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Published: November 7th 2014
Travelling in Japan had made us a little bit soft…we decided to break an hour and a half journey and stay in an additional city before our last stop of Osaka. We were also a bit curious after what we had read about Kobe, mostly that it is a very European (it was one of the first places in Japan to be opened to foreign trade just before the Meiji Restoration) and is a ‘different’ city to others we experienced in Japan.
Kobe is mostly famous for beef and the 1995 ‘Great Hanshin Earthquake’ which destroyed a huge part of the city. It’s easy to see why Kobe was devastated by the earthquake, just by looking at the pictures from our hotel room; Kobe is a long narrow city wedged between mountains and the sea but it's very easy to navigate. Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum
Knowing we were going to be super-early for our hotel check-in, Neil had done a bit of research and found that the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery had a museum with sake tasting that was free! So after dumping our bags at the hotel we hopped on the JR train to the nearest station to
the museum and we were so glad we did!
This little museum was well worth the visit. It was set in a little cute building next to the actual factory and it was really informative, offering an insight into how sake used to be made and how it's made now. They had really gone all out on the displays and actually, some of the mannequins were so life-like it was a bit freaky! Everything was labelled in Japanese and English and the ‘history of sake making’ is told via videos, you just pressed a button and it explained the display in front of you.
After wandering around the displays we made a beeline for the tasting area! The guy who was supervising the tasting was really sweet, his English wasn’t great but he more than made up for it in enthusiasm, effort and the generosity of sake shots he gave us 😉. We learned a little but about the difference between the sakes and plum wines and there was a lovely little shop where you could buy a bottle of your favourite from the tasting for a very reasonable price (how could we refuse, it would be rude
Stirring the rice
again, freaky mannequins
not to!). We left the sake museum, a tiny bit pissed! Meriken Park
When we were first reading about Kobe, we heard about Meriken Park the name made us giggle; mainly because it reminded us of the famous English footballer Chris Waddle and the way he says ‘America’…basically he says, ‘Mericka’ in his broad Geordie accent. We just couldn’t help ourselves when saying the name to mimic Chris. The associations with the North East of England don’t end there, the first thing both of us thought when we saw Merikan Park was that it was a poor man’s Hartlepool marina!
Meriken Park is the site of the huge, and quite unique, Kobe Tower. This is a 108mm tall red painted steel structure that has become a symbol of the port and the city. Built in 1963, you can take a lift up to its five top floors; two of the floors house a restaurant and a rotating cafe, while the other three house observation decks that provide 360 degree views of the city from approximately 100 meters above ground. We didn’t bother going up and just looked on from a distance. There is also a Maritime Museum
and a huge sculpture of a fish. The fish sculpture is very weird, it looks like it’s made from dirty net curtains and really set Donna on edge, making her want to break out the scrubbing brushes to clean it! 😉 A distinctly European city
Although parts of Kobe were very modern, a lot of the architecture could have belonged in any major European city. Tree lined streets and gorgeous stone buildings had us happily wandering around the streets admiring the scenes.
The people of Kobe seemed to us to be a lot more curious about us than other we had found in other cities. We definitely got stared at (something we hadn’t encountered in other parts of Japan as the Japanese are just so polite!), to be honest though, we didn’t see any other foreigners while we were there!
Right next door to our hotel was Chinatown, basically a street with a Chinese gate and some Chinese restaurants. It was a bit strange seeing a Chinatown in Japan, but was nice to have a wander. Food and a vending machine
We actually ticked off one of our food wish list items by complete
accident. We were walking around near the covered shopping streets looking for a restaurant (after not fancying the chicken feet in Chinatown!). It was a choice between the Yoshinoya chain or a small restaurant 4 doors along. We looked at the menu and decided to go for it. After sitting and looking at the menu a while longer, we realised we were in a vending machine restaurant!
Donna bravely went to the vending machine and tried to watch the young Japanese lads in front of her to figure out what to do to order our food. She managed to get half way until a message in Japanese appeared and then ended up scurried off to find the sweet waitress who helped navigate the machine! Our food was excellent, Neil enjoyed a sizzling steak dish and Donna had a platter of fish cooked in different ways. For ¥2020 (£11.60) it was good value and very filling! Japanese obsessions…
Ok, one thing we noticed about the Japanese is that there is a real obsession with anime and things that are ‘kawaii’ (かわいい, this is the quality of ‘cuteness’ in Japanese culture). This kawaii culture was actually something we struggled
to get our heads around, for various reasons. Kawaii has gradually gone from a small subculture in Japan to an important part of Japanese modern culture as a whole. We found that Japanese women (in particular) act ‘cute’ and innocent and although kawaii culture is popular with men as well, it’s a puzzle to see grown women acting and looking quite child like. For example, having large eyes is one aspect of kawaii which exemplifies innocence to the Japanese, so there has been a proliferation in those weird contact lenses which make people’s eyes look (to us!) like a freaky vampire. Think Hello Kitty, Pokemon and all those cute Japanese cartoon characters with big eyes! The dressing as maids and schoolgirls are also linked into kawaii culture. Very sexy, suggestive ads
We were left with our mouths hanging open at some of the adverts we saw on the subway trains. A lady eating a chocolate éclair cake in a very suggestive way (we don't think we need to say any more!) and just in general a lot of adverts were super-sexy and suggestive...we haven’t seen this in any other country! We won’t mention the strange anime porn, we
don’t even know where to start with that! The Frozen phenomenon
Yes, the Disney film Frozen made it to Japan, with Japanese versions of all the songs. To be honest, it drove us mad in nearly every shop we went in that the Japanese version of ‘Let it Go’ was playing on a loop! We remembered reading a news article
about a Japanese woman who divorced her husband because he just wasn’t that into Frozen…can you imagine why?! The Japanese are very into their cartoons, which ties back into our first observation about kawaii! A couple of train notes
One thing to note when travelling between cities in Japan on the Skinkansen is that there are sometimes two major stations, for example in Kobe, there is Kobe station and Shin-Kobe. Just make sure you are looking at the right stations.
The train planning tool not to be without is Hyperdia
. This is how we planned all our train journeys; we looked up the routes and then printed out what trains we wanted to take and handed this over to the JR train booking staff who got it all booked in a jiffy when we were in
Tokyo. Hotel for Kobe
We stayed at the Tokyu Bizfort hotel in Kobe, which was ¥7800 a night (£44.82). Room was larger than average for Japan with quite a big bathroom and the shower was excellent, with all kinds of power shower nozzles! There were free drinks from 3pm onwards in the lounge area, this included coffees from the machine, tea, ice tea and water. Excellent idea! Our room was on the 14th floor and had brilliant views over Chinatown.
Check-in/check-out policies of hotels in Japan are very restrictive, with most check-in times being 3pm (check-out is usually 10am or 11am!). This hotel was very strict with the check-in time, strictest we encountered in 5 cities and the check in process was so very slow - it took 45 minutes to check in! Trainee staff combined with a weird machine payment system that didn’t work properly caused chaos which is very unusual in Japan!
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