Kobe Luminarie 2009 (Photo by Joe Meadows)
Around Christmas, as with so many other Western holidays, we see how the Japanese have adopted some of the holiday traditions we hold oh-so-dear and added a Japanese twist to make the holiday their very own. While I can’t say Christmastime has the same magical quality here as it does back home, I do have to appreciate all those exquisite Christmas cakes, the KFC Colonel Santa Claus, the clever 3-D Christmas cards and, most of all, the winter light displays.
Hey, what’s Christmas without a frosty evening stroll down Peace Boulevard to see Puff the Magic Dragon (with musical accompaniment), Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage and a whaling ship come to life in lights? (Every year I’ve got my fingers crossed to encounter a twinkling tanuki. So far, no dice.)
Our adopted hometown’s holiday illumination certainly has it’s own quirky charm, but if it’s an elegant and classy display you’re looking for, look no further than Kobe. Perhaps you’ve seen the ubiquitous advertisements for Kobe’s annual Luminarie in train stations. While not billed specifically as a Christmas display — it ran Dec. 3 to 14 this year – this winter illumination is sure to put you in the holiday spirit. For 12 days each December, the lights commemorate Kobe’s rebirth following the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which devastated the city in January 1995. The installation, donated by the Italian government and created by an Italian designer, is made up of a series of arches with lights arranged to resemble a kind of cathedral. Seen from afar, these arches combine into a long tunnel of light that indeed is quite admirable and unlike any other lights display I’ve seen. Every year the arrangement is changed slightly but maintains the same general form.
Such an impressive sight comes at a price, however, and that is the crowds. The free event attracts some 4 million visitors each year, making it impossible to enjoy the lights in peace. When I went Dec. 12, dodging all the photo-snapping tourists was a constant fight, and the crush of the crowd made it difficult to simply stand and admire the lights without being bumped around. I was very glad that we showed up early to see the lights because it meant we didn’t have to wait very long. The line to enter the illumination began forming around 4 p.m. (the lights came on around 4:45 p.m.), and city officials put up street barricades to snake the line throughout the city. Visitors who came later in the evening doubtless had a several-hour wait ahead of them, and I wondered if everyone would make it through before the lights clicked off at 10 p.m.
Light structure at the end of Kobe Luminarie. (Photo by Joe Meadows)
The Luminarie was a sight worth seeing, in my opinion, but I wouldn’t want to go more than once, and I probably would have been disappointed if I’d planned the trip to Kobe solely for the lights. Combined with a late lunch of succulent Kobe beef (without question the best steak I’ve ever had), and a visit to the impressive Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan (one of the world’s largest aquariums, home to two whale sharks) however, it was a worthwhile weekend getaway. If I’d had more time, I also would have checked out Kobe’s Chinatown.
If you’re not familiar with Kobe beef, just know that this is one town’s famous cuisine that isn’t underrated (How many places are famous for ramen? How many all taste the same? Just saying.) Cows raised for these particular steaks are treated like royalty as far as cows go – they’re supposedly fed beer and massaged every day. The result is very well-marbled beef that is marvelously tender. You’ll pay for the pleasure here – a lunch set of the highest graded filet mignon set me back 9,800 yen – but it’s worth it. It really was the most tender, flavorful steak I’ve ever eaten, and considering I hadn’t eaten a real steak since I arrived in Japan I didn’t feel too bad about splurging once. I can give a hearty thumbs up to the restaurant I ate at, Mouriya. Mouriya’s head (honten) restaurant is downtown, not far from the Luminarie, and it’s casual enough for jeans. It has an English website where you can see an English menu and make a reservation online, which would be a good idea if you eat there during the Luminarie. When I went, they seated me at the griddle so I could watch the chef cook my meal right in front of me. Highly recommended.
If money’s no object, the shinkansen will get you from Hiroshima to Kobe in an hour and 15 minutes for around 10,000 yen one way. If you’re planning to blow all your money on Kobe beef, however, you may want to consider taking the bus for half the price. It’s a four-hour ride.
Even though I started looking for a hotel more than a month in advance, I found that all the affordable rooms in Kobe were already booked on Friday and Saturday nights during the Luminarie. Instead, I opted to stay at the J-Hoppers hostel in Osaka. It was cheap, clean, and just a half-hour train ride from Kobe. Reservations can be made on their website.
See photos of past year’s luminaries:
Map of the Luminarie area (in Japanese):
Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan: