The cities in Japan really surprised me. I went to Asia expecting grey, rather boring, similar-looking towns full of high-rises and boxy ’70s and ’80s apartment blocks, built quickly with efficiency rather than beauty in mind. With one or two standing out, like Tokyo and Beijing, because you pay attention to your capital. However, that idea changed in Japan. (We’ll see about elsewhere in Asia later.)
When driving, we passed lots of small towns which offered little reason to linger, but the bigger towns/cities we spent a little more time in all had their own character. Hakodate, Sapporo, Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara – they all looked and felt different, despite having enough tall buildings and convenience stores to go around. I thought it would start feeling repetitive sooner or later, but when we reached Osaka and later Kobe, they too had their own air. As was the case for Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Nagasaki further down the line. Happy discovery indeed.
Osaka: Cooler than Tokyo
We were back in a good mood when we got to Osaka. It felt almost ridiculously exciting to be in a new, big city again after two weeks in Kyoto and then the countryside. We got out of the train station on a Wednesday evening and met lots of young people on their way somewhere fun, judging from the talking and laughing. Lots of people were biking.
The city felt less serious and grown-up than Tokyo and much younger than Kyoto. Something like this: Kyoto is the kind grandparent that gives you cookies, tells you a hundred stories about how things used to be and is obsessively worried about the kitchen catching fire. Tokyo is the stressed-out parent working overtime for the sake of kids she/he never sees, running past life with a take-out coffee in one hand and a cell phone in the other. Osaka is the teen just turned 20, settling in at university and spending money she/he doesn’t have on trendy clothes and drinks on the town, eager to experience everything, fast.
Osaka is good for walking. Up and down streets, from one neighbourhood to another, trying to spot the difference in atmosphere. The town has a lot of shops, many of them quite exclusive- and expensive-looking. It’s also full of little cafés, bars and restaurants, which in turn are full of cool-looking people who seem to be less in a hurry than in the capital. I’m not sure I could call it beautiful, but it sure has something that draws you in. And I have to say I was rather charmed. We both were. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to linger.
Osaka is the best by night, if you ask me.
One typical sightseeing thing we did do was Osaka Castle. Built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century, the current version is less than 100 years old and made in concrete, but still very pretty.
Kobe: A mature choice
I read somewhere that Kobe is one of Japan’s most liveable cities and there’s probably some truth to that. Japan’s sixth largest city with just over 1.5 million inhabitants, Kobe is big, but not exhaustingly so. On one side, you have green hilltops and on the other the blue Osaka Bay. Osaka itself is just 20-40 minutes away depending on what train you take, and with the shinkansen, you’ll reach Tokyo in less than three hours. Europeans may feel at home in some of the neighbourhoods (we certainly picked up a French, English and Dutch feel), while the port area shows off newer architecture. It struck me like the kind of place you settle down in to raise a family.
Kobe felt like the most truly multicultural city we’ve visited in Japan and it’s not just because of the wooden houses, although the European-style quarters and the legacy of the trading port history certainly contributed. We came across a lot of foreigners – and not just tourists – and when walking along the seafront we stumbled upon an Indian culture festival. All that colour in the ever-so-orderly Japanese frame.
Speaking of colour, our Airbnb host Mark turned out to be an interesting and funny character, happy to chat over a bottle of sake. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch him on any of our photos. He took us out to meet some of his friends that run a takoyaki bar (octopus and batter, shaped as a meat ball) near his house and as a bonus we met a lovely woman, who laughed a lot and who had literally travelled the world. Her husband, an Australian speaking a very slow and clear English in a loud base voice, and a quiet Japanese artist, smoking and smiling, added to the quirky picture. Back in the city centre, we had some time to spare before catching the night bus to Hiroshima and got talking to a Japanese couple in their early 30s, in town for a weekend getaway. They didn’t speak much English, but we noticed the girl notice us, the foreigners with the big backpacks, and steer her boyfriend towards us. She showed us pictures from their trip and Christophe and the guy bonded over Juventus. It was a different night in a Japan we normally found very shy and reserved.
Himeji: The castle town
We went on a day trip to Himeji, west of Kobe, to see the famous Himeji Castle, which is supposed to be “the finest in Japan,” according to the guide books. It’s one of Japan’s few original castles, not a concrete reconstruction like the one in Osaka, and it really looks like something out of a fairy tale. It’s very popular as well. I don’t think we ever saw such a crowd anywhere else in Japan and we were literally ushered like cattle through the building. If you’re going, by all means, skip the weekend. The grounds weren’t as crowded, thankfully, and neither were the pretty Koko-en gardens nearby.
We didn’t realize it then, but this was the last real day of summer. In the evening, autumn swept in with a strong wind and even though we had hot days in the following weeks as well, that basic warmth you feel even when you’re in the shade was gone.