KOBE - LIKE BEING IN AN EPISODE OF INITIAL D

 


The Great Hanshin earthquake, which hit almost thirty years ago, devastated much of Kobe, as evidenced by the collapse of the expressway that stood over the streets. Thousands died, and many more were injured, with over 60,000 buildings completely collapsed. Today, resilience and defiance against the forces of nature can be seen as soon as you enter the city, where there was once a single elevated expressway, there is now not only the rebuilt structure, but they doubled up and built another one on top of it.


When I arrived at the station early on a cloudy Saturday morning, it didn’t seem too busy, so I took the opportunity to visit the nearby Ikuta Shrine before droves of tourists came to rob the place of its serenity. The tight and somewhat cluttered streets around the station were lined with even tighter and more cluttered back alleys that felt exceptionally Japanese, and the smell of early morning prep work coming from the many kitchens mixed in these small spaces made me a very hungry boy. But food would have to wait for the time being.


Through the giant red torii gate was an elegant shrine sat to the backdrop of Mount Rokko. It wasn’t too big a space, but a nice wooded area behind had a little stream running through it, and an ancient and very important tree if the two young gentlemen patting and caressing it in amazement were anything to go by. The shrine was built by Empress JingÅ« following a near fatal sea voyage when returning from Korea. It’s dedicated to the water god Watatsumi and went up during the 3rd century, making it one of the oldest shrines in Japan. On the way out, I was drawn to the shrine again where a priest was reciting morning hymns while visitors gave their prayers at the entrance.

 




I looked towards the hills and made for Kitano Street, an area where foreign merchants in the latter half of the 1800s resided, resulting in buildings of various European styles being scattered amongst the homes, apartments, and hotels. The streets were narrow and winding, and it soon became obvious why the Europeans decided to call this area home. It had a distinct feeling, like walking through a hilly Spanish town. The foreign houses here were all turned into museums, but since I grew up in a foreign house, I didn’t see much of a need to go inside them. As I ascended further, the nicer these building got, and in the moments when I turned around, I saw that the views got nicer too, with tiled rooftops and cracked steps and paths seamlessly coalescing with the distant towers beyond.


The mostly uphill trek, coupled with the unseasonably warm weather, made it obvious why there weren’t many tourists up here, and I could only imagine that death would be the outcome had I come during the increasingly hellish Japanese summer. The tourists who did make the jaunt stood blocking the entrances to the museums and shops without any awareness or apparent care for their surroundings. I moved on. Heading east, an Aston Martin pulled up just ahead of me and blocked the entire footpath. I was starting to get annoyed. A refreshing walk through the herb garden and across the ropeway into the tranquil forest further up would be nice, I thought, until I was greeted by a big sign saying it was closed for the month.

 



Onward towards Koto no Hako, a shopping centre filled with restaurants and shops that occupied the first two floors of a very fancy hotel. Or at least that’s what the intention was. Unfortunately, the floor plan at the entrance showed that the majority of units were either shops that had permanently closed, or to let. Even the 7-Eleven had closed down. This ghostly building now only housed a couple of restaurants and a clothes shop having a closing down sale. Nice bathroom though. 

 

At the rear was a Kobe beef museum and restaurant, but being a cheapskate, I couldn’t justify spending over ¥4000 on a sliver of, admittedly, tasty meat. Curious whether the place was just opening or closing, I had a look online for answers. All the one-star reviews on Trip Advisor dated back to its opening in 2019, and it appeared to have always been pretty derelict despite being right beside Shin-Kobe station. Maybe it’s just one of those weird locations that will never take.

 



Back down at sea level, I wandered around the busy shopping arcade and backstreets where I found a little restaurant with a 50s American diner theme called Shelby’s. The jovial owner served me a bacon cheeseburger which tasted great, but suffered from the same thing as all burgers being held together with a skewer do; that being half the contents shooting out the other side when you take a bite. It was a messy affair, but I’m sure a lot of that can be put down to me eating like a feral child, as the two women opposite taking endless photos of their plates didn’t seem to have the same problem.


Heading to my hotel took me along the harbour for about thirty minutes. I found there was no real need to use any public transport. The city was big but compact, with each area exhibiting a different vibe, so walking through each of them wasn’t a slog through an endless sprawl. The hotel was in a decent location. My room, however, was not. Pro tip: Don’t get a room on the smoking floor just because it’s cheaper. With this lingering smell ensuring I didn’t spend long there, I headed down to Chinatown for some street food. The sun had already set, and the illuminated bridges and highways I followed made me feel like I was in a 90s PS1 racing game. All that was missing from this moment was some DnB blasting in my ears and a Nissan Skyline zooming by.


Several of the buildings in Chinatown came down during the ‘95 earthquake, but it’s an area where the city made a concerted effort to keep the culture and flavour of the place intact. Big blazing red gates welcomed visitors at the two main entrances, while restaurants, street food vendors, and souvenir shops packed the narrow streets decorated with a glowing mass of hanging paper lanterns. A distant banging of drums grew louder, and I joined the crowd standing around a little shrine where some high school students were performing a traditional Chinese dance. Wearing elaborate dragon costumes and dancing to the beats of the group of drummers behind them, they helped to bring some real life to an already lively affair.

 



I moved on to find some food, but found myself immersed in the empty alleys where the muted drums, smells, and a myriad of lanterns and other representations of China had me on the lookout for Jack Burton and Wang Chi fighting off evil. After settling on gyoza, I stood off the main street eating and appreciated the ambiance, wondering if this is how every Saturday night in Kobe’s Chinatown was. The answer to that is “dunno.” But this particular Saturday night, I finally realised, owed its bouncing atmosphere to it being the Lunar New Year. How auspicious.


Full of gyoza and new year’s cheer, I went to the pier for somewhere to chill for the rest of the night. Many of the buildings, I noticed, had architectural designs that wouldn’t look out of place in 1920s Wall Street. Back under the towering double expressway, past “Fish Dance Music Place,” and towards the ocean, the Kobe Maritime Museum was lit up bright pink, with the glowing red Port Tower behind it. There were a fair amount of people around enjoying the relaxing sound of the waves despite the sharp temperature drop. Nestled not too inconspicuously on the harbour was the influencers’ dream; a Starbucks beside a big “BE KOBE” monument. Not a huge fan of these types of things being placed down in lieu of something actually interesting. They must have ran out of culture by the time they reached the water.


With my nose sufficiently turned up, I waited for much longer than I’d have liked to get a coffee, then looked at the big BE KOBE sign, pondering if there was any deeper meaning hidden in its two words, all the while photos and selfies were being taken around me. The adjacent car park had two Nissan 350Z’s with paint jobs and over the top body kits complete with comedy sized spoilers, and opposite them were two identical Toyota Sprinter Trueno’s that drove straight out of Initial D. I guess the ritual of young men with fast cars gathering in car parks by the sea is culture we can all recognise.

 

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