2019, BLOG IX: Kobe, a frog and a Samurai

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Breakfast at the Hotel Okura-Kobe was even more expensive than at the Piazza in Nara but it was a better breakfast with a handmade omelet and dainty little pastries in all kinds of flavors that you can eat while looking out at the sea. Also it was a long walk into town to a place that served breakfast. I went, on a full stomach, to the Maritime Museum, not as nice as the Barcelona Maritime Museum, although the building is a treat, as are many of the museums in Kobe, indeed, in Japan. It faces the sea and wears on its roof a set of white sails of steel netting. The signage is not good if you are an English speaker, very little is explained in English. A Japanese man talked to me on and off as I wended my way through the displays. I was disappointed because I wanted to know about those Emperors and Shoguns who were interested in Japan’s naval power.

Walking out of the Museum, along the broad promenade facing the harbor, passing a vigorous, leaping fish statue, something began to nudge for my attention, something subtle and familiar. I paid attention to it and realized it was the smell of the sea, an odor that means home to me. It was part of my life in NYC, in Barcelona and now, here in Kobe it was telling me I was here; it was here. I liked Kobe I think because of this and because like Barcelona it has mountains at its back and the sea before it.

I walked through Chinatown, a continuous string of restaurants, many offering dim sum. I tried to locate the Kobe City Museum but could not find it, although I asked and asked. A middle-aged Japanese couple joined me in my search. I even had it written out in Japanese. When at long last we found it in a fashionable part of town where all the international clones are—Gucci, Kate Spade, Dior—we found it was closed for renovation. The other place I wanted to get to was up hill in Kitano-Cho where foreigners in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s built houses. This is the time period when Kobe opened its port to the world.

The couple was still with me as we headed up hill through endless covered markets that finally ended. At that point things became less cluttered, buildings were older, shorter, more eccentric. I suggested to the couple who were admiring my walking ability, I did over 10 kilometers that day, that I buy them lunch. But they had to go back down to catch a train to somewhere around Hamomatsu. They had a passing man take out picture together. We shook hands. I headed up hill going in and out of shops—one was Russian with babushka dolls and some very good looking oversized blue and white cups.

I was looking for a kind of Japanese doll made in the late 19th or early 20th century. I had seen some contemporary ones in Kyoto but I wanted an old one. These are not children’s toys but art objects. The quality of the face, the expression, is of particular importance.

Years ago I gave one, a flute player, to friends as a wedding present. He had the most beautiful, wistful expression on his gentle face. You knew that his life had been hard but that his playing was exquisitely emotional. Because they were artists, I thought they would understand him. But they put him in the sun and the next time I saw him was bleached out of existence. A lesson. Don’t give people things you treasure and expect them to treasure them. That is egotistical. But ever since I have had a little hole in my heart the size of the flute player.

I was in need of lunch and found a very modern restaurant where Kobe beef was cooked before you and served over fat bean sprouts with rice, soup and a miniscule dish of pickles.  There was an elderly couple across the way with their daughter laughing over their lunch. When I got up to leave, the daughter on the way to the toilet, stopped and asked where I was from. Only then did I realize that she was so drunk she could barely speak or keep her eyes open. There is a different attitude toward public intoxication in Japan-

As it began to rain I went on up hill and saw two houses.  One was built by an Englishman, very Victorian, full of coal fireplaces lined with English tiles, a piano in the living room and a balcony cum veranda with, what must have been at the time, a superb view down to the port. Now, of course, it is totally obstructed by buildings

The second, Weathercock House, was built by a German, G. Thomas, with red brick walls, and the eponymous weathercock on its tower’s steeple. There are Art Nouveau tidbits—curved door levers, stained glass, chandeliers. But there is also a lot of dark wood giving a medieval castle feeling. There are Western bathrooms in each of these houses that must have elicited a sigh of relief from the owners and their guests.

I walked down, looking into shops as I came along into the center of town. I went into a very cluttered, dusty, dark shop, and there, behind some candlesticks and a carved wooden bear was an old head with wrinkled brow, bushy, white eyebrows, tangled grey hair, a disintegrating black hat and broad shoulders covered in armor. I looked more closely–an elderly samurai, about eight inches tall with a chipped grin and an expression that suggested canniness.

The price was high, close to 800US, but he was obviously early 20th century and possibly 19th. I walked home to the hotel in turmoil.

The next day I talked to the young Japanese woman sitting next to me at breakfast. Our conversation obviously made her happy. I then went to the reception desk for instructions.  They are not as good as the women at my Tokyo hotel or in Kyoto but by asking my way I arrived at the Motomachi Station, got on the right train and out at the right stop. Now I had no idea where I was in relationship to my goal the Hyogo Prefecture Museum. I asked and followed those directions. I asked again and received more interesting directions. “One light, left. Second light, right. Frog on roof.  That is building.” Those worked very well.

There was a frog on the roof with one green leg over its edge. I was enchanted by him and the building designed by Tadao Ando that incorporates green and the sea into its structure. It is a great piece of work. You walk along a passage arched with tree branches, pass through a rectangular opening, here three people were doing tai chi, and come out at a channel of the sea with the building behind you. This is a brilliant museum particularly in comparison to that mediocrity erected at enormous expense between 53rd and 54th Street in Manhattan.

However, it was closed because it was Monday. The receptionist should have caught that. I started back to the train station. One of the tai-chi-ers ran after me to tell me to come the next day.

I asked a woman in the station which track to take to get back to Motomachi. We got into conversation about Barcelona, why I liked Kobe, about her desire to travel.

I came into Motomachi and tried to find the samurai’s store. I could find the area but not the store. I walked up hill. Finally I went into a store and asked for Tor Street. The clerk was mystified but the manager said, “One light,” and pointed. I went over to Tor and there it was as I walked down. The man wasn’t there but there was a woman. I had thought I would ask for a smaller one. I looked up and there were, on a high shelf, a number of small dolls, not as old but in much better shape. Why didn’t the man show me these? The woman took them down but only one had real expression in his face. Then I asked to see the samurai who, although I looked about, I could not find. He was there. Seeing him again, I knew I didn’t want a small one. The man the day before had given me a price of 80,000Y. She gave me the price on the price tag, 88,000 but came down quickly to 70,000Y.

I said I would think about it and return tomorrow.  She said she would think about a further discount. I floated back to the hotel. I was going the next day to see something I had planned for, something I did not want to leave Japan without seeing.

One thought on “2019, BLOG IX: Kobe, a frog and a Samurai

  1. What a cacophony of architecture in Kobe. I can’t imagine Victorian, but maybe being labeled “earthquake central” has something to do with it. Just to be fair though, you are finding all sorts of interesting chatchkas from that era.

    On another note, I am not surprised that you are enamored of Ando’s work. One of my favorite buildings in BCN is Ito’s luminous waves serving the façade of one of those international clones on Passieg de Gràcia (another maritime reminder of the city we currently inhabit). It is no coincidence that Ito was awarded this year’s Pritzker. Unlike you, the Kobe beef that I paid a small fortune for in NYC a couple weeks ago was not the real thing. When at the masia, I promise to rub my neighbor’s cows’ belly for better luck next time.


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