The swath of nearly 7,000 islands that comprise the country of Japan is largely that of a forested and mountainous geography, with almost three-quarters of total landmass being unsuitable for residential or industrial use. Further, given that the population totals over 127 million – a number that must be squeezed into the few livable areas that the geography offers - it’s no wonder that Japan has one of the highest population densities on the planet. Whereas this likely complicates the lives of urban planners, it plays right into the hands of travelers such as myself, as one never needs to travel very far to reach the next metropolitan area. For example, within the Kansai region that I have been visiting for the last few weeks, one can jump back and forth between the likes of Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Nagoya, and many other cities, all within about an hour by train. This proximity to so many different cities and towns makes for a day-tripper’s paradise — and in this case, I chose to venture out of the Osaka area to see what I could find in the nearby cities of Kobe and Koya-san.
Wedged in between a mountain range to the North and the sea to the South, Kobe offers visitors a peak into a very attractive and cosmopolitan city that still manages to feel like a comfortable, down-to-earth locale, a great place to spend the day exploring. Historically, Kobe was one of the first ports in Japan to open up their doors to trade with the outside world and allow foreign traders to live amongst its boundaries. And even though it is still a very Japanese city — complete with Torii-gated Shinto Shrines and intricate gardens – the earlier influences from both Eastern and Western nations can still be observed today, the former in the form of the Nankinmachi neighborhood (Chinatown) and the latter in the Kitano neighborhood, which takes on an almost European feel.
One of the highlights to visiting the city of Kobe is the opportunity to ascend the nearby hills via a cable car system (or a long and very tiresome uphill hike) that slowly opens up a view back over the city itself, flanked by the sea in the background. Unfortunately the weather didn’t want to cooperate during my visit, but I still tried my best to snag a few shots through the ever-persistant rains:
Although the gardens were lovely, the quiet strolls through the neighborhoods were refreshing, the shopping streets would keep even the most avid fashionista busy for the whole day, the cable car trip offered breath-taking views, and the shrines were as serene as anyway in Japan, my desire to visit Kobe was piqued by an entirely different attraction – a motivation that was largely tied to my stomach, in case you hadn’t guessed – in that of the world-famous Kobe beef.
There exists a common point of confusion, however, in regards to what is actually real Kobe Beef — a prized meat valued for its extensive fat marbling. Although many trendy restaurants in the United States have recently been fond of falsely slapping the “Kobe Beef” moniker on anything from steaks to hamburgers, what they are actually serving you is ”Wagyu Beef,” a larger umbrella of beef (the same breed of cow, actually), for which Kobe Beef is a smaller sub-category based on location in which the cattle were raised. A parallel example would be if a vineyard in California produced a sparkling wine from a blend of white grapes — no matter how similar the final product — it still couldn’t label it as “Champagne,” as it didn’t originate from the Champagne region of France. The same goes for Beef — if it didn’t originate from Kobe, it can’t be called Kobe Beef. And to be honest, Kobe makes such a sought-after product and only exports such an infinitesimally small amount of their beef that if you actually found a restaurant serving it, the cost would easily be pushed into the “hundreds of dollars” range per serving. So if you’re even slightly unsure as to whether what you’re eating is really Kobe Beef, it isn’t. (End rant).
Regardless, with all of that technical info out-of-the-way, it was time to get down to business and see what the hype was all about. The most common type of restaurant in which you’ll find these prized blocks of beef are called teppanyaki restaurants, where you sit in front of a large griddle while a chef prepares your meal in front of you. This is — only in the most general sense – the same concept as the abominable “Japanese-style Steakhouses” you’ll find around malls and shopping centers back in the US. In Japan, however, the whole experience is much more formal, where the chefs are very serious about their craft and take pride in the quality of their offerings – meaning you won’t find anyone having to resort to parlor tricks like lighting oil on fire to create a theatrical flare-up or flicking bits of meat in the air and catching them in their hat. (End second rant – sorry). On to the beef:
If you’re still hungry and haven’t run out of daylight, another great stopover in Kobe is that of the Nankinmachi area of town — or the city’s “Chinatown.” Whereas there are a few stores selling Chinese products and offering a more traditional glimpse into the Chinese culture, this neighborhood is largely one very busy and bustling street lined with almonst nothing but restaurants, food carts, noodle stands, fry stations, little old ladies with baskets over their shoulders, and every other conceivable method of food delivery:
Although it takes a bit more effort than other destinations (you take a train from Osaka, transfer to a funicular railway, then transfer again to a city bus), the extra exertion will be repaid once you arrive in the solemn and sacred realm that is Koya-san. Built on a small, raised plateau in the middle of cedar and pine forests and ringed by a series of mountain peaks, this small town of only a few thousand is home to 110 temples and monastic complexes, making it one of the religious epi-centers of the country. Just by strolling along the streets and enjoying the natural setting, you can’t help but feel why this area was chosen as a home for the monks and a headquarters for one of the largest schools of Buddhism in the country. Additionally, if you’re really interested in what life is like for one of the Buddhist monks, many of the temples offer accommodation, allowing you to see the daily religious activities that take place.
The main draw to the Koya-san area, however, isn’t the shrines or the monasteries, but a massive cemetary known as Okuno-in on the Eastern side of town. The main pathway weaves you in and out of the over two hundred thousand moss-covered tombstones on its two and a half kilometer journey to the Toto-do (or Lantern Hall) at the far end of the grounds — though, unfortunately, no photographs were allowed of the hundreds of lanterns (some having been burning continuously for 900 years) in the Lantern Hall. It does feel a bit odd at first to visit a cemetery as a tourist attraction, but the atmosphere and spiritual solemnity of the area is unmatched.
Just as the cemetery marks the end of the cycle of life, this post will mark the end of my time in the beautiful country of Japan. It’s difficult to express how much I enjoyed my time here and how strongly the experiences I’ve had here will be etched in my memory, but I’m fairly sure that I’ll be back to visit again in the future. Before that, however, I’m off to get my kimchi on in Seoul, South Korea. Until then, Sayonara from Nippon!