Though I did not know much about Kobe apart from its world famous beef and that it is home to Japan’s second biggest Chinatown (first being in Yokohama), I was really excited about visiting it during my trip to Japan. Despite being home to a sizeable expat community, Kobe is not a popular stop on the Japanese backpacker circuit. Most travellers to the city, come here on a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka. In terms of attractions, there are a couple of old shrines, museums and natural onsens in and around Kobe, but one of the main reasons for most visits is the beef. Kobe beef is widely considered to be the best beef in the world.
My beef hunt began when I reached Kobe station after an hour long train ride from Kyoto on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Following the directions sent by them, I reached my hostel which was a ten-minute walk from the station. As I checked into Hostel Nakamura, I found out that the two storey hostel had only one other guest. A traveller from USA whom, apart from passing a couple of times in the staircase, I hardly ever saw.
“Are you here for work?” the receptionist asked me as she handed me the electronic room card.
“No, I am just travelling around Japan.”
“Oh” She said with a puzzled look. Took a sip from the cup of green tea she was having and then after a little thought asked, “Why Kobe?”
Apart from manning the reception, she was also painting the kitchen wall on the side. More to kill time than out of necessity probably, but the newly painted part of the kitchen wall was looking pretty good. She had paint stains all over her t-shirt and had that mellow hippie vibe in her voice that many artists have.
“I heard a lot about Kobe beef.” I replied slightly embarrassed as I took off my shoes near the wooden staircase. The hostel has a strict no-shoes-upstairs policy.
“You travelled here from Kyoto for beef?” She asked with a look that was part-disbelief, part-amused.
“Yeah. Have you tried it? Is it good?”
Of course she has tried it. She lives here. What a dumb question to ask, I thought.
“Actually, I am a vegetarian but I have heard its good.”
Before going back to painting the wall, she handed me a couple of city maps and encircled the places that she thought I may find interesting. One of them of course was the Chinatown. Other was a street that had a lot of decent bars.
The local bars in Japan can be a little tricky. They are small, with a seating capacity of just around 10 people. The bar that I ended up going to that evening was a standing bar. People came in through a narrow door with a red curtain, ordered a beer or some sake, maybe some snacks, mostly fried seafood, or lighted a cigarette, and then drank while watching Japanese TV shows on the wall-mounted 21 inch TV or chatted with the owner. There were a couple of booths to sit but mostly people preferred to stand around the two circular wooden tables near the counter.
I had heard a lot about Kobe being the most “international” city in Japan but this is where I had the most problem communicating for some reason. No one seemed to know English due to which I couldn’t ask people for direction to places. Combine that with my terrible navigational skills, it’s no surprise that I was constantly reading the map wrong and losing my way. However, losing your way in Kobe is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an interesting city with some shrines, great street food and markets. In the evenings the Kobe train station would be teeming with salary men coming back from work. During one of my aimless strolls around the neighbourhood, I happened upon a takoyaki stall near a children’s park. Those octopus takoyakis may just be the best ones I’ve had during my trip. The best part was the chirpy lady who was making the takoyakis. Though she was super busy, she tried her best to communicate with me, mostly through hand gestures, to make sure that the takoyakis were made just the way I wanted them. Less sauce, extra spicy, piping hot.
“Good?” she asked as I ate the first ball. Mouth on fire. Tongue burning. Just how takoyakis should be.
Unable to speak, I gave her a thumbs up. Smiling, she turned to attend to other customers. Soon the smile turned into a look of full concentration as she prepared the next batch.
And that’s the best thing about the Japanese. No matter the profession, they really take pride in their work. No compromises. No half measures. (If you can take away only one thing from the Japanese, take that.)
Kobe’s Chinatown was an enjoyable walk also. The Jap-Chinese fusion food had clearly struck a chord with the people. Long queues outside restaurants were not uncommon sights. The aromas from different stalls reminded me of the Muslim Street in Xi’an. Displays of rice cakes, dumplings, barbequed and fried assortment of meat, seafood and vegetables were hard to resist, but the advertisements of insanely cheap Kobe Beef reminded me of the purpose of my visit to Kobe. As tempting as it was, I remembered the advice a drunk salary man gave me at the standing bar the night before.
“Kobe beef… Chinatown… No!”
Apparently, most of the insanely cheap Kobe beef sold in Chinatown are not really Kobe beef and those that are real, are of very low quality. And while I was travelling on a budget, I was determined to have at least a decent quality steak.
The guy then said something in Japanese, held out his arm in the direction of the door of the bar and then turned it to the left. Few more words in Japanese. Turned his arm to the right.
Realising he was giving directions to a place he recommends for Kobe beef, I quickly took out the map from my bag and held it in front of him. I sipped on my mug of Asahi beer excitedly, as he looked through the map. Recommendation from a local, this was cool!
Another guy, probably his friend or colleague, came up to see what was up. They said something to each other and then both of them immersed themselves in the map. Two’s better than one, I guess!
A couple of seconds later, the first guy looked up at me and pointed at a location on the map. Turns out the place they were recommending was about a 15-minute walk from the bar. They wrote the name of the place in Kanji on the map, so that I can show it to people in case I got lost.
“Is it expensive?” I asked, hoping against hope that they will understand me.
Nothing but a blank smile.
The thing is, the best quality Kobe beef can be really expensive, sometimes costing hundreds of dollars. I wanted something in between the best quality and the Chinatown quality. Something in the average quality range. Something that’ll not leave me broke.
I tried unsuccessfully a few more times. Different words. Different gestures.
Nothing. Just two smiling faces looking at me with a drunken glaze.
I thanked them and decided I will need to find out for myself the next day.
The restaurant turned out to be in a crowded indoor shopping street with restaurants, departmental stores, gaming arcades, clothing stores and electronics. In front of a McDonalds, right next to a 100 yen store, there was a staircase with red velvet carpet leading up. On the first floor, through the wide glass windows, I could see the dim lights of the restaurant. A poster laden board near the staircase advertised the menu. All in Japanese. Even the name of the restaurant. There was only one line in English.
“Dinner starting 3000 Yen”
I looked up at the restaurant again. A little closely this time. It looked too fancy for me but definitely seemed like a place that could make a decent beef steak. Plus, the pictures on the menu looked quite enticing.
“Dinner starting 3000 Yen! That’s not too bad… for Kobe beef. That’s what you came to Kobe for!” I told myself and gathered up the courage to climb up the staircase and enter through the shiny glass doors. And the rest of the evening was a blurr..
Three course dinner with beef sushis, sashimis, pumpkin soup, beer, salad… and ofcourse, steak.
I know it probably wasn’t the best of Kobe beef but it is, without a doubt, the best beef I have ever had.
I remember when I was planning the trip, I thought that apart from the delicious beef, there will be very little to see and do in Kobe. And while that is definitely not true, I actually ended up doing very little there. I spent my days walking the city streets, sometimes totally lost, eating at random street food joints, sitting in the courtyards of the old city shrines as the monks went about their day and chants filled the air with holiness, meeting interesting people at the standing bar, and at night, listening to music while watching the busy road from the hostel terrace.
There is something strangely infectious about not being busy. To not be in a hurry. To have no plans. To be lost.
I experienced these in Kobe and I loved every minute of it!