Saturday, 27 February 2010

Kobe: the foreign quarter

Some Chinese presence remained in Kobe through out the Edo era, however under the Tokugawa government policy,  foreigners were essentially excluded from Japan.  After the Harris Treaty with the US opened Kobe to foreigners in 1863, there was a section of the city down by the water set aside as a foreign concession, where Japanese control of law and order as well as administrative control (including tax) was ceded to foreign powers.  Many of the old stone buildings remain.

Section 8 of the Old Foreign Quarter

This building was destroyed in the 1995 earthquake but was rebuilt to be exactly the same as the original.

Buildings in the foreign quarter down by the water in central Kobe

Up in Kitano, on Mt Rokko, where many of the houses remain.
Japanese and foreigners lived side by side.

AGerman designed house that is the only remaining brick building from the era.
Cafe culture on the hill
The Kobe Mosque - Kobe saw an influx of Turkic Muslim refugees from the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath.  The Mosque was built primarily with money from British India.  Kobe also used to have a substantial Jewish population,  and accepted many Jewish refugees from Europe in the 1930s and 40s.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Kobe: two oddities

Two oddities
This was quite a surprise.  It's a free cafe. Literally free.  Free coffee, free tea, orange juice and rice crackers all free. There were several tables with chairs but mostly standing tables.  Harimaya is a rice cracker maker who has decided to open the free cafes in part to promote their rice crackers - there are apparently stores in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka as well -  and in part as a vehicle to promote their vision of the environment. The vision seems quite vague though and the fact the plates for the rice crackers at the cafe appeared to be disposable plastic seemed a bit dubious.     Looking at their website makes me wonder if they are actually a doomsday cult in disguise.

Oddity two
A reminder that obesity hasn't really hit Japan. 
It's a weight loss centre for people wanting to lose between 5-10kg.
Next time we get "before and after" diet brochures in the newspaper, I will paste them here....
She was a big fatso at  52kg and now she's starting to look better at 46kg....

Kobe: Chinatown

Chinese presence dates back many hundreds of years in Kobe.  China has been hugely influential in Japanese culture, Buddhism, Confucianism, art, architecture, and script to name the most obvious.  In the case of Kobe though,  trade with China helped it develop into a thriving port city. The Chinese presence remains today with Nanking St being the heart of Kobe's Chinatown.   (Nanking St is also the main shopping street of central Shanghai).     

A Chinatown needs to have gates ;)

Buying gyoza
Soups, dumplings, fried foods
Gyoza, dumplings and mochi
Nanking St

A variety of Chinese and Chinese-Japanese "fusion" foods.

A Hong Kong shop that did sit down meals or stand up food.
I'm not sure how much repeat custom they would get -
it was not a patch on a Guangdong restaurant on the same street.

As for these... I don't get them either.


Kobe is one of Japan's bigger cities.  It's built on the coast of the Inland Sea (the sea that is bordered by Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu)  on a thin strip of land with the Rokko Mountains rising behind it.  Kobe is famous as a port, as the home of Kobe beef and for the Hanshin earthquake of 1995 that killed more than 5,000 people.    Kobe was one of the first cities opened for foreign trade after the end of the Tokugawa shogunate's policy of isolation.  The port opened in 1863 and it remains a city with both a strong Chinese and western presence;  it is considered one of the most 'foreigner-friendly' places in Japan and is home to the Japan offices of many international corportations including Procter and Gamble, Daikin, Asics, Fuji-Xerox and Nestle.  
      The man hole covers in the footpath showing  the mountains and the sea.

As a centre of industry esp ship and aircraft building, Kobe was heavily bombed towards the end of the war, with more than 8000 people reported to have been killed as a result of one night of bombing on 17 March 1945.  Much of the city was destroyed though there are a remarkable number of old stone buildings near the water that survived (and can be seein in the photo adjacent).
We weren:t in Kobe long enough to be able to say with any authority what kind of city it is, other than that it is very compact and that there is a very discernable difference between different areas: Chinatown, lively street vendors selling an assortment of dumplings, soups, fried food and the like;  the old foreign settlement area which is the province of upmarket labels and trading houses; the waterfront with a fun park; the station areas with lots of neon, cheap restaurant chains, and discount ticket shops ;  the Kitano area up on the hill with old western style houses, cafes and an air of monied sophistication but where the roads are too narrow and steep for cars to go up (motor bikes are popular in Kobe).
In terms of major attractions it is probably limited and as such is a little off the tourist circuit; however it looks like it would be a very pleasant place to live.

On the way to the hotel:
Fried cabbage 'crepes' 130Y each
On the way to the hotel - Daimaru dept. store
On the way to the hotel - Motomachi shopping arcade

Monday, 22 February 2010

Akashi Kaikyo

We took the JR train back to Kobe, where we had booked accommodation.  The train line runs close to the coast and at one point the Akashi Kaikyo bridge is clearly visible.   The Akashi Kaikyo is the longest span bridge in the world at a whopping 3.91km. It goes from Hyogo prefecture on Honshu island across to Awaji shima (island)  and connects via expressay to a bridge on the other side of Awaji to Shikoku  Island, the smallest of Japan's four main islands.  The photo leaves a bit to be desired, but it gives an idea of the expanse.


Outside Himeji, at the terminal station of Bus number 8, is a ropeway that goes up Mt Shosha to Engyoji, a temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. Engyoji is one of Tendai's main temples and is also on the pilgrim circuit of temples and shrines in Western Japan.  East Asian religion is noteable for it's tendency to syncretism and the pilgrim circuits in Japan tend to be inclusive of all Buddhist sects as well Shinto.  Pilgrim passports are available - with each temple and shrine having its own stamp.

On arrival at the top we had the option to either walk or take a minibus.  It was a nice day and only a km or so, so we opted to walk.  The fact that their bus fee gets marked down as a donation to the temple, to avoid tax liability also rankles, perhaps more than it should.

Anyway it was a good decision. Aside from the fresh mountain air and good weather, it was pretty; the dirt road meandered up the mountain through the trees lined with Buddhist statues (that look like Hindu gods)  and donation stones to the temple bearing the names of the donors and how much they donated...

A Vishnu like statue along the way

A meandering path - the fence on the left is made of stone donation pillars

A jizo protecting a cemetery on the way up

Maniden, this is the main building.The original building, thought to have been built in the 900s,  burned down  in 1921 and was re-opened in 1933.

Lanterns at the temple with chrysanthemum, the symbol of the emperor (and to that extent of Shinto), with the ancient Buddhist manji (swastika) symbolizing the intersection of love and intellect.  Temples have been persecuted at various stages of history, in Meiji and the prewar era many temples were at pains to show they were not a threat to imperial power.

The roof of Maniden. Master craftsmen needed for this kind of detail.

A statue of Buddha
A cedar tree thought to be 700 years old - still going strong.
The jikido, or dormitory for monks is on the left and now houses treasures of the temple -statues of Buddha, the godess of Mercy, protector gods among others.  Unfortunately none is labeled in English, and the Japanese labels give no indication of age or significance. It was originally built in 1174 (Muromachi era), but was dismantled and reconstructed in 1963.
The Daikodo is on the right. It was originally built in the late 900s, but was dismantled and reconstructed in 1956. 
 Part of the last samurai was filmed on location here

Spectacular wood work

This isnt bad either.

Wood doesnt last forever... this is a beam that was replaced due to internal rot.
Jizo dedicated to mizuko (water babies), babies that did not survive to be born alive.  To buy a statue here for dedication costs 30,000Y.

Practical information about how to get here etc can be found at
The details of the temple came from their tourist guide.

Himeji: a castle town with a garden

Kokoen garden is on the west side of the castle.  It used to be  part of samurai quarters inside the old castle precinct and has recently been turned into gardens.  (1992).  The garden is unusual in that it is compartmentalised with dividing walls into themed gardens:  a garden of seedlings, a garden for tea ceremonies, a summer tree garden, a pine tree garden, a garden with a traditional style pond,  a bamboo garden among others.

Japanese type gardens become more impressive as they get older.  It is definitely worth visiting but in some places the vegetation still looked transplanted, perhaps the fact that it is winter makes it more noticable. 

Himeji: a castle town

On the weekend we visited Himeji, a castle town west of Osaka, that has one of only 12 remaining original castles in Japan. It's a 3 hour train Shinkansen trip to Himeji, but flights between Tokyo and the Kansai airports are very competitive - a round trip plus accommodation cost significantly less than return shinkansen tickets. Repair work is scheduled to start next month and it will be 4 or so years before the scaffolds come off. With that in mind, we took the chance to see it.


The castle has been in this form since the early 1600s.
It replaced a castle that had been built in the mid 1300s.

The castle is raised high above the surrounding area

Family emblems found within the castle precinct.
The castle has had many owners through out its history.

I didn't see an explanation of why there were different geometrical shapes for shooting arrows cut into the wall.  
Looking up from underneath

A castle town - a model of the castle and the surrounding area in feudal times.