The Kobe Luminarie – A Pearl of Western Japan

Certain places are always at the top of the list when it comes to travel and visiting Japan. Kyoto, Tokyo, Hokkaido, Okinawa, Osaka, and a few others are always mentioned as unique places to go or places to go during different times of the year to take in festivals or local cuisine. One town, Kobe, must be on you “to visit” list if you come to Japan in the winter. It is a beautiful place with such a unique history of interactions with the West, different architecture, and some historical gems, but one thing sets it apart from the rest of Kansai: the Kobe Luminarie. 

Last evening, I joined two old friends from Philadelphia and headed down to see the Kobe Luminarie, located in the central district of the port city. From the beginning, it was evident that the event would be a sight to behold for all. This was my first time to the Luminarie. It was even the first time for my friend that lived in Kobe several years ago. We were so excited for the event and the brisk cold could not dampen our expectations. Traffic was stopped in many different places in the city to make way for pedestrians heading waiting to see the Luminarie. Even the path heading to the Luminarie itself was lit with grandeur. I was a little homesick at this point, as the main street in my hometown lights its trees in a similar fashion. 


After a few more minutes of walking, we turned a corner, and off in the distance we could see the front gate to the Luminarie. It was truly remarkable! The twinkling lights, the bright colors, and the gasps and gawking of other visitors was very memorable. I stopped to take a few photos, as well. Here’s the first glimpse of the gate. 

After a few more minutes of walking, we turned a corner, and off in the distance we could see the front gate to the Luminarie. It was truly remarkable! The twinkling lights, the bright colors, and the gasps and gawking of other visitors was very memorable. I stopped to take a few photos, as well. Here’s the first glimpse of the gate. 


As we neared the street shrouded in lights, even more interesting things came to light. Western-inspired Latin music plated through speakers, helping lead the tour of the Luminarie. The meaning and importance of both the Luminarie and music goes much deeper than the casual observer would know. Following the Kobe Earthquake of 1995, the Luminarie was established as a memorial of those that lost their lives in the devastating earthquake. The musical scores all centered around the theme of “light” and “continuation” towards a better and brighter future. The luminarie and music had quite the harmonious relationship as you approached the first segment of the Luminarie. 

After taking a few more photos, we entered the first segment of the Italian-built Luminarie. The lights lined the street for several hundred yards and helped create a unique scene in an urban center like Kobe. I certainly did not feel like I was in Japan during this whole adventure. All the while, one of the friend with me on this adventure told me that one of his family members was singing in the musical group which sang the official songs for the event!Image

After traversing the twinkling walkway, we made our way to what can only be described as a beautiful cathedral of light and sound. The next structure in the Luminarie appeared, to me, as a church-like memorial and work of art. European-inspired classical Latin music played in the vicinity and I felt like I was back in the streets of Montreal or Quebec City. Many fellow visitors had a similar sense of admiration when we approached the second component of the Luminarie structure. I have included a few photos of my favorite part of the Luminarie.


As more elegant music played and the smells of fresh yakitori filled the air, we passed by the final exhibition in the Kobe Luminarie, a much more colorful and modern-looking work of art. 


Other places in Kansai have Luminaries and light shows, but none can compare to the display in Kobe. The meaning and importance of the Luminarie coupled with its meticulous setup and musical integration make it an absolute must-see for those of you who may be in Japan next winter, before Christmas. Sharing this moment with two of my friends also helps make it memorable for me. 

The Kobe Luminarie is truly a pearl on the necklace of Western Japan. 

All images (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs.

Into the Leaves: Kyoto at its Finest

As someone who grew up in Central Pennsylvania, I was always accustomed to the presence of beautiful foliage when the calendar started to hit November. Even though I was often forced into raking or mowing up the leaves on my yard, I have always had an appreciation for the changing of the seasons. In my youth, I read about the beauty of Kyoto’s leaves, but never thought the changing of the seasons would be very different than that of the interior Northeastern United States. I was about to find out how wrong that assumption was.

Kyoto is always towards the top of all travel destinations in all of the Japan-centric tour books, websites, magazines, etc., and for good reason. The city is truly beautiful. From the temples in far off Arashiyama to the often photographed Kiyomizudera to the shops and bamboo groves in between, Kyoto is a remarkable place for both traveler and Japanese resident, alike. Being this is my second time living in Japan but only my first time here in the autumn, I made sure to venture to one of Kyoto’s most famous events this weekend and take in the spectacle that is leaf viewing (Japanese: 紅葉 Kouyou).

My friends and I hopped into the JR train bound for Kyoto from Sannomiya, Kobe, early in the morning to start this day. After an hour on the fast and comfortable ride, we had arrived at our first stop on the day’s tour: Arashiyama. Arashiyama is west of Kyoto proper and is famous for its shopping streets near the Oi River, the Iwatayama Monkey Park, a host of temples, and a large bamboo grove. We were off to a few of the temples and to take in the view along the water. No monkeys today.


We started the day off at Tenryuji to see what the famous temple and ponds would have to offer. Nearly as soon as we arrived, we were not disappointed. The grove of trees leading up to the ticket gate already had some trees sporting a full array of autumn colors. Ranging from light green to deep red, these trees were a sign of things to come for our day trip.


Once we entered the official temple grounds, another iconic Japanese autumn scene was upon us. A room covered with tatami mats set in front of our eyes. As we peered over the tatami and envisioned tea ceremonies past, the foliage at Sogen Pond became visible. This whole scene was classic Japan, as far as I was concerned.


We continued our way through the temple complex, gawking with hundreds of other tourists at the changing leaves, not knowing what to expect around the next turn. The photos outside showed Sogen Pond in its best state, but what could we possibly expect? There was no way the scene could look as good as presented on the ticket booth, was there? Here’s how the garden looked. Remarkable.


With gargantuan koi swimming throughout the pond and a perfectly manicured Japanese rock garden in the foreground, we all took a second to take in this beautiful scene. The vibrancy of the red and yellow cast against the permanence of the evergreens helped make this photograph. If we had come here one day earlier or later, the colors would not have been as contrasting as they were today. Lest I forget, kimonos were in full force, as well.


We continued onward, and upward, traversing more paths filled with vibrant leaves and tourists taking hundreds of pictures. With a mossy undergrowth to our left and right and changing leaves in front of a backdrop of pines and Kyoto, this location offered a unique view.


After snapping a few more pictures, we continued onward to the river to see the leaves cast against the water and famous rowboats in the region. Little did we know, thousands of other tourists had the same exact idea.


Amidst the rickshaws, children’s strollers, and masses of people, we ate some homemade karaage on the banks of the river before we continued onward to watch all of the boats on the water. Thee backdrop of boats on the river made the whole scene quite spectacular.


After a long walk back to Arashiyama Station (and a few sweets and special Japanese drinks along the way), we were back on the train and headed to our next destination on this trip, Tofukuji. Tofukuji is famous for its bridge over a small brook that traverses the temple grounds. surrounding the bridge and an expanse between the other side of the temple are Japanese maples and other trees. These iconic trees were nearing peak color on Sunday and we were in for a real treat even though so many tourists were there at the same time. While monks waked down the stone paths amid the tourists, I stopped to take several photos of the leaves. Here is what I saw:


Isn’t this a remarkable image? We were all taken back when we saw the leaves and could not believe the wide array of colors right in front of us.



No trip to Kyoto is complete without visiting the famous Kiyomizudera Temple, so we decided to make this our last stop of the day. To facilitate ore visitors and an unforgettable evening, Kyoto illuminates the temple at night during leaf viewing season and the results are beautiful, to say the least. As soon as you exit the train station in Kiyomizu, there is a strong beam of light that goes straight through the nighttime sky, guiding you towards the temple. Everyone on the train from Western tourists to kimono-wearing Japanese headed towards the beam. Once you get close enough, here is what you see.



The leaves were illuminated, as well.


While not in perfect bloom, the colors in Kyoto this weekend made for an interesting and photogenic day trip. The combination of green, red, yellow, and orange is something I never saw before in such vibrancy back on the East Coast of the United States. If people are trying to see these leaves at their peak, I would suggest going to Kyoto as soon as you can. The nights in Kansai have been getting colder and the leaves have been falling off of the trees here in Kobe. You should take advantage of your proximity to Kyoto if you live in Kansai and go see these leaves if you have the opportunity.

I had a great time and recommend a similar day trip in Kyoto to anyone visiting Japan this fall.

All photos and content in this post (c) Erik Jacobs, November 18, 2013, All rights reserved. 

Into the Izakaya (居酒屋)

Last night, three of my friends and I had a great experience in the most quintessential of all Japanese dining and drinking establishments, the izakaya. People back at home in the United States or outside of Japan may be familiar with the word “izakaya”(Japanese – 居酒屋) and know it is similar to a Western bar or pub, but it is so much more. Last night’s experience at one of the local izakayas in Kobe was an experience I certainly will remember for a long time to come. 

The hustle and bustle of Kobe’s Sannomiya neighborhood is similar to what you find in any of Japan’s major urban centers: people on every street corner yelling for customers to frequent their restaurants, twinkling neon lights glistening on every square inch of storefront, bustling night life, and convenience stores on every corner. I really love urban centers so I like the hustle and bustle of living in one of Japan’s largest cities, but last night was a distinct change of pace merely paces away from all of the glitz and glamor of Kobe’s most lively neighborhood. 

As soon as you reach Ikuta Road’s terminus, you encounter the JR Railway’s overhead tracks which support trains bound for Osaka, Himeji, and a host of other places in the Kansai Region. Directly underneath those tracks is one of my favorite back alleys in all of Kobe. Lining this narrow alley, I encounter what I consider to be quintissential Japan. There are small shops with bicycles and greeters out front, eagerly luring potential customers to their (non-chain) restaurants, izakays, and stand up bars. These storefronts have lanterns shining and large banners and flags outside saying what their stores offer. 

Last night, my friends and I ventured into an izakaya on this street and after we parted the cloth curtain in front of the Japanese-style sliding doors, we entered a place that is the type of place I always image when I think of Japan. 


There was a large sushi counter and bar right past the main entrance. Older men smoked cigarettes and discussed the past and bygone eras while salarymen unwound from a long day’s work in the nearby entertainment district. Japanese-only menus lined the walls of the store while vacated seats were quickly filled by new parties eager to have a cold Kirin Lager and enjoy some a la carte items, which are standard fare in the izakaya. The atmosphere in this izakaya was electric – men yelled for servers to refill their beer, I yelled for more karaage (fried chicken) and some shrimp sauce, and a couple seated behind us were on a date. 

The combination of the smoke filling the restaurant, the unique aromas coming from the kitchen, the sounds of orders being placed, customers leaving and entering the restaurant, and patrons calling for their next plate all make the izakaya a memorable experience in Japan. American izakayas do not compare to the energy at the izakaya last night. 

I have attached a few pictures to help you feel the mood of what we saw. They do not give the izakaya the justice it deserves. 



A Little Bit of Indian

From the day I first set foot in Kobe, I have heard, relentlessly, that Kobe is an “international city,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Sure, there are many more foreigners here than most other places in Japan. Many of them are not tourists, either. There is a large international business community and there are many English teachers in addition to  other professions. I went down to Harborland with a few friends yesterday to take in the Indian cultural festival and I must say it was very cool.

As soon as we got near Merikan park, the smell of Indian food and the faint sound of traditional Indian music was evident. I knew it would be quite an interesting afternoon with some of my newest friends.

I sampled some great Indian food (but not curry) and also had a great day in the perfect weather that appears to be buttressing the end of a long and hot summer here in Kansai. We partook in Indian beer, naan, some spicy chicken, and a few other delicacies while traversing the several aisles of food tents and trinket shops. Here are some of the better photos from the afternoon.

Before today, I did not like Indian food in the slightest. That being said, several kinds of spicy chicken have started to grow on me. Maybe I will give some of their curry a second shot here in a few weeks. There are plenty of Indian restaurants very near where live.




A Night Above Kobe

Last evening, a friend and I decided to head to the famous Rainbow Bridge in Kobe, Japan, to see what city looks like from the mountain ridge north of the city. What we encountered was truly breathtaking, but the journey to get there was just as eventful. 

Walking from Sannomiya Station, we traversed through back alleys filled with small mopeds, motorcycles, children, and shops on the way to the top of the mountain. On our way, we passed a mosque, several shinto shrines and temples, and some great ramen shops. Whenever I think of Japan, it is these scenes that come to mind first. I always find it amazing how there is such a convergence of old and new in Japan. 

Here is how Kobe looked last night. It was beautiful. I still cannot believe I live here. Image

The Itch to Learn Another Language

The one thing I feared most about traveling to Korea this weekend has begun to manifest itself in my thoughts this evening: I think I want to learn some Korean. While, on the surface, this may not seem like a bad thing, or even a worrisome point, it is very dangerous for me given all of the hard work I have put towards learning Japanese over the past two years. 

When I first came to Japan and started learning it two years ago, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to formal language study. I studied Spanish in high school, was good at it, but dif not find it challenging enough so I ceased studying it when I was in college. On study abroad, we were required to take a language class so I took Japanese with the intention of only studying it for one semester and calling it a day at my university because I had met the language requirement. Two years, a summer language school, and a return trip to Japan later, I think there is no doubt that I fell in love with studying Japanese and the nuances that accompany learning a new language so radical and different than Western languages, let alone English. The instant feeling of helplessness and being lost I experienced in Japan back in January, 2011, re-emerged as I stepped onto the bus which would take us from the plane to the airport in Busan, South Korea. 

There I sat on the bus in Korea, speaking Japanese with some new friends I made on the plane, staring at a sign with no idea how to read it. I even had less of an idea of what the sign meant aside from having what appeared to be a singing group pictured on it. From that moment on, I tried to absorb as much of the Korean I saw on the train as quickly as possible. The same goes for common words or phrases I heard inside of stores or in the open air markets which are sprinkled all throughout Busan and Seoul. What is this Hangul? How is it read? What does the ad mean? – Those were very common questions I asked my Korean friends. 

It was so frustrating for me to be silent when ordering something at the convenience store, but it was even more frustrating to not have the ability to read a sign. That is what frustrated me the most. 

And so the desire to learn a third language begun. 

Following lunch with my friend, I said a few words in Korean and even read some Romanized names on the train as we headed back to Seoul Station. She said my pronunciation was very good, which encouraged me to study some more Korean hen I returned to Japan. 


This poses two obvious problems for me.

Firstly, where will I get the time to dedicate myself towards another language, especially when I have devoted so much time and energy to Japanese. 

Secondly, I am very afraid that if I start learning another language, I will lose much of my Japanese ability and Japanese skills that I have developed over the last two years in very intensive studies. 

Many of My Korean and Japanese friends say that the grammar is similar between the two languages. They also say that some vocabulary is shared, too. I just worry about forcing out the Japanese I have learned in lieu of a rudimentary level of Korean studies. 

Have you studied a third language? If so,  how was your experience? 


Another Adventure on the Horizon

For those of you who have never met me, I have always been fascinated with adventure, travel, and finding out new things about new places and the new people I meet throughout the journey called live. This interest started as my family and I embarked on many summer road trips and vacations when I was a child. This weekend, a new chapter will unfold in the adventure I call my life.  

On Saturday, I am headed to Busan, South Korea, for my first trip in Asia outside of Japan. I cannot be more excited as I anticipate what should be an adventurous three day weekend as I traverse South Korea. 

When I returned to Temple University following the March 11, 2011, earthquake in Japan, I quickly became involved in Asian student associations and the international student clubs at school to try and help foreign students in the way they helped me when I was studying abroad in Japan. Throughout the next two years, I made many new friendships with foreign students; most of them residing in either Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan. This weekend, I will be meeting up with my Korean friends in Busan and Seoul to get a non-tourist perspective of the two biggest cities in South Korea. 

Following the first day in Busan, I will take the Korean high speed rail train to Seoul on Sunday for a day trip to rendezvous with some of my friends that I have not seen for several years. Then it will be back to Busan on Sunday evening followed to a return to Osaka on Monday afternoon. When I first started listening to Korean pop music, I was enamored by how glamorous Seoul looked, mainly because the scenes I saw reminded me so much of my third home, Tokyo. I cannot wait to see Seoul with my own two eyes!

Each day I am in Japan it truly amazes me how I am able to communicate with the Japanese and my friends in another language. I will never forget the first time I went to Japan, not knowing Japanese. It transformed me forever and spurred what is a strong and unwavering interest in the Japanese language. I am hoping my first trip to South Korea has a similar affect on me, albeit the situation will be very different than my first trip to Japan. I am blessed and very fortunate to have friends willing to show me their country, even if for a day or weekend, and look forward to learning as much as I can. Of course, many photos will be taken. 

If you are a university student in the United States or interested in foreign language or travel, I highly recommend you join your university’s international student organizations, etc. You will have a priceless opportunity for meeting new friends, networking, and learning about yourself. Having a travel partner isn’t a bad bonus, either.