Japan – Kobe to Oita.
It’s not very usual to have to remove shoes before entering a youth hostel and usually you would try to avoid such a request, yet many hostels in Japan do ask of this etiquette which of course you follow. You don’t mind here. A hostel in Japan is often like walking into someones home, everywhere is immaculate and the showers never fail to be stocked with body wash and shampoo that actually smells nice. The previous hostel had a store cupboard full of essentials such as toilet roll and towels and was protected by nothing more than a curtain – in a youth hostel – in Tokyo. Our night in Kobe was also the first time I had stayed in a hostel made entirely out of chipboard, including the sturdiest bunk beds I have ever stayed in. Should a fire have broken out we would have been turned to ashes in an instant yet my bed gave the impression it would survive any earthquake that was thrown at it. As if you needed a further reminder that this is a country which has a natural environment that routinely and successfully tries to kill people, there is a handy torch by the bed or somewhere convenient in every bedroom.
After consulting the handy scrapbook down in the hostel kitchen, full of itineraries and recommendations for restaurants we finally headed out into immaculate streets until we eventually found what we were looking for, Kobe beef aka Wagyu beef, aka expensive food. It’s funny how as my income has risen over the years I have been much more amenable to such luxuries once in a while and this was very much a ‘when in Rome’ moment. Phil and I are both comfortably over 6ft with hairy faces, no dress sense and sloppiness that comes with age and, I believe it is fair to say that we caught the waiter off guard when entering what appeared to be a very smart restaurant. We asked for a table, he looked Phil up and down analysing the cow print shorts and crusty local rugby top and then ran away. Thankfully he returned and politely lead us to the action. The restaurant was indeed very swanky but rather empty and only had a few tables with young western travellers treating themselves for the night. A young couple and a group of lads depressingly younger than ourselves, all dressed up nice and dapper. Again, not only does wisdom come with age but also not really giving a f***.
Japan loves to cook right in front of you and it’s great entertainment. Such as this occasion there will be a huge hot plate ten metres long where the guests sit around and eat at. The chef will then move up and down the hot plate cooking everyones meal, literally dropping it centimetres from the hot plate to your plate. One of the great things about it is that the food is so so simple yet so so delicious. One of the highlights with the Kobe beef was the mustard and soy sauce that we were advised to mix up and dip our beef in. It was a taste sensation. So what makes the Kobe beef so good and so expensive? To begin with it is rare with only approximately 2,000 cows being slaughtered and classified as prime Wagyu beef annually, thus immediately there is a limited supply. It tastes so good because of the marbling in the meat which is a posh way of saying it’s full of fat. Not like the fat you get on the outside of your usual meaty steak but thin layers of fat woven throughout the steak itself. This means the meat can be cooked at very low temperatures and will literally melt on contact with your mouth. We agreed it was the best meat we had ever eaten if not possibly one of the best meals we had ever eaten but as I paid the bill I was troubled. Was it actually that good or, was my brain telling me it had to be that good because it cost £120 each? This is my natural tight-arsed-farmer instinct bubbling to the surface but what I do know is that if I hadn’t eaten Kobe beef in Kobe I would have been somewhat disappointed with myself.
The next morning we had plenty of free time to explore something although we did not know what that something was. I fancied a walk to a waterfall not too far away and Phil wanted a ride on a cable car in some herb garden. Turns out it was all in one place. This process would have been much easier if Phil had remembered to pack his Japan guide book yet there is also a certain amount of excitement in not knowing what hidden treasures lie in wait. On this occasion the herb garden was no hidden treasure yet nice all the same. Beds of flowers and herbs neatly laid out along winding paths on a hillside definitely presented itself as somewhere to take your mum on a Sunday. The real treat was the cable car to the top of a large hill which offered incredible views of the city. The city itself doesn’t have many beautiful landmarks to look at from a distance but a good view is always appreciated. Once at the top, we ate ice-cream and trifle at 11am and then ambled downwards through the herb gardens where I even got mildly excited about some butterflies. Heading away from the herbs and flowers we went in search for the waterfall for no vacation is complete without photos of one. This was mildly impressive but it was the walk out amongst the trees that really made it a jolly morning out. Japan is remarkable in that where the land is flat they build houses and as soon as the land rises into a hill or mountain which happens in every direction, houses immediately make way for trees. Quite literally you will see houses flowing between hills of trees. I can only assume this is a consequence of a very large population on a relatively small island prone to relatively mega earthquakes. The quirk is that it never feels you have left any of the cities but a walk in the woods is never more than a short train ride away. Talking of which, it was time to head to Hiroshima.
Hiroshima was only a stepping stone on our way to the rugby in Oita on Kyushu island. The result of me being overly optimistic about getting to our hotel from Hakone and down to the match in the same morning. Obviously we will return to Hiroshima to take in it’s history in a few days time on our return to Tokyo, but there are still a few points worthy of mention now. The hostel in Hiroshima was booked simply because it was within minutes of the train station. It was Friday night and on Saturday morning we would have to get an early train to Kitakyushu (1 hour) where our hotel would be waiting for the weekend. From there we would have to drop off our bags and head immediately down to Oita on the train. It was like this because Oita isn’t blessed with accommodation and I am not blessed with the ability to plan my own vacations well. Although, as it turned out I wasn’t the only one. But I digress. Not only was our hostel by the station but it also made us take off our shoes and sleep on the floor, traditional style. This was the only chance we had to sleep like this. I wanted to book a traditional Japanese accommodating place AKA a ryokan but I quickly lost interest in my haste to get accommodation booked and so the hostel would have to do purely by chance. What can I say about it other then it’s like sleeping in a bed but without the bed. Everything else is there, mattress, pillows, sheets and most importantly, comfort. In fact there wasn’t a single night when I didn’t sleep in complete comfort and this night was no exception. Yet once again, it would be the food that stole the show.
The hostel chap recommended a place to go for dinner and after 10 minutes of walking through the dark and rain we made it to the lobby of a building and hit the button in the lift for the seventh floor, not having any idea what to expect. On exiting the lift we were greeted by some kind of food hall horror movie. I mean this in the most flattering way possible in that as we began to explore, every place available to eat looked exactly the same and serving the very same food. Small little open restaurants to the left and right laid out in a circuit of which we completed and came to realise it didn’t really matter where we sat. In the end we chose the place with the most cheerful chef and the cutest assistant. As with the Kobe beef the night before, we sat right in front of the chef and his big ass hot plate. Behind him was a small typical restaurant style kitchen but with standards of cleanliness typical to that of a student’s accommodation kitchen. Nothing to worry about but enough to whip a UK health inspector into a fury. Dishes selected, beers in hand, we watched with awe as our young chef whipped up a colossal amount of food at a fraction of the price of the beef the night before. Everyone was cooking a variety of the same dish, okonomiyaki, which is basically a heap of shredded cabbage and noodles cooked on a hot plate with meat, eggs, cheese, mushrooms, squid, oyster, anything you like really which, as it happens is what gives the dish it’s name. The main body of the dish is fundamentally the same but you can add anything you like to it. It’s bloody delicious, and huge, and cheap, and delicious. Yes that delicious. Simple food that fills a big empty space and sits perfect with a few cold beers.
Next stop…… Oita.