Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Shinkansen to Kobe...


High speed trains - G trains in China, TGV in France - almost a been there, done that feel for us! The shinkansen, however is special - it is after all, the pioneer in this field, and right up to 2011, Japan's shinkansen network boasted of the highest number of passengers annually! What happened in 2011 - why, China caught up, of course! We have all heard about how punctual these trains are, and how comfortable - what strikes me as the most incredible is the shinkansen's safety records - 50 years of service, 2 derailments (one due to an earthquake, one due to a blizzard) and zero passenger fatalities! Yes, that's right - zero fatalities! I'll take these stats over air travel any day!!

Of course, this paragon of virtue does not come cheap! Good news for tourists, though - the Japan Rail Pass, which can only be bought outside of Japan, and is available in 7 day, 14 day and 21 day durations - an absolute must-have to travel in Japan! With our vouchers in hand, we headed to Tokyo Station - the rest of the process was easy as pie! The JR office has a separate counter to redeem JR Passes, and after looking at our passports, the very nice JR agent handed us our key to the magical kingdom of train travel in Japan! At this point, I still wasn't completely convinced about the benefit of the JR Pass, but over the next few days, as we blithely flitted to different cities - well, it truly is the key to train travel in Japan!!

Waiting on the platform for our train to Kobe - seriously, I had never thought that the words 'railway platform' and 'quiet' could ever go together - but like in the other places we had been to, the noise level was at a minimum. The train arrived, the cleaning crew got in before we could board - again very efficient - really delightful was the discovery that all the seats were on pivots and could be turned to face the direction of the travel!! My mom would especially love this here - she always hates to sit with her back to the engine in Indian trains!! Takes about 3 hours to get to Kobe from Tokyo - and the landscape didn't vary much! Buildings, buildings and then some more buildings! I wonder how they keep track of city limits?!! Mount Fuji eluded us once again - the day was rainy and overcast - I guess I just have to put that on my list for 'next time'!!

View from our room
In Kobe, our hotel, ANA Crowne Plaza, was located right across from the Shin-Kobe station - couldn't be any more convenient!! Surprisingly, here too, we had to wait an inordinately long time for our room - what is with these hotels?!! In the end, we did get a get a room with a gorgeous view of the Osaka Bay - and the hotel staff were genuinely sorry for the delay!! After freshening up, we set out to explore Kobe - and we had our very own 'personal guide' to show us around! A really good friend of ours, AD - we go way back, right to our first years in Peoria - was in Kobe on a business trip, at the same time, in the same hotel! Well, AD and his family lived in Kobe for 5 years while we were in France -  and this is almost a second home to him! He graciously showed us the 'sights' - and we were able to get a local's view of Kobe that no tourist guide would have been able to provide! As much as I love and depend on wikitravel.org, it does have its limitations!

We took the Metro to a place called Harborland - a mall with awesome views of the Kobe Tower and Kobe Maritime Museum, and then we made our way back to the hotel on foot. After getting in our typical tourist photos with the Kobe Tower - the 'no-going-up-towers' rule is still in effect - and the Maritime Museum was closed for the day, so moving on! There's another museum here - more of a memorial, actually - 1996, the Great Hanshin earthquake, magnitude 7.3. Kobe was the worst hit, a large number of its ports destroyed, a section of the elevated Hanshin expressway literally toppled over. The memorial has actually preserved some of the original damage to the port - horrifying to see the concrete blocks sheared away, lampposts twisted, and metal railings completely bent out of shape - even more horrifying to imagine this devastation multiplied a hundred-fold! The outdoor exhibit also displays images taken right after the earthquake - that Hanshin expressway just lying on its side, as easily overturned as a child's Lego bridge - seriously unbelievable! Even more unbelievable - the amazing spirit of the Japanese - in just a few years, they have completely restored and rebuilt the city! Absolute respect!!

Kobe Tower

View of Harborland from Kobe Tower

Earthquake memorial

Earthquake memorial

Sannomiya - our last stop on the Kobe Walk - is kind of like the heart of the city, the most happening, in place in Kobe! Tons of restauarnts, bars and nightclubs - all kinds of fun to be had here! Our dinner options ranged from the famous Kobe beef (yeah, right!) to sushi - and of course, we ending up eating at an Indian restaurant, Sona-Rupa! Yes, we're totally predictable when it comes to food!! Back at the hotel - AD was not only in the same hotel, but on the same floor as us - and was a big help in planning for the next few days. Kobe was going to be our base - and we got plenty of advice on what to do, where to go! Tomorrow - by popular demand - Universal Studios, Osaka! Coming up soon...

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