Thursday, December 31, 2009


Kobe is probably most famous for the beer fed, superbly marbled and horrendously expensive Kobe Beef. I'll admit, I didn't try any while I was there, as any lunch set that was more than a slice or two of beef ran about 50 dollars!

Kobe is also famous for being the city hardest hit by the Great Hanshin Earthquake which struck the city on January 17th 1995. The quake was 7.3 on the Richter scale and caused the deaths of about 4,600 people. Today, there is a park along the waterfront where the damage went unrepaired, so people can get a glimpse of just how destructive the earthquake really was. The waterfront, built on land fill into the bay, was especially hard hit. The infrastructure for container shipping was damaged quite extensively, and the port industry has never really recovered.

Historically Kobe has long been one of Japan's primary ports, and it has an excellent Maritime Museum to go along with that. Out front of the museum there are three ships on display, an experimental hydrofoil, a replica of the Santa Maria, and the first Magnetohydrodynamic drive prototype. That ship, the Yamato 1 is propelled not by a propeller, but by an engine with no moving parts that uses magnetic fields to jet the water out the back of the boat.

The Santa Maria was interesting because as large as it is, the boat is a bit small to really consider crossing the Atlantic in! I also learned that taking panoramic exposures of mast rigged ships is very difficult, as photoshop can't seem to match the rigging correctly.

Next to the Maritime Museum is the Kobe Port Tower, offering an excellent view of the city. It was another clear day, and I was lucky to be able to view Osaka's port area far to the north. Kobe from above actually reminded me quite a bit of Honolulu, as both cities are perched between steep mountains and the sea. Also in the photo you can see the elevated Hanshin Expressway, which had been heavily damaged in the earthquake.

Japanese schools often run large field trips, and I always seem to get caught in museums at the same time as a few hundred middle school students. Here you can see a swarm of kids coming out of the Maritime Museum on their way to have lunch. Most of those kids were in the Museum at the same time I was, which lead to a pretty high noise quotient when I was browsing the exhibits. From above, you can see the Santa Maria, the hydrofoil and the Yamato 1 on display in the plaza.

Kobe was one of the first port cities opened to foreign trade at the end of the Edo era. This has lead to a reputation for cosmopolitanism and a large foreign population. Like Yokohama and Nagasaki, Kobe has a thriving China Town. This trip, it was jammed with high school kids, so lunch in China Town wasn't much of an option. This didn't faze me too much, as I knew that I'd be getting plenty of Chinese food in just a couple of days.

I walked from China Town to the Shin-Kobe ropeway, a gondola up into the high peaks above the city. The ropeway drops people off at a restaurant and shop area, from which you can either return on the gondola, or walk down to a lower station via a botanical garden.

While Kobe does have a subway system, it is a pretty compact city, and with little problem I had walked from Sannomiya Station (which counter-intuitively is the hub station instead of Kobe Station) to the waterfront, back through China Town and then up to the Shin Kobe area to catch the gondola. Of course, after all that walking, I was ready for a relaxing evening!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fushimi Inari- Evening

When I go to Fushimi Inari, I always try and time my visit so that I can make it to the top of the mountain for sunset. The vista over southern Kyoto is always wonderful, and the walk down in the twilight is fun and a little bit creepy.

However, the last two times I've been up to the top I haven't seen much at all. One time it was raining and very dark and cloudy, and once it was so smoggy that the sun 'set' into the haze about 10 minutes before it was due to dip behind the mountains! This trip was the clearest I have ever seen the area, in fact it was so clear that I could see the tall sky scrapers in Umeda, in northern Osaka, which is some thirty miles to the south.

A little closer in you can see To-ji and it's famous pagoda. This 5 story pagoda is the tallest wooden structure in Japan.

This the usual view spot that most people stop at, there are a few benches and a tea shop nearby. However, if you keep to your left and go though a cemetery you'll come out on the actual summit of the mountain, and have an even more expansive view.

I made sure to bring my tripod this time, as often in the past I've forgotten it. Lugging around a tripod is a pain in the neck for sure, but if you want to shoot in low light it is a necessity.

Once the sun had gone down I went back to the summit for a few more night time pictures of the city. Again, this is something I've tried to do before sans tripod, and so I was pretty excited to be able to actually pull off these shots.

Three really isn't a break in the city between Kyoto and Osaka, and in fact there really isn't much break in the city between Hiroshima and Tokyo! On the train it just blends from urban to suburban and back to urban without much in the way of rural. Thats what happens when you squeeze 127 million people into a small, mountainous country.

This was my fifth trip to Fushimi Inari, and it still ranks as my favorite place in Kyoto and Japan.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fushimi Inari- Day

Every time I am in Kyoto, I try and visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine. It is the head Shinto Shrine dedicated to the harvest god Inari. As Japan has become more industrial and less agrarian, Inari has drifted towards a deity of luck in business. Shrines dedicated to Inari are ubiquitous, and there are thens of thousands of small and mid sized ones dotted about the country.

At Fushimi Inari, over three kilometers of trails snake around the mountain, every step of the way covered in bright red torii gateways. The torii are bought by people and businesses and donated to the shrine for good luck with a business deal or venture.

I love the area because it is so unique, and so beautiful. As well, in a country where it can be hard to get away from the crowds, solitude is not hard to find here. I also enjoy it because I've always liked foxes, and the fox is the messenger of Inari, so the shrine has a great many fox statues.

Of course, in Japanese legend the foxes, or kitsune, are also a trickster characters, capable of changing shape and causing mischief or harm to hapless humans who encounter them. Thankfully, I haven't run into any kitsune yet, but I feel that when walking the lonely pathways of Fushimi Inari after dark it would be prudent to be careful!

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Kinkakuji, otherwise known as The Golden Pavilion, is probably the most famous of all Japan's landmarks. I had actually only been once before, on my first visit almost 5 years ago.

I'll admit that I was underwhelmed on that visit, as there really isn't much to do once you see the pavilion. You wait your turn, elbow a few people out of the way, take a few photos of the gold leaf covered temple, and then you're done!

However, this time with my expectations firmly in check, I enjoyed myself quite a bit more. Kinkakuji really is shockingly beautiful, and is ostentatious in a very low key Japanese sort of way.

Like most world famous sites, I think people expect Kinkakuji to 'be bigger' and more impressive, but if you can go and accept the temple on it's own terms, you'll get a glimpse of why it is so famous.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


One of Osaka's biggest attractions is Osaka Castle, the former stronghold of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The reunification of Japan at the end of the "warring-states period" in the late 1500s was accomplished by three men, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Iyeasu, and Osaka Castle played a very large roll in that history.

Hideyoshi actually succeded in uniting all of Japan, but lacked the power to actually be declared Shogun. His center of power was Osaka Castle, and he intended the fortification to be the grandest, largest castle in the country. He squandered much of his wealth and military power on a pair of failed invasions of Korea, and died before his son and successor came of age.

The first castle was destroyed in a siege in 1615 when Tokugawa assaulted Osaka and slaughtered the remains of the Toyotomi clan, securing power for his family for the next two hundred years. His son rebuilt the castle five years later, and much of the outer walls of that version still remain.

However, like most of Japan's wooden landmarks, Osaka-jo succumed to the flames several times over the centuries. Lightning strikes, civil war and American air raids burned down the central keep several times. The current concrete building dates from the 1960s, and contains a fairly interesting museum in its eight floors.

The tour starts at the top, with panoramic views of the city. From there you work your way through the history of the castle, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and the samurai era in general. Once you get to the bottom, you have the requisite gift shop, with copies of Osaka edition Monopoly! While those wanting to visit a REAL castle would of course be better served by traveling an hour south to Himeji-jo, Osaka Castle is a must visit if you have a day or two to spend in Osaka.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Kenrokuen Fall Light Up

A factor in the scheduling of my whole Asia trip was the dates of the Kenrokuen Fall Light up. Four times a year the famous Kenrokuen garden in Kanazawa is lit up for a weekend or two to showcase the season. Admission is free during the light up, and its a great way to see the garden in a new light, so to speak.

Of course, anything worth doing in Japan is worth doing by a whole lot of people, so be ready for crowds. I was far from the only person sporting a camera and tripod, and some of the prime spots had a bit of a line form for the photo. Though without a camera its nice to come and just see the lights and not worry about trying to get that perfect photo.

Every fall these rope supports are strung on some of the trees to protect them from the heavy, wet snow that blankets the area come December.

A musician and singer was playing in the boat house and being piped all over the gardens, lending a very peaceful and traditional feel to the proceedings. Despite the large numbers of people, once you got away from the entrance, the crowd really thinned out, giving room for just exploring the darkened garden on your own.

As you can see in some of the photos, by and large the weather was very clear, and the water was literally as still as glass. It did sprinkle a tiny bit for a few minutes, but it wasn't even enough rain for me to worry about my camera.

This was far from my first trip to Kenrokuen for a light up, but every time it seems so magical, it just never gets old.

Friday, December 18, 2009


After a week spent in the inaka (countryside), it was time to head back to the city. Zach, one of my oldest friends, lives in the heart of Osaka near the Shinsaibashi subway station. He is heavily involved in a Japanese/ English language sketch comedy troupe called the Pirates of the Dotonbori, and I was lucky enough to catch one of their shows.

Usually a Pirates show is all improv, but this time they decided to branch out and the second half was a comedy musical with original songs and much cross dressing. The whole show was hilarious, and if anybody has a chance to catch a Pirates show while spending time in Osaka, I'd recommend it.

Of course Osaka is far less of a tourist stop than Tokyo or Kyoto, despite it's central location and excellent transit links. As Zach once said, "Osaka is a great place to live, but I'd never want to visit." I can see why people would think that, as it is a fairly typical large, gray Japanese city but I disagree. Osaka has a lot to offer as a tourist destination AND a fun place to live.

For one thing, Osaka is certainly the food capital of Japan. Kyoto may have its famous traditional cuisines, but Osaka has takoyaki, kushikatsu and okonomiyaki, which is my favorite Japanese meal. (Though I like the Hiroshima style okonomiyaki better, with added fried soba noodles) Zach took me to Daruma Kushikatsu, the center of the kushikatsu renaissance. The meal involves skewered items like chicken, beef, roasted garlic, onion, peppers, meatballs, cheese and more being breaded and fried, then dipped in dark rich tonkatsu sauce. Zach and I devoured 15 skewers each and then rolled out of the restaurant.

In the Shinsaibashi shopping street there is a Kaiten (rotation, or conveyor belt) Sushi place that offered all you can eat sushi for under 10 dollars (890 yen). Of course the sushi didn't have the most generous slices of fish, but at that price its still an excellent value. I put away 12 plates worth and at 2 pieces per plate it comes out to about 37 yen a piece.

These ugly little guys in this fishtank are the famous Fugu blowfish, which is a dish I have never had. I love eating, and I also enjoy trying some crazy things, but I try to avoid any dinner that might kill me!