My prefectural education centre recently came up with an interesting scheme to improve the use of English language in Japanese schools. They produced a book of descriptions of places of local interest in Kobe in Japanese with accompanying English translations. Additionally they’re planning on producing a website and CD to accompany it with photos of the various sites and recordings of native English speakers reading the descriptions.

I volunteered thinking I would get some time off work to go see some of the cool things in my local area such as Taisanji Temple, Kande Shrine, the Winery or the sweets factory.

Unfortunately one of my so called friends went out one week and took photos of everything in our ward meaning all the people who work in Nishi ward were randomly assigned to photograph whatever was left.

Hence me spending a HOT Tuesday up a mountain looking at sheep.

Woot, sheep.

My assigned tourist destinations were Rokkosan Pasture, the Hall of Halls and Mt Rokko itself; all of them up a very tall mountain that overlooks Kobe and which, by all accounts, are a right bugger to get to. In fact, when I tried to find out how to get to Rokkosan pasture everyone I asked told me to “drive.” Not really an option for me, as I can’t.

Still I persisted and eventually got a hold of a map produced by the sisters that promised me several buses running to Rokkosan pasture that I could catch from the base of the mountain.

And so, sweltering under the heat of an extremely hot day, map, camera, towel and guts in hand I set off to go look at some sheep.

I started at Rokko station with the intent of catching a bus to the cable car station, riding the cable car up the mountain and then getting a further bus to Rokkosan. This was where I made my first mistake. Imagine the route as a clock face with Rokko station at 6, Rokkosan pasture at 10 and the cable car at 8. I expected when I caught the bus to the cable car station that it would go clockwise and take me to the cable car station. Oh foolish naiveté of me to think that the Japanese public transport system could be as logical as that. Instead the bus went anti-clockwise, climbing the mountain on long, twisty, thin and heart-in-mouth-oh-my-god-I’m-going-to-die fear causingly dangerous roads. Thos that know me know that I am not exactly terrified by heights but I am unbelievably scared of being in a car on mountain roads so this was a lot of fun for me as you can imagine.

Eventually I was deposited at the pasture and after a moment to kiss the ground and thank various deities that I had make it in one piece I headed off for lunch (tonkatsu, yum) and then to the farm.

So how was the farm, um, well. Pretty rubbish really. Granted I am not really the audience for these kind of city farm things. I grew up surrounded by horses and sheep. They do not excite me. In fact I can say without hyperbole that sheep are probably the least exciting organisms to walk the earth. There are single celled life forms that inspire more euphoria than sheep. In fact compared to sheep the common cold is positively scintillating. The target audience for these kind of city farms are kids that don’t ever see the farm animals that are so important to human existence. I understand that growing up in Japan, with its miles of uninterrupted urban sprawl; a sheep might be quite a novelty. But even though I am far from the target audience I can state with conviction that Rokkosan pasture is not an especially good example of a city farm. For starters it eschews the lovable and cute ducks of the common duck pond for geese, which are the most disagreeable creatures I have ever had the misfortune to meet. Furthermore all the animals are fundamentally depressing. They didn’t look particularly mistreated (although one horse looked dangerously underfed to me), nor did they seem to be penned in much (in fact the sheep can wander anywhere they like) but all the animals just seemed kind of, well sad. Especially the horses; they really depressed me for some intangible reason.

So was it all bad? Pretty much yeah. I had an ice cream made from milk farmed fresh on the pasture and it tasted awful. If you can’t even get ice cream right then you should start again really.

Its one redeeming feature was its location. High up on the mountainside with wonderful views of the surrounding mountains and Kobe/Osaka sprawled out below. The open pastures on the hills were really idyllic (if decidedly un-Japanese) and the sheep actually made the fields and hills looked prettier. Which is about the only aesthetic achievement sheep have ever been responsible for that didn’t in some way involve knitting.

One would think that the attached “cheese castle” would be a day in paradise for me but sadly whatever cheesy attractions it offered were solely for those that could speak and read Japanese and had an interest in camembert (which seems to be the only cheese anybody in this country eats).

Spending just long enough there to sit out the hottest part of the day in shade with an (admittedly poor) ice cream I swiftly made my way to the “Hall of Halls.”

The “Halls of Halls” is a museum of music boxes, a prospect that thrilled me not one iota. However, duty called and off I went.

This time the bus ride was much more pleasant (proper roads and no edges) and I was surprised to discover just how much of a community is on Mt Rokko. My map had indicated a whole host of spectacularly naff sounding tourist attractions but I was surprised to see so many homes, even apartment buildings and small general stores, spaced in amongst the endless green of forest. Some of these buildings seemed to be perched on the most incredible slopes. Constructed at angles so steep that cars parked in driveways seemed in serious danger of falling backwards onto their roofs.

I was so lost in my revelry that I missed my bus stop and had to walk back down the mountain to get to the “Hall of Halls.” This wasn’t so bad though as it meant I got to amble through the Hall’s garden, full of exotic flowers, ponds, dragonflies and butterflies before making my way inside.

I was pleasantly surprised by the museum. This is possibly because my expectations for a museum devoted to music boxes were so low that anything even mildly diverting would have seemed like a blockbuster movie by comparison but I don’t think that would be fair to it. The Hall of Hall’s has limited ambitions but it matches them and is a well run and maintained informative and diverting museum. Partly this is because their definition of a music box is much broader than I had anticipated. I was expecting a collection of girl’s playthings displayed mostly for the craftsmanship and aesthetic qualities of the box but what I got was a potted history of the development of the gramophone and modern record player. I was particularly impressed with some of the Kalliopes which looked like enormous records, the size of a person’s entire upper body, made of metal and with numerous holes and dents bashed into them to trigger the bells. There also working pianolas, organs (as in the organ grinder and his monkey) that you could turn yourself, strange pianola variants using banjos, 8 violins strapped together in groups of four and one absolutely enormous music box that occupied the entire back wall of the hall. This thing was incredible! Looking like it had stepped out of some turn of the last century circus and incorporating drums, violins, dolls that danced, pianos, trumpets and trombones and all manner of complicated instruments. If it actually had once ever played it must have been one of the most fantastic feats of mechanical engineering ever witnessed.

It was also impressive that so many of the exhibits actually played still. In fact twice whilst I was there, there was a little concert. Unfortunately the gigantic construction didn’t play and even more unfortunately the big failing of these beautiful machines was made clear to me rather swiftly. Of all the instruments to attach the complex mechanism to why a bell? Sure, you can play a lot of notes and make a tune easily enough but it sounds horrible, tinny and weak and pathetic.

The concerts also had a very impressive performance from a custom built music box based on an organ (the church kind) and one of the loudest organs I have ever heard. They had gotten a modern musician to recreate one of the old pianola formats, basically a book as thick as Lord of the Rings that was in fact one long piece of paper folded up and with cuts of various width and length made into it. However they had recreated the old format with a modern tune and the music box played the theme to “My Neighbour Totoro.”

The museum also sells music boxes, makes custom made ones, gives you tools to produce your own and even has a Kalliope for sale, complete with records.

Anyway, swiftly tiring of the music box museum I caught the bus back to a different cable car station to admire the view of Kobe/Osaka and head home.

This view, apparently, is the third greatest night time view in the whole of Japan. Unfortunately I had gone in the day (whoops) and with nowhere to eat in sight and the time fast approaching 5 o’clock I didn’t fancy waiting until 8 without eating to get a photo and then 9 to get home and have some food. I do intend to return before the summer ends though and get that night view.

Anyway, even in the day the view is absolutely spectacular, taking in the whole of Kobe and a good portion of Osaka to the left and Akashi to the right. It really does hammer home quite how huge the urban sprawl along Japan’s Southern Coast is. As far as the eye can see is city with nary a gap in sight. In some ways it’s quite beautiful and in others it’s completely terrifying but it is nonetheless a compelling sight.

See that odd wave/dome/pyramid shaped building there? Well look to the right of it, see the red line? That is Harborland and the symbol of Kobe City, Port Tower.

It doesn’t quite match the view from the top of Miyajima but, well what could really.

Eventually I headed into the station to get the cable car down. Now I may have confused some of yeah with the name cable car depending on what country you come from so let me clarify. What in Britain we would call a cable car i.e. a car suspended underneath a cable and going up a mountain is in Japan called a ropeway. What the Japanese call a cable car is more like a tram. Only this cable car was more bizarre than that. Although the actual chassis of the tram was angled to go up and down the mountain the floor inside was flat and lay out in steps. It had the disconcerting effect of riding a flight of stairs down a mountain.

Despite this though it was a really, pretty and terribly cute little example of a model railway. The cable car has been running on this line since 1937 and it still looks like it stepped off the set of an affair to remember. All gleaming brass, bright colours, smartly dressed drivers and conductors and mock steam sound effects. They even play some classical music as you descend the mountain at a pleasurably sedate pace, letting one take in the sights and the general cheery ambiance. I love the cable car; I guess there’s just something very English about liking old fashioned trains. Another thing we share with the Japanese.

So that was Mt Rokko. If you ever have cause to visit Kobe I wouldn’t bother, except possibly to take in the view. Yet for all that not a bad way to spend a day. And hey, day off work to do it too.

Oh and by the way, here is a picture of Adam Halls in the Hall of Halls.

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