A Walk to Kobe
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
In May of 1997, two years after the massive earthquake in Kobe, I hit upon the idea of taking a leisurely, solitary walk from Nishinomiya to Sannomiya in downtown Kobe. I happened to be staying in Kyoto at the time for work, and continued on to Nishinomiya. On the map it’s about fifteen kilometres west from there to Kobe. Not exactly a stone’s throw away, but not such a gruelling distance, and besides, I’m a pretty confident walker.
I was born in Kyoto, but soon afterwards my family moved to Shukugawa, a neighbourhood in Nishinomiya. And not long after that we moved again, closer to Kobe, to Ashiya, where I spent most of my teenage years. My high school was in the hills above the city, so naturally downtown Kobe was where I headed when I wanted to have a good time, specifically around Sannomiya. I became a typical Hanshin-kan boy, the term referring to the area that lies between Osaka and Kobe. Back then – and probably nowadays as well – this was a great place to grow up. It’s quiet and laid-back, with an open, relaxed feeling about it, and it’s blessed with the ocean, mountains and a large city nearby. I loved going to concerts, hunting for cheap paperbacks in used bookstores, hanging out in jazz cafes, and enjoying Art Theatre Guild new-wave films. My favourite look at the time? VAN jackets, of course.
But then I moved to Tokyo for college, got married and started working, and seldom travelled back to this strip of land between Osaka and Kobe. There were times I’d return, of course, but as soon as I finished what I had to do I’d always hop on the bullet train and head straight back to Tokyo. I had a busy life, and I spent a lot of time abroad. And there were a couple of personal reasons as well. Some people are constantly being pulled back to their home town, while others feel like they can never go back. In most cases it’s as if fate separates the two groups, and it has little to do with how strong your feelings are towards the place. Like it or not, I seem to belong to the second group.
For years my parents lived in Ashiya, but when the Hanshin Earthquake hit in January 1995, their house was too damaged to stay in and they soon moved to Kyoto. So, apart from all the memories I’d stored up for myself (my valuable property), there was no longer any actual connection between me and the Hanshin-kan area. Strictly speaking, it’s not my home town any more. I feel a deep sense of loss at this fact, as if the axis of my memories is faintly, but audibly, creaking within me. It’s a physical sensation.
Maybe it’s exactly because of that that I wanted to take a walk there, alert and attentive to what I might discover. Perhaps I wanted to see for myself how this home town I’d lost all obvious connections with would appear to me now. How much of a shadow (or a shadow of a shadow) of myself I would discover there?
I also wanted to see what effect the Hanshin Earthquake had had on the town I grew up in. I visited Kobe several times after the quake, and was frankly shocked by the extent of damage. But now, some two years later, when the town seemed finally to have righted itself, I wanted to see with my own eyes what transformations had taken place – what this awful violence had stolen from the town, and what it had left behind. There had to be at least some connection, I felt, with who I am now.
Clad in rubber-soled walking shoes, shouldering a backpack with a notebook and small camera, I got off at the train at Nishinomiya station and set off at a leisurely pace towards the west. The weather was so bright and sunny I wore sunglasses. The first place I came to was the shopping area near the south exit of the station. In elementary school I often used to ride my bike over there to buy things. The city library was nearby, too, and whenever I had time I’d hang out there and pore through every young adult book I could lay my hands on. There was also a craft shop close by where I stocked up on plastic models. So this place brought back a rush of memories.
I hadn’t been here for a long time, and the shopping area had changed almost beyond recognition. How much of this was due to the normal changes over time, and how much was because of the physical devastation brought on by the earthquake, I really couldn’t say. Even so, the scars left by the earthquake were plain to see. Where buildings had collapsed, vacant lots now dotted the area like so many missing teeth, with prefab temporary stores in between as if to connect them all. Summer grass grew in the roped-off vacant lots, and the asphalt streets were filled with ominous cracks. Terrible destruction was in evidence all around, as if the area was some ancient ruins. Compared to the downtown shopping district of Kobe, which the world had focused on, and which had rapidly been rebuilt after the quake, the blank spaces here struck me as somehow heavy and dull, with a quiet depth to them. Of course this wasn’t only true of the Nishinomiya shopping district. There must be many places around Kobe that still bear the same sort of wounds, but that are mostly forgotten.
Past the shopping district and across the main street is Ebisu Shrine. It’s a very large shrine, with thick woods within its precincts. When I was a small child, my friends and I loved to play here, and it hurt to see the visible scars there now. Most of the large stone lights lining the Hanshin highway were missing the topmost lantern part. These were scattered on the ground below, like heads lopped off by a sharp sword. The remaining bases had become a row of senseless, purposeless stone statues, solemnly silent, like symbols from a dream.
The old stone bridge across the pond where I used to catch shrimp as a child (using a simple technique: I would tie a string around an empty bottle, put in noodle powder as bait, lower it into the water and the shrimp would go into the bottle and then I would pull it up) had collapsed and remained that way. The water in the pond was dark and muddy and turtles of indiscriminate ages lay sprawled on dry rocks, basking in the sun, their minds no doubt bereft of any thoughts. Terrible destruction was in evidence all around, as if the area was some ancient ruins. Only the deep woods were the same as I remembered from childhood, dark and still, beyond time.
I sat down in the shrine grounds under the early-summer sun, and gazed around again at the surroundings, trying to get used to what I was seeing. Absorbing and accepting this scenery as naturally as I could, mentally and viscerally. Trying to remember how I was back then. But this was all going to take a long time, as you might imagine.
I strode on from Nishinomiya to Shukugawa. It was not yet noon, but sunny enough that, walking briskly, I started to perspire. I didn’t need a map to tell me roughly where I was, but I had no memory of the individual streets. I must have walked down these streets hundreds of times, but now I was drawing a complete blank. Why couldn’t I recall them? It was strange. I felt bewildered, as if I’d come home to find all the furniture replaced.
The reason was soon clear to me. Places that used to be empty lots weren’t empty any more, and places that hadn’t been empty now were – like photo negatives and positives replacing each other. In most cases the former were empty lots that were now residences, the latter where old houses had been destroyed in the earthquake. These before-and-after images had a synergistic effect, adding a fictitious wash to my memories of how the town used to be.
The old house I had lived in near Shukugawa was gone, replaced by a row of town houses. And the grounds of the nearby high school were filled with temporary housing put up for survivors of the quake. Where my friends and I used to play baseball, the people who lived in these prefab shelters had hung their laundry and futons out to air, in what now seemed like a tight, cramped space. Try as I might to find vestiges of the past, there were almost none. The water in the river still flowed as clean and pure as before, but it gave me an odd sensation to see how the riverbed was now neatly lined with concrete.
I walked on for a while in the direction of the sea and stopped by a local sushi shop. It was a Sunday afternoon, and they were busy with takeout orders. The young assistant who’d gone out on deliveries didn’t come back for a long time, and the owner was hard-pressed to keep up with the phone calls. A typical scene you’d find anywhere in Japan. I waited for my order to come, sipping a beer and half watching the TV. The governor of Hyogo prefecture was talking with someone on a show about how post-quake reconstruction was going. I’m trying to remember now exactly what he said, but for the life of me can’t recall a single word.
As a child, when I climbed the banks of the river, the sea was spread out right in front of me, with nothing blocking the view. I used to go swimming there in the summer. I loved the ocean and loved to swim. I went fishing, too, and took my dog for a walk there every day. Sometimes I just liked to sit down and do nothing. And sometimes I’d sneak out of the house at night, go to the sea with my friends and gather driftwood and light a bonfire. I loved the smell of the sea, its far-off roar, and all that it brought with it.
But now the sea isn’t there any more. They cut down the mountains, hauled all the dirt off to the sea with trucks and conveyor belts and filled it in. With both the mountains and sea so close by, this area is perfect for that kind of construction work. Neat little residential communities have sprung up where the mountains used to be, and similarly neat little residential communities have popped up on the landfill. All this happened after I moved to Tokyo, during the era of high growth in Japan, when the country was in the throes of a nationwide construction boom.
I own a house now in a town on the seashore in Kanagawa prefecture near Tokyo, and travel back and forth between there and Tokyo. Unfortunately, or very unfortunately, I should say, this seaside town reminds me more of my home town than my home town does. The area has green mountains, and a wonderful swimming beach. I want to preserve these as best I can, because once natural scenery is gone, it’s gone forever. Once violence caused by humans is unleashed, it can never be reversed.
Past the banks of the river, the area around what used to be the Koroen seaside resort had been filled in to make a kind of cosy little cove, or pond. Windsurfers were there, doing their best to catch the wind. Just to the west, on what was Ashiya beach, stands a row of high-rise apartment buildings, like so many blank monoliths. On the shore, some families that have driven there in their station wagons and minivans are using small propane tanks to have a barbecue. So-called outdoor activities. They’re grilling meat, fish and vegetables, and the whitish smoke silently rises like a beacon into the sky on this happy Sunday scene. There’s hardly a cloud in the sky. An almost perfect May tableau. Still, as I sit there on the concrete bank and gaze at where the real sea used to be, everything here, like a tyre leaking air, slowly, and quietly, loses its sense of reality.
In the midst of this placid scene it’s hard to deny the vestiges of violence. That’s how it struck me. A part of those violent tendencies lies hidden right below our feet, while another part is hidden within us. One is a metaphor for the other. Or perhaps they are interchangeable. Lying here, asleep, like a pair of animals having the same dream.
I crossed a small river and went into Ashiya. I walked past my old junior high school, past the house I used to live in, and came to the Ashiya train station. A poster in the station announced a game at 2 p.m. that day at Koshien Stadium in Osaka between the Hanshin Tigers and Yakult Swallows baseball teams. Seeing it, I had the sudden urge to go. I made a quick change of plans and jumped on the train. The game had just begun, so if I went now, I thought, I should be there in time for the third inning. I could resume my walk tomorrow.
Koshien Stadium had changed little from when I was child. Like I’d stumbled into a time warp, I felt a keen nostalgic sense of not belonging – an odd turn of phrase, admittedly. About the only things that had changed were the lack of hawkers shouldering polka-dot tanks of Calpis, selling the fermented milk drink (seems like there aren’t many people in the world who drink Calpis any more), and the outfield scoreboard, which was now electronic (and hard to decipher during the day). But the colour of the dirt on the field was the same as before, as was the green of the grass, and the Hanshin fans were as famously boisterous as ever. Earthquakes, revolutions, wars and centuries can come and go, but Hanshin fans are eternal.
The game turned out to be a pitcher’s duel between Kawajiri and Takatsu, with Hanshin winning 1–0. You might think the one-run difference meant it was a thrilling game but it wasn’t, not by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, it was a highlight-free sort of game. To put it even more bluntly, a game not worth seeing. Especially for those of us in the outfield seats. As the sun got stronger we grew horribly thirsty. I had a few cold beers and, predictably, dozed off on the bleachers. When I woke up I had totally lost track of where I was. (Where the hell am I? I wondered.) The shadows from the floodlights had meandered in my direction, nearly reaching me.
I checked into a new little hotel in Kobe. Most of the guests were groups of young women. I’m sure you can picture the kind of hotel I’m talking about. The next morning I got up at six and took the pre-rush-hour train to Ashiyagawa station, and restarted my mini walking tour. Unlike the day before, the sky was covered with clouds, the air a bit chilly. The weather report in the paper confidently predicted rain in the afternoon (and of course they were spot on. In the evening I got drenched).
In the morning paper I’d bought at Sannomiya station there was also an update on an assault on two young girls in Suma New Town (another new place built by slicing off mountain tops, I imagined; I’d never heard of it). One of them had died. Police were calling it a random attack, and had no clues, and residents with small children were frightened. This was before the awful murder of Jun Hase, an eleven-year-old boy, took place in Kobe. At any rate, it was a horrible, gruesome, pointless attack targeting elementary-school children. I rarely read the newspaper and hadn’t even known about the attack.
I remember sensing a matter-of-fact, yet deep and uncanny undertone lurking between the lines of the article. As I folded up the paper, a thought suddenly struck me. A man walking around by himself in the middle of the day on a weekday might appear pretty suspicious. This shadow of renewed violence underscored even more my sense of being a foreign element here. Like I was an uninvited guest who’d blundered into a place I didn’t belong.
I walked along a road in the foothills where the railroad line runs, taking little detours as I made my way west, and in about thirty minutes had entered Ashiya. It is a long, narrow town running north and south. Walk east or west and you’ve soon left it. On either side of the road there were empty lots here, too, left over from the earthquake, and a few deserted houses tilting to one side. The soil in the Hanshin-kan area differs from that in Tokyo. It’s a sandy mountainous area, so the earth is smooth and whitish, which made the empty lots stand out all the more. The area was thick with green summer weeds, making the contrast even more striking. I pictured a large surgical scar on the skin of someone close to me, an image that sent a physical, stabbing pain right through me, a pain not tethered to time or place.
Naturally there was more than just vacant lots covered in weeds. I did run across several construction sites. I imagine that in less than a year there will be rows of newly built houses here, so many I probably wouldn’t recognize the place. Brand-new roof tiles, sparkling brilliantly in the fresh rays of the sun. By then there might be nothing left in common between the scenery here and me as a person. (Most likely there won’t be.) Between us (probably) stands a forced divide exposed by an overwhelming destructive device, namely the earthquake. I gazed up at the sky, breathed in the slightly cloudy morning air, and thought about this land that had made me into the person I am, and about the person whom this land had made. About the sort of things we have no control over.
When I arrived at Okamoto station, the next station over, I thought I’d stop by a coffee shop – any place would do – and order their set breakfast. I hadn’t eaten anything all morning. But none of the coffee shops were open yet. It wasn’t that kind of town, I remembered. Reluctantly, I bought a CalorieMate energy bar at a Lawson’s beside the road, sat on a park bench and silently ate it, washing it down with a can of coffee. I used the time to jot down notes on what I’d seen on the journey so far. After a short break I pulled out the paperback copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises from my pocket and took up where I’d left off. I’d read the novel in high school, and had happened to start it again in bed in the hotel and had become totally lost in the story. I wonder why I never realized before what a great novel it is. This realization gave me an odd sensation. I guess my mind must have been elsewhere back then.
There was no breakfast service to be found at the next station, Mikage, either, so I went on silently trudging along the train tracks, lost in dreams of strong, steaming hot coffee and slices of thick, buttered toast. As before, I passed a number of empty lots and construction sites. Several Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedans glided by, taking children to school or the station, I imagine. The cars didn’t have a single smudge or a scratch. Like symbols have no substance, and the flow of time no goal. All unconnected to the earthquake, or to violence. Most likely.
In front of Rokko station I made a small concession, went into a McDonald’s, ordered an Egg McMuffin set (360 yen) and was able finally to appease the hunger that had been growling inside me like the roar of the sea. I decided to take a thirty-minute break. It was now 9 a.m. Going inside a McDonald’s at 9 a.m., I felt like I’d been absorbed into a huge McDonald’s-esque imaginary reality. Or become part of some mass unconscious. But really, all that surrounded me was my own individual reality. Obviously. For better or for worse, it’s just that that individualism had, temporarily, no place to go.
I’d managed to make it this far, so I decided to climb the steep slope that led to my old high school. A light sheen of sweat broke out on my forehead. In high school I always rode a packed bus to school, but now I walked the same road under my own steam. In the spacious playing field that had been carved out of the mountain slopes, girl students were playing handball as part of their gym class. There was an unearthly quiet all around, except for the occasional shouts of the girls. It was so completely still it felt like I’d stumbled into a level of space I shouldn’t be in. Why this utter silence?
I gazed at Kobe harbour, sparkling leadenly far below, and listened carefully, hoping to pick up some echoes from the past, but nothing came to me. Just the sounds of silence. That’s all. But what are you going to do? We’re talking about things that happened over thirty years ago.
Over thirty years ago. There is one thing I can say for certain: the older a person gets, the lonelier he becomes. It’s true for everyone. But maybe that isn’t wrong. What I mean is, in a sense our lives are nothing more than a series of stages to help us get used to loneliness. That being the case, there’s no reason to complain. And besides, who would we complain to, anyway?
I stood up, left the high school, and started rather apathetically down the long slope (I was getting a little fatigued). I continued without a break to the Shin Kobe station, the one where the bullet trains stop. From here I could get to my destination, Sannomiya, in one go.
I had extra time, so out of sheer curiosity I stopped inside the New Kobe Oriental Hotel, a mammoth, newly opened hotel near the station. I sank back on a sofa in the cafe lounge and finally got my first decent cup of coffee of the day. I lowered my backpack, removed my sunglasses, took a deep breath and gave my legs a rest. It occurred to me that I needed to use the facilities, so I went and relieved myself for the first time since leaving my hotel that morning. Then I sat back, ordered a refill of coffee, and took a look around me. The hotel was dreadfully spacious, worlds apart from the old Kobe Oriental Hotel near the harbour (a nice, cosy-sized hotel now closed because of the earthquake). Calling this new hotel deserted rather than spacious might be closer to reality. It was kind of like a pyramid with not enough mummies. I don’t mean to quibble, but it’s not the sort of place where I’d like to stay.
A few months later there was a yakuza-related shooting in the very same lounge, and two people were killed. Of course I had no way of knowing something like that would take place there, but once again I happened to pass by, with a gap of time separating us, a shadow of violence to come. Call it coincidence, but it still made me feel weird, like the past, the present and the future were all flashing back and forth together on an overpass above me.
Why are we being exposed to such profound and continual violence? Four months after this little walking trip, as I sit at my desk and write these words, I can’t help but wonder. Even putting aside the Kobe region, I feel like one act of violence is destined (in reality or metaphorically) to lead directly to another. Is there some kind of generational inevitability to this? Or is it just chance and nothing more?
The Hanshin Earthquake took place while I was living in the United States, and two months after that came the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. I found this a very suggestive chain of events. That summer I returned to Japan, and soon after began interviewing survivors of the sarin attack. One year later I published Underground. What I was seeking in that book, what I wanted to write about – what I, myself, really wanted to know more about – was the violence in our society that lies hidden right beneath us. About the violence that’s there as a latent possibility, and the possibility that actually reveals itself in the form of violence, all of which we tend to forget exists. That’s why I didn’t choose the victimizers in the attack to interview, but the victims.
As I walked silently along for two days from Nishinomiya to Kobe, these ideas kept spinning around in my head. As I made my way through the earthquake’s shadow I kept asking myself: What was the sarin gas attack on the subway all about? At the same time, as I dragged along the shadow of the sarin gas attack, I wondered: What was the Hanshin Earthquake? To me, the two events weren’t separate and discrete; unravelling one might help unravel the other. This was simultaneously a physical and a psychological issue. In other words, the psychological is itself the physical. And I had to create my own sort of corridor connecting the two.
I could add an even more critical question to the mix, namely: What can I do about it?
Sorry to say, I still haven’t found a clear, logical answer to these questions. I haven’t arrived at any definite destination. All I’m able to do at this point is, through my uncertain prose, serve up in an anticlimactic vessel the actual path my thoughts (and my gaze and legs) led me to. I hope you will understand this. Ultimately I’m the kind of person who can only make progress through moving my legs, moving my body, through a step-by-step, halting, physical process. It takes time. A miserably long amount of time. I just hope it won’t be too late.
I finally arrived back in Sannomiya. By this time I was starting to smell pretty rank. It wasn’t such a long distance, though further than your typical morning stroll. In the hotel room I took a hot shower, washed my hair and gulped down a cold bottle of mineral water from the fridge. I took out a fresh change of clothes from my bag. Navy-blue polo shirt, blue cotton sports coat and beige chinos. My legs were a bit swollen, but there was nothing I could do about it. Just like I couldn’t extract the vague questions that lay dull and unresolved in my head.
There wasn’t anything in particular I wanted to do, so I went to see a film that caught my eye, one starring Tom Cruise. Not all that moving a film, but not so bad, either. I just took a rest, passing the time. Two hours of my life passed by – not so movingly, but not so badly, either. Evening was coming on as I exited the theatre, and I strolled up towards the hills to a little restaurant. I sat at the counter, ordered a seafood pizza and a draught beer. I was the only customer who was by himself. Maybe it was just my imagination, but everyone else there seemed really happy. The couples looked contented, and a group of men and women were laughing uproariously. Some days are just like that.
The seafood pizza they brought me had a little paper tag on it announcing that This pizza you are about to enjoy is the 958,816th pizza made by our restaurant. I couldn’t follow. 958,816? What sort of message was I supposed to read into this? When I was young, I often used to come to this place with my girlfriend, down a few cold beers, and eat a freshly baked pizza with the same kind of numbered tag. We’d talk about our future. And of all the predictions we made then, not a single one came true. But this was a long, long time ago. Back when there was still a sea here, back when there were mountains.
Not that there aren’t still sea and mountains here. Of course there are. What I’m talking about is a different sea, and different mountains. Different from the ones here now. As I sip my second beer, I flip open my paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises and pick up where I left off. The lost story of a lost generation. I’m quickly lured back into their world.
When I finally leave the restaurant, it’s raining, as predicted, and I get wet. Wretchedly wet, soaked to the bone. But by this point it’s too much trouble to buy an umbrella.