April in Japan – The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

0306 + 0424 = 0401 Himeji and Kobe

This is a blog post about our day on 1 April in Himeji and Kobe, written on 6 March and 24 April (before and after the trip). 6 March is in black. 24 April is in red italic.

It’s 6th of March today. I’m reading a post in Chinese, explaining how to use Tabelog website. I really want to say a big thank you! Tabelog is the equivalent of TripAdvisor for restaurants in Japan. I tried using it a few times and failed so far. But this post explained everything so clearly, my problem is now not failing to find decent food in Japan, but finding enough space in my belly (and enough cash).

I noticed there is a sea of good blogs on all subjects about travelling in Japan, including many detailed reviews about hotels, restaurants, food places in markets, pharmacies (where to find the cheapest sun cream and face mask); detailed tutorials and instructions (usually with photos, maps and diagrams) on luggage lockers, bike rental shops, tourist tax return, online bus ticket booking, tourist and transport passes, how to use certain websites. I read them like textbooks, with amazement and gratitude. Most of the above are in traditional and simplified Chinese though, I wonder if they are available in English? (Next translation project?)

So today is a day out from Osaka to Himeji and Kobe which are west to Osaka along the coast of Seto Inland Sea.

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

By close observation, we discovered that food and drink are both allowed on trains. So I opened the wrappers of a plum flavoured rice triangle and opened a carton of milk bought from a FamilyMart between our hotel and the metro station, watching endless houses flashing past and thinking the combination of milk and rice a bit strange.  They certainly didn’t have something called “Green Belt”. Cities rolled on from one to the next to the next…

Himeji is famous for its original castle, which is one of the best in Japan. The castle is regarded as the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture, comprising a network of 83 buildings with advanced defensive systems from the feudal period. The castle is frequently known as Hakuro-jō (“White Egret Castle”) or Shirasagi-jō (“White Heron Castle”) because of its brilliant white exterior which is supposed to resemble a bird taking flight (I can’t tell at all). It dates to 1333, and got rebuilt, expanded, maintained and upgraded until 1618. The amazing thing is that it survived both the WWII bombing of Himeji and the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake. It’s the largest castle in Japan and one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan. (According to Wiki.)

Himeji Castle has been under a massive cover for the last few years for renovation work. It reopens on 27 March 2015! Just a few days before we arrive. Here is another thing  that was not even remotely in my mind before booking the flight. I’m going to see a brand new old Himeji Castle!

It was a very misty day. Our first sight of Himeji Castle wasn’t very impressive. It was so white I could only just make out the outline of the roofs.

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

Before we went, I read news about big groups of tourists and local people visiting Himeji Castle on its grand opening day. Only 6 days on, I was prepared to see a long queue. Talking about queuing, Japanese people are just as skilful as British people. Maybe even better. There was usually one person holding a sign saying “the end of the queue”, and a couple of others darting up and down the queue informing people of the expected waiting time through a megaphone. It was a shame we couldn’t appreciate the service due to language barrier…

If it hadn’t rained, people might have noticed the pink tunnel just above their heads. (Can you find the Castle? Almost fading away in the background…)

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

We queued about 30 minutes before reaching the ticket machines, then another 1 hour before we reached the Castle itself, by which point we’d taken millions of photos of the Castle from every angle and become good friends with people queuing around us.

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

Of course shoes were not allowed to touch the wooden floor. Usually there were two solutions when shoes were not allowed, one is carrying them on your wrist in a plastic bag all the way until you reach the exit, the other is leaving them on a shoe shelf at the door until you come out the same way. I was amazed no one left with our shoes, because our umbrella kept getting taken away when left at the entrances of various places.

I had no idea what a Japanese castle would look like inside. But having visited a lot of British castles and European castles, Himeji Castle was surprisingly plain inside. The purpose of a castle was of course for defence, but in that period of history, it was more for extravagant living and entertaining. But all I could see were empty spaces floor upon floor, with no furnishing or decoration at all. The structure of the building was surely impressive. But it was hard to imagine what the Castle would have looked like when it was in use. 

People queued and climbed up and down narrow and steep staircases with shoes dangling from their hands. Andy pointed out the well concealed fire suppression system on ceilings of this huge structure completely built with wood. I tried not to worry about the crowd, the small staircases and the possibility of an emergency situation…

A view from the top.

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

Groups of people were getting the lighting ready for the cherry blossom viewing in the evening. Transformers, cables and all sorts of electrical stuff were left in the rain. I was sure they were OK…

A few photos in the Garden.

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

After wandering around the Castle and Gardens for the morning, we will head to Kobe. I wasn’t particularly interested in Kobe as a city, apart from its beef, until I read the novel Makaoka Sisters. There are a lot of stories happen around the Kobe area in the novel. However, time doesn’t allow me to go visit all those places. After a bit research, here are a few options for the afternoon and evening in and around Kobe:

One thing I’ll definitely try to do is to have a proper Kobe beef for lunch. There are three famous types of beef I’d like to try during our journey. Kobe beef is the first, probably the most famous and therefore most expensive one. I haven’t made up my mind if I’d go for a frugal kebab in a street market or splash out on a proper dinner, the type where a chef cooks in front of you on a big flat metal plate.

It was too late to have lunch by the time we arrived Kobe. So we set off from the train station to look for a street market. It kept raining but the roof over many shopping streets made our search a lot easier.  Eventually, we found a stall right in the middle of China Town square. 

At 5:25pm on 1 April 2015, we had our first (and the only) bite of the world famous Kobe beef under a roof of a shut shop in the rain. It was worth it.

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

Kobe is also famous for its western style afternoon tea and desserts. I’m not sure if I should go try one of those? (Didn’t.)

Kobe has one of the top three night views of Japan (they do love rate things, don’t they). But the transport is extremely complicated. I might not bother…(Didn’t…)

I found out (when I was translating a SK-II advert at work) that this area is one of the main Japanese wine production areas. I would love to visit a brewery. (Didn’t!)

To the west of Kobe, Akashi Park and to the east of Kobe, Shukugawa Park, are both listed as top 100 cherry blossom viewing spots. Akashi Park has a photogenic castle. Shukugawa Park has a river going north-south, with a mountain as the background. They might be pleasant and less crowded sights, because they are both less of a tourist spot, so there might be more authentic atmosphere, when the more famous spots are flooded by people. (It was raining badly and getting dark quickly, so we didn’t get off the train for either of the parks, which was a shame.)

Maybe we will have a look at Akashi Kaikyō Bridge against a sunset. There are special arranged group tours for visiting the Bridge, which is really tempting. The view is incredible. But it doesn’t happen every day and the tour takes about 3 hours. So I crossed the tour out. But we can have a look at the Bridge. (We saw the Bridge from the train on the outward journey. It was disappearing into the fog just like the Castle did. So we didn’t go. Plus there wasn’t a sunset at all.)

Then we’ll go back to Osaka for more food in the evening!

Today’s dinner was the famous omelette on rice in Shinsaibashi area! The only dinner during our trip that we ate sitting on the floor properly. You might not find this restaurant in Lonely Planet, but it’s one of the most popular among Chinese tourists.

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

And here was our dessert from a famous Japanese style dessert restaurant with a long and interesting history, red bean soup for couples:

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

April in Japan - The First (and Only) Bite of Kobe Beef

With one order, you get two bowls of red bean soup, representing happy relationship (or something like that). 

We got back to hotel and got a nasty surprise that our luggage still hadn’t arrived!

 

Our total walking mileage of the day was 3.9 miles. #Walk1000Miles

Next time, Nara in full bloom!

 All photos by us.

 

 

 

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