Kobe is known throughout Japan for being an international city, translation, people here don’t freak out when they see a white person.

Actually that’s a bit unfair on Kobe. The city has excellent facilities for promoting internationalization. From the perspective of foreigners it provides facilities such as free Japanese lessons, the translation of all important civic information into English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean, free counseling facilities for culture shock, a variety of religious centres, etc, etc. On the reverse side Kobe has a vast amount of foreign restaurants for a Japanese city and one of the best examples of the JET programme. It also has a decently sized and prominent China Town. A place I never actually go to, and seeing as it was Chinese New Year last weekend I thought I would head down and check out the festivities.

By the way, I must apologise for these photos. I left my memory card at home and so had to take these photos on my cameraphone. Sorry.

China Town in Motomachi, Kobe is pretty much like any other China Town anywhere else. Which I guess makes sense since, theoretically at least, they’re all meant to be a recreation of China. For New Years somebody had hung Chinese lanterns across the street and dozens of flags in bright red and gold. Two colours which dominated the view everywhere one looked. It was all very bright and festive and, unfortunately, rammed full of people wandering aimlessly through too thin streets.

Chinese and Japanese culture nowadays are very different but originally almost everything Japan considers to be high culture was taken from China. Even now the two cultures share a lot of touchstones. Chinese New Year is generally dissimilar to the Japanese shogatsu but there are a few similarities. A focus on families eating meals together and the eating of foods with auspicious names.

But, not being Chinese, I wasn’t partaking of the family meal but rather te distinctly un-shogatsu-like public party that precedes it. However, whilst this part is not much like anything that happens around shogatsu it is pretty much exactly like a standard Japanese matsuri. And that means eating and then watching someone perform something.

The eating part was more than covered. Sannomiya is dense with restaurants but it has nothing on China Town. It is hard to comprehend more places to eat possibly being crammed in there. It seemed like no matter where you looked the eye was greeted by some kind of tasty Chinese dish. In fact bugger seemed, this was literally true. Without looking straight up into the sky it was impossible not to be lookign at some kind of food.

And the smell! The clashing smells of sweets, meats, breads, sauces and people was intoxicating. It was like walking though some kind of sweetly fragranced river drowning in food smells.

Needless to say we ate a lot of food. All you can eat dim sum (yum), nikumanju (pork buns) and a black nikumanju flavoured with squid ink, prawn balls, roast duck, etc, etc.

The black nikuman was particularly good. The filling was the best I have ever had in a pork bun, not too salty, really fresh with really fresh cabbage and even some little prawns enlivening the mixture. I bought it from a stall that a friend of mine works at and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone visiting Kobe China Town.

Fran had an unusual concoction called a “moffle”. A mochi-waffle. Mochi is a kind of Japanese rice cake and in the “moffle” a filling was placed between two sheets of rice cake and then cooked in a waffle iron. It was ooey, goeey, sticky, sweet, crunchy and basically everything a dessert should be.

In-between stuffing ourselves Fran and I took in the stage displays in open jawed amazement.

First up was a lion dance done by students from the Hyogo Commercial High School. A friend of mine works there and had always raved about how amazing her kids were. She was right. The drummer was ferocious, really primal, almost frightening even. The dance was well co-ordinated and with exceptional acrobatics from such young kids. I’m not usually one for dances (I tire of them quickly and start thinking about other things, like where the music is coming from, what I’m having for tea or who actually does enjoy watching dances) but I was spellbound by this one.

They followed it up with a dragon dance. Basically a paper dragon on poles was manipulated by the dancers in time to music on taiko, gong, tambourine and other percussion instruments. This too was spellbinding and some of the tricks the kids managed to pull off with the dragon puppet were brilliant. The dragon flowed and danced and came alive for a short moment.

The students finished up and were treated to a pair of drummers doing comedy skits and playing elaborate and complex rhythms. Their drumming was impressive but it lacked the primal power of the taiko. It was kind of fiddly. Still it was incredible to listen to and played excellently.

The performances started to veer into the repetitive shortly after this, with another lion dance (nowhere near as impressive as the first but admittedly with better acrobatics) and then a repeat performance from the drummers. About this time the cold and boredom began to settle in and Fran and I made our own fun by wandering around and laughing at the hilarious things we found in souvenir shops.

We came back to watch the lion bless our friend’s stall. This consisted of yet another dance and by now my enthusiasm for watching two men in a costume jump up and down had long since deserted me and every second I had to spend with the sodding lion was beginning to get on my nerves, just a touch. Still, the look on my friend’s face when the lion seemed to attack him was priceless and well worth waiting for.

All in all Chinese New Year was alright for a cheap Sunday out but nothing particularly special.

Now that nikuman though, that was special.


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