Sunday, 12 June 2011

Kobe trip

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently took a two week holiday from work, spending the second week in Kansai. Having studied at Kobe University a couple of years ago, I wanted to go and visit some old friends and places in Kobe and Osaka.

I arrived in Kobe on the night of Sunday May 22nd and went to find the hotel I had booked over the internet. It was in Sannomiya, the city centre of Kobe, and fairly near to Ikuta-jinja, a famous shrine. Hotel prices in Sannomiya were on the expensive side, but I managed to get this hotel for around 4000 yen (30 pounds) a night.

I had thought of a couple of places I wanted to visit in Kobe, and one of them was Port Island. The international dormitory I used to live in is there, so I spent a lot of time on this man-made island. It's a quiet place, full of apartment buildings and storage businesses for the local shipping industry, but there's also an Ikea, a university, various parks and quite a few hotels. To get to Port Island from Sannomiya you take the Port Liner, which is technically known as an automated guideway transit system – a train which runs without a driver. It looks a lot like a monorail as it runs on a track high above the roads, but the Port Liner was apparently the world's first AGT, opening along with the island in 1981. There is also a normal bridge, which allows you to reach the island by car, bike or on foot, and I decided to rent a bike from a coffee shop in Sannomiya called SPARK and ride over to Port Island.

As I arrived on the island it was time for lunch, so I started to head over to the big Ikea, whose café we used to frequent. On the way though, I rode past my old dormitory and decided to stop by. The back door was open and I went inside and knocked on the office door. The old caretaker from before was still there and we had a bit of a chat. He told me the place was mostly empty now as most of the international students were at other dorms closer to Kobe University, then he suggested we go up and have a look at my old room. There's no-one in it now, or even in the whole corridor. We also bumped into the cleaning lady who used to wake us all up every morning, banging her way around the dorm with her trolley full of brushes. Although Port Island is a nice location, it makes sense that most of the international students now live a lot closer to the university, as we all spent a lot of time and money making the journey there and back every day. I also noticed that the area just across from the dormitory where we used to play frisbee and football was no longer a dusty field, but was now covered in grass.

Area across from the dorms

Then I got back on my bike and headed over to Ikea. I think this was Japan's first ever Ikea, and I always thought it was a strange place to have one, as Port Island is a bit out of the way. In fact, I had a Swedish friend who lived at the dorm and had a part-time job in Ikea's kitchen, and she often said that they were considering closing it down as business wasn't great. Speaking of Swedish people, there were two or three at the dorm while I was there, and they loved Ikea. When they spoke about it, it was always in a reverent tone and I think they really did feel a strong sense of pride that Ikea is a Swedish company; one of the Swedish guys used to regularly buy snacks from the food shop there and hand them out to us all like tracts. Although even the non-Swedish among us used to go there quite a bit. It was great for buying any new items of furniture when you'd just moved to the dorm, and we'd often go just for the café. Many a time we would buy a few hotdogs and cover them with ketchup, mustard and dried onions for a tasty meal after a night of heavy drinking. Add to that a free-refill drink and you had tea for around 500 yen. It wasn't the healthiest, but it tasted great.

The menu had hardly changed from before, so I got three hotdogs, a drink and a cinnamon roll for my lunch. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said for Izumi-ya, a giant supermarket that used to sit just across the road from Ikea. A lot of us students used to do our big shop there, often after eating at Ikea, and we'd also buy alcohol there, as we usually had outdoor parties in the vicinity. But now there's nothing there. Even the concrete car park was gone, replaced with rubble and grass.

Lunch at Ikea

I stopped off at the site where we'd had a couple of the aforementioned parties next, then rode over to the university campus whose basketball court we often used to play on. It's an idyllic location, just next to the sea, and they never seemed to mind us playing there, although today it was tipping it down and the rainy weather made it look a bit less spectacular than before.

Last, I stopped off at Gourmet City, another supermarket we used to frequent, but often only for one or two items, as it wasn't as big or well-stocked as Izumi-ya. It did have a free drinking water service though, something that's quite common in Japanese supermarkets. You buy a big plastic bottle and a membership card and you're allowed to fill up your bottle with water from the machine as much as you like. We all used that service quite a bit, and would often make the journey in summer in groups, like a caravan of desert travelers to the local oasis.

I'll always remember the way knowledge of Gourmet City spread amongst the international students. The place was hidden away in between trees and apartments, and wasn't obvious to the naked eye. After first arriving at the dorm I'd spent a few days buying junk food from the local Lawson's (convenience store), but one day we got talking to a fellow new arrival who had inherited a lot of appliances and local knowledge from his predecessor. He told us of Gourmet City and where to find it, and we would then in turn pass this knowledge on to the other new students who came throughout our stay. Port Island was a strange place to live, and when we'd first arrived we hadn't been given any information on the local area. We had to fend for ourselves, and I think one of the reasons we all got along so well was because a pack mentality was vital to our survival.

And that concluded my return to the Island. I headed back to the mainland, stopping off at a park called みなとのもり公園. It's located at the intersection between Port Island and Sannomiya and we'd pass this park every day on the Port Liner. It had always been under construction, but now it was finished; a vast expanse of green grass and trees sat in-between a tangle of grey roads and bridges. You often find parks like this in the middle of big Japanese cities.

The Port Liner running past みなとのもり公園

I returned the bike to the coffee shop, and by the time I got back to the hotel I was soaked through due to the rain, but after drying off I headed out to a nearby restaurant called 意屋 (Kokoroya) to meet some friends. 意屋 is somewhere a lot of the international students used to go during our time two years ago. It started when three of our friends got jobs as waitresses there, and by the end of the year, whenever we had a party, we'd have it at こころや. We got to be good friends with the 店長 (tenchō, the name for the head of any kind of shop or restaurant), and I've stayed in touch with him over the last two years. While the food is mostly Japanese-style, the 店長 also spent some time in a kitchen in France, so his dishes have a bit of a foreign twist. It was good to see him again, and one of the Chinese girls who worked there as a waitress two years ago is now back in Japan, studying at Kobe Uni and working at 意屋. Unfortunately, she's one of the unlucky international students who still have to live at the dormitory on Port Island. I also invited one of my old teachers from Kobe University. He's a British guy who took Japanese at Sheffield many years before me and ended up teaching me when I came to Kobe. I also invited another Chinese friend, and she had just finished her degree and was leaving a few days later to go back to China; the very last of the international students from my time in Kobe.

After enjoying dinner at 意屋, which included Kobe beef, me and the teacher guy went to a British-style pub just down the road called the Hub. There I met up with another friend, a Japanese guy who'd been in the rock music society I'd joined. We'd played in a punk cover band together, and it was good to have a catch-up with him and see how things were going in the society these days. And that was Monday night.

The next day I headed up to Kobe University. There are 2 train lines that take you there from Sannomiya: JR and Hankyū, and I decided to take the Hankyū line. Just like the old days, I managed to board the right train without even thinking about it. I also saw some posters for Hankyū Densha, a film that's just been released about the characters on a Hankyū train. After getting off at Rokkōmichi I started the legendary trek up the hill to the university, and just like before, the reward for your climb to the top of the hill is a great view of Kobe, and also Osaka if it's a clear day. I met up with the teacher from the night before and we enjoyed a cup of Yorkshire Tea in his office. We were about to crack open a box of fig rolls when we got a text from the girl we'd met at 意屋 the night before. She was also up at the university to say good bye to her friends, and she invited us to lunch in the cafeteria. It was around lunch time, so the teacher and I went down and enjoyed the very mediocre food on offer there. We sat with some of the current international students, and it was interesting to hear what they were all up to. Alongside his studies, one guy was getting paid by a Spanish publisher to translate a Haruki Murakami book into Spanish.

View from up at Kobe University

After lunch I bumped into an old Japanese friend on campus and we had a bit of a chat and took some pictures. She didn't know I was in Kobe so she'd been surprised to see me. Then I headed back down the hill and got on the train back to Sannomiya, where I headed for a music shop I often used to visit. They have a great selection of instruments for you to play, and that includes a few different electronic drum kits. The kits were still in the same place as before, and I sat down and jammed for 20 minutes or so. Even the staff in the shop were the same.

It was getting close to tea time, and I had plans to meet up with a family whose children I had taught English to before. I knew them quite well and they'd recently sent me a big parcel of dried food as the mum works at an import shop in Sannomiya. They'd invited me to their house once before, and I went with a friend from the UK who was visiting me in Kobe at the time. We went to the local public baths with the family's son, and it was a strange experience for both of us Brits as this 10-year old naked Japanese boy scrubbed our backs for us. After coming back from the baths we'd sat with the family's father and watched VHSs of all the metal bands he'd recorded off TV in the 80s. Being Japanese he enjoyed the music, but often didn't understand the lyrics or song titles, and I translated some of them for him.

So back at the hotel I picked up a few gifts I'd brought for the family from Aomori, and then I caught the train to their small little suburb. It was good to see them all again, and the mother cooked some great okonomiyaki and sobameshi for us all. When the father returned home from work we cracked out the beers and got back to talking about 80s metal. We're into a lot of the same bands, and the father said he was really happy to be able to discuss these bands, as none of his friends like the same music as him. He told me about when he went to see Stryper in concert when he was in high school, and how his band used to cover Ratt songs. I also translated some more song titles and lyrics for him. It was a lot of fun.

And that ends my time in Kobe. It was great to be back seeing all my old friends and visiting all the familiar places. Kobe is a completely different Japan from the one you'll find in Aomori. It feels far more cosmopolitan, even more so than Tokyo in some ways, and if I was ever to come back to live in Japan again, it would have to be Kobe or Osaka.

Next time I'll write a bit about Osaka and my visit to Universal Studios.

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