Thursday, August 21, 2008

Neo-Cons, Meet Your Japanese Counterparts, But With More Crazy

Have I ever posted a picture of the main reason I love Kagoshima so much? What if you could wake to this out your window every morning?

Last Friday saw me return from yet another trip to Kagoshima, but this one being a mere overnight affair to help out my old friend Mayumi. And I did only help her out, just to get that straight since there's been a fair amount of speculation about what her relationship has been to me.

But back to the matter at hand, we met in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture on Thursday morning, at a point equidistant from each other's house and flung ourselves down the Kyushu Expressway at breakneck speeds, feeding on an eclectic mix of morbid conversation (by Japanese standards), prejudiced snack foods ("Men's Bikkle"!) and each other's off-center taste in music. She introduced me to Japanese funk, I blew her mind with French indie rock, international friendship rolled on like the wheels under our feet and we were in Kagoshima by 2PM.

Now, I thought I'd said pretty much everything there was to be said about Kagoshima before--big active volcano looming over the city, fairly good nightlife, fantastic weather and a chill J-hipster scene--and to be honest there was some debate going on as whether or not to even post about the trip. Kagoshima and her neighboring environs, however, surprised me yet again, but this time with bad to temper the good. All things in balance, eh?

Our first taste of Kagoshima was unfortunately bitter and reminded me that we are, in fact, in Japan and not some la-la-land where nothing can possiblay go wrong (sorry, Simpsons gag). It was the simple task of finding parking for the Sakurajima ferry that got my blood boiling and my hands clutching the steering wheel at 500 psi. You see, the Kagoshima Aquarium and ferry ports both share parking areas since they're adjacent and this day was a particularly busy day for both places what with Obon festivities happening, so after being shooed away and redirected to an annexed dirt lot the city attendant insisted was "free" we thought we'd hit parking pay dirt--that stuff's never free in Japan! We arrived at the lot to discover it was free...if you get a validation card that goes along with an aquarium ticket. "But we're taking the ferry," we said to the attendant, to which he responded "Oh, then you can't park here." "But the lots are linked. The guy over there told us and there's a sign that says `Ferry and Aquarium Parking`." The two attendants here were obviously befuddled by our argument and we went around and around for five minutes, even asking about an hourly rate among other proposed compromises before Mayumi acted the good little Japanese girl part and told them we'd go to the aquarium. To cave after our good-natured attempts at reason with two little weasel-men instead of just leaving and looking for other parking was staggering to me, and while I can say it's not something I'd allow to ruin a friendship it is a memory that won't fade away in the near future. Had I been behind the wheel those jackasses would be pelted in dust and gravel from our spinning tires and they'd be lucky if I didn't run down their fold-out chairs and water bottles. Fucking Japanese inflexibility. The aquarium ticket cost 2000 J-bucks. 2000 J-bucks for an hour-and-a-half of parking. Staggering.

But Sakurajima was stunning as always, the weather was gorgeous and we came back to do some work and get some beers and that all served to push the unpleasantness out of my head for awhile. When out late dinnertime finally came Mayumi insisted on any restaurant that specializes in Kagoshima's famous "kurobuta" cuisine. Kurobuta translates as "black pig" and is the local breed of pork grazing around these southern parts. At the exorbitant cost of at least 1200 J-bucks for a mere bowl of katsudon it's simply never been within my budget to partake. That and I didn't believe the hype in it. I was very, very wrong. Kurobuta is hands down the most amazing pork I've ever had and its heavenly texture and flavor will win over anyone who's not a practicing Jew or Muslim. Or vegan. Or PETA activist. But everyone else will be enthralled.

It's so good!

From there Mayumi and I hit some bars and I found out she's the quiet, introverted kind of drunk when she shut down almost entirely and stared into her glass or space while her face took on a shade I'd previously only associated with extreme sunburn victims. Our final stop for the night wasn't in the Tenmonkan entertainment district where one would expect to find Kagoshima's young and aimless, but instead several stops down the southern reach of the city's streetcar line, in a little neighborhood called Kishaba. I'd read an article or two about this place before embarking on our little trip and spending what remained of the night in Kishaba taught me that I really don't know jack about Kagoshima outside its city center. According to the locals, Kishaba is where undergrad intellectuals from Kagoshima University come to unwind after their exit essays on new management processes and thinking outside the box get trampled to bits by the Japanese Old Guard in favor of the old ways (no, nobody actually said that, but knowing Japan...). Unlike Tenmonkan, Miyako-machi, Nakasu and all the other "official" entertainment districts there are no glaring strip club signs, titty bar barkers or gaudy shot bars. In their place are either small, hyper-chill, dimly lit lounges and restaurants or well-lit, hole-in-the-wall, Mom and Pop homestyle cooking places. Some of them literally have mud n' straw walls and Hobbit doors to get inside. Any one of these places would make a fortune if they opened up shop in SF on Valencia St. or Hayes and Mayumi and I chose what I think was the king daddy of them all, a second-floor bar/restaurant with a glass facade that looked down over a dark intersection. We were full still, but the food at other tables looked so fantastic we had to order something and weren't disappointed at the shrimp platter or vegetarian stir fry. This place must mug every tenth customer or something to subsidize their food costs because the price was ridiculously low, just over 3000 J-bucks for four drinks and two dishes. Kishaba, I love you.

I can't run as fast or jump as high as all the college undergrad young'uns around me, but I can kick their butts in wistful glances out a bar window.

Friday brought on the weirdness in one big tidal wave that I'm still formulating a lot of "what if" scenarios about. More than Kagoshima City itself and all those charms, what Mayumi most wanted to see was the mountain town of Chiran that lies south of the city. This was convenient for me as it would offer me a long overdue look at nearby Ibusuki, another hotspot in the prefecture for hot springs after Kirishima. Entering Chiran one has many opportunities to see the tea plantations and intact samurai houses it's famous for, but before all that Mayumi wanted to take a peek at the peace park on the edge of town, the largest such park in Kyushu south of Nagasaki. Mayumi, the bubblehead, knew her mistake the instant we went through the gates.

Last Friday was August 15. Hmm...what happened August 15, 1945. Oh, that's right, VJ Day! And who in Japan loves to flood the peace parks on VJ Day and the Emperor's b-day but the "uyoku dantai"--right wing militant activists. There were too many to count, we were blown away. Mayumi's lived in Japan her whole life and I've been to Tokyo's war dead shrine, Yasukuni Jinja, and neither of us have ever seen so many in one place. Well, there's a method to that particular bit of madness. Chiran's peace park is a particularly special place for these nutjobs because it's built on what was the main Southern Kyushu air base for kamikaze pilots. They have four reconstructed kamikaze planes on exhibit an extremely in-depth museum. But back to merely entering the grounds, there were parades going on and everyone was garbed in some kind of paramilitary uniform that was either Mussolini olive drab, jackbooted thug black or simply old school fatigue pattern (none of that newfangled pixelized print stuff). I was spotted at some point and shit just STOPPED. Dead. And people stared with hate-filled little eyes at The Enemy sitting next to a fairly good looking Japanese woman and hopefully drawing all the wrong conclusions about us. The thought was making me very happy. Mayumi, for her part, was freaking the hell out. "Don't stop, don't laugh, don't look at them, don't take pictures, just go go go!" was essentially the tone of her message to me. I would have liked to follow her directions, but these guys were just too goofy. We had to stop. Inside the museum was another legion of the little bastards and their families. The walls are plastered with the pictures and names of every kamikaze pilot that ever lived and died, their letters and effects, all displayed in chronological order of death. As the war rolls on the pilots get younger and younger until they can't even bother putting the boys in military uniforms for photos and just shoot them in their high school attire. People were balling their eyes out left and right at the patriotic display. Surly and weaselly men followed me around, random dudes bumped into my shoulder purposefully and the older folks glared from their walkers.

From here the rest of the trip was almost entirely uneventful. The Ibusuki scenery was breathtaking and I met a cyclist on a brand new US$8000 DeRosa all-carbon frame that I wanted to get naked with instantly. The bike, not the cyclist, perv. We got back to my car in Aso around 10PM and parted ways with subdued hug, emailed each other as soon as we safely arrived home and I haven't heard from her since. Well, if for whatever twisted reason we never speak again I can say she left me with a lot of memories and a weak nicotine craving from secondhand smoke.


Monday, August 18, 2008

Hanshin Henshin, Final

Damn, it's really about time I finished this Osaka travelogue up, though in all honesty there's not much to say about the home stretch.

First let me mildly rant about the Osaka night scene and how horrible it is when you're alone. I'll concede that I'm no expert on the place after being in town a grand total of three times, but you'd think that around Dotonbori, where one can look down a street and scarcely see the end of the bars lining each side, that there's something to stimulate the solo bar crawler mind. Nothing. Zilch. The bartenders weren't talkative and, for once in my life in Japan, neither were the drunken salarymen. That last bit might be a blessing, however. If anyone out there has any recommendations for interesting Osaka drinking spots please let me know.

Anyways, after my deathlike sleep in a wall coffin for the second night I was rearing to hit the road back to Kobe to make my 6PM boat home. First, though, Osaka had a few charms left to offer up. Breakfast was an unbelievably cheap and delicious Chinese place I found in the tangle of streets around Shinbashi. Around 300 J-bucks for a heaping bowl of mapo tofu and the same for a large plate of gyoza, I haven't eaten Chinese that good since SF. I find it strange that Japan has such terrible Chinese cuisine, but this is a topic for another post, possibly one about the availability of quality international spices and produce, the fickle Japanese palette and, of course, racism. Back to the post though, filled with tofu power I set out for a detailed examination of Den Den Town and, hopefully, a cheap Nintendo DS. Alas, Den Den is overflowing with used PC parts, but low on used DSs and completely devoid of some of the, ahem, illicit accessories I want to buy to go along with it. I did, however, discover that the square block of Den Den that houses the porn stores also shares space with the shops that sell yard and home improvement tools. I just know there's a sinister connection there even if I can't put my finger on it yet.

From Den Den it was time to start generally heading in the direction of Kobe, but I didn't make it five kilometers before I found the Osaka Museum of Science, a sort of slightly more technical take on SF's Exploratorium, and way way more commercial-leaning. The high point of visiting wasn't actually the museum part (well, they did have abacus calculators on display...WTF?!), but the tormenting of the rent-a-cops. Call me a jackass, but when the power goes to their heads and rent-a-cops start acting like they have the full authority of a real cop, not to mention paying extra-special attention to the "dangerous" foriegner, it's time to knock them down a peg, so I committed a small infraction and made one chase me around the museum grounds before riding off.

And then I made a big mistake.

I despised Route 2 coming into Osaka and was hoping for a change, or at least a shorter road home, and decided on the parallel route 43 just south. I think I realized my mistake shortly after coming across the big-box Nafco next to the forest of soulless apartment tower blocks next to the petrochemical plant. What a hellhole, not to mention a perfect example of Japan's bizarre, twisted zoning ordinances. This country seriously needs a responsible urban planner to come in and start moving crap around before all the kids grow up to be mutant 5-armed brain eaters...I mean more so than they already are. How exactly are healthy human beings expected to grow up in a place like this? Somewhere in Amagasaki I peeled off of the never ending highway of semi diesel smoke and pulled into a sad little supermarket for something sweet to take my mind off the nightmare I'd subjected myself to and for a little strategy session. Route 43 is technically faster than 2, sure, and heading north to find the other road to Kobe would take a bit of time and backtrack me a little, so instead I resolved to sprint the 15km to the finish until my muscles turned to slag in my legs and just let the ferry's onsen plus beer handle the aftermath.

From there it took me less than an hour to reach the bridge to Rokko Island and the ferry port. Along the way I was able to see Kobe University, which, quite frankly, sucked and resembled an overgrown high school. Oita U was the same deal, but you expect it coming from our podunk little burg. Places of learning, especially the higher ones, must stimulate and inspire as well as offer a roof over students' heads! Anyways, with an hour to kill I remembered a Starbucks near (I think) Setsunomiya Station and enjoyed a victory iced coffee. Sipping a cool drink, out of the columns of smog and surrounded by perhaps fifty gorgeous coffee house maidens (certainly none of who were interested in a sweaty, bike jersey-wearing nutter like me) life was once again good.

Whatever elusive feeling I was seeking on this trip at the outset...I can't by any stretch say I found it. I don't think it wants to be found. It wants to stay in the Summer of six-years ago and I'm going to allow it to rest. Though I've only spent a cumulative total of four days in Osaka I can say with complete conviction that I'm officially finished with the city. Unless really really compelling evidence is brought to bear stating the contrary I'm stumped to find what it can offer me anymore. Kobe on the other hand, I think I'll be visiting her again. Easy to navigate, easy on the eyes and Mother Nature's already tried her best to destroy it, so we have that conveniently out of the way.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I'm Beginning To See Why Japan Can't Field a Winning F-1 Team

Or any other consistent championship-winning drivers/riders--their foundation is all eaten through by termites. Bureaucratic termites.

Just after landing face-first in Oita I procured, thanks to AAA, one of their international driving permits that are so handy and broken. Convenient as it may be, really, what's the logic in handing US nationals a piece of paper that says in essence "Sure, you may never have so much as taken a cursory glance at the roads and driving habits of our country, but here's your license, here's a car, have a ball"? Certainly one of the dark benefits of aggressive US foreign policy.

Ugh, don't remind me...

Anyways, that permit is only good for one year after entering the country (not when you receive the permit, a key point) and can only be renewed after being absent from that particular country for six months. Well, wasn't planning on bugging out for six months to, I don't know, live as a migrant boar hunter on Borneo, so I had to get a Japanese license. Step one was to translate my old license at an exorbitant cost by the Japan Auto Federation. Just glancing at the form afterwards and how the man--who couldn't speak English--just lifted info from my CA license and wrote it into the appropriate fields made me feel like I'd really spent 6000 J-bucks wisely. After that it's a simple matter of filling out paperwork, paying more money, waiting in lines, paying yet more money and waiting in more lines. These people make the DMV look like the model of streamlined efficiency.

The test is conducted on a circuit at the license center about the size of two football fields and includes a bevy of cranks, S-curves, road obstructions, a couple stoplights, blind road entryways, etc. Basically everything short of children playing in the streets. It's a good thing too, because I would have run them down out of rage. Before the test though, I ponied up another 6000 J-bucks to run a 45-minute practice session at the Kusu Driving Center, a pale shadow of the prefectural course I'd actually be tested on. In retrospect I'm glad I did it as it taught me the fundamentals of how to take a Japanese driving test. And in the end that is indeed all one is doing--learning how to take this test.

The test for a Japanese license involves no actual driving skill or experience on the part of the taker. Two very shocking examples occur to me off the top of my head. The first is that my instructor told me that the even if I stalled out the manual transmission car I was driving on the course (you have to take respective MT/AT tests if you want to drive that particular transmission type) it wouldn't count against me as the test is not about being able to shift or anything relating to operation of the vehicle's functions. OK... Next was one of my partners in testing, a Chinese student named Kaku who was taking this test for the fifth time on the day I passed. I asked Kaku if I could see his Chinese license as I'd never seen one in person or even online, but he responded with "I don't have one." "How are you able to take this test then if you haven't driven before?" I asked, forgetting or not really believing my own line about needing no actual skill or experience to do this. "This is my first time driving" he said. You have got to be shitting me. I probed him about this with follow up questions and, indeed, he has never driven a car in China or Japan. I repeat, HE HAS NEVER DRIVEN A CAR BEFORE! He passed that day and is now prowling the streets and highways of Oita.

So you might be thinking the test is a pushover if people that haven't been behind the wheel can pass it. No, it's not that simple. Like I said above, the test is about knowing how to take a test, not how to drive. Each time you turn you must check your mirrors and yell out "yosh!" each time. There are different mirror checks for different turns and road situations. Intersections require two checks, left turns three, pulling into traffic from blind corners takes four. If one is makine a right turn the right side of the lane must be favored, but not too close or too far--exactly one meter will do. When making a low-speed left turn one must just narrowly avoid clipping the curb. Too wide and points are deducted. Hit any of the poles on the crank curve (a curve type that never, ever occurs in real life) and it's an automatic failure. Miss a check and it's another automatic failure. Don't favor one side of the lane or the other as the situation dictates...well, you get the trend.

It's a ridiculous farce of a driving test. No parking section, no road test out there on public streets, even the road obstruction section was removed for this. Can you follow instructions? Can you jump through just enough flaming hoops to appease the overlord. It's kinda hard when the overlord changes three times on three tests, each one looking for something different. Overlord the First wanted flawless checks, Overlord the Second wanted proper lane positioning down to the centimeter. Overlord the Third, most spiteful and hated of all overlords, actually shirked some of the normal rules of the test and included his own, such as extra checks (a five-point check when pulling into traffic from a dead stop!). After I was done he then told me to wait in the lobby while he did two other tests. Really, Overlord the Third, could you not have told me in the car like the others whether or not I'd passed? Did you really have to tack on thirty minutes to my time in that godforsaken purgatory?

Welcome to Hell. Please take a number and join the queue.

Oh, and the driving center...haven't even started in on that yet. The place is brand new, no more than a couple years old, and must have been designed by an airport architect. That there was no baggage claim threw me for a loop (I think Maia was looking for it too when I took her along). Cavernous, with vaulted cielings, a good twenty-five meter wall of staff/teller desks and a glass facade, the AC must have drawn a fortune in current from the grid and the place still never got cool. It never could. Each test attempt costs around 5000 J-bucks though and I've heard tales of people taking it up to ten or eleven times, so it's not like the place is hurting for funds. Like a CHP speeding ticket this place is Japan's preferred method of highway robbery.

Crudely drawn comics borne of frustration! Zing!

But I got my license, so hooray.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my friend Mr. Cinder Block has a date with Ms. Glass Facade.


The Reed of My Life Bends To and Fro Against the Current

The past 48-hours has gone, in order, from dizzying high to depressing low, back up to intoxicating joy and finally settling into...funkiness. The first high was due to the fact that I finally, after three attempts, passed my license test here and am the not-so-proud-but-nonetheless-happy owner of a Japanese driver's license. The low was due to someone wonderful I know losing out on a job opportunity that would have secured their residency in Japan indefinitely. The next high and resulting funkiness is, well, private. I'll make a belligerent post about the license process here in the near future--just not feeling it at this exact moment.

When words fail me I like to turn to poet Philip Levine for perspective. If nothing else, his prose shows me the fantastic possibilities afforded us by this `language` thing.

by Philip Levine

The new grass rising in the hills,
the cows loitering in the morning chill,
a dozen or more old browns hidden
in the shadows of the cottonwoods
beside the streambed. I go higher
to where the road gives up and there's
only a faint path strewn with lupine
between the mountain oaks. I don't
ask myself what I'm looking for.
I didn't come for answers
to a place like this, I came to walk
on the earth, still cold, still silent.
Still ungiving, I've said to myself,
although it greets me with last year's
dead thistles and this year's
hard spines, early blooming
wild onions, the curling remains
of spider's cloth. What did I bring
to the dance? In my back pocket
a crushed letter from a woman
I've never met bearing bad news
I can do nothing about. So I wander
these woods half sightless while
a west wind picks up in the trees
clustered above. The pines make
a music like no other, rising and
falling like a distant surf at night
that calms the darkness before
first light. "Soughing" we call it, from
Old English, no less. How weightless
words are when nothing will do.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hanshin Henshin, Part 2

If you can get over the claustrophobia then I highly recommend capsule hotels for a good night's sleep. I was going to need it for the 30km ride to Osaka through uncharted lands plus the 10-15km I'd be doing within the city. By 9AM it was already hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk and the cicadas--my god, the cicadas--they are more deafening in morning than any other time of day! I want to burn down all their treetop perches and drive them from the land, I hate them! But perhaps not as much as I hated the ride between cities.

There are three cities that lie between Kobe and Osaka, and they are in order: Ashiya, Nishinomiya and Amagasaki. Ashiya is the only one I would consider habitable by human beings while the other two are no less than levels of hell. These are the industrial suburbs of the Hanshin metro area where 10-20 story sterile concrete apartment towers share zoning with chemical factories, port facilities and various light industries. Where the industry fades away and there are just apartment blocks it's still soulless and depressing, trading the choking haze of production for pachinko and that new craze sweeping Japanese commerce, the big box retail store. To add salt on the wound there was road construction on highway 2 virtually the entire way through the three cities.

But I survived the fetid wasteland in one piece (and all it cost me was half a lung!) and crossed the Yodo River into Osaka City proper. Finally familiar turf! Since I hadn't hit it up on previous trips I swung around towards the Umeda Sky Building, one of the city's (and nation's) most recognizable structures. I'm not huge into architecture, but the bold and acrobatic design of the Umeda Sky Building really makes an impression when you see it up close, and even moreso when you climb it. At the top floor observation deck not only can one get a 360-degree view of the city, there is also a cafe/lounge, fancy pants restaurant and a perplexing presentation on the past, present and future of skyscraper observatories that came off as hyper-pretentious. Your building is nice, but it's no Tower of Bable, Lighthouse of Alexandria or Eiffel Tower, to name but of few of its claimed contemporaries.

All hail the great UFO building of Osaka.

From Umeda I wanted to head to Osaka Castle and snap a few pics only to find it a little more complicated than it appreared. Like the SF Financial District, Northern Osaka and its skyscraper-addled square kilometers are fraught with one way streets, unclear signs and aggressive traffic. Doing SF cyclists proud (or disgracing law-abiding American nationals in Japan) I switched into full-on "SOMA bike messenger, move it!" mode and bombed through the gridlocked traffic, subsequently running many red lights, being yelled at by cops and meeting (and beating) real Japanese bike couriers. Chevette Washington ("Virtual Light". William Gibson. Read it!) would have been proud. What a hoot!

Too bad the castle was inundated by legions of festival goers for some crappy over-commercialized shell of a real matsuri, so I only stayed long enough to get some shots of the castle and ride the castle loop running/cycling trail, which was actually very very nice. And then the skies filled with clouds and it started raining. By that point though, after attacking Osaka traffic mercilessly, it was impossible to tell where the sweat ended and the rain soak began. After pulling into Nanba and Dotonbori, the true heart and soul of Osaka, I called in a little remote support to find another capsule hotel (Maia Z. power FTW!) and chucked my crap into another coffin before setting out for the late afternoon/evening. Tonight's target was the Sumiyoshi Summer festival and the site of my first "real" Japanese experience, but first a bizarre trip through the city's seedy, nerdy underbelly.

That's one handsome devil of a castle there.

Nipponbashi's Den Den Town is to Osaka like Akihabara is to Tokyo, except much smaller. I don't know, you just can't top Akihabara for concentrated insanity. Still, Den Den has all the essentials and with a grimy Osaka veneer to them: countless new and used computer parts stores; more anime outlets than a hot pocket-popping otaku can spend a week in; manga and model kit meccas; and miscellaneous storefronts where one can buy anything from power tools to porn to spy gear to nixie tubes in bulk. It was...impressive. Oh, and then there were the maid cafes. When I hung out with the hardcore otaku crowd at Chabot College in the late-90s I learned quickly that people who wear anime-themed costumes--especially the ladies in that social scene--are generally seriously disturbed mo-fos. So I had some trepidation riding around here just as the Friday evening rush to be in the company of lace and garter wearing women who were trying to look like 15-year-olds and gave them a wide berth. They say the kitchen knife is the weapon of choice for most Japanese murderers, well, who knows what those maids are packing inside their feather dusters...

I'm as puzzled by this as you might be. There were dudes doing hayashi music in the back while a rotating assortment of women got on stage and just went Flashdance, batshit crazy. Is this like a Japanese version of a revival meeting? Are they feeling the power of the hooooooooooly spirit?

Sumiyoshi is easy enough to get to from central Osaka, but I was tired and getting lazy so instead of riding I just went to Tennoji Park--what you might call the epicenter of Japan's teeming masses yearning to be free--and caught the southbound streetcar through Abeno and all the way to the gates of the shrine. You'd never believe it from looking at a map today that Osaka Bay used to come right up to the gates of Sumiyoshi Shrine and that the place was Japan's first international port. Your useless bit of Sumiyoshi trivia for the day. Well, the festival was as fantastic as I remember it, except for all the girls who think they're the cat's meow by wearing jinbei, but instead look like they're just about ready for a warm glass of milk and a bedtime story. They're for men and they look like PJs anywho so will you please get over this, women of Japan? Anyways, after two or three beers, some festival food, wandering around, watching the Official Festival Freakers (see picture please) and stalking people wearing funny Engrish shirts I caught a streetcar back to my bike and Nanba for a night out in Dotonbori.

The Osaka streetcar system are very much like the SF F-Line in that they run vintage single cars on light rail and the things sound like they'll fly apart if someone sneezes too hard. Naturally I think it's the only way to see Southern Osaka's neighborhoods.

Speaking of nights, I'm going to wrap this up here and finish the trip post tomorrow. I don't much remember starting a Picasa web album last year, but, well, there it was full of my pictures so I went and added all the good ones from this trip. Here you go!

Kobe/Osaka Summer '08


Friday, August 1, 2008

Hanshin Henshin, Part 1

Because I don't have nearly enough Engrish around my blog here's a sign just outside Sannomiya Station.

I'm telling you, the only way to travel long distance in Japan is by slow boat. Sure, the Shinkansen can barrel along at, what, 300kph, but you can't have drinking parties on it, or take a bath, or order curry and miso soup at the restaurant. And you certainly can't feel the soft, cool mists of the Seto Naikai caressing your face as you pass under some of the world's most spectacular suspension bridges, power by fleets of fishing boats and sparsely inhabited jungle islands while the sun sinks into the west.

OK, the trip takes eleven hours, which is over twice as long as by train from Fukuoka and ten times as long from the airport, but it's cheap cheap cheap in comparison, I could take my bike without a fuss, drink beer and read books, fall asleep and wake up magically at Kobe's Rokko Island Ferry Port. Rokko Island is one of two or three large landfills created in the bay and was especially hard hit by the '95 Hanshin Earthquake. If it weren't where the ferries docked I'd wish it'd gone under during the shaking as it's one of the more ugly places in Japan. Somehow even the Oakland and Long Beach port facilites look "nicer" than this place. Yeesh. I flew out of the ferry's gaping maw between semis and family wagons, found the first bridge out of the place and made for the greener pastures up the hill.

This park appears to be built on an old castle foundation. This pic looks east towards JR Sannomiya Station.

Kobe reminded me a lot of Nagasaki, which in turn reminded me a lot of San Francisco. All three cities are hilly, by the water and have comfortable, cozy atmospheres about them so I felt right at home. With the exception of finding the location of a hostel to stay the night at I had really done little to no planning on where to go and what to see prior to departing. First order of business was to buy a map and find the city center, which I knew to be west, but still...better safe than end up in Okayama. The plan finally formed that I would hit downtown around the Sannomiya/Kobe/Shin-Kobe Stations then hop a few trains to reach Arima Onsen over the Rokko Mountain Range. No damn way I was going to tackle that range with the gear I had. Maybe due to scaremongering about what prodigious thieves the Osaka-dwellers were from my colleagues or maybe just my own twisted process of justification ("It's going to be ass-kicking, curb-jumping urban riding, I'd better take the hardier frame.") I decided to bring the old Trek instead of the Cervelo and use street shoes instead of my cycling pair. The jury's still out on those decisions. On one hand the Trek's utterly filthy, I rode over many more than one patch of jarring tarmac, hopped some curbs at speed and was getting on and off fairly regularly. On the other hand the Trek's crank is shot (a problem previously, not something I did in Kobe), she's got a noticibly fatter ass than the Cervelo, the shifters are harder to reach, which sucks on hills and finally my feet were killing me thanks to the soft-soled street shoes I was sporting. Those pedals really cut into the balls of the feet.

Signs of the Hanshin-Awaji Great Earthquake around Kobe are everywhere and nowhere. You won't see any toppled buildings, of course, but everything's just...just so new and fresh. Mind you, this was the single costliest disaster to ever befall a country, racking up a $200 billion bill and rendering almost half of all buildings in the city uninhabitable. Other than the new city smell, my first indication something bad happened here were flowers laid out at a streamside park I happened by. Then some more. And more. In fact, all over the city there were boquets and memorials to be found for those with a keen eye. If it's any consolation to the people of Kobe, here's one visitor who's impressed with how you've picked up the pieces. Cheers.

View from the Weathercock House terrace in Kitano. If I were rich and famous in Kobe I'd probably try to swing a condo around here.

I rode out the rest of the day--literally--exploring downtown and the very cool hillside Kitano neighborhood. With such fantastic views and local retail/services real estate here must be exorbitantly priced. Strangely enough it was also where my supposed lodging for the night, the Kitano International Youth Hostel, is located, however I failed to make reservations beforehand and discovered it all booked up. I resigned myself to sleeping in a park again and went around systematically to all the parks on my map looking for a suitable crash bench, finally finding one at the city library.

I caught a train from downtown's Sannomiya Station and headed north under Mt. Rokko to Arima Onsen, one of Japan's oldest hot springs towns where Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself is said to have frequented. I must be spoiled by Beppu, Kurokawa, Yufuin, Kokonoe and so on and so forth, because Arima was disappointing to say the least. I, and perhaps everyone riding the train with me, came here to enjoy the same waters that Hideyoshi did, not sit in one of the gaudy concrete monstrosities that dot the mountainside. The wooden mecahnical toy museum, onsen temple and historical street were nice to see, but hardly worth the 1500 J-buck roundtrip train fare I had to pay. Live and learn.

One of the things I like most about Japanese urban planning is its fantastic economy of space--virtually anything has real estate potential. Back at Sannomiya Station I found Kobe's contribution to this architectural tradition with the Nishikaidouhonsen, ummm, commercial strip? Shopping complex? I don't really know what to call it now that I think about it. Whatever, it's like this: in America the space underneath raised train tracks and highways is essentially wasted space, but in Japan where space is at a premium it's just another place to put a business so why not make the building the track/highway support? But the raised Japan Rail aerial runs about half the length of the city, so imagine a several kilometer long building holding up tracks and containing countless businesses to get an idea of this thing. Walking into its dark belly is very cyberpunk--you become Decker hunting down replicants, if only until you reach the inevitable crosswalk and sunlight that separates sections.

Between and under the JR tracks, the left pic is near the high-density Sannomiya area while the right is a really cool bar under the tracks near Ooji Park Station. If they look deserted it's because these pics were taken at about 8AM~9AM.

As night fell I admit I was becoming worried about my choice of lodging thanks to a short rain shower. Even the cheapest business hotels were asking upwards of 6000 J-bucks, and that was a bit out of budget. Lady luck was smiling on me though. As I prowled slowly down the hill from Kitano I turned a corner to find--OMG--a freakin' capsule hotel! Capsule hotel! Like, the places that resemble mausoleums where you hop into a coffin on the wall and sleep! Sleeping at one of these places has been a dream of mine for some time, but I rarely have the foresight to search them out prior to travelling. The places really are brilliant, saving space and housecleaning costs over regular hotels, it leaves plenty of room for a comfy rec area and bath with the value being passed on to the consumer. I only paid 3000 J-bucks for this unique lodging opportunity and it's among the best money I've ever spent. I stayed out a on the town a bit longer before retreating to my literal hole in the wall, even finding a bar that serves Red Stripe.

That's enough for tonight. Tomorrow I'll let loose with my second impressions of Osaka from the bike saddle!