Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Hiking, Kobe, and good izakaya food

Nunobiki Waterfall is one of those somewhat surreal places that you tend to find in Japan. It is in Kobe, just north of the Shin Kobe shinkansen station. It is tall, a collection, really, of smaller waterfalls, with one high cascade somewhat in the middle of the run of water.
I went there often, when I lived in Kobe.
Before the earthquake, for fun, running or mountain biking, often the latter in places where I probably shouldn't have been.
After the earthquake, for peace, a place to forget some things best forgotten.
On my next-to-the-last day in Japan, I went again, for reasons I'm not clear on.
First, the logistics. Many great adventures in Japan begin with a train ride. I chose the Sanyo line from Himeji to Sannomiya (Kobe), because the Sanyo line offers better scenery. For two-thirds of the trip there isn't a bit of difference between Sanyo and Japan Rail (JR). It is that first third out of Himeji that I enjoy. It brings back different memories. Trips to Shosekiheki, an oceanside area where I rock climbed, walked, and watched friends eat shellfish raw, picking them out with a toothpick (because they were that small). Shosekiheki, where my father-in-law now paraglides and where he grows vegetables above the cliffs.
Then, the area that is more blue collar than many any foreigner ever sees, where, after climbing, I walked to a train station different from the one that took me to the coast.
At Kakogawa we pick up the JR line, and from there to Kobe follow it, running more or less alongside.
Sannomiya brought different memories. Of good times out with friends after work. That one party when I ate Kobe Beef for the only time in my life. Just over a year later, two people from that party were dead – missing, really, bodies never found. I wasn't their friend. Maybe I could have been, but I never established a relationship with them. Both lived in the area west of Kobe station, where many died, not in the earthquake, but in the fires because the controls on the gas lines didn't shut off the fuel.
Now, Sannomiya is back to life. It is vibrant. People use the term alive to describe cities. You feel that in Sannomiya. Though morning, I can see, with my mind's eye, the neon, how it will look at night, later, when I meet my friend.
From Sannomiya, north, to Shin Kobe. I lived there, once. Our building sustained a crack in the spackling, nothing more. My apartment's damage was limited to a broken sliding glass door where our television fell off of its stand; in retrospect, it could have just as easily fell onto my head. Across the street is where I used to work.
I had two jobs. One was to teach English in companies; I was good at that job, and I enjoyed it. The second, though, was my career. I was associate editor at an English language magazine, Kansai Time Out, one of the best in the country. From David Jack I learned much, and it was for that job that I returned to graduate school. But I never returned, and, a dozen or so years later, the magazine was sold and then closed.
The office is still there. Well, the book store is. On the ground floor, also run by David, was Wantage Books, a resource for anyone who read. And I was a voracious reader. Still am, as much as is possible. I would read anything in those days, and often finished a novel in two days – one, if my train commutes for the other job were long.
My apartment building used to neighbor a foreign preschool. Until living there I had never heard Hindi or Arabic music; but the cars that dropped off their kids often had such music playing quite loudly. Now there is the opposite of a preschool: a home for the elderly. Japan is aging and having fewer kids, so I guess it makes sense.
Behind my building is now a much larger apartment complex. It dwarfs my old place.
I continue up the road. There used to be a single skyscraper in Shin Kobe: the Shin Kobe Oriental Hotel. Now there are two other buildings much taller, and the Oriental Hotel is owned by a different company. Where once there was a thriving shopping area, now there are shutters, and the shops that were open were all different. Of course. But in our mind things don't change the way – or as rapidly as – we belive.
I walk through the underground passage to the hotel. Steps up, then to the bathroom in the department store. You always use the bathroom you come to, whether you need it or not, especially if it's one with a Western toilet. Which I didn't need, but it is a good policy nonetheless to know where there is a toilet you're comfortable with using. Just in case.
Through the hotel to the station, and immediately I am unable to recall the exact route. There. I remember. Walk up the path, more or less as if following the Ikuta River straight into the hill. Don't look at the large towers on the right, don't think about how frightening they would have been on that day. Near the station is a sign. It is Japanese, but that Japanese I know well enough to read, if not to write: Nunobiki. The road is little more than a path, and then it lives up to that and becomes one truly, winding around the houses that must cost be worth a small fortune, though perhaps the bullet trains make them slightly less attractive.
The path becomes a bridge, then, and that is the second thing that I do not recall in the least. If there was a bridge there in my day, I would never have said so. But it is old, and over a small gorge, so certainly it has been in existence for a long time. Or one like it, anyway. Across the bridge to another thing I don't remember. I'll stop making that note, because it will be common enough over the next ten minutes. That's how long it takes to get to the main waterfall, and the entire way is foreign to me. I used to go up the left hand path, then, above the falls, turned right to come down the other set of steps. It crossed my mind to go that same route, but I'm afraid the shock of remembering nothing about the place I once was so familiar with would be too much for me.
The falls are nice and full. I remember that much, at least. Above them, instead of turning right I go left, where, a hundred yards or less up the hill, is a small rest area that once was nothing more than a shelter. I'm certain of that. Truly. Now it is a full on rest area. But the view is still great.
To the left there is a path that follows the falls, and I continue along that. I could have gone up to the road that goes to the Nunobiki Herb Park (or Harb, as the mis-translated Japanese sometimes shows it). That is how I would ride my bike when I need a quick workout. It's a steep hill, if short.
Up the path. Over the creek that leads to the fall, then up the dam that holds back the small lake that feeds the creek that leads to the fall (in the bottom of the sea). At the lake I pass some people who had previously passed me, then, when I'm taking some pictures, they pass me again. It is a long distance game of hopscotch along the paved trail, each of us taking our turn stopping. I let them go by. It is a father and his two sons. Then I just listen.
Much is made out of the great orators of the world. But listening is far more valuable. There, at the lake, I close my eyes and open my ears. The rush of the water down the spillway off to my left. A caw high in the trees. Smaller birds tweeting. Wind moving the branches.
Move on, I tell myself. Then I answer: no need. We have all day.
Further along the lake, at the far north end, the creek returns. The road that I could have taken earlier rejoins the path at what can only be described as a small village. Once, there was little there. A vending machine. A telephone. Some hot tea on cold days, and cold tea on hot days. Always one of the places sold noodles. Now there are several buildings. Most seem to be houses, not stores, but it's still the New Years holiday, so I wasn't sure. One place was falling down, and inside it I saw a worn bench, bright red, that said Drink Coke. I wanted that bench, but even if I could have found someone to ask, I had no way to get it home, not before I left. Further along was the original building I remembered. There were two old signs on its side that I badly wanted: one was for Coke, and it was unremarkable except for its age. The other was for Sprite, with both English and Japanese. Had someone been around, I would have bought it, and found some way to get it back to America. I would have shipped it. I had it planned out. But nobody was there.
There's a bathroom there now, a new building, with new things. It seems so out of place, but Japan is becoming more health conscious. Progress comes in many forms.
Down to the creek again and I had to cross it. When I road mountain bike with friends, the challenge was to get across the creek without getting wet. The easy way was to go over the bridge. It is about a foot wide, and if you fall off you're hurt. The harder way was also the least scary. The creek is shallow, unless it has rained a lot. I would hop across the rocks as best I could, and almost always I got wet. I also was almost always alone on those rides, having, in actuality, only one friend who liked to ride bikes with me, and he was a road bike fanatic, a triathlete, and he lived far away.
Across the bridge and then up a trail that I had never been on. Perhaps it was new. Many things seem new.
It was the hardest trail I've been on in a long time, following the ridge of the hill straight up. Elevation gain cannot be much more than three hundred meters, if that, and it doesn't take long to make the top. But then there is a saddle and another hill of equal gain. At least it felt that way. I'm afraid to look it up. I don't want to find out I was sweating it out over a molehill.
And I was sweating. It started to worry me somewhat. High temps for the day were supposed to be in the forties. That isn't too cold, but, with a strong wind blowing, and in the coolness of the mountains, sweating can be very detrimental to your health. That was my excuse for resting, and I stand by it.
Down the hill, where another hill rises in front of me, making up all of the elevation I lost in the descent and then some. My path goes to the left, however, and soon I am down at another creek. I hear a car or two in the distance. Not regular cars that go vroom-vroom, but those little modified cars that young people drive that sound like one long extended fart. I know that road, and know why they are on it. It is curvy and fun, and the police greatly frown on farty cars zipping around. Of course, it's impossible to know how fast they are going; maybe they are really puttering around, and only sound fast because they are also loud. It is a great road to ride a bike on, I think, as I make my way up to where there is not a car in sight.
Across the road is a park I always planned to go to, but never did. No idea why. When you're young you think you can get to anyplace anytime, because time stretches out before you, vast and endless. Older now, I feel the need to see as much as possible before time makes it too complicated to do so.
The park's pond is frozen. It looks like, in warmer weather, they do paddle boats or something of the sort. Volunteers are sweeping the paths. I use the toilet because it is there, then head into the woods.
At that point, I could have taken the short way back. But I had plenty of time. I also had no idea how far I was going. That's not good. But, with five hours, I figured it couldn't be that far.
It is a murderous walk. High up I climbed, steep trails, often coarse and rocky. I cannot complain for two reasons. First, the view from the top was spectacular. Second, as difficult as my climb was, people coming the other way had it much, much worse. It hurt my knees going down. I slipped a couple of times. Many people were coming up. I followed my standard ethic of letting the people going uphill have the right of way, unless they explicitly stop, because, when you're going uphill, it sucks to have to break your rhythm.
Ankles and knees suffered greatly in that scramble down. I cannot call it a walk. There was little walking in it.
Then I became very, very afraid.
I hate bridges. Particularly bridges that are small and tend to move when people are on them.
At the bottom of that hill was just such a bridge.
Below was a road, several hundred feet away. The bridge was perhaps an equal distance across.
Why I am afraid is not known to me. In my life I've gone paragliding off of high peaks. I've climbed up more-than-vertical cliffs, falling with only a rope the size of your finger to keep me alive. Those things don't bother me.
Bridges do. It is the urge to jump. That's the problem. I kept my eyes glued to the path right in front of me and fought down that crazy instinct to leap off. Not as a way of committing suicide, but for the adventure of it. That's why rock climbing and paragliding never bothered me. Both are forms of adventure. Walking across a bridge is not.
On the other side I was shaking.
Then, up another hill. This time with steps, because it was too steep to put in a proper trail. At the top of that one, down again, then up again. I asked a passing hiker, “Is Suzurandai this way?” They told me yes. Going up the second hill, when a hiker didn't yield the right of way, I asked him the same question, because he should have yielded, at least a little. When I believe an ethic, I am serious about it, almost to the point of being a jerk.
Finally, the last ascent is behind me. There is a communications tower with an observation deck, and I can see all the way to Himeji in one direction, and the large Kansai International Airport in another. It is a beautiful, clear afternoon. Three o'clock. I do some quick calculations of the distance, based on some signs I saw. Perhaps fifteen kilometers, give or take a couple, with some wicked scrambles both up and down hills.
One last trip down one last hill. I take a mixed route of both road and trail. There is a pond with koi. Only when I saw it, the pond was frozen, and the koi were too, as though they were in a picture.
At Suzurandai station I find a ramen shop and eat soy ramen with pork. I want a beer but they don't have anything on draft, so I drink water instead. I bought my ticket, and behind me a middle-aged Japanese lady said in a very low but distinct voice, “I think it is very chilly today.” I was the only foreigner there, so it is a good assumption she was talking to me. I ignore her, because I'm not sure if she's flirting or crazy, and I don't feel like dealing with either scenario.
It is four fifteen. Back at Sannomiya I go to Starbucks, not to drink coffee, but for the free wifi. A lot of people are there. At the Himeji Starbucks, there was never much of a crowd. It is a smaller place, but while it is located a block off of the main shopping arcade, it is in one of the fashionable stores. The Starbucks I went to was in the Kobe International House building. Every table is taken, and people are standing around waiting on someone to leave. Just outside the coffee shop, though, are some empty chairs. Comfortable chairs.
They were vacant because just to the right are the doors leading outside. It was cold. My hands froze as I fought with the wifi, something it seemed everyone else was also doing. To be such a busy place, they have weak wifi. I bought a coffee to warm up my hands. It didn't work.
At five fifteen I had killed enough time, I thought, and walked to where I was to meet my friend. I was very early. I found a place out of the wind that was slightly warmer than other places.
He found me.
Pete is twenty years older than me. We've been friends for a long time. When my first English school went bankrupt, Pete and I happened to be teaching classes in the same company, only he worked for another school named Time T.I. Communications. I was jobless for about two weeks. Within days of losing my job, my students at the company contacted Time and told them that if they hired me to teach, they would give that business to Time. So I was hired. I've always felt a small debt to Pete for that; Time was a wonderful place to work, and in many ways I wish I had never left.
We went to an izakaya to eat. An izakaya is the Japanese version of tapas. Most of the food served is a side dish, though this particular place also had full meals. I got only some fried chicken and french fries, while Pete pigged out. We drank a couple of beers there and caught up on old times.
Next we went to a bar called Iznt. It is named (sort of) after an older bar that used to be a franchise in the region named Bar Isn't It. I never went to that older bar; it had something of a bad reputation; or a good reputation, depending on your perspective. Pete had a friend there, and it turns out that guy was in Kobe at the same time I was. He was working (he owns or part owns the place; not sure which), so I didn't get to ask if we knew some of the same people, or had some of the same memories. It is a good place, non-smoking (a trend in Japan now), with a good international crowd. A Frenchman was going around doing card tricks, and Pete and I drank more beer and talked about the complexities of life. One thing I miss in my life is having someone who shares my philosophies. Pete and I have that bond, thankfully, and his perspective on what is happening in our country is refreshing, as he has not lived in the US in quite some time.
Train home, not as drunk as I probably should have been. I went to the apartment, bathed, and was asleep within a half hour.

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