Category Archives: Japan

Kobe

August 2015

According to my pre-trip reading, this was supposed to be one of the most, if not the most livable city in Japan for expats, but lacking in major attractions. On reflection, I’d say that was a fair call, although it was hard to judge the standard of life here on just a flying visit.

The station in the centre of town is Sannomiya (although the Shinkansen arrives at Shin-Kobe) and since I had the cheap JR Seishun-18 ticket, it was here that I alighted. A short walk up the hill brings you to a strange district known as Kitano, which contains various examples of western style houses from France, Italy, England, Denmark, Austria etc.

Having grown up in Europe, these houses looked remarkably normal and unimpressive to me, although it was admittedly a little intriguing to see the Japanese eagerly snapping photos of them. Naturally, I did not fork out the steep entrance fees to go inside the buildings, but I did climb up to the Shinto shrine at the top for some nice views out onto Osaka Bay.

I may have had some beef with the houses, but I had no beef with the beef. Kobe is famous across Japan for its marbled meat and I purchased a little of it (a proper serving at a restaurant would have blown a few days’ budget) in the souvenir shop at Shin-Kobe station  to eat at the nearby waterfall.

Well, that was the plan. I was a little blasé reading the instructions to get there and went over the station instead of under it and ended up following a completely different road uphill.

After climbing for about 30 minutes, drenched in sweat, I decided I had probably gone the wrong way. By this time, I was way up in the mountains by a stream all on my own, which was, as it happened, a perfect place to stop for food.

I descended then ascended again, this time the right way. Nunobiki Waterfall was fairly impressive, but full of Japanese tourists and a few noisy children. I was not too disappointed I’d gone the wrong way earlier for my lunch.

The other thing that Kobe is known for is the devastating earthquake that struck here in 1995. I can still remember seeing images of the damage on TV in England as a 13-year-old. I witnessed no lingering effects during my visit and the town seemed to have confidently moved on.

Kobe. It was nice enough for a day out, but all in all nothing spectacular.

Wakayama

August 2015

Wakayama Prefecture is not high on the list of many traveller’s itinerary priorities in Japan; the city of Wakayama even less so. I certainly never intended to come, but I left my booking of a place to stay on my return from Taiwan until the last minute and all of the cheap accommodation in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe and Himeji was booked out. Thankfully, there was a bed still available in Wakayama, about 40 minutes away from Kansai airport, so I eagerly snapped it up.

A young lady from the city working in Tokyo on her brief summer holiday came to chat to me on the train worried that I might be lost, when I was merely wondering why the train was so slow and kept stopping. Apparently, not many people used the connection any more. The limousine bus would have been much quicker. She told me about her work in Tokyo as an engineer to help stabilise buildings during disasters in surprisingly fluent English. She had worked in Singapore for a few years and was worried that she might be using ‘Singrish’. I couldn’t detect any.

This friendliness extended to the hostel where I stayed.There was a fun-loving bunch of Japanese and foreigners mingling at the big table in the common room when I arrived, many of whom had found themselves in the same predicament as me. The hostel itself was comfortable, albeit fairly basic and a little cramped. After ten, we had to move to the rooftop, so as not to disturb the other guests who were sleeping. It was fairly pleasant up there, but I soon headed on to investigate the surrounding area.

Arriving at night, the atmosphere of the town was reminiscent of Shizuoka. Not too big and not too many tourists, but still with a great hidden set of bars to be discovered for those with a sense of adventure and a smattering of Japanese. People were on their holidays, so most were fairly lively.

After a quick stop in the morning at the castle, whose employees rushed out to douse me with water after climbing up the hill, I continued my journey on to Kobe.

I would have happily stayed longer here. There was a good, relaxed atmosphere, most of the Kansai region attractions were within easy day trip reach and there also seemed to be a good selection of onsen close at hand, which an Australian pilot guest on leave seemed to be ticking off one by one, possibly to let off steam after a harrowing landing in Taiwan during a typhoon.

Himeji

August 2015

There’s pretty much one reason that people come to Himeji and it stands there right before you at the end of a long broad avenue as you exit the train station. On the steamy hot (mushiatsui) summer’s day I came here, the six white storeys of the castle’s main keep set against a backdrop of majestic blue skies and white clouds were simply breathtaking.

On the long train journey back home to Shizuoka afterwards, I kept looking with almost religious reverence at the photographs I had taken. This was a building it was possible to entirely commune with in mind, body and soul. In fact, it was so perfectly conceived it was barely of this world, seeming to exist on another plane entirely, perhaps halfway to heaven. If you only see one castle in Japan (a highly improbable occurrence), make it this one!

As uplifting as the views of Himeji Castle were, the actual sightseeing was more of a hard slog. Visiting during Obon, the impossible number of visitors meant that the whole trip into the castle, up the wooden floors to the small shrine at the top and back down again consisted of one massive queue. The best part of the trip was, in fact, at the very end, when the attendants were no longer urgently ushering you on and it was possible to enjoy the edifice in (relative) peace.

The hostel I stayed at was Himeji 588. It was reasonably priced by Japanese standards (2700 yen) and had free coffee, tea and water, a godsend in hot weather. The beds in the dorm were Japanese style mattresses in small cubby holes one up one down and the showers had free soap and shampoo. There was a bar downstairs and a small area to meet other guests, which I did. The one downside was that guests are asked to leave from 1000 to 1600 for the staff to do cleaning, not so great if you were partying the night before.

For dinner, on the recommendation of the hostel manager, we headed down to an area just northeast of the station where there was a cluster of izakayas in one of the colonnaded shopping arcades. I was joined by some other hostel guests and after being told they were full up in most places (it was Saturday night), we finally went down a random set of stairs and found a great little underground cavern bar. The menu was only in handwritten Japanese, one of the hardest things in the world to decipher, so I just asked the staff if they had this or that and what they recommended (‘osusume’) in Japanese.

We then went looking for another place and came across a Latino bar with a suitably cheesy name, ‘Bar Tropicana’. Drinks were not free. I had a chat in Spanish to the friendly Peruvian owner from Cuzco, who had married a Japanese lady. There weren’t too many people there, but there was one young Japanese guy, who for some unknown reason was keen we took our shirts off. The Swedish fellow I was with happily obliged, despite or perhaps because of his massive girth.

We left as soon as we’d finished our drinks, but the owner said it was his birthday the next day and encouraged us to return. I was sceptical as to whether that was actually true or not, but my holiday had come to an end. It was time to get back to Shizuoka.