Kobe – cows, concrete and castles

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After another accommodation crisis in Fukuoka, we decided to stop in Kobe for one night on the way up to Osaka.  (We learnt our lesson after this and sat down and booked everything for the rest of our time in Japan.)

This gave Arthur the chance to eat some Kobe beef.  I can’t comment on its culinary merit, but it was bloody expensive.  We went to a sort of hipster burger bar for it, which was the only way to make it remotely affordable.  But obviously Arthur wanted the burger that had actual Kobe steak in it, which was about four times the price of a regular burger.  When in Kobe…

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Fortunately my meal was normal price, so the final bill wasn’t too painful.  I’d resigned myself to chips and a salad, but I asked if I could have a fried egg and some avocado instead of a patty in a burger, and they agreed.  I thought they might be offended, but if so they did a very good job of hiding it.  Instead they seemed very keen to make sure I enjoyed my burger.  Ahh, Japan.

We sat at the counter with a cold beer while we waited, and watched the chef work delicately, his movements very precise and controlled.  Each element was carefully cooked, sliced, and placed gently on the stack with chopsticks.

I guess this made it fusion.  Even the chips were utterly Japanese, though the flavour was pretty much classic chip.  There were few of them, carefully placed on the plate, but perfect: crispy and lightly salty, soft in the middle, savoury and thoroughly potatoey.

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My ‘burger’ was delicious, but Kobe’s about beef, right?  I’ll hand over to Arthur for this:

I had high hopes for Kobe beef, a meat I had craved since I first heard of it on Blue Peter (some time ago…).  It has a global reputation for extreme tenderness, supposedly engineered by massaging the cows throughout their lives and feeding them beer.  This may be an urban myth…

This definitely isn’t what makes beef ‘Kobe’ — it’s a geographical label, like champagne, but it may actually be true (sort of).  Because space is at a premium in Japan, cattle are often kept confined and given feed rather than let out to graze.  This makes for sad cows.  It’s possible that cows are massaged in place of exercise, to make them more comfortable, and fed beer to create appetite.  Or it’s just an urban myth.

My burger was…very nice, but perhaps not the Kobe-est way to eat beef: a delicious patty of ground beef, combined with a thinly sliced beef ‘steak’ (really a very cheap, gristly cut, seared and served rare).  This cut would have been literally inedible cooked like this were it any inferior less-tender variety, so the Kobe-ness helped in that sense, but it wasn’t exactly melt-in-the-mouth.  Having eaten it, I still feel I can’t actually comment on how it ranks in the World Meat Championship.

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I think Kobe has some pretty good nightlife, but we weren’t really up for spending any more money after dinner, so we called it a night.

Next morning we went for a walk up to a waterfall on the edge of town, for some nature and a birds-eye view of the place.  Kobe is a port city which spreads inland up a steep hillside, so we were rewarded with a nice vista across town and out over the bay to Osaka in the distance.

The waterfall was nice, but we were most excited by all the elaborately faked ‘wood’ handrails and general path furniture, which on closer inspection turned out actually to be made of concrete.  These are a sight we’ve since become inured to (they’re popular all over Japan and China), but we found them very strange and entertaining this first time.  Especially the public toilets cunningly disguised as massive tree stumps.

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And that was Kobe for us.  No major sights to speak of, though there’s at least one sake brewery you can visit, but a nice place to hang out if you’re passing.  Or if you fancy spending your life savings on a piece of cow.

Before moving on to Osaka we spent the day at Himeji castle, which is regarded as the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture (who is writing this stuff?).  So it’s a really Japanese, really castly, Japanese castle.  It was built in the 14th century, though it’s been thoroughly ‘restored’ several times, so I suspect most of what’s there now is somewhat younger.  We were making the most of having a rail pass by zipping up and down the country on the shinkansen – Himeji is 60 km from Kobe, but less than 15 minutes on the bullet train.

Himeji was even cleaner than a usual Japanese town, which is really saying something.  And, as usual, it had no litter, but also no bins.  How do they do this?  Even the taxi drivers were cleaning when we arrived.

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I wasn’t that fussed about going to the castle, but next door is a Japanese garden that I was keen to see.  (Love a bit of moss.)  Arthur was excited about the castle, especially when he saw he could pose with some ‘Samurai’ outside for free.  It was like Christmas.

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The castle had just been reopened after a major restoration, so it was looking suspiciously freshly painted, and was very very busy.  I suppose it’s necessary to maintain these old wooden buildings if they’re not going to crumble, but I found it difficult to get much of a sense of history in the grounds, with everything so pristine.

Inside was a bit better, the wooden interior seemed a bit more authentic, and I could imagine samurai defending the keep.  It was all quite dark, and quite vertiginous.  The main keep has quite a small footprint, perhaps 15 metres square, but is seven stories high.  The centre of each floor is screened off into dark rooms, and around the edge are raised platforms to allow fighters to lie at window height. Racks for swords line all the available wall space.

The view from the top was good, though you had to fight your way through the knots of Japanese tourists moving in flocks to get to it.  The top floor was particularly chaotic because everyone was trying to pay their respects at the shrine that sits there, and also look out of the window.  It was like Oxford circus on a Saturday afternoon, but with slightly more praying.

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The garden next door was slightly more serene, and I enjoyed the thoroughly Japanese-ness of it at first, but then I got bored.  There’s really only so many fish ponds and moss covered rocks you can look at before you just want to go and have a beer.

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So that was ‘castle’ and ‘garden’ ticked off our to-see list.  I did feel a bit like we were just box ticking.  It’s a difficult temptation to resist, especially when you’ve been reading ’10 things you must see in Japan’ and so on.  People love a good list.

Nothing wrong with ticking boxes if they’re boxes you want to tick though, and I think Arthur enjoyed himself.  And I did get my beer eventually.  All’s well that ends well.

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