Friday, 25 December 2015

I am really starting to like this city

Date: Friday 25th December 2015

Weather: Overcast with the sun breaking through the clouds once in a while. It did rain but, somehow, I only ever saw the aftermath of the showers.

MP3 track of the day: Wonderful Christmas time - Paul McCartney


I awoke at the slightly later time of 8:00am and proceeded to get ready before heading down to the breakfast buffet. This being Christmas Day, I decided that I would only eat what I wanted to eat and, as I boarded the lift, I decided that due to having a Japanese style breakfast yesterday, I would forgo the vegetables, fish, rice and, instead, I would fill my plate with not two but three croissants washed down with a couple of cups of orange juice.

This idea of only eating what I wanted to eat today came to an abrupt end here, at breakfast, when I discovered that there were no croissants left. The foreign couple in front of me looked horrified as they tried to scan their memories to see if anything on offer resembled food from wherever they came from. I piled up with the same stuff I ate yesterday whereas, my foreign friends shared a small white bread roll.

Once breakfast had been eaten, I enquired as to if their were any book stores nearby. You see, tomorrow I will hire a car and so I wanted to buy a road map of the area. I was given instructions to a book store within the middle of a shopping arcade however, once outside it's front door, I discovered that I had arrived fifteen minutes before the store opened. I therefore wondered around the arcade where I found a Belgian chocolate shop before heading back to the book store at 10:00am. I bought a road map of Kansai, and then headed back to my hotel. From this short reconnaissance, I'd worked out that it was – once again – going to be a hotter day than I had anticipated. Once in my hotel I threw my new roadmap into my room, took off a layer of clothing (including my waterproof trousers) and headed back out. The time was 10:30am … about the same time I'd arrived in Himeji.

My first stop of the day was the rather oddly named 'Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution' museum; or the '1995 Kobe Earthquake museum' for those of us who like things to be named sensibly. At 5:46am, on the 17th January 1995, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake – with a depth of 17m - hit the Akashi channel between two islands very close to Kobe. It caused a colossal amount of damage resulting in over six thousand deaths and over forty-three thousand injured. Within the area, it destroyed over a hundred-thousand buildings and forced three hundred-thousand people to evacuate their homes. Given the scale of this disaster, I was expecting a little bit more from the museum (a model of the city showing the 'before' and 'after' the earthquake would have been nice).

The museum was housed in two buildings on a total of five floors. The first floor I was asked to go to was the highest – the third floor – where two short films were played. The first tried to put you in the middle of the earthquake. The design of the room – plus the special effects – were all there to kick-start all of your senses and to create an atmosphere of panic and fear however, knowing that I wasn't in any present danger, made it impossible for the museum to try and replicate the disaster … so why even try? The second film was a documentary about a fifteen year old girl who lived in Kobe at the time of the earthquake. This, for me, was far more interesting as it was more genuine. The translation did however reek of 'self determination' and, I felt, that there was an over-use of phases like 'my heart filled with love for the people' and 'friendships were formed that brightened our spirits'. Phases, like these, were used which just didn't seem natural.

Once the films had finished, that was the end of the third floor. I proceeded down to the second floor where a huge amount of photos were placed on the walls under titles like 'the kindness of our country' and 'the pain in our hearts'. Fortunately there was little to read; the museum relied mostly on photos and TV's showing interviews with survivors and the authorities (with English subtitles).

Once the second floor had been done, I proceeded onto the first floor where I was greeted by another 'volunteer tour guide person'. This floor was dedicated to earthquakes and tsunamis from around the world. She was a pretty old lady however, her English was very good through, I don't think she appreciated that, most of the places she was trying to 'educate me' about … I'd visited:

  • The great Indonesia / Malaysia / Thai tsunami (2008) – Went to a museum about it in Thailand
  • The Christchurch earthquake – I've been to Christchurch
  • The great east-Japan earthquake – I live in that area!

She continued to show me around the 'prevention' part of the museum, showing me new construction methods and demonstrating how they work.

Once finished I proceeded over the bridge to another building but, when I looked at my guide map, I decided that I didn't want to visit this buildings second floor as that was full of interactive displays for children. The ground floor only held a library therefore, I decided that it was time to leave. I went down onto the ground floor and exited the building via the rear exit.

I came out through the rear exit because, whilst on the buildings second floor, I'd noticed that there was a footpath – consisting of wooden decking – which over-hung the river. What was also great about this was that it was heading in the direction of my second attraction for the day – Rokko Island – and that the clouds had broken giving me some much needed sun. I therefore walked down this footpath taking quite a few photos because, unlike most Japanese urban areas, this area was very pretty indeed. Most of Japan's urban areas are built with function in mind however, here, I do believe that thought was also given to the aesthetics of the place. The buildings along the river-front were unconventional and interesting; the pedestrianised area was wide and spacious. I was also pleased to see that, in a city of Kobe's size, there were still areas where you can feel alone and be by yourself. For me, this is key for any city; I believe that people need places away from 'things which draw crowds' in order to relax and unwind. As I walked further, following the river, I was beginning to feel that Kobe could make an ideal home for me … and then all of a sudden I also found a reason why it couldn't.

The 'river-front walk' ended all too abruptly and I soon found myself walking along 'industrial park' roads. Sadly there was nothing I could do; I could see residential and shopping areas further inland however, between me and these areas was a huge motorway with apparently no way for a pedestrian to cross. I followed this road for what seemed miles, being pretty annoyed that a) I was in an area which wasn't very pleasing, b) that I was loosing time and c) that in my mind, one of the fundamental problems with this city is that it is very frustrating to walk around as it would appear that motorised traffic had taken the highest priority in all areas of this cities design.

Finally, heroically, I found a footbridge which took me out of Kobe's industrial heartland and back into civilisation. In doing so I was actually moving away from my next attraction – Rokko Island – however, I didn't really care; by now my feet were pretty tired and I was hungry.

Once I'd found a main street, I then went in search of the closest train station which would take me, and my weary feet, to our next goal. Though this act saved me a lot of time, it cost quite a bit of money; Rokko Island is an island – strange that – reclaimed from the sea and shaped a bit like a square. The only dedicated public transport service which crosses onto the island – a monorail – charges £1.70 for a eight minute ride. Add onto that the fact that I had now got a train to take me to the monorail station, and you were looking at a £5.00 round trip to Rokko Island.

Rokko Island isn't really one of Kobe's major tourist spots. 10% of the islands inhabitants are foreign, making it feel quite different from Kobe's mainland. Within this square piece of reclaimed land was another inner-square. Within this inner-square was the 'living quarters' for the islanders and, on the outside, were a lot of businesses which needed docking space. Separating these two areas was a park built on walls which enclosed the 'living quarters'. I got off the train at the most southern 'living quarter' stop possible. I then walked up the main street in the direction I had just travelled. To my left was a woman who, I'm guessing, had put on the wrong shoes this morning. Though they did indeed look nice, she was walking so slowly that she was bending the laws of time and relativity. I watched her for a few minutes as each step seemed to be another painful act. Why people just don't wear comfortable hiking boots all year round, I will never know.

I found myself within the islands main shopping area and I found it very pretty indeed. A small stream ran in-between the paved pedestrian slabs with small sweet bridges crossing it every few hundred yards. Public art was everywhere - in the form of statues - and foreign looking buildings – including a European school – were abundant. The most extravagant looking building was 'Kobe's fashion museum', which looked as though a flying saucer had crash landed into a normal looking skyscraper. Everywhere was quiet; I stopped at a McDonald’s for lunch – on Christmas Day; on the shame … but it was the only thing I could find – and there was hardly anyone around. I perched up and ate a McDonald's meal – with an additional burger – on a four-person table with no one on the table next to me (in the centre of Kobe, there are queues of people waiting to sit down at every restaurant).

Once I'd consumed my food, I walked further up the Rokko Island's main road until I came to the final monorail station before the train left the island bound to return to Kobe. This station was perched in the middle of the 'walled park' which ran around the whole residential area of the island. I looked at my watch and I'd only been on the island for thirty minutes or so; I therefore felt that I had not spent long enough here therefore, I decided to follow this 'walled park', in an anti-clockwise direction, determined to be back at this station within an hour. I therefore set off on my walk.

Once again, to be so close to one of Japan's busiest coastlines and yet, to feel like I was in the middle of nowhere is a priceless gift for any 'urbanite'. I took out my earphones and listened to the birds chirping. To my left I could see into the residential area and to my right, trees blocked all sight of the busy industrial harbour front. As I walked I decided that I too could live here – though I haven't experienced this area in the summer. Rokko island has a foreign 'isolated' feel which is what I would like if I lived, forever, in Japan however, it is still close enough to a major city to get everything I need.

At the southern end of the square, the wall gave way and the trees receded. I was presented with another decked area jutting out into the harbour. A few people had cast a few fishing lines into the water and, both to the left and to the right of me, I could see heavy crate lifting equipment. I enjoyed walking along the waterfront though I was a little concerned about the time. I quickly moved on and left the waterfront behind me.

Exactly one hour after I'd left the train station, I arrived back at it having circled the island. I caught the next train bound for the mainland and then switched onto the next express service back to the centre of Kobe. The time was 4:30pm and I had missed Kobe's central museum. The sun was setting and so I realised that I would also miss going up one of Kobe's many surrounding mountains. This is now a problem; tomorrow I will be hiring a car therefore, I cannot see either of these attractions then. The day after is the day I leave for Kyoto though, I haven't decided what time I'll leave Kobe. I could leave Kobe later than planned and do both of the above attractions though, that would be digging into the time I have for my Kyoto visit. As the train arrived in Kobe's main station I was still deciding what I should do. Thinking about it, I am surprised in regards to the times museums and art galleries close around the world. Being inside, you would have thought that they would make the perfect place to visit late at night.

Once back in Kobe dusk had fallen. I still had one area of the town I hadn't explored yet and that was due to my guidebook calling the area 'fairly tacky, heavily focused on souvenir sales'. This area is called the 'kitano' and is located in the north of the city, on the steep slopes of the local mountains. When Japan finally opened up to the rest of the world, Kobe became an important port and, it was in this area that a lot of foreigners made their home therefore, there are a lot of old foreign houses however, after the 1995 earthquake, most of them were destroyed and what is seen today are reconstructs - designed less for their historical accuracy and more for what will bring in the tourists. Having said all that, this being Christmas these windy steep streets were littered with lights and buildings which resembled home … so I quite enjoyed wandering around, even if it was only for forty minutes or so as the area is actually quite small compared to say, Hakodate's foreign quarter.

Once I'd finished wandering around the 'tourist traps' charming streets, I proceeded back into town and past the book store I'd visited this morning. If I'd decided to visit the book store now, I could have started my day one hour earlier and … if I hadn't got myself trapped within Kobe's industrial area, I might have saved another hour allowing me to visit either Kobe's museum or Kobe's surrounding mountains. Still it mattered not; I've had a fantastic Christmas and, considering that food hasn't been that great today, I decided to splash out and buy myself another present. I went to a chocolate shop close to the book store and bought an expensive box of chocolates. I took them back to my hotel and, actually, I've already polished them off whilst writing this blog.

So Christmas Day is over and, while it hasn't been the best I've ever had, it has certainly been good. I've visited a museum, Kobe's harbour front, an island and Kobe's foreign quarter. After writing this blog, my plan was to head to a steak restaurant I'd discovered on my travels today however, after polishing that box of chocolates off in a very 'Christmas Day' fashion … I don't appear to be that hungry. I am thirsty so I'll finish this blog, write my diary, check how my 'holiday spends' are going and look at my road map to try and plan a route where I get to see all of Hyogo Prefecture within a day, before heading out to get more to drink. When I travel, I am busier than ever!

Merry Christmas

Toodle Pip!

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