Kyushu Trip, Days 4&5 – Beppu & Yufuin

Kyushu Trip – Day 3 is here.

On day 4 I crossed the Kyushu island to the eastern side, to visit the hot springs areas of Beppu and Yufuin. Most of the rest of the trip, days 4 and 5, I spent immersed in hot onsen waters 🙂

Suizenji Garden

Before leaving Kumamoto, I took a morning stroll through Suizenji Garden. This oasis of calm in the middle of the city is a medium-sized Japanese landscape garden built in the 17th century by the Hosokawa family, the samurai who ruled Kumamoto at the time.

The route through the garden is a circular one. The features of the garden re-enact milestones on the Tokaido road, the road between Japan’s two historic capitals: Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo). This includes a mini Mount Fuji. Inside the garden is Izumi Shrine. This being the 4th of January, the first working day of the year in Japan, there were many groups of Japanese employees at the shrine. Traditional Japanese companies take their employees this week to shrines at the beginning of the year, to get a blessing for a successful business year.

Although Suizenji is not Japan’s most impressive garden (Konrokuen in Kanazawa comes to mind as a leading contender), it is definitely worth a visit. Admission is 400 Yen, and a leisurely stroll through the garden takes less than 1 hour.

 

From Kumamoto I headed eastwards to the other side of Kyushu island. I wanted to take the direct, and slower route, through the center of the island and Mount Aso, but the trains in that area are still not operating due to last year’s earthquake. So I took the Shinkansen to Kokura, and then the Sonic train down to Beppu.

Upon arriving in Beppu, I left my luggage at the train station and headed straight to hell.

Beppu “Hells”

Well, not literally hell, but rather “the Hells”, or Jigoku in Japanese. These are hot springs for viewing, not for soaking in. There are two groups of Hells: 5 in Kannawa and 2 in Shibaseki. I took a bus (no. 5) to the Kannawa district and visited all 5 Hells there. Admission is 400 Yen per Hell, or 2,000 Yen for a combo ticket to all 7.

The Hells (and much of Beppu and Yufuin, as I found out later) are very touristy. There are more shops and food stalls than actual Hells… But the natural phenomena are quite impressive to watch. Some are natural mud pools that constantly bubble; others are big ponds of boiling water, some blue some white; others are huge steam clouds billowing up from the ground. The air is permeated with a strong smell of sulfur. One of the Hells features statues of demons, presiding over the boiling ponds of water. Another is a small zoo, with an impressive collection of crocodiles.

With the bus ride there and back, a visit to the Hells takes 2-3 hours.

 

Takegawara Onsen

Back in Beppu city I checked into my hotel and then headed straight for the nearest onsen: Takegawara. This is one of the oldest onsens in the area, built in 1879, and it looks the part. I guess it’s kept this way in order to provide an authentic experience of the past. The attraction at this onsen is the sand bath. You lie down in dark sand and a lady uses a shovel to cover you in sand. It’s heavy, it’s hot, and frankly, it’s somewhat claustrophobic. I can now understand people who have a fear of being buried alive… After a few minutes, and some self-relaxing mind exercises, one can actually start to enjoy the experiend. Maybe. It’s all over in 10 minutes, after which you spend a while washing all the sand off and heading to the actual hot spring for a long soak.

If you go to any onsen in Beppu, don’t forget to bring a towel with you. Many of them do not supply towels, or do so for a fee.

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Takegawara Onsen in Beppu

 

Yufuin

On day 5 I headed westwards to Yufuin, another famous hot spring town. The ride there by bus (no. 36) from Beppu station takes 50 minutes, along a winding road up and down a mountain. But it’s well worth the ride, because Yufuin is a real gem.

Unlike Beppu, which has a rundown look to it, Yufuin is much better looking. Yes, it’s very touristy (it seemed like the town was invaded by Koreans overnight, as I saw thousands of them roaming the streets), but it’s not too “pushy-touristy”. It’s a very quaint town, with many shops offering local foods and products. In some parts it looks like a place out of a fairy tale, with small, immaculate houses and small museums. A leisurely walk from the train station westwards through the main street takes about 30-40 minutes, depending on how many shops you stop at to take a look.

 

And then of course, there’s the onsens. I soaked in two of them.

The first was Nurukawa Onsen. Here I decided to take a private bath. They have a big public and a few small private ones, which you can book for 1 hour (cost about 2,000 Yen). I bathed in the Sakura onsen, and almost fell asleep as it was so quiet and peaceful. The second was very different: Shitanyu Onsen. This is a basic, small public bath under a thatched roof, with two small pools (indoor and partially outdoor). Nobody’s there, so you put 200 Yen in a box at the entrance and go in. Apparently this is a mixed-bath, one of the few left in Japan.

 

At the end of the road in Yufuin is a pond-sized lake called Kinrin Lake. It’s very scenic, with a small shrine on the south shore, complete with a small Torii gate in the water. It is a fitting end to a visit to this serene town.

Back to Beppu I bid Kyushu goodbye by taking the bus to Oita Airport and catching a flight back to Osaka. Kyushu certainly is a place I intend to visit again when I get a chance.

Kyushu Trip, Day 3 – Shimabara & Kumamoto

Kyushu Trip – Day 2 is here.

Today was mostly a traveling day – train, bus and ferry.

I left Nagasaki in the morning to go to Kumamoto. First I took the train to Shimabara, east of Nagasaki and on the shore of the inner Ariake sea. You take the JR Kamome Line to Isahaya (20 minutes) and transfer to the local Shimabara Tetsudo Line (1 hour), a quaint yellow local train that ambles around the Shimabara peninsula stopping at many deserted stations along the way.

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Tetsudo Shimabara Line

Shimabara Castle

I stopped at Shimabara to visit the local castle, a 10-minute walk from the station. This castle was built in the early 17th century, along with the surrounding village. In 1637 it suffered a massive attack during the Shimabara Rebellion, led by Christians tired of being persecuted. Then, in 1792, a powerful earthquake followed by a giant tsunami wave, as well as a volcano eruption (the so-called Shimabara Catastrophe, 15,000 dead), hit the castle. During the Meiji Restoration the castle was deserted and only in the 1960s was the castle was reconstructed and it now dominates the sleepy town of Shimabara.

A visit to the castle is similar to visits to any castle in Japan: a few floors of the typical exhibits: swords, samurai armor, paintings, written scrolls, pottery, etc. And then the requisite observation deck at the top. To the west rises Mount Unzen, an active volcano, ominously shrouded by clouds, that last erupted in 1991. To the east is the inner Ariake sea, which I am about to cross with a ferry to get to Kumamoto. On the castle grounds is an exhibition of statues by a local sculptor, Seibo Kitamura, some of them rather disconcerting.

Admission to the castle is 520 Yen, and it takes 30-40 minutes to visit it.

Shimabara-Kumamoto Ferry

There are a couple of companies operating ferries between Shimabara and Kumamoto. The port (Shimabara Gaikou) is 3 stops away from Shimabara Station.I took the Ocean Arrow ferry, which runs six times daily. It takes 30 minutes and costs 1,300 Yen, including the bus ticket from Kumamoto port to the city (another 20 minutes).

Kumamoto Castle / Katou Shrine

Most of the sightseeing spots in Kumamoto are now closed to the public, following the two strong earthquakes that hit here last April (50 dead, 3,000 injured). Kumamoto Castle was heavily damaged, so it is fenced off, including the other sites within the castle grounds, such as the samurai Hosokawa Mansion. I took a walk around the castle grounds, and into the adjoining Katou Shrine – with its beautiful white Torii gate – which provided views of some of the castle buildings.

It seemed like many Japanese heeded the call to come to Kumamoto to support the local economy after the earthquake, because there were thousands of tourists on the castle grounds. Many food stalls, as well as the customary shrine stalls, were erected to help raise money. Kumamon, the local mascot, is everywhere you look. For those of you not familiar with Japan’s fascination with mascots, suffice it to say that after the earthquake the first reaction of many Japanese was: “Is Kumamon OK?”.

I’m staying at a business hotel near Kumamoto Station. Convenient for leaving with the Shinkansen, but if you plan to stay longer than one night in Kumamoto, a better location would be downtown, in the Shimotori area, where the alleged “longest shopping arcade in Japan” is located.

 

Kyushu Trip – Days 4&5 is here.

Kyushu Trip, Day 2 – Nagasaki

Kyushu Trip – Day 1 is here.

Day 2 in Nagasaki, exploring the sights south of Nagasaki Station. I did a lot of walking today…

Glover Garden

The morning was planned for a cruise tour of Gunkanjima (see below), but as I arrived early at the cruise ship terminal, I decided to do Glover Garden first.

The garden – a collection of western houses set on the Minami-Yamate hill overlooking Nagasaki Harbor – is named after Thomas Glover, a Scotsman who came here in the mid-19th century, aged only 21, and proceeded to build a fortune in coal mining, shipbuilding and tea trade. He is known as “the father of Japanese beer”, and myth has it that the creature on the logo of Kirin beer sports a mustache in his honor… Glover married a Japanese woman, and the family is buried in a special plot in the Sakamoto International Cemetery, which I visited yesterday. The Glover house is apparently reminiscent of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and a statue of the opera master is on display.

Glover’s is not the only western residence in Minami-Yamate. Other colonial-looking houses belonged to foreigners, mainly Brits, who also lived here. These residences were restored in the 1970s and are surrounded by beautiful, immaculately maintained, gardens. The views of Nagasaki from the hilltop are also beautiful.

Admission is 610 Yen, and it takes 40-50 minutes to properly see the entire compound.

Oura Cathedral

Adjacent to Glover Garden is Nagasaki’s most imposing Catholic Church – the Oura Cathedral. Last year it celebrated its 150th anniversary. The church was dedicated to the 26 martyrs who were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597 (I visited their memorial site yesterday). It is not allowed to take pictures inside the church, but it is exquisite. It lacks the grandeur (and the height) of the big European cathedrals, and it’s more wood than brick, which in my mind makes it less awe-inspiring but more welcoming. Next to the church is the former school of divinity, itself an impressive building.

Admission to the church is 600 Yen.

Gunkanjima (Battleship Island)

It was time to head back to the wharf to catch the cruise to Gunkanjima, also known as Hashima Island. Coal was discovered here in the early 19th century, and after Mitsubishi bought the island, a full-scale coal mining operation began. In the 1950s the island was home to more than 5,000 people. It had a school, a hospital, a post office, a shrine… everything required to support the families that called Hashima their home.

When the last mine closed, in 1974, the island was abandoned. Left to the forces of nature – the sea, the winds and, most devastatingly, the typhoons – the buildings on the island were slowly destroyed. Its eerie silhouette earned it the nickname “battleship island”. It became famous worldwide after the 2012 James Bond movie “Skyfall” was shot here.

There are several companies operating cruises to the island; I used Concierge. They have two tours daily, each about 3 hours long, costing 4,300 Yen. The journey to the island takes almost an hour (faster on the way back), and the guides constantly bombard the passengers with information about the island and its history (audio guides in English are available, but do not provide much information). On the island itself there are 3 observation posts; wandering around the island is forbidden due to danger of collapse. This cruise is an interesting, and very different, aspect of visiting Nagasaki. I realize it’s not for everyone, especially as the tour is all in Japanese.

Holland Slope / Misaki Road

Getting off the cruise I headed to Oranda-zaka (Holland Slope), which is nearby Glover Garden. This is a steep, stone-paved road that was the center street of the foreign settlement in Nagasaki. It is named so because many of the residents along it were Dutch.

Frankly, this famous road is somewhat of a disappointment. It’s OK, but after Glover Garden it’s an anti-climax. It’s no big deal to walk it so no harm done as it’s on the way to the center of Nagasaki anyway.

While in the neighborhood I looked for the Nagasaki Synagogue. I didn’t have much information and none was available at the tourist office (and very little online). I knew it was in the Umegasaki-Machi neighborhood, so I walked there from Oranda-zaka. This unplanned walk led me to one of the most charming areas of Nagasaki: Misaki Road, which is basically a slope of stairs leading down from Orandazaka to Chinatown. The tiny alleys and old houses along this quiet street were quite the unexpected gem of the day.

The Nagasaki Synagogue, the first in Japan, was called Bet Shalom (House of Peace), and was established in 1894. I didn’t find it because it’s no longer there. After the Jews left Nagasaki (most of them following the Russo-Japanese war, and others after World War 1),  the building was sold and later demolished to make way for houses. I found a signpost with some information on the street that the synagogue used to be.

Chinatown

Nagasaki’s Chinatown is one of the largest in Japan, and the oldest one, as the city was open to Chinese trade even during the period of isolation. It still retains a strong Chinese influence, but looks like most other Chinatowns: many restaurants, campon and udon sellers, and many tacky toy shops. It is packed with tourists, so I left it in an hurry and walked to the nearby old Chinese quarter.

This area, known as Taijin-Yashiki, is a rundown area of Nagasaki. There are several buildings and shrines from the time when it was a bustling quarter of Chinese merchants and vendors, but even these look somewhat shabby and under-maintained compared to other sights in Nagasaki.

Central Nagasaki

The central area of Nagasaki is composed of several neighborhoods, predominantly Hamano-Machi (long shopping street), Shian-Bashi (nightlife area) and the surrounding area. There is not much to see here besides window-shopping and people-watching.

One of the attractions in the area is Megane-Bashi (Spectacles Bridge), which stands out from the other bridges because of its two arches. When reflected in the water they make perfect circles resembling spectacles. Many Japanese couples come here to tread carefully on the stepping stones to the middle of the river and take a selfie with the bridge in the background.

Sofukuji Temple and Kofukuji Temple

These two temples are a little off the beaten track, but well worth a visit.

Sofukuji Temple is an impressive Shinto shrine, southeast of central Nagasaki. It has imposing red gates framing the steep staircase leading up to the temple. As this was January 2nd, there were many Japanese there for their Hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year).

Kofukuji Temple is north of the central area, and is a Chinese Buddhist temple. It dates back to the 17th century and is Nagasaki’s oldest temple and the first Zen temple in Japan. Built by merchants from China’s Ming dynasty, it was home to famous Zen masters and many monks flocked here for their training. It was different, in appearance and even in smell, from the the many Shinto temples around the city.

That’s it for Nagasaki. I’m off to Kumamoto tomorrow morning.

Kyushu Trip – Day 3 is here.

Kyushu Trip, Day 1 – Nagasaki

I took a morning flight from Kobe to Nagasaki, a 1-hour flight on Skymark Airlines (a Japanese LCC), arriving in Nagasaki just after 10:30am. A limousine bus (900 Yen) takes you from Nagasaki Airport to Nagasaki Station, with several stops in central Nagasaki on the way. After checking in to the hotel (JR Kyushu Hotel, inside Nagasaki Station; it doesn’t get more convenient than this), I set out – on my first day here – to explore the sights north of Nagasaki Station.

Nagasaki Trams

Getting around in Nagasaki is easy, as most tourist sights are covered by trams (120 Yen per ride, you pay upon exiting, exact change only; or a 500 Yen day ticket). The central area of Nagasaki is not very big, so walking – my favorite mode of transportation when exploring a new place – is also an option. The Nagasaki trams take you back in time several decades, if not longer. Apparently the city collects trams from other cities in Japan that have moved on to more modern forms of transportation (i.e. subways), so the eclectic mix of these single-carriage trams are a unique feature of the city. Old but functioning. Even the 1950s speakers announcing the stations, and playing background music in between, still work!

 

Peace Park

Most people know Nagasaki as the second – and, to date, last – city to have been obliterated with an atomic bomb. Nagasaki was not the first target of the Americans on that fateful day, August 9, 1945. Captain Charles Sweeney’s mission was to bomb Kokura, a city in northern Kyushu, but smoke prevented him from visually confirming the target so he headed south for the secondary target: Nagasaki. (By the way, Kokura was lucky twice, as the city was itself the secondary target on August 6, 1945, after Hiroshima).

The Nagasaki Peace Park is reachable by the trams traveling north from Nagasaki Station (lines 1, 2 and 3), and the closest stop is Matsuyama-Machi. The park consists of two main areas: one is the park itself, with the famous Peace Statue and other memorials; the other is the epicenter memorial and the Atomic Bomb Museum.

If you’ve seen the museum in Hiroshima, the Nagasaki one might be somewhat underwheming. For me, because I recently read Susan Southard’s excellent book on the Nagasaki bombing, many of the exhibits (and the names of the Hibakusha, atomic bomb survivors) were familiar, making it a moving experience. I was also touched by the minimalistic, yet powerful, epicenter memorial: a black pillar surrounded by wide circular steps, a symbol of the bomb’s outward-radiating power.

The park is free; admission to the museum is 200 Yen. It takes a couple of hours to walk through the park and visit the museum.

 

Jewish Cemetery

Nagasaki was home to the first Jewish community in Japan. After Commodore Perry forced Japan to end its isolation and open up for trade, the port cities in Japan saw an influx of foreign merchants – chiefly among them them Nagasaki, which already had a long history of foreign settlement (mainly Dutch and Portuguese). Among these were Jews, mainly Russians, who established a community here in the late 19th century, numbering at around a 100 families. The first synagogue in Japan, Bet Shalom, was built in Nagasaki.

Unlike the Jewish cemetery in Kobe (which I wrote about here), the Jewish one in the Sakamoto International Cemetery – called Bet Olam (“eternal home”) – is a very small one; I counted about 30-40 tombstones. Most of the dates on the tombstones are around 1900, and a large number of them died very young (in their 40s, some in their 20s). On several of the tombstones the inscriptions are illegible. I said a few psalms of Tehilim in memory of the dead buried there, and regretted there was no minyan to be able to say kaddish.

The Sakamoto International Cemetery is about halfway between the Peace Park and Nagasaki Station. The closest tram stations are Urakami-Eki-Mae or Mori-Machi. The cemetery is a short walk up a steep hill, and the Jewish plot is right at the entrance (to the right).

 

Nishizaka Hill

Another first for Nagasaki: Christianity made its debut in Japan here, in the middle of the 16th century. Portuguese Catholic missionaries landed here and initially were free to practice their faith and convert Japanese to Christianity. But things changed when the Tokugawa Shogunate took over, and Christians suffered from repeated persecutions and murder.

The most famous incident was the crucifixion of 26 Roman Catholics – 6 of them foreign Franciscan missionaries, and the rest Japanese converts, including 3 young boys – on Nishizaka Hill. The story reverberated throughout the Christian world and eventually the victims were martyred and canonized by the Roman Catholic Church (in the mid-19th century). On the site of the crucifixion stands an impressive memorial with life-like statues of the 26. Behind the memorial is a small museum. Also on this hill is the San Filippo Church, with turrets reminiscent of the famous Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

 

Fuchi Shrine / Nagasaki Ropeway / Mount Inasa

Across the Urakami-Gawa river is Mount Inasa, with the famous Nagasaki Ropeway leading to the observatory at the top. Before taking the ropeway, the adjacent Fuchi Shrine is well worth a visit. I was lucky to be here on January 1st, when many Japanese make their Hatsumode, the first visit to the shrine in the new year.

Fuchi Shrine is neatly tucked into the mountain side, with several secondary “mini shrines” a short climb up the mountain path. The main shrine is in typical Shinto style, complete with the purifying water, the hanging Ema (wooden plaques) and the mandatory bell, faithfully jingled by every visitor.

The cable car ride up the mountain takes less than 5 minutes, during which the Japanese attendant explains about the ropeway and the observatory (with English recordings following her explanations). The observatory at the top is a circular one, giving a 360-degree view of Nagasaki city to the east and the Sumo-Nada sea to the west. I timed it so I would get to the top a little before sunset, to watch both the sunset on one side and then the city night view on the other.

The night view of Nagasaki from Mount Inasa is labeled as one of the “top three night views in the world” (along with Hong Kong and Monaco). I don’t know who rates these night views and how Nagasaki made it to the top three, but it is certainly a most impressive view. I spent more than an hour on the top, watching the day turn into night, and it was a majestic spectacle of nature. Luckily, it was a clear day so visibility was good.

A round-trip ticket on the ropeway is 1,23o Yen. One can also climb up (or walk down) using the “promenade”, convenient stairs carved into the mountain.

 

Kyushu Trip – Day 2 is here.

Wantage Bookshop, Kobe

When we lived in Tokyo, many years ago, there were several second-hand English bookshops we could go to. In Kobe we don’t have such a wide choice, so the Wantage Bookshop, a short walking distance from our home, is a real lifesaver.

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This is a small bookshop, with non-fiction books on the ground floor and fiction books a steep climb up to the second floor. Despite its small size, crammed shelves fill up most of the space and the choice and variety of books are good. An added advantage is the seemingly haphazard arrangement of books, which makes browsing a delectable, if somewhat time-consuming, experience.

The bookshop is open only on weekends (Saturday and Sunday) from 11am to 5pm, and is across the street from Shin-Kobe Shinkansen station.

Jewish Cemetery, Kobe, Japan

Earlier today I joined a few members of our community to visit the local Jewish cemetery in Kobe, Japan. A long-time member of the community, Jack Yohai z”l, who passed away two years ago (on Rosh HaShana) has no family in Japan, so we went to say a memorial prayer and kaddish on his grave.

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Grave of Jack Yohai z”l

 

The Japanese do not bury their dead and the cremation rate here is more than 99%. When a Jew dies in Japan, it is always a bit of challenge to race to get the proper official documentation signed before the body is cremated.

The Jewish cemetery in Kobe is located on Futatabi mountain. In the 1950s, the Kobe City government relocated all foreign cemeteries within the city to this location, and designated it as the Kobe Municipal Foreign Cemetery. It is located in a beautiful woodland park, a hiking and camping site, and is maintained meticulously year round. There are designated plots for Jews, Christians, Muslims and other religions.

There are two Jewish plots in this cemetery. The older one probably filled up, so a new one was allocated further up the hill. The names on the tombstones clearly reflect the changing composition of the Jewish community of Kobe. While in the old plot most names are Ashkenazi (Russian or European), in the new plot most names are Mizrachi (from Arab countries). The people buried in the old plot came to Japan in the 19th century and, judging by the dates on the tombstones, most of them died in the early 20th century at a relatively young age (40s and 50s). The ones buried in the new plot arrived here in the early 1900s and most of them died at an old age.

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The new Jewish plot at Futatabi cemetery

There are three “major” Jewish cemeteries in Japan, in the three port cities where foreigners typically lived: Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. In addition, there are Jews buried in various general foreign cemeteries, especially those set up after the wars to bury the dead foreign soldiers and POWs. An acquaintance of mine recently found a few Jewish graves at a POW cemetery near his home in Osaka, dating back to the Russo-Japanese war of 1905.

May the memories of these Jews buried in Japan be a blessing to us all. Amen.

Zozo-ji Temple – Candle Night

Zozo-ji temple is a Buddhist temple in the Shiba neighborhood of Tokyo. It sits at the footsteps of Tokyo Tower. Every summer, the Candle Light event takes place at this temple. I had a stroll through the temple grounds this evening.

The event started in 2003 as part of a movement launched by an environmentalist group, under the slogan “Turn Off the Lights, Take it Slow”. Thousands of candles are lit in the temple grounds, and the walkway leading to the temple is filled with shops selling produce, organic food and… candles. At 20:00, after an inevitable countdown, the lights of Tokyo Tower go off and there is live music on an almost dark stage, lit mostly by candles.

The fact that most of the food stalls use electricity and the vendors at the various stalls use their iPhones to provide more light, takes away somewhat from the “all candle” atmosphere. Still, it’s a neat idea and the atmosphere here is both lively and relaxed.

Here are some pictures I took this evening:

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Entrance to the temple: “1,000,000 people at Candle Light”

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Stall selling by candle light

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Candle-lit stage

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Tokyo Tower before 8pm

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Tokyo Tower after 8pm

 

 

Sorakuen Garden – Kobe, Japan

Sorakuen Garden is a 5-acre Japanese garden built in the early 20th century in central Kobe, on the grounds of the former residence of the Kodera family.

The front gate is still the original one, made of zelkova wood with roof tiles bearing the Kodera family crest:

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At the northern part of the compound sits a large stable, built in 1910 for Kenkichi Kodera, the former mayor of Kobe. It is an imposing L-shaped building with stables on the ground floor and housing for stable hands on the second floor:

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Next to the stables sits the Hassam House. Built in 1902, this house belonged to an Anglo-Indian trader who lived in the Kitano neighborhood (where many foreign residences still exist). The house was moved to this compound in the 1960s. In the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, a chimney fell off the roof, and is now displayed in the front yard:

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But the main attraction is the large Japanese garden on the western side of the compound. This sprawling garden has a large central pond, stone bridges, stepping stones, streams and waterfalls. At the center of the garden is a houseboat from the Edo period, built around the turn of the 18th century. It is the last remaining houseboat of its kind still in existence:

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The garden itself is a secluded oasis of tranquility. It is a true gem, and at 300 Yen admission fee, it’s a great getaway for a leisurely stroll and a rest during a visit to Kobe.

Here are some more photos I took in the garden:

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Choueke Family Residence – Kobe, Japan

When Japan opened for trade in the middle of the 19th century, many foreign traders arrived at the port cities of Japan, mainly to Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. Among them were also Jewish merchants and businessmen, who established small but vibrant Jewish communities.

The first synagogue in Kobe was built in 1912. World War II saw the influx of thousands of Jewish refugees (some arriving with the Sugihara visas), who received aid from the local community. Some of the refugees stayed behind after the war and made Kobe their home.

One of the pillars of the community since the 1930s was the Choueke family. Ezra Choueke arrived here from Aleppo, Syria. After a few years, he went back to Aleppo to marry Polissa, and they returned to Japan and lived in the Kitano neighbourhood, home to many foreigners. During World War II they moved to another part of the city and, when the bombing got intense, they move northwards across the mountain to Arima, along with other Jewish families. After the war they moved back to Kobe, to the Yamamotodori neighbourhood, living in a house with 3 other families.

The Choueke Family Residence was bought by Ezra and Polissa in 1954 and stands to this day in Kobe. It has been named a National Cultural Asset by the Government of Japan. The house is on the same street we live on, Ijinkan Dori, a couple of minutes away on foot. Polissa Choueke, now 96 years old, still lives in it. The house is unfortunately no longer open to the public.

I was fortunate enough to have met the son, Jack Choueke, who was on a visit to Japan recently, and he was gracious enough to grant me a private tour of the residence. I also had the honour and pleasure of meeting Polissa Choueke, and speaking to her for a few minutes about the history of the family and the local Jewish community. She struck me as a lucid, bright and strong-willed woman.

Here are some of the pictures I took of the house:

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Choueke Residence on Ijinkan Dori

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The Choueke Family Coat of Arms

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A portrait of Ezra Choueke

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Photo of Polissa Choueke, taken c. 1934 (15 years old). Apparently this photo was sent to Ezra Choueke as part of the marriage arrangements between the two.

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The Living Room

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The Dining Room

The house is more a museum today than a house. The ground floor is a huge exhibit of art items collected by the Choueke family over the years, mostly by the father Ezra and the son Tony. It houses the biggest collection of a very particular sort of Japanese art: woodblock prints depicting foreigners in Japan. With the arrival of foreigners here in the 17th century, local artists were fascinated by their appearance – clothes, manners, etc. – and they put down these impressions in their prints. This collection includes items that span from the Nagasaki era (17th century) to the Meiji era (ended early 20th century). Most foreigners are depicted with the same face. I guess that just as Japanese all look the same to some Westerners, the opposite also holds true…

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One of the paintings depicting foreigners in Japan

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A foreign ship at a Japanese port

The back of the house is even more impressive than the front. A big, well-kept, Japanese garden provides an island of tranquility, although one can imagine the bustle of activity here when the community numbered tens of families. Jack told me that the house was always full for dinner parties and weekend activities.

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The garden

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The path leading down to the garden

Since my visit to the house and meeting the Choueke family, every shabbat when I see the rows of honorary seats next to the Torah ark, I pause for a second on the seat bearing the name Choueke and say a silent prayer thanking the Jews who built and maintained this synagogue.

Thank you Jack Choueke (pictured below), for letting me visit the Choueke House and providing information about the history of the Jewish Community of Kobe.

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Jack Choueke (right), Tsur Shapir (center) and me on a bicycle ride through the streets of Kobe, July 2015

A History of the World in 100 Objects

Five years ago, the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 launched a 20-week radio series called “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. The series became an exhibition, making the rounds globally. It reached Japan earlier this year, exhibiting in Tokyo for a few months. In September it arrived in Kobe, and today I had the chance to go see it at the local city museum.

A History of the World in 100 ObjectsThe idea behind this project is to map a history of the world using objects from 2 million years ago until today, from stone age tools to the credit card. Understandably, it’s a selective history, but one that aims to span all world cultures, not only the well-documented European one, and thus provide an introduction to human history.

Very few of the objects in this exhibition are famous. Many will recognize the Rosetta Stone (sadly, only a replica was used in this exhibition) and DĂĽrer’s Rhinocerus. But that’s exactly what makes this project so unique. Even though most of the objects are not famous archaeological findings, their chronological placement and categorization tell a very interesting and compelling story. The objects are organized in categories: from the first humans through the old world, empires, faiths, trades, to the modern world.

In Japan, although the names of the objects appear also in English, the detailed explanations are in Japanese only. As I knew this would be the case, I purchased the book published by Neil McGregor, the British Museum director, about the project. I read it ahead of time and carried my Kindle Fire with me through the exhibit halls. (This provoked some stern comments from a couple of the museum staff about not taking pictures and not using “iPads”, but I stood my ground and acted rather “un-Japanese” about it, and was left alone.)

I highly recommend this exhibition, and if you don’t have a chance to see it, the book is also excellent.