神戸 Cosmopolitan Kobe: Japan’s Global Port

Last Friday I travelled with some friends to Kobe (神戸), a port city near Osaka. All I knew about Kobe before I visited was that it is famous for its amazing beef and that it had suffered a huge earthquake. Of course, I now know much more about Kobe, and I would say its a city worth visiting if you find yourself in the Kansai area (see map). We only visited for the day but we saw and did loads!


We got the train to Kobe at 9am on the Hankyu line from Karasuma station (烏丸駅), arriving in Kobe at about 10:30. The first thing that surprised us was that for such a big city, it was pretty empty – there weren’t many people around shopping or walking about, even though it was Friday. Undeterred, we took a walk down what looked like a shopping street (and probably nnight-life street – karaoke bars everywhere). We came across a shrine and decided to check it out.

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This shrine was Ikuta shrine (生田神社), which turns out to be amazing luck as this shrine actually gave Kobe its name as Kobe (神戸) comes from the word Kanbe (神戸 – same Kanji different reading) which means ‘supporter of the Ituta shrine’. This shrine is probably one of the oldest shrines in Japan, supposedly founded in 201AD (dates around this period are not certain), by one of Japan’s few Empresses. This was Empress Jingu – there is little known about her because all information about her reign comes from the Nihon Shoki, Japan’s second oldest classical text, completed in 720.

The Nihon Shoki is not considered historically accurate due to its exaggeration of reign lengths. This exaggeration is probably because the authors (working for the imperial family in the 8th century) wanted to legitimise the imperial line by making it seem to go back into the distant past. The Nihon Shoki claims Japan was founded in 660BC, but this probably because 6 is considered a good year for political change in Taoist belief and seems sufficiently ancient, rather than referring to any actual historical evidence. The Nihon Shoki was using records avaliable to the imperial family that have since been lost, and its considered that most figures were probably real, but they have been mythologised. The Nihon Shoki slowly becomes less historically questionable as it approaches the 8th century rulers, as this is when it was compiled.

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The Empress Jingu supposedly invaded Korea in the 3rd Century, and used Ikuta shrine as a location to welcome the soldiers home with a festival. It is not clear if she acutally did invade Korea – it appears that she probably did, but the Nihon Shoki’s claims that she even conquered Korea are dubious. Empress Jingu was the first woman to be featured on the Japanese banknote in 1881, and Japan’s colonisation of Korea from around 1870 onwards may have something to do with that choice. Obviously they didn’t have a picture of her so instead they used an artists impression.

A depiction of Empress Jingu from 1880

Ikuta Shrine is fairly large and has a forest behind it (which is really small and not particluarly amazing). The shrine itself had a rather interesting painting of a lamb on it, though I haven’t been able to find out what this means. The shrine buildings have been rebuilt over and over again; Kobe has suffered many disasters. I got my stamp done, though instead of being at the normal booth, I got it done in the monks’ headquarters, which seemed pretty stylish.

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After Ikuta shrine we walked to the north, as we were going in search of a certain restuarant. As we walked we found that Kobe began to look more and more European, with European-style buildings all over the place. We also managed to find both a mosque and a sikh temple – two things I never thought I’d see in Japan!

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We came to a beautiful area with trees and flowers all around, and several very non-Japanese houses surrounding a central courtyard. You can visit two of the houses, and we decided to visit one before lunch. The one we visited was called the Moegi House (萌黄の館 – literally: Light Green House), built in 1903 for Mr. Hunter Sharp, a former US Consul General. The house was fairly typical European style, so not particularly exciting for Westerners, but I enjoyed looking around it anyway. The garden had some stones painted to look like a fish pond, which I think is a really lovely idea.

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The reason that Kobe has so many European-style houses is because it is one of the ports that was ‘opened’ after the coming of Perry’s ‘Black Ships’; the US sent war ships to force Japan to trade after over 250 years of ‘sakoku’ (鎖国) which meant no trade with anyone from the Western world (except the Dutch). The trade had been banned as a way to stop the spread of guns and religion – both very dangerous things to a leader that doesn’t want rebellion. As a result of the forced reversal of this policy (and subsequent collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate) in 1853, Kobe became a cosmopolitan city. Kobe had already been a contact with the outside world from ancient times – imperial embassies to China were dispatched since the 8th century (not to mention the ’embassy’ to Korea under Empress Jingu), so this opening served to resume Kobe’s role as a point of foreign relations for Japan.

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Kobe is also an important port in terms of Japanese foreign policy – in 1975 it was the first port to ban the export or import of nuclear weapons through ships going in or out. This policy became known as the ‘Kobe Formula’ and led to American warships not being allowed to dock in many Japanese ports due to non-disclosure of holding nuclear weapons. This heralded the start of Japan’s strict non-nuclear policy and rejection of pressure from the US to provide a platform for American nuclear weapons (apart from Okinawa, which remained an exception).

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We had lunch at a restaurant called 花れんこん (Hanarenkon), which is located around 10 minutes walk from sannomiya station (三ノ宮駅). We decided to splash out and got the 3000円 (£15.90) menu, which included beef. It was a 5 course menu and it was all absolutely fantastic. I’m not entirely convinced that I’ve satisfied my desire to eat Kobe beef though – this beef had a lot of sauce and I’m not sure if it was ‘real’ Kobe beef, but for the price it was really good (Kobe beef is usually around 6000円).

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After that we decided to go and find the sea – living in Kyoto we don’t get to see it much. We walked south through Kobe, which is simultaneously France-like and metropolitan; huge overarching motorways overshadow conventional European-style buildings. The most amusing illustration of this dichotomy is the building below, which has a cold, modern block of glass plopped on top of a rather nice old European-style building.

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We passed by a memorial to the Great Hansin Earthquake of 1995, which was a 7.2 on the Richter scale. This earthquake killed 6,435 people and left over 200,000 people homeless. Bear in mind that this in Japan, a first world country. A country that is acutely aware of earthquakes, has bendy buildings and evacuation procedures – these figures show how astonishing and terrible power of nature really is. The poem attached to the memorial flame reads thus (in English):

5.46am, 17th January 1995,
The Great Hanshin Earthquake

This earthquake took many things,
Lives, Jobs, Communities, Our Citycsape, Our Memories,
These things appear safe, permanent,
Even moments before, we cannot know

This earthquake left many things behind
Kindness, Compassion, Human Bonds, Friendship

This flame links the lives of which were taken away,
With our thoughts, the survivors
– Masami Horiuchi

Kobe has recovered today into a bustling metropolitan city and remains a main port of Japan, though it slipped from Japan’s number one port to number 4. Haruki Murakami, the famous Japanese author, wrote a book titled in English ‘after the quake‘ (‘all god’s children can dance‘ in Japanese 神の子どもたちはみな踊る), which is a series of short stories set in the month after the Kobe earthquake and before the Sarin Gas Attacks in Tokyo in the same year. I have read this book and I would recommend it as a short read that shows the psychological effect such a huge disaster had on the Japanese people.

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Sadly, this is not the only disaster that Kobe has suffered. Kobe is one of the cities that was worst hit by incendiary bombings in the 1940s during WWII. This killed thousands of people and destroyed over 20% of the city. The bombing’s effect on the ordinary lives of Japanese is explored in the studio Ghibli film ‘Grave of the Fireflies‘ (火垂るの墓) which is the saddest film I have ever watched. I would highly recommend it as it is a beautiful and moving film, but I can honestly say I probably won’t watch it again because its too sad. Though it is animated it is emotional and very well written – it is definitely not a children’s film.

We eventually reached the ocean, and looked out across Osaka bay towards the other shore (which was presumably Osaka). It was lovely to see the sea; though the Kamo river is beautiful, there’s something magnetic about a wide stretch of ocean.

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The park that overlooked the ocean was also good to explore. The park is called Meriken Park (メリケンパーク), the name stemming from an old Japanisation of ‘American’, and has a number of statues as well as Kobe Port Tower. It was nice to see that they have a statue dedicated to Japanese emigrants from Kobe to the rest of the world, remembering those that left during the growing cosmopolitanism of Kobe in the 20th century. Kobe tower also looked pretty impressive, but we didn’t go up as there was a school trip in there.

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In the evening we headed back into town, towards China Town, as that was our destination for dinner. On the way we passed by a pastry chef school that had this amazing cake, I had to take a picture! I also found a pancake place with my name on it – I’ll have to go back to check it out.


We wandered around the shopping centre for a bit, which had a rather high volume of fortune telling shops – the kind where you pay an exorbitant sum for an old lady to give you vague advice. There were also these dinosaur models at a shop, no idea why because they were selling household appliances and not dinosaurs.


We stopped in a cafe before dinner and I got a ‘cream soda’, which is a melon soda topped with a ball of ice-cream (healthy, I know). It was delicious. I also bought a chocolate pastry thing at Paul, a pastry shop that can also be found in Europe, this too was tasty.

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China town was like any China town in the world – red and yellow flashing signs everywhere, dim sum and a really impressive gate. There was also a statue of spider-man for no apparent reason.


When I saw the panda and pig buns I simply had to buy them – the panda was sweet bean flavoured and the pig had a pork mince filling, delicious. I had the dim sum set menu for dinner, which was really good, though the Peking duck was disappointingly hard to eat – it came pre-wrapped in the pancake and seemed determined to fall apart.

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We headed back to Kyoto at around 9pm, arriving in Kyoto station at around 10 – this time we got the slightly faster, and more expensive, JR line to Kyoto station. Kobe was a really fun day out and I would recommend it to visitors to Kyoto as a good day-trip. Its especially good to visit as a European living in Japan; its nice to see all the familiar styles of buildings.

大原 Mourning on the Mountain

Yesterday I took a trip with my friend to Ohara (大原, a town that sounds like it should be in Ireland but is actually to the North-East of Kyoto, near Kurama). The original plan was to hike from Ohara to Kurama and get the train back but Ohara has tonnes to see (we didn’t even get to do all of it) and it gets dark really early here so we decided to stay in Ohara rather than getting lost in a dark forest.

The only way to get to Ohara via public transport is to get the Kyoto City bus (number 16 or 17) on the Ohara line. You can catch the bus from Demachiyanagi station and the fare is 430円 (£2.30) one way. The bus journey took around 50 minutes, but we did have to stop to change out the ticket machine’s money box as it was full, so maybe it normally takes around 40 minutes. Ohara is pretty popular and we had to stand on the way there.

As you leave Kyoto the scenery outside is beautiful – the bus follows the course of the river through to the mountains. The village of Ohara has lots of beautiful architecture, with some traditionally thatched houses (tiles over the top of the thatch) and intricate details on the roofs.

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There are two main temples in Ohara: Sanzen-in (三千院) and Jakko-in (寂光院), both belonging to the Tendai sect of Buddhism. We chose to visit Jakko-in (because we were originally going to walk from there to Kurama).


Jakko-in was founded in 594 and is famous as the temple where Kenreimon-in spent her days in solitude. Kenreimon-in was an Empress Dowager and mother of the Emperor in the 12th Century. Her story demonstrates that the imperial succession was not a simple matter of father to son but one of competing clans vying for control over the Emperor. She was the mother of Emperor Antoku, a boy Emperor, who was supported by the Taira clan. The Minamoto clan, the other rival faction vying for power over the throne, put forward an alternative candidate for the imperial succession. This led to the Genpei war (源平合戦) of 1180 – 85, which was decided by the naval battle of Dan-no-Ura.

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The Battle of Dan-no-Ura was a naval engagement between Minamoto and Taira forces. The Emperor and his family were on a vessel in the middle of the battle. The battle was won by the Minamoto due to the Taira general defecting and revealing the location of the imperial vessel. When the Minamoto turned their firepower on the imperial vessel many members of the imperial family threw themselves into the water rather than be captured. The grandmother of the eight-year-old Emperor Antoku, jumped into the sea with him in his arms. His mother, Kenreimmon-in, is said to have jumped into the water only to be dragged out by her hair. After witnessing the death of her son and most of her family she became a nun, living in solitude at Jakko-in. She wrote a poem while living at Jakko-in:

Did I ever dream
That I would behold the moon
Here on the mountain –
The moon that I used to view
In the sky over the palace?

She lived at Jakko-in for 7 years, dying in 1192. She is also a character in the Japanese classic, the Tale of the Heike. In the compound of Jakko-in there is a very dead-looking tree in the corner of the courtyard. This is actually a monument to a Komatsu tree which stood at Jakko-in until it died in 2004. This is the tree at which Kenreimon-in met the retired Emperor Go Shirakawa a year after she became a nun. Sadly this tree died as a result of an arson in 2000 which burned down the main temple building and badly damaged the tree as well as an ancient Buddha statue. The dead tree that stands now represents a holy staff in memory of the thousand-year-old tree that used to stand there. The arsonist was never caught. It seems to me that the mountain has been the site of a lot of tragedy – first the solitude of Kenreimmon-in and much later the destruction of the temple by arson. The picture below is of the monument to the tree.

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Another historical artifact that also seems fairly mundane without any information is the metal lantern in the gardens. This was gifted to Jakko-in by none other than Toyotomi Hideoyshi, one of Japans theree ‘great unifiers’ that ended the warring states period. Toyotomi Hideoshi is the least likeable of the three unifiers, he was brutal (he crucified 26 christians) and firmly set Japan’s class system. However, it was this brutality that helped to set the structure of Tokugawa Japan’s society and bring about a peace that lasted for 250 years. His line did not succeed in ruling, it was Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man that overthrew Toyotomi’s son, that secured Japan for his bloodline. There is a story about the three unifiers that sums up their roles and personalities:

The three unifiers are trying to get a bird to sing;
Oda Nobunaga says “if it doesn’t sing, kill it.”,
Toyotomi Hideyoshi says: “if it doesn’t sing, make it sing”,
Tokugawa Ieyasu says: “if it won’t sing, wait for it to sing”.

Though this implies that Tokugawa Ieyasu was the only one that was correct in his approach, which would be grossly undervaluing the foundation of the first two unifiers’ methods, it does demonstrate their different approaches to solving the problems of warring-states Japan. I know I have only talked about Toyotomi Hideoyoshi, but I will leave the other two for another time as this is a large and important chunk of history that I would do a disservice by summarising.

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Jakko-in itself was a beautiful temple. There’s something dynamic about mountain temples – the different levels of compounds and steps made it picturesque, especially with the red maples arching over the mossy steps up to the temple. Behind the temple is a forest of beautifully straight evergreens, creating a cool, mossy path through the woods. I would definitely recommend visiting in Autumn if you get the chance. Entrance to the temple costs 600円 and book stamping costs 300円. For the stamp they actually have a ticketing system so you can drop off your book, look around the temple, and collect it (freshly stamped) on your way out.


On the way up to the temple there were a number of stalls selling food and sweets; one that caught my attention was a wooden stall just outside the temple which was run by three old ladies. On the way out we went up to their stall and they chatted to us in Japanese, asking us where we were from (they told me I must speak the Queen’s English, being British). They let us try some of the food they were selling and I ended up buying some dried yuzu (a citrus fruit that tastes like a cross between a lemon and an orange) to put on my rice. They were really lovely, bringing to life the stereotype of the kind obaa-san (おばあさん – granny or old lady).

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We then headed to another temple that we had seen on the map. It was actually really small and completely deserted. The autumn leaves in the small garden were beautiful and it was refreshing to go to a temple with no other visitors as Jakko-in was full of Japanese visiting to enjoy the koyo (turn of the leaves). It turns out this temple is called Keitoku-in (桂徳院) and it was founded in 1602, though it burned down and was rebuilt in 1995. Other than that there is very little information on it on the internet, and as there was no one there to tell us anything, thats all I can tell you about this temple. Its worth paying a quick visit if you go to Jakko-in though, its only five minutes walk away and its garden is pretty.

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We walked from this temple up the river to check out a dam that we had seen on the town map. It turns out that we weren’t actually meant to go through the gate leading to the path to the dam; the sign in Japanese said we needed permission from Kyoto’s Forestry Agency, but I didn’t read the sign properly on the way in, only on the way back.

The maples near the dam were spectacular and the dam itself looked pretty old. It felt a little eerie to me, there’s something about seemingly abandoned man-made structures that don’t fit in with nature that gives me slight chills. We followed the path past the dam and had a look at the forest – it was pretty dark (much darker than the pictures make it look) and the path seemed to go on forever. As soon as we stepped into the forest the sound of water from the nearby dam was muffled -the forest was very silent with perfectly straight trunks up to the canopy of leaves. A part of me felt like this might be the start of a horror film. I was quite glad to get out of the forest, away from the dam and back towards Ohara.

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The last stop on our trip was a cafe we had spotted on the way up to the temple. This was no ordinary cafe – you sit with your feet submerged in water from the local hot spring. It was really refreshing and relaxing for our feet, especially as we had done a lot of walking.

Embarassingly, I managed to get my jeans stuck. It sounds stuipd, yes, but I had rolled up my skinny jeans over my calves to submerge my feet. Only, I had got the fabric wet, and when I tried to pull it down it wouldn’t really move. I succeeded in rolling one trouser leg down but the other one was not moving. The guy at the counter ended up coming over and helping me. So there was me sitting with this guy trying to pull down my jeans and we were all laughing. It was pretty traumatic. Eventually we succeeded and I left with at least a little of my dignity – I had had visions of getting the bus back with one trouser leg rolled up.

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I would definitely recommend spending at least half a day in Ohara – we left at 2 in the afternoon and I feel like we could have made a day of it and visited the other temple. I definitely intend to go back – they also have an onsen (hot spring bath) that I’d love to go to. Total price for all the activities (including the drink at the cafe) was around 2,400円 (£13), so a pretty cheap day out with loads to do.

Sorry I haven’t been posting  as frequently as I would like – I recently caught a cold and got a part time job. Hopefully when I shake off this cold I’ll be able to write more!