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June 13, 2004

shopping tunnel, Kobe

The first and longest stop on my one-week tour of mainland Japan was Kobe, which is a largish city right in the center of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, close to both Osaka and Kyoto, and probably most famous outside Japan for the earthquake that devastated it in 1995. Nowadays, it’s a bustling, modern Japanese city, but with few tourist attractions or even distinguishing features apart from the large, man-made Port Island, on which my hotel was located, and the pretty hills that are its backdrop.

… Argh. I could have just torn that out of a tourist guide, couldn’t I? Let’s start again, because I wasn’t there as a tourist – I was there for a three-day recontracting conference, along with a thousand or so other JET teachers who, like me, are staying on for a second year. Three days of workshops, in which unqualified teachers try to teach other unqualified teachers to teach (actually, that’s unnecessarily cynical – some of them were actually quite useful, and there are a lot of JET teachers who, although they might not be any more qualified than me, are clearly better teachers who I can learn from), and three nights drinking in central Kobe, because it’s pretty rare nowadays that I get the chance to sit in a pub and chat in fluent, rambling English. And even rarer that I get the chance to drink a pint of decent Guiness or Hoegaarden (the price of a pint of which is so obscenely astronomical here that I don’t even want to think about how much bad karma I got from buying it anyway…)

A couple of memory fragments:

  • Getting into a taxi with a couple of other JETs, which contained a huge liquid crystal tv screen in the front. As we drove off, the taxi driver inserted a DVD, and turned the resulting orchestral music up to a crazy volume. While the sound quality was excellent, it did make it almost impossible to talk, so I asked him (the only way I could think of in Japanese) if he could make it a little quieter. He did, but was a little put out and told me that what I should have said was something like ‘although I don’t hate this music, it is a little loud…’

  • Learning a useful lesson about the dangers of theorising about Japan (which seems to be a popular pastime with foreigners here). I was sitting in a very nice, dark little bar with Graeme, another JET, and we were talking about something we’d both noticed in Kobe: people cross the road on a red light. This is very unusual in Japan – in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and everywhere else I’ve been, people generally wait patiently for the green man. I’ve got so used to stopping at the crossing like everyone else that I was shocked to see people everywhere walking straight out while the man’s still red. I wondered what’s special about Kobe, and Graeme wondered if it could be to do with the earthquake – a ‘life’s-too-short’ sort of attitude particular to Kobe. Wow, I thought. That could be right: 5000 people died in the Kobe earthquake, which means that probably most of the city’s residents lost someone they knew. So we asked the barmaid, tactfully: Is there something special about Kobe? Why does everyone cross on the red light here? Oh, I cross the road out there on the red the whole time, she says: the roads in central Kobe are almost all one-way, see, so they’re easy to cross. There we were, looking for historical, socio-psychological explanations for something that is actually explained by a difference in the city’s traffic system…

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