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Friday, June 15, 2007

A budget day in Kobe


By SHANE INWOOD
Special to The Japan Times

"I'll meet you at 9.30 p.m. outside the convenience store at Hanshin Uozaki Station," said the pleasant voice on the other end of the phone. It belonged to Aiko, who one year ago founded Kobe Dears, a backpacker hostel a 10-minute train ride from central Kobe proper that she runs with her British husband, Andrew.

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Kobe Port Tower (left) dwarfs other buildings in this view of Kobe Harbor. SHANE INWOOD PHOTOS

Kobe, like many places in Japan, can be brutally expensive to visit. My self-imposed mission was to see what fun could be squeezed from Hyogo Prefecture's capital without breaking the bank and not spending more than 10,000 yen in and around the city in 24 hours. At 2,500 yen for a dormitory room (3,500 yen for a private room), Kobe Dears was certainly the right place to start.

I tip-toed past Turbo, the Japanese Shiba dog at the foot of the stairs outside the hostel, since a warning sign points out he might bite and removed my shoes at the entrance. Apart from the Kerropi Fluffy Frog toilet-paper holder, free high-quality shampoo in the spotless showers and general lack of pot fumes, you would never guess Japan lurked outside. Right down to the recycling bins, communal cooking area and free Internet, you could be at any high-quality backpackers joint in the world.

I was gobsmacked when I found out that Aiko had built the place herself — with no previous carpentry experience.

"I didn't have the funds for renovations so I went to the hardware store and got some wood," she said as though discussing a dog house whipped up for Turbo.

I was getting hungry by now, so I followed Aiko's recommendation and grabbed one of the free bikes available for guests and headed back to a yakitori shop near the station that is open late. Dontaku was an earthy wood-panelled place playing 1950's rock and with well-dressed locals having a drink and a snack on the way home. I had peppers and garlic on sticks wrapped in cheese and bacon, plus some very good yakitori with sour sauce — plus beer and the chef's recommendation of Hakutsuru sake, which he assured me was the best in the area. The breweries in the Nada district of Kobe are nationally renowned and my sake was smooth, dry and delicious. I had another one just to make sure, and the bill came to 2,500 yen. Ooops. I vowed to do better the next day.

I parked my bicycle well away from Turbo upon arrival home. Apparently, some well-lubricated Dontaku visitors had come back to Dears a bit rowdy and Turbo had bitten one of them.

Next day it was back to the station to meet my partner-in-crime Tomo for a bicycle trip around the sake breweries under a truly blazing sun. We headed to the most famous one off the bat. Kikumasamune is an image-conscious temple to sake as well as being an ongoing commercial enterprise. It was old-school, Japanese style: lots of traditional sake barrels, a museum and monks chanting over the sound system. In the past, making sake must have been a really hard job: There were heavy stone counterweights for the huge beam presses, uncomfortable-looking straw boots and lots of massive wooden barrels. The chanting turned out to be a song of a specific length for timing the mixing of the rice with air. Kikumasamune stopped using these old methods decades ago, and it made me feel tired just looking at all the old equipment.

We headed to the tasting rooms for refreshment. Once they determined we weren't driving, and after a stern warning to not cycle home, they were very generous with the free samples.

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The entrance to the museum at the Kikumasamune sake brewery; a selection of antique bottles inside; a statue of a Roman centurion welcomes you aboard the Villaggio Italia cruise boat.

The most interesting thing was the fresh sake, only available at the brewery as it had not undergone the pasteurization and storage of typical bottled sake. Stronger in taste and alcohol content, it was still obviously very high quality. Tomo got the perfect Fathers Day gift — which is this Sunday — in a bottle of premium ginjo sake, a type only available on the premises. Then off to the next brewery!

Hamafukutsuru-Ginjo was a different barrel of rice-wine entirely. No chanting and traditional decorations here, just cheesy Bryan Adams and a big, framed poster of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's signature on the wall. In some ways this entirely unpretentious brewery would have been better to visit first, though. You could actually see into the brewing room — no Zen "monks" and wooden barrels here. Visit on a weekday and you can see them making the sake and follow all the stages the rice goes through from arrival at the factory to the final product. They also had full explanations in English and a nifty button you could push to smell the fumes directly from the metal brewing tanks. After extensive sniffing, the closest description of the odor would be sweet plum. They also didn't care if we were driving — a moot point anyway as Kobe Dears was just across the road and they weren't exactly generous with their samples. Still, they did have an option for more extensive tasting for an extra 150 yen. Then, after a pleasant hour watching the passing ships and the traffic on the huge Rokko Island bridge at Sunshine Wharf it was time to drop off the bicycles and head off to the port.

We were getting hungry by now so after alighting at Hanshin Kosoku-Kobe Station (JR Kobe) we went off for lunch. Passing the fast-food triumvirate of Mac/KFC/Starbucks in the Promena building food court, I opted for Panda Express. This self-proclaimed gourmet Chinese food chain went out of business in Osaka a while ago, so it was a real treat. You get a massive (well, huge by my standards anyway) pile of food, any three dishes — I went for fried rice, garlic pork and mixed veggies — from their huge choice for a not massive 680 yen. Then it was time for a cruise down by the Port of Kobe. Not for us the elegant Concerto or Fantasy cruise liners with their 3,000 yen price tags, rather the pure cheese of the Villaggio Italia. This monstrosity looked like a giant floating wedding cake and inside were red-velvet pimpy lounge cushions and staff that greeted us with a hearty "bonjourno." It felt like "The Pirates Of The Caribbean" produced by Francis Ford Coppola from a book by Mario Puzo.

A 70-minute cruise around the harbor as the sun sank over Hyogo Prefecture's iconic Mount Rokko to the strains of an Italian folk-music version of "Tennessee Waltz." Priceless? 1,000 yen. It was fantastic. Then a walk back toward the Sannomiya district in central Kobe and drinks in the twilight at a blues bar, Bar James, a huge warehouse space with large open windows allowing the breeze to fan our faces. Everything was 500 yen — even the chilled Kirin Classic Lager. Mission accomplished, with cash to spare.

Kobe Dears: www.kobe-dears.com/ Breweries and Tours in Kobe: www.city.kobe.jp/tourism/ Bar James: tel. (078) 371-2720


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