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Takoyaki & Yatai July 19, 2011

Posted by Dru in Food.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Takoyaki & Yatai” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-rV

Takoyaki is a recent addition to Japanese cuisine that is extremely popular in the Osaka region.  The literal translation would be fried octopus, but I prefer to call it octopus balls. 😀  While there is no relation to the testicles of an octopus, it is by far the best way to imagine what takoyaki is.  The basic premise of takoyaki is to be something of a distant cousin of okonomiyaki.  You take a similar batter as that used in okonomiyaki, add a few extra bits and pieces, and put a relatively large chunk of octopus in the middle. Shape it into a ball and voila, takoyaki is born!

This sounds much easier than what real takoyaki is.  When visiting some Asian markets in the world, I have heard that takoyaki is served with fine cut octopus pieces.  This is one of the worst mistakes people can make.  The goal of takoyaki is to have a nice crispy golden ball with a big piece of octopus inside.  The crispy ball gives a nice crunch as you bite into the takoyaki, and the octopus inside provides a good contrast to the gooey dough inside.  If the takoyaki is overcooked, the dough inside will be too tough, if it’s undercooked, it will be too runny.  It’s almost an art to create good takoyaki.  The basic way to serve takoyaki is to brush okonomiyaki sauce on top of all the balls, dust it with aonori (a type of finely ground green onion) and bonito flakes, and top with mayonnaise.  You can easily add grated daikon, mustard, or even cheese to the toppings.  Do beware that when you get fresh takoyaki, the balls may be cool on the outside, but inside, the doughy batter is still molten hot.  It’s rare that I don’t burn my entire mouth when eating takoyaki.  If you are extremely sensitive to eating hot foods, you can cut open a hole and cool it down before eating.

Watching people make takoyaki is special. It’s not easy to do at all.  Takoyaki is made using a half sphere pan, and two metal “needles” are used to turn the balls, and eventually create the ball.  It is very important that you don’t pierce the actual ball, and you have to know when to turn it.  If you turn it too early, it won’t form the shape of a ball, and it won’t be as crispy either.  It’s ultimately up to you, or the chef to decide the texture of the ball itself.  If you go to a restaurant or shop to eat takoyaki, almost all of them will have their own display where you can watch the experts making takoyaki.  It’s fun to watch and well worth the wait.  There are a few variations of takoyaki itself.  Instead of octopus, you can add ham and cheese, but this is a very rare case and usually done at homes where people don’t enjoy seafood or octopus.  Most of the variety comes from the crispiness of the ball itself and from the various toppings that are available.  It’s best to try to basic version before trying the other versions.

hOne of the best ways to eat takoyaki is to go to a festival.  There are various yatai shops in these areas.  A yatai shop is basically an outdoor food stall.  Typically, they have nothing more than a griddle where they make various foods.  The most common foods to eat are: okonomiyaki, yakisoba, takoyaki, yakitori, chocolate dipped bananas, and castella.  While the food is the main attraction, watching the cooks make all of the food is a lot of fun, and hearing them scream out inviting people to buy some food is an experience that has to be seen in person.  There are various other foods available at all festivals, but these foods are almost always available.  When entering a festival, the food can be overwhelming.  It’s difficult to know what to eat and what not to eat.  I usually skip the yakitori as it’s easier to buy it at an izakaya.  Desert is almost always skipped as I never have enough room left after eating everything.  Okonomiyaki is very popular, and so is takoyaki.  Yakisoba is delicious, but I prefer to skip it as I can buy it everywhere.   Ultimately, it’s your choice as to what you want to eat.

There are several foods at festivals that are common during certain seasons.  In the winter months, you can get amazake.  It’s a slightly fermented rice alcohol that tastes similar to yogurt.  It’s is served warm and it’s a wonderful way to warm up, but beware of the old man who is preparing it.  He might end up drinking half of the pot before you can get any for yourself.  😀  When spring time comes around, you will tend to see more doughy sweets.  Castella is more popular in the spring months and it often comes in various shapes, such as Doraemon and Hello Kitty.  The shapes themselves are fun to eat, but the taste can be a little bland.  Summer brings out the shaved ice treats.  In Japan, most yatai shops serve basic shaved ice with various flavours such as honeydew (melon).  If you go to a restaurant, they will add a green tea sauce and sweet red beans on top.  It’s a completely different take on shaved ice.  Autumn is the start of the oden season, but oden is also served all winter and in early spring during the cherry blossom season.  Oden is basically various vegetables and meats that are stewed together to create a broth.  It’s delicious, but do beware of the mustard that it’s served with.  It’s very spicy.  It’s similar to horse radish or wasabi.  If you want to try some of the more unique offerings, try out one of these as you may not see it the next time you visit.

Takoyaki is a great snack when you are shopping in Japan.  It’s a very common food these days and you’d probably regret not trying it if you didn’t.  Yatai is less of a food than an experience.  You can do both of these at the same time.  I’d recommend doing both and trying both at the same time if you can.  If there are no festivals when you visit, you can easily just buy takoyaki on its own and feel as if you were in a festival.

Takoyaki Videos:

Typical Takoyaki Shop:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7G6KT-JGIwA

Gindaco:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLR59sOqy2s

Forming the balls:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hk-WHC-uEBA&feature=related

Takoyaki & Yatai Information:

Takoyaki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takoyaki
Gindako: http://www.hotland.co.jp/english/wthas-tako.html
Yatai: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yatai_%28retail%29
Amazake: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazake
Castella: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castella
Kakigori: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kakig%C5%8Dri
Oden: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oden



Regions of Japan – Kansai to Okinawa June 14, 2011

Posted by Dru in Chugoku, Japan, Kansai, Kyushu, Okinawa, Shikoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Regions of Japan – Kansai to Okinawa” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-F0

Kansai is probably the second most popular area to visit by foreigner.  It is home to Japan’s second largest city Osaka, after discounting Yokohama.  It is also home to the most historically important cities in Japan, Kyoto and Nara.  Kobe is another major city but like Yokohama it can be considered as a suburban city of Osaka.  Kansai is also home of Wakayama which is famous for their Buddhist temples and the ability of foreign guests to spend a night and wake up to the prayers within the temples and Himeji, home to Japan’s most famous castle.  There is so much to talk about in Kansai that it is impossible to summarize it in one paragraph.  The people are very distinct and they have their own dialect.  It is often considered the comedy capital of Japan due to the number of comedians who call Kansai their place of origin.  The people are very outgoing and it is often easy to strike a conversation with a stranger compared to the cold and private Kanto region.  It is often a bit colder than Kanto but the warmth of the people more than make up for it.  There is a bit of a rivalry between people from Kansai and Kanto but I do believe it is more in jest rather than prejudice.  As for the food, Kansai is considered the capital for Japanese “soul food”.  They have things such as okonomiyaki and takoyaki.  They are experts in yaki soba and tonpei yaki.  It is mostly fried food but it is delicious.  Kyoto is a small exception as they specialize mostly in traditional Japanese foods that cost an arm and a leg at times.  Either way Kansai is a food lover’s paradise, unless you are trying to eat healthily.

The western end of Honshu is Chugoku.  It can easily be misinterpreted as China as Chugoku is also the same word for China.  This region is best known as the home of Hiroshima and Okayama however the Sea of Japan side includes Tottori and Shimane which are wonderfully beautiful rural areas in Japan.  The Yamaguchi prefecture is also a beautiful place but I have yet to visit that region.  The Sea of Japan side of Chugoku is best characterized as a rural area that appears to be disconnected to Japan itself.  The people seem to not worry about anything and tend to live life as an independent region to the other regions.  They are a proud area that is popular for domestic travel.  The southern region, in contrast, has been stigmatised by the tragic bombing of Hiroshima.  Most people will overlook Okayama and just visit Hiroshima.  It is a very important historical location and it is a place I highly recommend people to visit if they get the chance.  Unfortunately it can be a terribly humbling place due to the amount of artefacts that remind us of the terrible outcome of the atomic bomb.  You can’t travel within Hiroshima city without seeing reminders left right and centre about the bombing itself.  The people in the city are great and they try to live their lives as normally as possible.  The food is delicious.  They are famous for their oysters as well as okonomiyaki.  Of course Kansai is famous for okonomiyaki but the Hiroshima style is different and in my opinion, better.

Shikoku is a small island that is located just below Honshu.  It is an area that only a few Japanese people visit if they don’t have family in the area.  It also happens to be one of my favourite areas to visit.  It is a diverse region that is made up of 4 prefectures.  Each area is also unique.  The eastern side of Tokushima and the southern prefecture of Kochi often fight over who is better.  There is a very old and popular festival in both prefectures that are visited by thousands of Japanese people each year.  Both festivals claim to be the best and most exciting festivals in Shikoku and to be honest they are both wonderful to see.  While I haven’t been to either in person, it is difficult to travel the region and not see video of the traditional dancing during the festivals.        Ehime is the western prefecture that is well known for its onsen, Dogo onsen.  It is considered the oldest onsen in Japan and has various healing factors.  A little north of Matsuyama is Imabari which is famous for its towels.  In the north, you can also visit Kagawa.  It is famous for its udon noodles and also for Naoshima which is a famous art island.  It is a small island that is filled with various modern art sculptures.  Most of it is free however the main museums are not.  Overall, Shikoku is a very diverse region that rivals most regions of Japan.

Kyushu is the final region.  It is the western most main island of Japan.  It is famous for its food and onsen as well as its nature.  Most people will travel only as far as Fukuoka and northern Kyushu.  This is the area that has the best onsen as well as the best food.  Fukuoka is well known for its regional delicacies as well as being close to Nagasaki.  Nagasaki is not as popular but important for foreign tourists.  The southern region is not as well known but they are famous for shochu and various poultry and pork products.  One of the more interesting, yet overlooked, areas is Yakushima.  It is a small island just south of Kyushu’s main island and setting for Hiyao Miyazaki’s Princess Monomoke.  It is one of the few natural environments unique to Japan.  South of Kyushu is the Ryukyu Island chain which encompasses Okinawa.  Most people will lump Okinawa and the Ryukyu into Kyushu but that shouldn’t be the case.  Okinawa is, in its own right, a separate area.  They have a different history compared to Japan and have been fighting for their own rights as a small “nation within a nation”.  The entire chain of islands is beautiful, from the pictures I have seen, and make a nice vacation spot with lots of opportunities to relax on the beaches.  The culture is very unique with a unique style of music, dress, and language.  The food has been heavily influenced by the regional natural fruits and vegetables as well as the heavy presence of the US military.  One of the most famous items has to be Taco Rice which is basically taco filling on a bed of rice.  They also make use of bitter melon which is unique in Japan as other regions cannot grow bitter melon easily.

There is one region that almost never gets named when talking about regions of Japan.  These are the Izu and Ogasawara Islands (Bonin Islands).  These are a set of small islands that stretch south of Tokyo for over 1000kms.  The Izu Islands are a set of islands that are somewhat populated.  They have a lot of tourism however don’t expect access to be easy.  Farther away are the Ogasawara Islands in which only two islands are inhabited.  The Ogasawara Islands are historically more important that the Izu Islands.  Iwoto, or previously known as Iwo Jima is part of this group of islands where the US fought hard to get a foothold in taking down the old Imperial Japanese Army.  It has been a long time and few people visit these sets of islands.  In fact it is very difficult to get to any island other than Chichijima and Hahajima.  Most people in Japan never even consider visiting these islands so they have evolved into a very self sufficient area.  It is hard to believe that they are Japanese yet they are very much Japanese.

As you can see, Japan is a very long and diverse country.  Each region ranges from cool temperate to sub-tropical.  Japan is bound by 4 seas and 1 ocean.  There are 4 main islands and hundreds of other small islands that span over 1000 kilometres from one end of Japan to the other.  There are several mountain ranges and many diverse rivers.  Each region has their own distinct version of Japanese culture along with their own distinct foods.  People imagine Japan as being a homogeneous culture but they either forget or neglect that there are two indigenous groups, the Ainu in Hokkaido and the Okinawans in Okinawa.  You can also see the various culture differences between each region of Japan that is accentuated by the differences between people in the Kanto region and the Kansai region.  It is a wonderful country with many things to see.  Visiting only a few areas is not enough and visiting at one time of the year is not enough.  It can take a lifetime to fully explore every corner of Japan and even then you’d still have trouble experiencing everything.

Regions of Japan Information:

Japan:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regions_of_Japan
Kansai:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kansai_region
Chugoku:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C5%ABgoku_region
Shikoku:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shikoku
Kyushu:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ky%C5%ABsh%C5%AB
Ryukyu Islands:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryukyu_Islands
Okinawa: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okinawa_Prefecture
Izu Islands:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Izu_Islands
Ogasawara Islands: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonin_Islands

Japan Guide:  http://www.japan-guide.com/list/e1001.html


Regions of Japan – Nagoya to Hokkaido June 7, 2011

Posted by Dru in Chubu, Hokkaido, Japan, Kanto, Tohoku, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Regions of Japan – Nagoya to Hokkaido” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-EX


Japan is a small country that happens to be very long.  From end to end, Japan is well over 1000km long.  It is larger than Germany in terms of land mass and has a very diverse ecosystem.  You have the cold snowy north and the sub-tropical south.  It is a common misconception that Japan is a small country.  I would also argue that many people feel that any country that is outside of their own region is small, especially for Americans and Canadians.  It is important to know that Japan, while small overall, is actually very long which helps create the illusion that it is small.

Japan is divided into 8 main regions with a few sub-regions.  In the north is Hokkaido.  I have written a lot about Sapporo and the various festivals there.  It is a winter wonderland and also a great summer getaway.  In the winter, people head up there for skiing and to enjoy the delicious seafood.  In the summer, the seafood is still around but people go to escape the heat and humidity of the south.  Compared to other regions in Japan, Hokkaido is a relatively stable and sparsely populated region.  It isn’t the “wild west” but it isn’t like Tokyo either.  Getting from point A to point B in Hokkaido can be very difficult due to the sheer distances between cities and towns and the lack of trains can make it a difficult task.  Renting a car is definitely recommended if you want to see the local areas such as Shiretoko but it isn’t a necessity.  The bus network between cities is pretty good and you can get from Sapporo to most cities in Hokkaido by bus.  Planes are not so popular and trains are good for the major cities.  Unfortunately the trains can take a long time to get from place to place but keeping on the main belt from Asahikawa to Sapporo, then down to Hakodate via either Chitose or Niseko is relatively easy.  Be prepared for long travel times and you will have a good time.

Tohoku is the northern section of Honshu, the main island of Japan.  The main island forms an ‘L’ shape and Tohoku is at the top of the ‘L’.  It is a region that is very similar to Hokkaido yet also very temperate in nature.  The most common starting point is Sendai.  Including Sendai, all points north are considered Tohoku.  Points below Sendai are generally Tohoku as well but places such as part of Fukushima can be considered part of the Kanto plains.  Honshu itself is a very mountainous area with mountains bisecting the entire island into the Pacific and Sea of Japan side.  This creates a very distinct feel in each city depending on which coast you are on.  On the Pacific, the winters can be cold but there isn’t a lot of snow.  The Sea of Japan side which includes Akita and Yamagata receive a lot of snow in the winter.  In the summer, this area is more pleasant but the southern regions can be pretty hot and humid.  It is literally a transition between Hokkaido and the temperate south.  There are many local delicacies such as the Aomori apples and the beef tongue of Sendai.  It isn’t a popular place for tourists as there aren’t many things to see and do compared to other regions.  Hokkaido is well known for seafood and snow, but Tohoku doesn’t have a major drawing point for tourists.

Kanto is the centre of Japan.  It is a small section of Japan that includes Tokyo and located at the bend of the ‘L’ of Honshu.  It is where almost everyone goes when they visit Japan and it is a pretty small area.  The entire Kanto region can be considered as Greater Tokyo as many people do commute from the edges of Kanto to get into Tokyo.  Some would argue that there are major cities and industries as well such as Yokohama but the shear size of Tokyo makes Yokohama feel like a twin city similar to the twin cities in Minnesota.  Of course this is not the same however the idea that both cities can be considered the same city, rather twin cities, is true.  There isn’t really much to say or add to this region as most people know about the Kanto region already.  It is the heart of Japan.  Most companies and most people live in this area.  There are not a lot of historical places to visit anymore but places such as Nikko, Kamakura, and Hakone are excellent places with their own unique feel.

Chubu is a very complex region.  There are several sub-regions to Chubu due to its geography.  It is a region that is bound by Mt. Fuji, bordering the north-western area of Kanto and extending west to Kyoto.  It is also one of the most “visited” regions in Japan yet most people never stop to enjoy the region.  I am also a victim of just passing through the region more times than not.  Most people will go up to Mt. Fuji or pass through on their way to Kyoto.  The few people who do go to the Chubu region will usually head off to Niigata and Nagano or do a little business in Nagoya.  Due to the geography of the area is further subdivided into 3 regions.  The lesser known is the Koshinetsu region that encompasses Nagano, Niigata, and Yamanashi.  This area is well known for its snow and excellent onsen however the use of the name Koshinetsu is not popular.  They are more commonly known by their own respective prefectures.  The Hokuriku region is an area on the Sea of Japan side that is bordered by Niigata and Kyoto.  It is considered a northern path to reach Kansai but it is often overlooked by people.  It is still a somewhat remote area that is easily accessible by plane.  Trains do travel to the region but the new Hokuriku Shinkansen isn’t expected to be finished for a long time.  The main sections allowing access from Tokyo to the heart of Hokuriku will be complete in 2014 but the final section to Osaka has yet to be finalized.  As it stands, this area is often overlooked due to its remoteness.  The Tokai region is the most famous region as it is the main route for the Tokaido Shinkansen that links Tokyo to Osaka.  Shizuoka is one of the biggest prefectures in Japan yet very few people will visit it.  The most famous area is Nagoya where you can enjoy many delicacies.  Nagoya is not a particularly interesting for those visiting other cities but it is famous for its castle, local deep fried delicacies, chicken wings, and Toyota.  Toyota has their main factories located just outside Nagoya with a large museum as well.  Nagoya is also one of the most popular cities for people wishing to see races at the nearby Suzuka Circuit, but the circuit is located in Kansai, not Chubu.

Note:  Due to the amount of information available, this is only part 1 of 2.  Part 2 will be posted next week.

Regions of Japan Information:

Japan:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_regions_of_Japan
Hokkaido:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hokkaid%C5%8D_Prefecture
Tohoku:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C5%8Dhoku_region
Kanto:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kant%C5%8D_region
Chubu:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C5%ABbu_region
Hokuriku:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hokuriku_region
Koshinetsu:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C5%8Dshin%27etsu_region
Tokai:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C5%8Dkai_region

Japan Guide:  http://www.japan-guide.com/list/e1001.html


Kobe April 26, 2011

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kansai, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Kobe” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-kobe


Kobe is a quaint suburban city that is akin to the relationship of Yokohama to Tokyo.  It is a major city in the Kansai region and less than an hour away from Osaka.  It is steeped in history but appears to suffer a little in the sense that they are always trying to step out of Osaka’s shadow.  Realistically, Kobe is a city that could never rival Osaka.  It is no different than asking a suburban city to be more popular than the nearby big brother.  Kyoto and Nara have a similar relationship.  Everyone talks about Kyoto and how great it is, yet many people overlook Nara.  They are both very similar and yet they are also very different at the same time.  Kobe and Osaka are similar in this respect.  Osaka has grown into a very modern large city that appears to be leaving all of its history in the past.  Kobe however seems to be embracing their past and expanding with the future.

There is no better way to experience the past of Kobe than to explore the Kitano area.  This is a small area that houses various old consulates.  It is situated on at the bottom of a hill near Shin-Kobe station.  Walking around the small streets in this area can make you feel as if you stepped back in time a little to when the Europeans were settling in the area and doing a lot of trade.  Today, the small streets can be a little dangerous as affluent Japanese drivers zoom past you in their Mercedes Benz cars.  The old European style homes can be visited for a fee in some cases, but the exteriors are very quaint.  It has a very relaxing nature that makes you wish there was a nice coffee shop with a terrace so you can enjoy some afternoon tea in the sun.  Kobe also feels a bit like a wedding capital of Japan.  I cannot confirm this but the number of wedding chapels I saw in Kobe was astonishing.  The Kitano area is no exception.  There are several wedding chapels and halls in the area that will help you hold a traditional western wedding.  The Kitano area is also a great starting point to do some hiking in the mountains that border Kobe.  The views from the mountains are considered to be some of the best in Japan as evidenced by Mt. Rokko.  Away from the Kitano area is a ropeway that brings you up to the top of Mt. Rokko which is reported to be one of the top 3 night views of Japan; the other two being in Nagasaki and Hakodate.  Unfortunately on my trip I didn’t get a chance to visit the mountain peak.

Central Kobe can be described as an area around Sannomiya Station.  While Kobe Station is not located in this area, Sannomiya is the heart of Kobe.  All around Sannomiya you will find various department stores.  Almost all train lines in and around Kobe run through Sannomiya.  All of the major department stores are represented in this area as well as a large and long shopping arcade that runs from Sannomiya out to the western suburbs.  It is also the centre of all drinking to be done in Kobe.  It can be difficult to get around with so many people in the area but it is a wonderfully busy place.  At the main intersection, you can see all kinds of people.  I would liken it to Shibuya Crossing or the east side of Shinjuku.  You can see various musicians playing their music and trying break into the industry.  You can also see various people looking for donations to various charities.  Flower road is also a famous street that passes through Sannomiya.  Flower road is a road that stretches from Shin-Kobe Station all the way to the harbour.  It is a nice wide road that is lined with various flower boxes and statues.  The statues can be a bit surprising for a country such as Japan since most of the statues depict naked women.  Most people ignore them but for me it was a surprise.  They aren’t in any sexual positions but for such a conservative country, I was nonetheless surprised.  Towards the end of Sannomiya is Kobe’s Chinatown.  Officially called Nankinmachi (after Nanjing), it is your typical Chinatown.  I actually enjoyed this one the most out of the 3 main Chinatown areas in Japan.  Yokohama is the largest but it is also too busy and doesn’t feel real.  Nagasaki is too small and it doesn’t feel as welcoming as Kobe.  Nankinmachi is very open and very friendly.  You will see many buskers selling various foods as well as many restaurants lining the area.  You can’t go around the area without filling your stomach and the smells will keep you there.

The port area is the last place I visited in Kobe.  It is a wide area that has a lot of reminders of the past Great Hanshin Earthquake.  On one end you have Mosaic and Harbourland.  Mosaic is a modern shopping complex that is similar to the shopping complexes in Odaiba.  It is an open air area with many small shops alongside some brand name shops.  It is a place for couples to go and enjoy a date.  It is teaming with young couples but on weekdays when everyone is working or at school, it can feel a bit like a ghost town.  Harbourland is adjacent to Mosaic.  It is a small urban amusement park where you can ride various amusement rides such as small roller coasters and Ferris Wheels.  Across from this area is Meriken Park.  This is a large open park that houses the Kobe Maritime Museum, the Kawasaki Good Times World, and the Kobe Port Tower.  The museum and Good Times World are in the same building and showcase the history of the Port of Kobe as well as showcasing the technology of Kawasaki.  Kobe Port Tower is an icon of Kobe.  It is a tall red tower that looks similar to a baton.  It is usually lit up at night but on my visit to Kobe they turned off the exterior lighting in order to conserve energy.  The park itself is also used for Christmas light displays each year.  While the museum and tower are interesting, the earthquake memorial is more fascinating.  At the memorial you can read about the effects of the Great Hanshin Earthquake as well as see a small section of the port that was destroyed and left as is after the quake.  It was a little ironic that I would visit this section as I was taking a spontaneous vacation to escape the aftershocks from the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake.  If being on solid land is starting to get boring you can also take a boat cruise that leaves from a section between Meriken Park and Mosaic.  The ships embark on cruises that take you around Kobe harbour, the Akashi Bridge, or even to Kobe Airport where you can watch the planes land.  One of the ships has been designed to look like a gaudy pirate ship that came straight out of a Chinese “Disneyland”.  It looked cheap and a bit fake looking.  It looked like a lot of fun for kids but for most adults it was probably something we wouldn’t care much for.

If you head east of Meriken Park you will walk along a highway where you’ll be able to see a bit more of the earthquake history.  Minatonomori Park is located in an evacuation centre that is literally nestled between elevated highways.  It is a large open park that is popular for doing sports.  There is a skate park for inline skaters as well as skateboarders.  You can find a small hockey rink, no ice of course, as well as tennis courts and a small soccer pitch.  There is a large field for you to just relax as well.  Inside the park is a small monument where an old clock is preserved.  It marks the moment that the earthquake struck.  It is somewhat sombre but the activities in the park keep the atmosphere light.  Across the way is another park that has yet another monument to the great earthquake.  This monument is more hopeful as there is an eternal flame that was lit with flames gathered from all neighbourhoods that were affected by the earthquake.  It is a very interesting concept and something that should be repeated in the future.  For those who have even more time, heading south of this region on the Port Liner will take you to Port Island.  On Port Island, you can enjoy various cultural activities.  There are several different museums to visit however the cost to access the area may make people think twice.  I didn’t get a chance to visit Port Island but I’d like to try on a future trip to Kobe.

Overall, Kobe is a wonderful city to visit.  There isn’t a lot to do but if you take your time and just relax, you will have a lot of fun.  It isn’t a city where you can rush and enjoy everything.  While it can be visited in a day to get a general feel of the area, I do recommend a couple days to just enjoy everything.  For an average tourist, however, I doubt it would be very interesting.  For residents of Japan it’s a wonderful place to get away from the big city and yet keep all of the conveniences of a big city.

Kobe Information

Official Tourism Website:  http://www.feel-kobe.jp/_en/
Japan Guide:  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2159.html
Wikitravel:  http://wikitravel.org/en/Kobe


Driving in Japan (2010) [Part I] September 21, 2010

Posted by Dru in Chugoku, Japan, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Driving in Japan (2010) [Part I]” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-tq

For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while now, you know that I have had many trips in and around Japan, along with many road trips.  I have been taking road trips almost every year now on either a motorcycle or in a car.  In 2007, I took a trip to Hokkaido by motorcycle.  It was my first road trip, and a terrible one at that.  I was alone, cold and wet.  For my second trip, I rented a car for just a day and drove up to Nikko.  The route brought back a few memories of my trip to Sapporo, but with all the comforts of a car.  It was a pretty easy trip, but it taught me the pain of driving in the city, and trying to return to the city on a Sunday night.  One word can sum up that experience, traffic.  Last year, I had my epic adventure, and the last one on my bike.  I took a trip by ferry and rode my bike around Shikoku for two weeks.  It was a wonderful holiday that restored my faith in driving and riding in Japan.  It helped a lot that I went with a friend from Osaka.  Recently, June 2010, I embarked on my big road adventure of the year.  I headed to the San’in region, along with Hiroshima.  What follows is a recounting of what happened as we conquered the roads that lay ahead of us.

As many of you know by now, I have written about my adventures in San’in already.  I have talked about Tottori and Shimane.  My journey started with a flight from Tokyo to Tottori.  I left in the early morning and had time to spend an entire day in Tottori city.  I visited the Tottori Sand Dunes and that was pretty much it.  The actual adventure didn’t start until the next day.  We got up early again as we had a long day of driving ahead of us.  Thankfully, we had two drivers, one being myself, and the other being my friend from Osaka.  We rented a Mazda Axela, which is a Mazda 3 in North America.  It was a little big for what we needed, but we were expecting a total of 4 people in the car, but one person bailed as she booked the wrong tickets for the trip.  The car itself was big for what we needed.  We could have gotten a compact car instead of this one, but the added size made the trip very comfortable.  When we got the car we spent a few minutes fiddling with the GPS navigation system before we took off.  The GPS was easy for us to understand, but it would take at least 2 more days before it was easy to use.  If you ever rent a car in Japan, be sure to learn a little Japanese, or have a good understanding on how to guess the menu system.  It was difficult to use, but we all had various degrees of Japanese knowledge which helped us a lot.

Our first leg of day 1 was a trip along the coast.  We started with a short drive on the mainland to avoid the traffic and made good time.  We reached our junction, ignoring our GPS all the time.  We had our own route planned and the GPS was guiding us to the “best” route but not the most scenic.  Thankfully, we had enough knowledge of the road to navigate smoothly and soon enough we were pros at navigating.  When we hit the coast, we took our sweet time and stopped at a couple beaches. We got our feet wet and took many pictures.  It was a perfect start to the day.  Driving up and down the coast on the Sea of  Japan is amazing. I have heard from many motorcycle riders that the coast is amazing, and I would have to agree.  I would love to just rent a car, or even bring a bicycle to the area and just enjoy the trip.  I was told by a friend that taking the train is also spectacular, but I tend to get a little antsy on trains after a few hours.  At least with a train, I could drink alcohol and not worry about getting into too much trouble.

My friend from Osaka did the first leg of driving.  He handled the coast very well, which was pretty easy.  There weren’t too many turns and the signs were easy for us to read.  We had one tough section through a small town called Hawai.  The pronunciation is the same as Hawaii, and the town played with that name a lot.  Everywhere you went, you saw Hawaii signs and tourist attractions that were a little tongue in cheek with references to the beautiful island resort.  After the town, we switched drivers as my friend had bad experiences driving on small country side roads.  It was my first time to drive in a few months and over a year since I had last driven on the left side of the road.  It was a little shaky at first, but I got my road legs back very quickly.  Aside from getting used to the car, which happens with almost any new car I drive, things were easy.  We were quickly headed down the road that we chose, but we soon reached what looked like nothing more than an access road.  Being in the countryside of Tottori, some of the main highways between cities are more akin to an access road rather than a true road.  Unlike North American streets where designated highways must meet a certain criteria, in Japan, it just indicates the road.  Our first “moment” came as this access road was about 1.5 lanes wide and we came across a truck.  It was a big truck and a challenge.  I was facing the challenge of passing this oncoming truck with only a few centimetres on both sides of the car.  The truck driver was kind enough to stop on the side and let me do all the work, but considering his side had a wall, and mine a drop into a field, it wasn’t that bad.  Creeping slowly, I passed my first hurdle.  Little did I know, this would only be the beginning of our journey of the day.

The route we took to Daisen, our first real destination, was simple enough and only a few points of caution.  My map had a few warnings that the road we were about to embark upon was closed during the winter months due to the weather.  This didn’t worry me too much.  We had a nice car, supplies to keep us fed and hydrated, and lots of time.  By the time we reached the road, things changed very quickly.  The first challenge of a small countryside road was past, but we had another road that was also only 1.5 lanes wide.  Being the countryside, and having seen the last stretch of road, I thought that this would be a short stretch of narrow roads.  I was wrong.  We also had to contend with a few construction signs with which we had no idea what they meant.  After our trip, we reviewed photos of the signs, and the sign said that cars were not allowed in, but when we went, it had a sticker on top saying it was “cancelled”.  Essentially, we got lucky.  We ended up doing most of the trip up and around Daisen on the narrow style road.  I have had experience on these types of roads before in Canada.  In Victoria, there are a few nice places like this.  The road is narrow and the vegetation is abundant.  On this road, it was the same.  The overgrowth from the bushes and trees made it a challenge to drive.  Being a kinder driver, I took a little more time to get around, along with the fact that I was worried about oncoming traffic, whatever it may be.  We spent roughly an hour or so going up, down, and around the north side of the mountain in what was one of my toughest drives ever.  The road was immaculate, and the beauty of the forest was unrivalled.  If I had the chance to skip that area, I would probably say no.  It’s something that has to be seen and experienced.  Before long, we were at Daisen-ji and taking a long deserved break from the car.

Note:  This is part one of a two part series.  Please continue reading in Part II.
For further reading about the San’in region, please follow the links below:

Driving Information:

Chugoku Expressway (Wikipedia – English): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chugoku_Expressway

Chugoku Expressway (Wikipedia – Japanese): http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/中国自動車道

Izumo Orochi Loop (Wikipedia – Japanese): http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/奥出雲おろちループ

Drive Plaza (Information on Expressways in Japan including travel times – JAPANESE): http://www.driveplaza.com/

About Touring in Japan (English): http://www.e-wadachi.com/howto/map_e.html

How to Cycle Around Japan (This is for cycling, but it’s very useful for driving as well): http://www.e-wadachi.com/howto_e.html

Touring Mapple (Official – Japanese): http://touring.mapple.net/

Rental Car How To (Japan Guide) [Note: There are links to major car rental companies towards the bottom of the page]:http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2024.html


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