At just after 2 a.m. on 14th March last month I was awoken from a deep sleep in my hotel room. Things didn’t seem right and I felt the bed oscillating ever so slightly. My eyes moved towards the window and after a few seconds I realised that actually the whole room was awobble. I went to the window and peered out to see if anything untoward was happening on the street below and after seeing no panic on the faces of the few still out at that time, I returned to bed and put my head back on the pillow. It then occurred to me that I was in Kobe!
I’d first heard of the Japanese city of Kobe back in 1995 when it made international headlines after a devastating earthquake. I’ll always remember the images of a collapsed elevated freeway and buildings in flames and it was probably the first time I realised how destructive earthquakes could be. Located on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, Japan has always been at the mercy of the planet’s underground rumblings. The most destructive in recent memory was the Tohoku earthquake which struck off the eastern coast of Japan’s largest island Honshu in 2011. At a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale it was the largest ever recorded in the country. The resulting tsunami reached heights of 40 metres and caused untold devastation to the nation. We’ve all seen the television images of boats ending up on rooftops and the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear power plant and even today the repercussions are being felt.
I’m thankful to say that although the ‘oscillation’ I felt last month was indeed an earthquake tremor this one had a magnitude of only 6.3 and the epicentre was some 300 km away, causing only minor building damage in some areas. I was speaking the next day to someone who said that it was one of only two quakes she’d felt in the past two years in Kobe so I feel sort of lucky to have experienced the strange sensation. Still, it’s a part of life in this area of the world for which preparation is so key and which may be completely alien to someone (like me) from a place where problem earthquakes never happen (the UK’s largest was a mere 6.1 magnitude quake back in 1931).
Down by the port in Kobe they have left a small area untouched since the 1995 earthquake as a memorial. The port area suffered most dramatically and the city lost much of its important sea trade as a result. Today Kobe has recovered and is one of Japan’s busiest container ports. It’s also often noted as the most cosmopolitan of Japan’s major cities and the Kitano area with its early European style buildings is a major attraction for locals in the region. I commented recently that they stand on the left hand side on escalators in Japan but, oddly, in Kobe they stand on the right. Maybe this is a nod to their cosmopolitanism? One thing’s for sure in the city is that if you like shopping and hate the rain then you’re in luck. During my trip in Japan it was clear to see that ‘underground’ emporia are common but in Kobe you can seemingly walk for miles through the underground shopping malls and labyrinthine passageways.
Japan played a major role in the Second World War and many of the cities were reduced to rubble but the city of Kyoto was spared the heavy bombing of other places because of its cultural and historical importance. So, with a couple of days free, I headed to the city and the nearby town of Nara where I spent a splendid couple of days soaking up a bit of history and leaving the skyscrapers and McDonalds behind. Although I did pop in to one branch of said restaurant chain there as I was intrigued by the façade: in Kyoto all McDonald’s are coloured brown instead of red, apparently to preserve the cultural ambience. I’m not quite sure it works though!
A city which certainly wasn’t spared during the war was Hiroshima, which was the victim of the first of only two atomic bombs ever dropped in anger. I stopped off in the city for a day before heading south to my final ‘data collection city’, Fukuoka. On the way from Kobe I paid a fleeting visit to the stunning structure that is the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, which has the largest span of any suspension bridge in the world! Hours later I was in Hiroshima, a city I found surprisingly modern – until I twigged that 99% of the buildings in the centre were built after the war, of course. The obvious focus of any visit to the city is the Peace Memorial Museum and the nearby eerie Atomic Bomb Dome. It is thought that up to 80,000 people were killed instantly on August 6th 1945 when the US plane Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the city. The ravages of radiation and fire ensued, as did Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. Definitely a contemplative day.
From Hiroshima I caught my last bullet train ride south to the city of Fukuoka. Pronounced “foo-quo-ka” (make sure you get this right!), the place means ‘Happy Hill’ and is the largest city on Japan’s third largest island of Kyushu. After a few weeks in Japan seeing a fair few eye-opening things as well as spending much time in city centres I found Fukuoka to be a tad dull. It has no stand out draws which would necessarily appeal to expatriates but, being one of the southernmost Japanese cities, the climate is more tempting. Still, as with elsewhere in the country almost all public signs are in both Japanese and English, and even as I headed towards the airport I was thinking how much more difficult the trip would have been if I didn’t speak or read English. An interesting recent article by The Economist suggests that this widespread use of the language isn’t about to change anytime soon.
With my Japan trip behind me now I’ll be giving my fellow International Data Researcher colleagues a chance to shed some light on their recent globetrotting trips so come back soon for some more ‘wandering’ tales!