Japan part 3: Kobe, hidden pearl of Kansai
Though we have traveled in the Kansai region of Japan before we had never visited Kobe. The city is not that far from Kyoto (1h by train) or Osaka (30 mins by train) but already had a distinctive different feel than both of them. We immediately noticed the people there spoke a little more dialect (Kansaiben), were less reserved and more straightforward. They didn’t hesitate to start conversation and also didn't hold back to just speak Japanese only. No english, (they didn't even try). Gone were the English menus, and tourists, and we welcomed it with open arms. A thing a lot of non-native Japanese speakers will agree to, is that in the more touristic areas you can speak perfect Japanese all you want, you will still get an English response… Which is frustrating at some times. It then comes down to who is the most stubborn… (I just keep at it talking Japanese). I have also had Japanese people who freaked out so much at the sight of a foreigner that they shoved their more-English-speaking coworker in my face... Sometimes it seemed as if they didn't even want to understand my Japanese (I think some of our Japanology friends will get what I mean by that)...
Most people know Kobe for 1 of 2 things. Either Kobe-beef or pearls. To experience new food, Kobe is just the right place! Especially the area around Sannomiya! Nevertheless this wasn’t our main reason of visit (though it’s still a good one). We actually visited Kobe since Haythim is a goldsmith who loves working with pearls. Naturally with his interest for pearls and my capacity to speak Japanese we aimed to meet some interesting people in that particular area of business. Knowing absolutely nothing else about Kobe this was for us, a whole new adventure with lots of opportunities to discover new things! But of course, It was full blown autumn now and it was really noticeable. Not only did we both catch a cold but temperatures were dropping, from 25+ degrees to 20 or below. This meant we kept an even closer track of the weather forecast and never left our place without our raincoat and scarves.
Having arrived at our airbnb, we looked up what to see and where to go. We didn’t have much problems finding temples or shrines, and food, since it’s basically everywhere. But everything was way more scattered over the area than Kyoto. This meant we had to look up how to get there beforehand and plan out our days more! And our budget… Yes, visiting temple X might seem fun until it eats up a whole week of your travel budget... Finding information concerning pearls for Haythim proved to be a more difficult task. I had to learn a whole new set of Japanese terminology, do a lot of research and then finally through bits and pieces find some information on suppliers etc.
We spend the first couple of days in and around Sannomiya visiting the Ikuta shrine, the local Daimaru (big superstore), the Motomachi shopping street,… This all while visiting some pearl suppliers in between. The fun part about this? They were all and always superfriendly and helpful! We were often offered tea and good advice on locals spots to visit or good places to eat at! This way we learned about an amazing okonomiyaki place. A small hole in the wall in the middle of a superbusy street. You’d probably pass by it without even noticing! And it’s these places that really deserve some attention. The food there was divine! Hence we went back a couple of times. The Ikuta shrine I mentioned earlier is a little cute temple in the middle of the busy Sannomiya, where you will find a narrow corridor of torriis, a park, and a templehall with some shisa that didn't skip legday...
Our second day at Kobe was an amazing day, even if it started rather slowly. We were both still feeling a bit under the weather and only managed to leave our airbnb around noon. Haythim had planned out a visit to the Suma-dera temple complex and there we would do a short hike of about 7km. We took the train to Suma, and at the sight of the beautiful beach when we walked out the station we realised Kobe was so close to the sea. We couldn’t help ourselves and had a quick stroll towards the shore. This must be a popular beach in summertime. Half an hour through tiny streets upwards the mountain flank, took us to a lookoutpoint of Suma. There we found a gate (torii) that showed a narrow path further into the foresty mountain. Once we reached the top, we found a tiny temple, with a view on the underlying templecomplex and the beach. This view we saw was the site where the Genpei war was fought. This was a war fought from 1180 - 1185 between the Taira clan and the Minamoto clan. A battle highlighted in the Heike Monogatari (an epic account about the struggles between the two clans, lovely for reading under candlelight…).
Once downwards again, the small path ended out in a graveyard. Just a handful people were busy cleaning up some graves and doing some prayers. The graveyard continued further into the Suma-dera temple complex. It was so peaceful up there. Apart from us there were no tourists at all. Only locals who visited the shrines. The templeground had been recently renovated and a three-storied pagoda had been build in 2004. The Suma-dera is not over the top but still a very beautiful templecomplex that just sits there in the forest on the mountain flank. I felt like reaching inner peace like in Kung-fu panda haha! The temple is entirely according to the Shingon sect of Buddhism and focuses on the ‘heart sutra’. The Pagoda there, was build in honor of this ‘heart sutra’. It stems from the ‘great wheel’ (also called Mahayana) buddhism, and states that “Form is Empty”. A little abstract but definitely something interesting to think about.
When we started making our descent towards what was the actual entrance of the templecomplex, we passed by two bronze statues. In a makebelief blue river, stood a young warrior on a horseback, and on the shore an older contending warrior on a horseback. Both in full armour with their warrior faces on, yet from a different clan. The young warrior is Taira no Atsumori, and the older one a military commander of the Minamoto clan, called Kumagai Naozane. The story depicted at the scene, is about the older Naozane who during a battle agains the Taira, comes upon the young Atsumori. Seeing the youthful face of his opponent, Naozane is reminded of his own son, who would be of the same age. Nevertheless Naozane dutifully kills Atsumori right there and then. Afterwards though Naozane is conflicted about his deed and his duties and therefore becomes a monk. The full beautiful story, you can find in the Heike Monogatari. After being in awe for long enough, we decided to head in the direction of where our hike we had hoped to do, would start...
Hence we started our “Short and easy. Let’s not overdo ourselves because we are not feeling well”-hike.
Haythim was right. The hike was fairly short: about 7km. In birdflight. The thing is, in Japan there are a lot of mountains… Summarized, the hike took us over 3 mountaintops, along mountain ridges and past parts where if you fell down… well, you know what we mean. The first climb started with a civilised stone staircase of easily a 100 stairs… After that it went into the woods, climbing on rocks, roots of trees before eventually reaching one lookout point. The rest of the path continued through rocky areas, forests with at the real steep areas a chain to help you climb or descend. The end of the hiking trail ended in a tiny shrine, were an old man was finishing up on his workout. Greeting the shrine shortly, we made it back down the rest of the mountain under nightfall. We felt really lucky for making it out of there just in time because we were not prepared for nighthiking in the Kobe hills. Although if you would do it in group, with some old fashioned Japanese lanterns it probably would be an epic journey!
The following day we were pretty tired of the long hike the day before, so we stayed closer to our airbnb. We couldn’t contain ourselves though from paying a quick short visit to a nearby shrine: the Minatogawa shrine. It reminded us a bit of the Ikuta shrine I mentioned earlier. Not in design but in location. the Minatogawa shrine is located in a busy neighbourhood and once you enter the templegrounds the contrast with the surrounding area is abrupt. This is a tranquil place where you can sit and enjoy. We were kind of lucky that day because there was some kind of event going on there. A special occasion where kids ageing 3, 5, 7 years old could get a blessing in the shrine and afterwards were given a toy. The best part was seeing those kids in traditional kimonos! They looked so gorgeous and cute in them! Sadly not pictures but well, we really did not want to be those “gaijin” who interrupted a family moment/ the creeps who took pictures of little children… The main shrine has a beautiful hall and a beautifully painted ceiling but my personal preference goes to the little shrine on the side of the temple complex with the whole ceiling illuminated by red lanterns. It really added some magic to the whole place.
For our next trip, we headed back into the mountains. This time towards the Himeji castle and the Engyo-ji temple. We woke up early, as usual. If we would beat the crowds and tourists, it’d be worth it. Luckily for us the Engyo-ji and Himeji castle were fairly close to each other in Himeji city, which meant no additional transportation costs! But Himeji city was still about 90 mins (train and bus) away from our airbnb. Our handy ICOCA passes helped us to take the train as well as the bus. We recommend anyone staying long enough in one place, to buy the local pass (ICOCA or SUICA, …) to take the subway/train/bus with. You can reload them in every station and it will help you save time and money. Mind you there are a few exceptions when you can’t use them (but they work in most). Once we arrived at the Himeji trainstation, there we took a bus to the “ropeway” which took us up to the entrance of the Engyo-ji.
The moment you enter the templegrounds you can just feel the calmness and peacefulness flowing all around you. The area was huge. With a lot of steep climbs on well paved and sometimes dirt roads. After only a hundred meters of climbing our first view we encountered was a already a good one. We looked out over Himeji city and saw the oceanbay in the distance. While enjoying the warmth of the morning sun we had a quick breakfast and then moved onwards. The path through the templecomplex seemed almost untouched here and there stood stone bodhisattva statues with every single one of them their own function and offeringbox. Going up and down the paths through the forests we suddenly arrived at the main temple, the Maniden. It was jawdroppingly beautiful. It’s build like the Kiyomizu-dera. The temple is build into the mountain so half of it is supported by a scaffolding of 10m or so. A scent of incense descended from the stone staircase, and eager to enter, we hurried upstairs. Inside the temple, an ascetic Buddha immediately caught our eye. It was the first ascetic Buddha we had seen in our travels through Japan. All the other art and statues were of course also beautiful.
After a prayer and getting our temple book stamped and signed, we continued towards the three big wooden halls, the 'Daikodo', famous from the movie ‘The Last Samurai’. We took a little more scenic route through the forest off the paved paths, that was mostly made by the roots of trees. A little adventure goes a long way! ;) The Daikodo did not disappoint. With just a handful people there, it felt as if we took a stroll through time. The buildings were so massive, we felt like ants. While enjoying our lunch on a bench in the sun, we gazed upon our impressive view. This was really an actively used monastery where lots and lots of monks enjoyed their training. You can also go inside one of the three buildings, where from a closer distance you can look at some samples from the roof tilings or other buildingmaterials. To think that lots of these kind of temples barely use nails and rely only on a puzzlework of wooden beams that fit just perfectly together into a whole wooden structure is mindboggling. The rest of the templecomplex holds other beautiful smaller buildings, all worth a visit, but too much to explain all in here. I can only state that it is so worth the visit. You can really lose hours here so don’t plan this one as a quick visit!
After going back down the ropeway, we decided to still visit the Himeji castle since well, we were at Himeji city… Would be stupid to let this chance slide. Himeji castle is, just like the Horyu-ji in Nara on UNESCO world heritage list. It is a HUGE japanese castle which somehow survived the different wars and natural disasters. It was completely restored in 1956 and is since then open to public. So just a few busstops away, we arrived at a very wide walled area with a ditch (more like a river) around it. Inside there is an open space, like a park, where people were setting up for probably another festival or happening (that we unfortunately we’re going to miss). A little further inside we arrived at a first gate, where we paid 1000 yen each to enter (~8 euros). We then enjoyed our stroll further into the castle’s premises, before going through another gate, and then another, and another…
The fun thing about these castles, is that when there was an attack, they would thin out the enemies troops through this system. By making the way towards the centre go around in a spiral way, and with each part of the premises smaller, and every gate lower and narrower. All the walls had openings through which arrows could be shot at the enemy. And if one part of the premises was conquered, there was again a gate to destroy and a next part to get through. Once inside the castle, there were 5 floors before getting to the top. (first floor starting at the bottom, in Japan they don’t start at ‘zero’, they start at ‘one’). Every floor was a smooth walked wooden hallway with one staircase leading up, and one leading down. Almost every floor had lots of walls with dozens of weapon racks where they used to lay their spears (or other weapons) on. Some floors had hidden panels, so when the enemy infiltrated the castle, there still was a high chance they wouldn’t make it to the top… The view from the top is certainly not disappointing, and it’s fun to see the layout of the castle premises from above. Every floor had a couple of information panels that shared some intel on the inner workings of the castle. For only 1000 yen, this tour takes you all the way to the top and through the outside parts of the castle, with stunning views around each corner. Definitely worth the coin! After this, we were completely wiped and headed home for a delicious curry at coco ichiban and a good night’s rest.
On our last day in Kobe, we still had plenty of things to do. We had to make an appointment at the Thai embassy in Tokyo to apply for a visa. Because we wanted to stay in Thailand for more than 30 days, this would be necessary. This also meant we had to fill in plenty of paper work. We needed to go to the train station to buy our Shinkansen (=bullettrain) tickets for Hiroshima and inform about the timetables. And afterwards do the laundry, because you can't show up in a beautiful city with a 10 day worth-a dirty laundry... Psyched and sleepy, we got on the Shinkansen the next day for a much anticipated stop on our Japan travel.
- Out of Kobe but so worth it! Engyoji
- Also out of Kobe and so worth it! Himeji castle
For an explanation about these, well, check the text and pics above.
-Okonomiyaki: You will find good okonomiyaki pretty much everywhere in Kobe, but it's definitely something you have to try if your in the Kansai region. We found some good places in the food streets not too far from Sannomiya station, near the mall 'tokyu hands'.
- Marutaka Chuka Soba: just a ten minute walk from the Sannomiya station is a ramen shop that serves a soba in a broth that not just fills the stomach but is so heartwarmingly full of flavour! For the not-vegetarians though, this delicious ramen comes in a soup-like pork based broth, with some thinly slices of pork on the side. Take their susume (recommended)!!!
-Yuzu. It is an alcoholic beverage, made from a citrus like fruit. Sweet and very refreshing and also not too strong or heavy. We have tried a couple of them in the area and none of them every dissapointed. If you're more into sweet stuff, ask for 'amai'. If you're more into refreshing ones, ask for 'sukkiri suru'.