Leaving Japan

kobetowerMy week in Japan is over, faster than I realized. As always, I leave Japan with regret. I love the energy of the country. On these short visits there are so many things you wish you had done which you could not. These range from the simple things like taking a look at the statue of the robot Tetsujin-28-go to the more time-critical walk up Mount Rokko. Perhaps I could have squeezed the time out for the robot if the typhoon had not appeared. Another thing I would have liked to squeeze in was an evening of shochu and yakitori with old friends; again, the typhoon warning interrupted that. In any case, I managed to walk down to Kobe Harborland and click this photo of the Kobe tower.

Leaving was hectic. I had to run out of the last meeting to take the train. When I bought a ticket for the Shinkansen to Tokyo in the morning, the ticket clerk told me to budget around 20 minutes for the subway from Sannomiya to Shin-Kobe. It turned out to take about 5 minutes! I spent the afternoon in the Nozomi going to Tokyo. The Tokyo station is chaotic. I’d left myself sufficient time to get to the Narita Express. Although it says you need to reserve a seat, there is no difference in price between tickets. I’d bought a return ticket on the way out, and the return did not contain a seat reservation. The train was almost deserted, and the conductor didn’t bat an eyelid when he saw my ticket. The shuttle from the airport to the hotel worked flawlessly. Eventually, it took me about 5 hours end-to-end.

The hotel has a bar on the top floor with a view on to the airport. I had a quick dinner there, as I watched planes taking off and landing. Tomorrow I have to leave early, so I need to turn in soon.


Waiting for typhoon Nangka


The Pacific Ocean has been very active lately. The night I was in transit to Japan, cyclone Chan-hom hit the east coast of China. About a million people had to be evacuated, and there was substantial damage. Now, less than a week later, I’m in Kobe and nervously expecting tropical storm Nangka to hit. At five in the evening I was in Kokoen garden, as the skies opened up for a while. I had my umbrella in my hand, so I managed to reach the pavilion near a pond full of koi without getting wet. The rain is a lovely sight from the balcony of the pavilion. I stood there and watched the koi swim about in the rain. Initialially the rain-drops seemed to confuse the fish, as they kept surfacing thinking that there was food being thrown in. After a while they ignored the rain and swam about just under the surface.


The bus back from Kokoen took quite a bit more than an hour, since there was an accident on the road which caused a major traffic back-up. It dropped me near Sannomiya station in Kobe. Many restaurants in Japan have red lanterns hanging outside: a lit lantern signifies that dinner is available. The wind was gusty, but not very high. The lanterns were swinging about, but safe. It wasn’t hard to find a nice restaurant. I was with friends: the Immersed and the Bear. The Bear ordered an Asahi beer. The Immersed and I shared a warm Sake. There was a variety of food, all very small helpings. We started with a platter of sashimi, my first this time in Japan. Then we went on to order a tonkatsu, and a plate of grilled octopus. The octopus in a sweetish soya sauce was new to all of us, and we liked it. We were still a little peckish, so we ordered a plate of breaded chicken. Quite a nice small dinner.


We went our own ways after dinner. It had stopped raining. I walked back to my hotel by a round-about route. The wind had perhaps picked up a little. The storm is supposed to touch land around four in the morning, a little to the west of Kobe. JR trains are supposed to stop soon. School is off in the Kansai region tomorrow. I will probably not go in to work in the morning, although I guess I’ll take the final call at breakfast. If the city transport system shuts down I could still take a taxi. But if the city thinks travelling is not safe, then it might be silly of me to take a contrary decision. Right now the wind is not very high, although the flags at street corners and snapping merrily in the gusts of wind. I haven’t slept much in the last few days, so I just might turn in early tonight.

Added one day later

Nangka was a fizzle. It turned from a category 2 typhoon into a mere tropical storm the moment it hit land. I and my colleagues were rehearsing the survivor stories we would tell back home, but now all we have to report is a day-long drizzle. Great for Japan, but terrible for a blog!

Kobe Sannomiya at night


I usually love my job because it takes me to many places. But when it brings me to Japan, a country I really love, and gives me no time to enjoy it, I feel a little disgruntled. Well, maybe not disgruntled, but not exactly gruntled either. Tonight I walked into Sannomiya with an old friend. Sannomiya is a confusing suburban station, with many train lines coming into it (see a photo of one corner above). We spotted what my Japanese colleagues call a drinking place. This means a restaurant where the food is meant to be shared while you drink with friends. We ordered our beers and four plates of food. It turned out that our order was perfect: one plate was sea food, one was beef, one pork and one chicken. They went down well with our beers. Neither of us wanted a sweet, but we needed a different taste to end with. I found a soft tofu, and we had that as a nachtisch. We’d waded through our food in the time that a group of Japanese buddies would take to down one beer. The waitress was very amused. Neither of us knew enough Japanese to explain to her that we have an early start and a long day tomorrow.


We walked out. My friend, The Immersed, had to leave immediately. I decided I could spend a little time walking around the back streets of Sannomiya. The thing I love about Japan is the complete sense of safety. You can be out in places which look disreputable in other countries, and where you would have to be on guard. Not in Japan. People are perfectly law abiding. Even if the police sets a few pink bunnies to watch the road, no more than one in several thousands will park in the wrong place. There is always that one, of course. Fortunately I was there to record that exception.


In the middle of a road full of fast food joints, cafes and convenience stores you may come across a large building full of slot machines, a pachinko parlour, a bowling alley, or a strip joint. Outside these there may be groups of school children hanging out. These juxtapositions look weird to us gaijin, but it is clear that the Japanese think nothing at all about these.

The fact is that Japan is very safe and at the same time very permissive. That’s what I love about Japan, and that’s why I wish I had less work every time I came to this country. On the other hand, the society is very closed, and does not really tolerate foreigners, which is why I would rather not spend a very long time in Japan.


I don’t think I had paid much attention to Kobe before the great Hanshin earthquake of January 1995. Images coming out of this area were so striking (such as this photo of the Hanshin elevated expressway after the quake), and so many people were affected, that Kobe remained in view for several months. The port city seems to have recovered completely, although I’m told that shipping volumes have dropped off since then.

In my mind Kobe is also associated with a personal rediscovery of the now-famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. I’d read him very long ago, when he was first being published in translation. Then, around the beginning of the century, The Family bought a collection of short stories by Murakami called "After the Quake", built in and around Kobe after the earthquake. We read through this together, and then read all of Murakami’s books and stories in the subsequent years.

So now, planning a work trip to Kobe seems like planning to meet a blogger whose posts I read every now then: I have a rough idea of what to expect, but I’m sure that there will be much to surprise. Fortunately I chose a hotel close to Sannomiya station, since it was close to work, but then found that it is also the core district, with a lot to do. It happens to be close to the port, and the artificial island in the bay which holds the airport.

The song of minminzemi is a quite popular sound effect that represents “a hot summer day” in Japanese manga. If you draw a sound effect “min min min” in the background of your manga, you don’t have to make your manga character say “Man, I’m boiling.” You don’t even have to draw a cicada! —Semi, cicada

Japan is perhaps the best country in the world for part time tourists. When you are busy at work from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening and still want to get a feel of local life, Japan obliges by being open around the clock; so when I’m up to it, I’m sure that I’ll get to see Kobe Harborland, the Akashi Kaikyo bridge, the night view from Mount Rokko, the Chinatown, and Kobe’s jazz-bars. There will be time for beef and sushi. I’ll try to take a little time out to go see the Ikuta-Jinja shrine. I would have liked to take a half day off to go see the Himeji castle, but with restoration work on, perhaps this is not the best year to visit. An off-the-beaten-track thing which I hope to do is to go see the K computer, one of the world’s first petaflops computers, and still one of the fastest in the world.

I guess mid-July is a little too early for one of the incredible things about summer in Japan: the sound of cicadas. On the other hand it is not too early for the humid heat of summer, and not too late for the occasional days of torrential rains. It might feel exactly like Mumbai.