The first trip was a weekend in Kobe and Osaka Dec. 12 and 13. If the name Kobe doesn't ring a bell right away, think beef — Kobe beef. At $100 a pop, these aren't your ordinary everyday beef steaks. The cows that produce Kobe beef are treated like royalty as far as cows go (well, apart from the whole slaughtering thing). Legend has it that the farmers raising these particular cows give them beer and massages everyday. I've even read that some get massages with warm sake, though that seems just a bit too far over the top for me to believe. Whatever it is they do, the result is the most tender, flavorful steak in the world.
Now, there's no doubt $100 for a steak is obscene. I don't dispute that. But considering I hadn't had a real steak in two and a half years, since moving to Japan, I didn't feel TOO guilty about it. Hey, once in a lifetime thing, right? Right.
We went to a restaurant called Mouriya in downtown Kobe, where they had English menus and seated us at the griddle so we could watch the chef prepare the steaks right in front of us. Joe and I both got the top-graded A5 filet mignon lunch set, priced at 9,800 yen.
I thought the chef was finished when I photographed this, but after I took the picture he also added some bean sprouts cooked with little bits of fat he cut off from the meat. The meal also came with some soup, salad and tea.
I know this doesn't look like much, and indeed I was still hungry when I left the place (most expensive meal I'll ever eat where I walk out still hungry!), but the meat was far and away the best I've ever tasted. So soft and tender, and perfect with just a little bit of salt. I've heard people say it's so rich that they could eat just a small serving, but I didn't feel that way. My Freudian Id was urging me to reach out and snatch my neighbor's steak and eat it, too.
After lunch we hung out a while in a coffee shop before heading to the Kobe Luminarie, one of Japan's famous winter illuminations. The Luminarie was actually the whole reason for the trip, though as it turned out I ended up being more excited about eating the Kobe beef. (And, it was better than the Luminarie.)
The Luminarie runs for 12 days every year in early December and is a tribute to the rebirth of Kobe city after its destruction in a big earthquake in 1995. The installation, donated by the Italian government, is a series of arches designed to look like a cathedral. Seen from afar, they form a rather impressive tunnel of light.
Kobe Luminarie's main attraction
A kind of light castle at the end of the tunnel.
The lights were pretty, but the crowd was insane. People started lining up at least an hour before the lights switched on at 4:45, and the city had erected blockades along streets snaking throughout the downtown. Having been warned that the wait to go through can become hours long, we made sure to arrive early enough to be near the front of the line. Even so, the sheer number of people made it impossible to enjoy the lights in peace. Everyone was bumping into me, ruining photographs by sticking their cell phone cameras up into my shot, etc. Rather than getting the warm and fuzzy holiday spirit one would expect from such a fantastic lights display, I just felt like kicking a lot of people. And, I also think the lights would have been prettier in the pitch dark rather than the twilight, but again, that would've meant waiting for a couple hours.
So, that particular part of the trip was a little disappointing, though I was still glad we went since I always would have wondered about it if we hadn't gone. The next day we paid a visit to the Osaka aquarium before taking the bus back to Hiroshima.
View of Osaka aquarium from the ferris wheel (it's the oddly shaped red and blue building).
Osaka's aquarium is one of the biggest in the world, and it was pretty awesome. It's eight stories and there's a huge central tank running between several floors that contains some whale sharks, stingrays, manta rays and sea turtles, all very impressive.
Whale shark (Photo by Joe)
Whale shark again.
No idea, but this is one funky fish. (Photo by Joe)
Aww. Can you get any cuter than this lil guy?
In the last exhibit, visitors had a chance to pet a stingray and a small shark. I did. Joe watched.
It felt very soft and slimy. Don't worry, its stinging ability had been removed. No Steve Irwin mishaps here.