Only fourteen hours later I stepped off the plane at the Kansai airport and made my way down to the luggage claim where I was to meet Yuki (who had given me strict instructions not to leave the area even if she happened to be a few minutes late). Within seconds Yuki had found me and in a way that is distinctly Yuki (imagine exclamation points) she calls my name, runs toward me and gives me a big hug. I'm already aware that this display isn't what would be considered "typical Japanese", but Yuki is anything but "typical" and it's this personality that has kept us friends over the greatest of distances for the better part of eight years.
"Kobe is not a very big city," Yuki keeps disclaiming as if she feels I might be disappointed. The funny thing is, as far as I can tell, Kobe is big enough to rival most cities that would be considered quite large in the United States. She considers where she lives the "suburbs", but for the life of me I can't tell why. Kobe sprawls east and west between the Pacific Ocean to the south and Rokku mountain to the north. Glancing either way reveals only more of the same: ocean, city, mountain. The contrasts are spectacular.
My first day in Kobe started with a trip to the grocery store and market at Itayado - which I discover is really quite local as I am the only "gaijin" I see all day. "Gaijin" is what the Japanese call foreigners, and for better or worse, while in Japan, I am a Gaijin. Despite the fact that my size, rosey complexion and green eyes make me stand out like a sore thumb, always polite, no one stares. I had braced myself for odd looks or interest after my cousin who had traveled to Thailand recalled with horror how the Thai people, surprised at seeing such a tall women, would exclaim quite loudly how big she was and stare at her with disbelief. If it wasn't for how keenly aware of how out of place I was, I could quite easily forget that fact based on their reaction, or lack thereof.
The Daie (grocery store chain) is intensely bright and happy. Fresh lighting illuminates colorfully labeled products in every shape and size. I'm sure the things I would normally buy at the grocery store are hidden here somewhere, but alone I have a difficult time distinguishing even water, and end up buying a clear sports drink by accident. Japanese writing explains everything, but I am at a loss and I realize quite quickly how much we rely on this kind of communication in every day life now that I can't understand it. It's all, well, Japanese to me.
The market just outside stands in contrast with the modern grocery store. An indoor arcade of vendors, not too unlike a farmers market, showcases fruits and vegetables in crates and baskets. Handwritten signs denote that green peppers are six for 100 yen (a bargain!) and for 300 yen the man will dump the little basket of tomatoes into your shopping bag.
The train stations prove even further how lost I would be without Yuki on day two. Although the stations are conveniently labeled in Romanji not much else is and with the web of public transportation to navigate I was so lucky that Yuki spent the day teaching me how to take the train to Sanomiya - downtown Kobe.
Saturday night Ta Chan (Yuki's husband) stayed home with little Hazumi (three years old) and it was girl's night. Yuki took me to Sanomiya again. It was completely different at night and as far as you could see, brightly lit signs showcased the locations of bars, clubs, restaurants and shopping. I'm told that this is dim compared to Osaka and especially Tokyo, but to me this could give Times Square a run for its money in terms of how much electricity is being disposed of. It's exciting and intriguing and I try to be cool about it while I whip out my camera and snap some shots.
We had a meal in the style of izacaya - which is small, shared plates, not too unlike tappas. Japanese food is amazing. I'm not particularly fond of fish which is kind of a problem, but you can see the care taken with everything and even the most humble of ingredients is elevated by being served in esthetically pleasing ways. I find it quite beautifully done. I should also mention that Yuki is a wonderful cook herself.
Today we went to Himeji Castle. Built in 1346, the ancient stones and wood proudly and beautifully hold their shape, resisting time itself. To reach the main tower you climb a narrow maze of stone stairs designed to funnel enemies to smaller numbers as they approach the castle. Lookouts and defensive positions above would make the intruders easy targets. Finally, through a gate that I have to hunch to get through we reach the main tower. Upon entry you, like I imagine it was always done, you are asked to remove your shoes. My socked feet glide over smoothly-worn wooden beams and it's not difficult to imagine a time long ago when Japanese royalty and samurai inhabited these spaces. Another maze of steep wooden stairs takes you room, by room, each one growing small as you go higher until you reach the top. From here you can see artful tiles cascading down rooftops meeting a vast expanse of city, the mountains in the distance. From hear I imagine what the view would have been even just a few hundred years ago.
Yuki and Ta Chan have been such gracious hosts and I'm loving the experience of seeing Japan beyond the way a tourist would. Little Hazu is too cute and at three speaks more English than I do Japanese. And like any other three year-old everything is met with curiosity and questions, "Kore nani?" (what's this?). My questions far outweigh hers though, and I feel like I'm in a whole new world. Not just are the words for things different, but so many things themselves are. I'm fascinated by everything and my own childlike curiosity makes for good entertainment for Yuki and Ta Chan.
There's so much more to share, but since this post is already quite long I'll continue another day.