Knowing I’d be visiting one of the most fashionable cities in Japan, I put on my best outfit; heeled ankle boots, my woollen coat and a beret. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as I did when I was in Moscow, wearing a fleece and trainers when every other woman was in stilettos and a fur-collared coat! When I arrived at the bustling Sannomiya station I was eager to try the renown Kobe Beef, so I headed straight to a steakhouse, not thinking about the cooking smells my best clothes would acquire during the meal…
Kobe beef is graded from A5 to C1, with A5 being the highest grade of meat that literally melts in your mouth due to the high fat content. Suffice to say A5 steak is pretty expensive, and not being a food critic I was happy to settle with a lower grade of meat for a much cheaper price! The steakhouse I’d been recommended, named Steakland, had a distinctly American-fifties feel to it, with a long wooden bar where people were sat on stools watching their slab of beef cooked in front of them and finishing their meal with a coffee and a cigarette (yes, smoking indoors in Japan is allowed). The lunchtime deal runs from 11am to 2pm and offers a set under ¥1000, a very affordable price. Yet as I turned up at 2.05pm, I had to pay ¥2800 for a set of 200g beef, fried vegetables, a soup, a salad and a coffee. There is also the choice between rice or ‘bread’, I opted for the latter but was slightly confused when a croissant turned up on my plate! When in all of history has steak been eaten with, on or inside a croissant! So if you do go here, take the rice.
Despite the confusion over what ‘bread’ was, I enjoyed the meal, especially the tender steak. A young man, armed with a long sharp knife clipped to his belt, cooked the steak in front of me. First, he seasoned it, then grilled vegetables in copious amounts of butter. Then, he let it sizzle for a couple of minutes both sides (I asked for mine medium rare). He then drew his knife from his belt and sliced the steak with the expertise of someone who had done it a zillion times before. Fried garlic slices where lathered in butter and scattered on top of the steak. For someone who hasn’t eaten this much red meat since I arrived in Japan, the hearty steak outdid me, or maybe it was the vegetarian left in me that couldn’t stomach the bloodiness of the steak. Still I emerged from the dimly lit restaurant feeling full and satisfied but with the smell of the beef lingering on my clothes…
Views across the bay
Once energized enough to face the crowds, I walked to City Hall, a 24-storey building which has great 360′ views of the port city. From that height, Kobe looked like a toy-city with trains running like clockwork and tiny cars crossing the bridge to the island in the bay.
Apart from a memorial flame burning in a park, there was no evidence of the 1995 earthquake which tore many buildings down. Wanting to find out more about the earthquake, I visited the City Museum.
An art exhibition seen before, but from another angle
To my amusement there was an exhibition of Dutch artists, with Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, an exhibition I’d seen eight months earlier in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. I watched as an orderly queue of adults and children walked slowly passed the famous painting, in silence and in awe. A museum lady was standing by making sure no one lingered for too long in front of the painting. This was a sharp comparison to the chatter and shoving I experience when I saw the same painting in Cambridge! It appears that Japanese people take art museums very seriously and there is an almost religious atmosphere within the gallery. Their visit wouldn’t be complete without buying some sort of omiyage (souvenir) and their desire is catered for well. Here was my favourite item in the gift shop, Miffy dressed as The Girl with the Pearl Earring! So Japanese.
The city museum had next to nothing on the 1995 earthquake, which makes sense as there is a whole other museum dedicated to that, but it was insightful about the foreign residents of Kobe who moved there when the city first opened for trade in 1868. A number of these American style buildings still exist in the district of Kitano and are a popular tourist attraction. The museum explained the relationship between the foreigners and Japanese, ”Some loved Japan and did their fest to mix with the Japanese.” If only the museum had tried their ‘fest’ to translate the plaques.
China Town and infectious consumerism
Past the 5* hotels and designer shops, I came across the bright red lights of Nankin-machi (China Town). After seeing a young girl take a bite of some street food then spin round shouting ”Oishii” (delicious), I couldn’t pass by this opportunity to have authentic Chinese food, even if I was still full from the steak. I gorged myself on peking duck rolls, sticky pork buns and bubble tea from the street stalls. I couldn’t recommend this place enough. You wouldn’t regret it.
My journey back to my hostel took me past many independent and buzzing shops and I’d realized I’d become infected with Kobe consumerism. I bought a necklace, just because I liked the song playing in the shop and a pair of sunglasses just because the shop owner was wearing a funny sweater. It was a dangerous mood to be in, so I put my wallet away and walked back to the hostel.
Bonenkai (‘forget the year party’)
That night I stayed at Sannomiya R2 Hostel and had been invited to their Bonenkai party. This hostel was not the most comfortable stay I’ve had, as the rooms have futons not beds, but it was one of the most sociable. For a few hours a small gathering of staff and guests chatted, exchanged stories and drank together.
That night I met a newly converted Zen Buddhist monk who was making the most out of his freedom before he had to adhere to the strict rules of his training programme at Fukui’s Eihe-ji temple. He drank the most out of everyone and said it helped him meditate! There was also a very interesting Japanese photographer of abandoned buildings. Check out his atmospheric photographs here 3+Thousand Photographs. Sat next to me was a Russian student of Japanese politics who was taking the slow train from Tokyo to Kyushu. In the photo, the man making the back-to-front V sign (apparently only offensive in the UK and some commonwealth countries), was employed on the Wwoof programme (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). I couldn’t hold back a snigger as the two men talked about their ‘woofing experiences’. I drank a little too much Umeshu (plum wine) that night and did the terrible gaijin mistake of walking out of the toilet wearing the toilet slippers, only noticing twenty minutes later. I blame it on the bonenkai.