There comes a time, perhaps when you’re walking through a parking lot in a Japanese city 5,000 kilometers from your wife and children with a jumble of highways crisscrossing over your head, when you become sick of traveling. There comes a time, after you’ve gone back to your hotel room to drink your way through jet lag in an attempt to fall asleep at a reasonable hour but then begin to sift through your notes to write about it, when you wish your life were somewhat more sedentary.
These things happen. They are temporary, but they do kind of build up, especially in Japan. If you were in a city like Kyoto, then you would go out and walk through the old parts of town, down by the river where the ghosts of glories past would gradually coax your spirit out of its funk. But when you’re in Kobe, and the view from just about any place, day or night, includes an industrial port and great soaring lanes of traffic, then there’s really not much you can do about it but drink.
Kobe has a history of making foreigners feel depressed. It was one of the two great ports of entry after the opening of Japan to the rest of world in the mid-19th century (the other being Yokohama), and it was one of the first cities to include an official “foreign quarter.” Even today it has a relatively large proportion of foreigners (a very small relatively large proportion … this is Japan, after all). The people in stores and restaurants are slightly more likely to speak English and the street signs are often marked in English as well, which is extremely useful. I once got lost in Kyoto and called a friend to say where I was … “Well, the first character on the street sign is a kind of box thing with a kind of line thing then another line thing that … oh, never mind.” This can be avoided in Kobe—not that there are many places you’ll be wanting to go, though.
I have spent a total of three or four weeks in Kobe over the past few years and I never did manage to find an interesting site. Near Kobe there is Himeiji, which has an absolutely stupendous castle, but in Kobe itself times are tough for the tourist. I am, however, of the firm belief that every place has some place that’s interesting, and when I recently returned to Kobe after a two-year absence, I determined to find it.
Which is how I ended up in a parking lot under an overpass, on my way to the maritime museum.
To get there, I walked from Sannomiya, which is the nerve center of Kobe, in that a lot of the rail lines converge there and it’s kind of in the middle. There is also a lot of shopping to be done in the area, an activity dear to the Japanese heart. In fact, just south of Sannomiya Station is Sannomiya Street (or Gallery, or something), which is a long, covered pedestrian walkway with all kinds of shops and things of which I take little notice (although it does boast a kick-ass bookstore with a small English section on the top floor). After a while and a little hook south and then west again, you enter Kobe’s Chinatown. Everyone in Kobe tells you to go experience Chinatown, which is vaguely like China except a lot cleaner and with your typical Japanese tangle of overhead electric and phone wires, and not really very Chinese when all is said and done but what the hell else are you going to do in Kobe? They even tell you that you should eat Chinese food from the numerous stalls lining the street, but the Chinese food there tends to be far less than impressive, and there’s so much good Japanese food in Kobe that you really have to wonder why you’re buying lumps of fried chicken gristle from a Japanese man in a Chinese food stall. If you really want to eat in the street, then you’re better off buying octopus balls from one of the ubiquitous little red stands with a smiling octopus painted on a sign. You find these all over in Japan. Why the octopus is smiling when you’re about to eat it fried up with egg is a mystery.
Pass through Chinatown and head south and you’ll reach the aforementioned parking lot with its coiffure of twisted overhead expressways. This is the gateway to Meriken Park, in which you’ll find a couple of hotels and the Kobe Maritime Museum.
First, though, just behind the big gray fish-like sculpture that is marked “café” on its door but “Dance Learning Place” on at least one local city map I’ve seen, you’ll run across a memorial to the 1995 earthquake, a terrible catastrophe that killed 5,000 people in and around Kobe. Meriken Park is on reclaimed land (i.e., land that was created by throwing rubble into the sea) and was heavily hit. A small stretch of land on the shore has been left untouched since the earthquake and you can get a glimpse of what it must have been like. Large concrete blocks are cracked like crumbled graham crackers and lampposts lean crazily in different directions.
The rest of the city has been entirely rebuilt, and the park is quite peaceful and well arranged, as one would expect in Japan. The park and the museum in it are devoted to Kobe’s status as one of Japan’s busiest ports.
There are very few major cities that so closely weave a major commercial port into their fabric. Most of the time, the big sweaty port area is off in some maritime ghetto. In Kobe, though, the city and the port mingle. Actually, the port is the city in many respects. Part of it may be that the steep wooded hills behind the city never allowed it to spread too far away from the sea, but whatever the reason, if you’re in a building of any appreciable height, you’re going to see a lot of big cranes and bulky ships.
Depending on how you feel about these things, this will be good or bad news. Well … it’s not great news either way. You might as well get in the spirit of things, though, and go down to the maritime museum.
Near the museum, in the park, there are already three vessels you can check out, each held up by supports in its own waterless pit. The first of these is a reproduction of a caravel. I assume it’s a Portuguese caravel (Note: You have to assume much when visiting Meriken Park and the maritime museum, because there is very, very little written in anything but Japanese) because at the time caravels were sailing the ocean blue, the Portuguese made contact with Japan and traded with them until the Westerners and their pesky religion were thrown out. Anyway, the caravel is interesting, if you’re interested in old ships, which I am. When you’re standing next to it (regrettably, you can’t go on it), you have to wonder how Columbus ever had the guts to get into one of these things and sail toward the end of the world. It’s really small.
Near the caravel is a kind of hydrofoil that looks appropriately fast, and next to that is the Yamato 1, a “superconducting propulsion ship.” The Yamato 1 must have been designed by whoever put together the models for the old Thunderbirds TV show. It’s a big, hulking thing with bulging bits underneath and an ultra-cool glass cockpit that could contain the whole Thunderbirds cast, even if they were life-size. I used to have a bunch of Thunderbirds toys and none of them were as cool as this thing.
Impatient to get more information on this monster, I entered the maritime museum, much of which is taken up by a rather unmaritime playground. It’s a nice indoor playground, though, featuring a psychedelic mushroom-type slide. Why it’s there I have no idea. Behind the slide is a 9-meter model of the HMS Rodney, flagship of the British fleet that sailed into Yokohama harbor to help the Americans convince the shogun that 200 years of isolation was one year too many and wouldn’t you like to open up your market to trade so we don’t blow you to hell with all these guns?
The rest of the maritime museum consists essentially of models of cargo ships—models of warships being politically incorrect in the extreme. If, like me, you spent a fair amount of your childhood building models, then you will find this fascinating, despite the fact that cargo ships are probably not what you were building. If, however, you are not enthralled by models of container ships and tankers, then you might be less than captivated, despite the big diorama of the Kobe container port with lights that blink and flash when you press the different buttons.
There is also a display about the Yamato 1. Upon recognizing this, I virtually flew to it and watched the little film. The little film is, of course, in Japanese, which means that I only understood when there was a number shown, but I understood enough to learn that the mighty, hulking Yamato 1, on display just outside, could manage only a measly 8 knots! The films of it moving across Kobe Harbor were pitiful—the thing looked positively anemic despite all the hand clapping and shoulder nudging going on in that great glass cockpit. It would seem that, while the propulsion system is revolutionary, relying on quantum mechanics or something, the actual performance is paltry. What a waste of bulbous curves!
My disappointment in the Yamato 1 was somewhat allayed by a very nice evening out with my friend Toshi, who has a favorite restaurant in Kobe to which he has taken me during a number of trips in the past. It’s a small, informal, but deceptively expensive place where you eat traditional Japanese food.
I love traditional Japanese food, especially in Japan, where it tends to be far better than it is elsewhere (the absolute worst example being in Warsaw in 1993; I still haven’t gotten over that meal). The only thing is, you have to be prepared for your food to squirm. In this same restaurant I once saw a Japanese woman kindly request that the chef take away the front part of the lobster we were eating. At the time, we were all partaking of its sliced tail, but the front part of it suddenly started waving its legs at her in either anger or supplication, and, however Japanese she might have been, it was too much for her. On my latest evening with Toshi we had no lobster but we did have, for instance, one large tiger shrimp apiece. These were removed from the tank and began flopping violently as the chef prepared them for us. He cut off their heads (the bit with the legs) and presented us immediately with the flayed tails of the little beasts, which we happily popped into our mouths. Mine immediately did a jig on my tongue, I assume in some postmortem reflex, which caused me to break out in the kind of expression one assumes when one’s food is trying desperately to escape from one’s mouth.
“Fresh!” said Toshi.
“Fresh!” I replied, and bit the little bugger in two.
In the end, a friend, good food, and copious amounts of sake overcame my initial bout of traveling doldrums and I ended up content enough—but I confess that, despite all that, I was happy to leave Kobe for the mystical city of Nara.