My first morning in Kobe was an early one– wracked with jet lag, I woke up at 4:30 am only to find the air conditioning in the room had turned off, and stupefied by the remote’s Japanese characters, I was unable to turn it back on. I spent an hour or so tossing and turning and sweating and finally decided to get up. After researching some things to do in Kobe for a while, people finally began to trickle downstairs and my stomach began to rumble, so I kicked off my house slippers, pulled on my shoes and headed out to explore.
My first breakfast in Japan, as recommended by Jordy and Masako, was tuna onigiri, along with some pickled cucumbers, from Family Mart, a chain of convenience stores. I wandered to a nearby park to eat and then went back to the hostel to lie down, feeling rather disjointed from the time change and soaked in sweat– it’s really hot and humid here!
After some rest I rented a bike from the hostel and headed out to explore some more. Having a bike in any city is the best, you can see so much and cover so much ground, and Japan seems to be particularly bike-friendly. Biking on the sidewalk, people part for you like the Red Sea, and there’s nary a helmet to be seen… feels so wrong, yet feels SO right.
I cruised the streets, heading to the base of the green mountains that, with the sea, sandwich Kobe, and then turned before the hills became too steep and biked to the harbour, exploring covered shopping streets and alleys lined with shops and restaurants along the way. I found a Uniqlo (an affordable and nice Japanese chain of clothing stores) and checked out the sock selection for Jordan, as he’s kind of obsessed with Uniqlo socks. I was super hungry at this point and found a food court where I ordered kake udon, made fresh, with tempura.
I started feeling really exhausted again and realised it was my bedtime back home, so I began to bike back to the hostel, when I saw a sign reading “Ikuta Street”. Recalling that there was a shrine with the same name in the area, I headed that way and came across the Ikuta Shrine, one of the oldest in Japan.
The temple doors were open and, inside, four young women with long hair moved in graceful unison before an ornate shrine. They wore intricate robes and carried bells that they shook in time to sonorous chanting. An old woman sat watching them and after they had delicately shuffled from the platform before the shrine, gently kicking their long robes from their path in white-sock clad feet, the woman gave them instruction on what I assumed was how to improve their movements. As the girls rehearsed, people came forth and threw money into a grate before the shrine, then rang an enormous bell and bowed, clapped their hands twice, then bowed again, deep in prayer.
It really was a beautiful moment and helped erase some of the apprehensions about traveling alone I had felt earlier in the day, reminding myself I had traveled all this way to experience moments like this. I threw my own coins into the grate and imitated the other worshipers– bow, bow, clap, clap, bow and fell into my own thoughts, my hopes, dreams, wishes and goals.
I wandered around the tiny forest behind the shrine, coming across two women painting watercolours, and took in that strange and lovely energy that is present at ancient spiritual sites. There is something so calming yet intense and it’s one of the reasons I always end up in churches and temples during my travels.
The evening lead to the common room at the hostel (R2 Hostel in the Sannomiya neighbourhood, super clean, friendly and well located!) where I ended up chatting with Satomi and Risa, the hostel employees, and three guys from France. They were really funny and nice and they took me to a bar in the nearby entertainment district called Soul Love that was AMAZING. It was down a flight of stairs and the size of a walk in closet, with room for maybe 10 patrons max, and decorated with 70s soul and funk memorabilia, including a framed vest signed by James Brown (of whom the proprietor also had a tattoo). Although three different languages were being spoken, we had a great time drinking beers, the French chain smoking and Rio and Tomo, the bartenders, playing some pretty incredible disco. There’s a blurry photos of us on Soul Love’s blog. At one point another bar patron left and came back with HOT DOGS (“hotto doggu”) for everyone!! How amazing are the people in Japan? So great.
Another highlight of the night was when we decided to find another bar. The entertainment district is full of multistory buildings just filled with bars. You take an elevator to a floor and when the doors open, it looks like you’re in an office building, if you opened the doors and the offices were just tiny bars. So crazy and so cool.