Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Kobe Luminarie

This annual light-up commemorates the Great Hanshin earthquake that rocked the city in 1995. It’s a beautiful tribute to all the lives that were lost during the tragedy, though as it has grown it’s become more and more festive through the years. The name was taken from the Italian word for lights, and has become one of Kobe’s most popular events. According to one foreigner’s blog, there have been complaints that the funds put towards this commemorating would have been better spent aiding the victims and their families. I’ve found no information that confirms this claim, but I do know that it was first intended to be held in Tokyo rather than Kobe, and began just eleven months after the earthquake devastated the area and stole over six thousand lives.

I’d heard about this light festival from Paulette, former Kameokan ALT extraordinaire. She had attended during her second or third year in Japan, and had returned with beautiful pictures and tales of buildings made of light. I’d read a review on Hiroshima’s Wide Island View that while the illumination was beautiful, the crowds were terrible. Since I was planning to stay in Japan during Christmas I wanted to mix some of my favorite parts of Christmas with Japan’s winter offerings. Not many people decorate their homes with Christmas lights, so I reckoned that the Kobe Luminarie could substitute for the pleasures of driving around Tulsa and seeing the colorful lights strung on houses and trees. Plus, I’ve never had a problem being in a crowd provided that I’m not in a hurry. All I needed was a travel buddy.

Hello, Margaret.

Margaret and I had both expressed our desire to do more short trips to the surrounding areas; we’ve been afraid of settling in too much and thereby missing much of what Japan has to offer us during our short stay here. We’d wanted to go to Kobe, famous for its Chinatown and beef, but we’d both felt that we needed a better reason than food to make a day trip. The Kobe Luminarie, though it had become a little cheesy over the years, gave us something more to do than eat.

Travel from Kameoka to Kobe takes between two and three hours, depending on what train one takes. This was no quick hop into the city. I had a busy schedule, few free weekends, and Margaret had a tight schedule between her weekend work schedule, conferences, and leaving for the U.S. to spend Christmas with her family. We had only one weekend when we were both free, and Margaret’s boyfriend had expressed interest in joining us for the trip. We settled on Sunday, December 12th, the day before the event ended, and invited dear Dara Han along to complete the party.

When the 12th arrived I was pretty pumped. I had set a goal of More Day Trips and I was sticking to it. The four us made a merry, slightly silly party on the way to Kobe. Dara had been to the Luminarie before, so she knew at which stop we were to get off and the general area of the Chinatown. Atsushi had his new iPod Touch, which had the handy function of a 3G network, ergo he and Dara became the casual tour guides of the bunch. None of us had eaten much, so our first stop was Chinese food.

Chinatown was packed. It was no surprise—the illumination began when the sun set and we arrived at dusk. Still, the general mood soured a bit with the frustration of trying to navigate the throngs of people with their bags and children and strollers. Again, I don’t have a problem with being in a crowd, but I do admit that it was tough to stay together and even harder to figure out where and what to eat in the midst of it.

We didn’t get very far into Chinatown itself; the crowd and hunger and snappy attitudes prevented us from forging ahead into the area’s heart. We finally stopped when we realized that most of the stall offerings looked the same. I can saw with confidence that our moods improved significantly when we put food in our bellies.

 The pictures won't stay on the same line if I put captions on them, so I'll just tell you what they are. From left to right: Margaret is waiting for her food (and I for mine), Dara is enjoying the delights of some kind of meat on a stick, and Atsushi is first readying himself to shove food in his maw, then clearly has completed his mission in the second photo. I couldn't even tell you now what I ate. I had to go look at Dara's Facebook photos to remember that I had a "Chinese Burger," which was basically a steamed meat bun sawed in half. I would like to state that I've said before that "steamed meat bun" just sounds kind of gross. Nevertheless, if my words tasted like a steamed meat bun, I would eat them all and ask for seconds.
Despite Dara's generally photogenic features, my camera refused to capture her.

Margaret does not like crowds.

Margaret and I both got these red bean paste-filled fried dough balls covered in sesame seeds. I have no idea what they were called, but they were awesome. Margaret almost got to enjoy hers before some lady jostled her, causing the delicious sesame thing to tumble to the grimy concrete. Poor doll.

We stopped at the local Tully's for a coffee energizer and a bathroom break before getting in line for the lights. It was just getting dark as we got in line and the crowd was already thick. I have to hand it to the organizers of the event—they had put guardrails through the streets to ensure that no area got too crowded, and were letting the attendees go in shifts. We were shuffling along to the sound of some pleasant, airy song (that I assumed was something akin to, "Oh, the lights keep you close in me heart, illuminations are the stars of my winter" or the like) when Atsushi started laughing. He told us to listen to the words more carefully. Rather than an angelic tune about remembering the victims or some popular winter tune, the song in fact was urging "Please don't stop here. Take pictures later. Keep walking, if you please." Oh, Japan.

The long line and the waiting in shifts took us through the shopping district in downtown Kobe. Having been rebuilt so recently, the place looks vastly difference from millenia-old Kyoto. A lot of the architecture made me nostalgic for my time in France, and darn me if I didn't renew my vow to someday go back and spend at least a year in that country. On a side note, I forgot that I was once one of those study abroad kids who hated it when other Americans, specifically, gathered around and yammered in our native tongue. I had reasons for it, but yes, I was one of those kids.

Moving on.

We finally got to a point where we turned the corner and the crowd came to a halt on its own accord. Nobody was paying attention to the move-along song. We were all taking pictures of the beginning of the lights, which looked like this:

These structures lined the entire arcade between the Patagonia and Chanel-type stores. Had there been no people around it might have taken us about ten minutes to walk down the whole thing. There was also a long section of this
after the arcade. Then, to top it all off, there was this light castle at the end with a gazebo inside. Just. Look at it.

See all that black stuff at the bottom? Those are people. We didn’t go in because we were a) unwilling to fight the crowd to get to the middle of all that mess, and b) ready to head back to ole Turtle Hill. We about-faced and headed for the stalls of food. There was a girl working a taiyaki stand wearing a taiyaki hat.
Taiyaki is a read bean paste-filled pastry shaped like the fish hat. It's good stuff, and is the same kind of festival food that a funnel cake is.

We wandered around a bit until we found things we wanted to eat. Dara found candy grapes and strawberry daifuku (hard to explain. It's a Japanese sweet). I found a candy mikan, or mandarin orange. Think about it. A juicy, ripe mandarin orange that has been dipped in orange candy. It's an awesome dessert.

It was delicious until I dropped it on the ground. I still ate the part that hadn’t touched the cement (but only when Margaret wasn’t looking, because she is easily disgusted).

The end of this tale is that we clowned around on the way home and returned to Kameoka early and happy.

Good day to you, sirs and madams.

1 comment:

  1. That is so cool. The crowds would have upset me, too, but it looks like it was worth it. Good pictures. Travel writing!