the cities boundary.
Next up is Kyoto; my first time back for five years!