The lives-up-to-its-billing Shinkansen (bullet train) arrived in Shin-Kōbe Station at 14:14, just like the timetable says. One stop on the metro later I’m in Sannomiya, checking into my hotel (the b Kōbe, smart, utilitarian, close to the night life) and ready to explore Kōbe, host city for Ireland’s third match in the Rugby World Cup.
Perched on a hillside sloping down into Osaka Bay, Kōbe is an attractive, compact, walkable city (humidity notwithstanding). For an overall view of the place, I get on the Hanshin Regional Rail line at Sannomiya – up there with Shinjuku in the easy-to-get-lost stakes – and head east to Mikage Station, where the number 16 bus takes you to the cable car which will carry you up to the top of Mount Rokko. It’s best to sit in the cafe and wait for dusk to descend to fully appreciate the panoramic vista below lit up by the city lights. Nice though it is, it doesn’t live up to its nickname of The Ten Million Dollar View (how exactly do you assign a monetary value on a sight?). And of course Mount Rokko is afflicted by that blight of modern tourism, hordes of selfie stick-wielding, Chinese tourists. Such is life…
Returning back to Sannomiya, I take a wander to further explore Kōbe. Much of it appears to be deserted at night and I somehow end up rambling down to the port district in the south. In this day and age it should be theoretically impossible to get lost what with smartphones and Google Maps and somesuch. That assumption predicates on working Wi-Fi or a strong phone signal, things my increasingly wonky travel phone is lacking. But having been to Kōbe many moons ago, I knew to head in the opposite direction of the Port of Kōbe Tower that illuminated the night like a giant red beacon. Eventually I stumble across a metro station and end up back in Sannomiya for dinner.
Kōbe Beef is Wagyu beef from the Tajima strain of Japanese black cattle raised in Hyōgo Prefecture according to strict rules. The meat is a delicacy, valued for its flavour, tenderness, and fatty, well-marbled texture. And it is not cheap. But when in Kōbe, you have to take the one time hit and try it at least once. So I search for a suitable place (i.e. speaks English, accepts cards), eventually finding one in an upstairs teppanyaki joint and chow down in the company of a couple of Russians who are also in Kōbe for the match. Over dinner, they tell me that only about 200 of their countrymen are here for the tournament, and though the talent is there, the Russian rugby team will only improve once they start playing against Tier 1 nations regularly but they won’t for political reasons. And the food? Yes it was very flavoursome and you could see why Kōbe Beef is prized. The final bill came to about £80.00 for me, which didn’t seem too bad. Maybe I’ve been living in London too long…
It was now just after 10pm. I was only intending to stop off for a wee nightcap on the way back to my hotel. Next thing I knew, it was 2am. Basically, Avery’s Irish Pub was packed out (it only takes about 20 to fill it) and people were being turned away at the door. Consequently there was a group of about a dozen Irish fans gathered outside in the street drinking cans. They invited me to join their “Can Zone” (geddit? Instead of Fan Zone?). Feeling it would be impolite to ignore such a request, I dash up the road to the Family Mart convenience store – which must have done a roaring trade in tins that night – to stock up and made merry with them in the warm Kōbe night.
I can remember starting a rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann (why not? It certainly wasn’t going to be sung at the match). I can vaguely recall giving my insect bite antidote to some poor girl who wasn’t spared by the mossies. There’s also a dim recollection of the local plod politely moving us along. And there is evidence on my phone of ending up in some back alley dive bar. But I definitely know I had the kind of fun times that almost certainly would not have occurred had it been with any other group of folk.
Much as I drank, it wasn’t bad enough to induce a much of a hangover Thursday morning. I was up and out to Sannomiya station for breakfast at Mcdonalds (bad form, I know. But I can’t be doing steamed fish and rice for brekkie). Then it was onto the metro down to the Harbourland district. On the 17th of January 1995, one of the worst earthquakes of the 20th century struck Kōbe. 6,000 people were killed and over 300,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. One of the worst hit areas was Kōbe Harbour, a maritime gateway from the earliest days and amongst the first ports of entry to Japan when it ended its isolation. The completely destroyed harbour has since been rebuilt, and there sits here an open air memorial museum telling of what happened through artefacts, a video presentation (with English commentary in an Irish accent) and most starkly of all, part of the harbour preserved exactly as the earthquake left it. It was good to see also the many Irish folk here too, belying the cares-only-about-drinking Paddy stereotype.
Next was a metro ride back to Shin Kōbe station. For behind it lies the revered Nunobiki Falls. Getting there though, is a slog; a steep 400m climb up many dodgy steps that obliterated lofty presumptions of my fitness levels (I blame the humidity. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it). That said, the resultant views were totally worth it. There’s actually four separate waterfalls, the tallest of which rising to 43m. They looked positively mystical in the midday light and it wasn’t hard to see why they have inspired art, poetry and worship for centuries. Back down to Shin Kōbe station and as I make my way to the metro, by a complete million to one chance, Emeldah spots me. She is the fiancé of Tommy Feely, legendary Ireland supporter, RISSC London stalwart and my fellow WONS Orphanage cohort. They had just arrived in Kōbe from Tokyo and were lunching in a station restaurant when she saw me walk by, so I joined them for a quick drink. It was good to finally catch up with the couple having missed them in Tokyo.
Onward I went to lunch at a place not 100m from my hotel. Wanto Burger is an American-type diner, the twist being that it serves towering burgers made with Kōbe Beef. It’s a place highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook and by the time I get there, the queue – Irish to a man (and woman) – stretched out the door. I’d condemn them as blind followers of guidebooks but for the fact that’s why I’m here too. Thankfully the wait was only 20 minutes to get seated inside, service however was terrible and the second queue to pay the bill was just as bad. It’s saving grace however, was the outstanding food. It really takes the humble hamburger to another level when you use wagyū as your main ingredient, giving the beef heightened flavour. Very messy to eat, but I cared not.
Fully fed, I head on to meet Andre the Treasurer at Ootoya, 100m the other side of my hotel. He is there with John McGinley and wife Susan, Joe Loughran and wife Gemma (this was practically an RISSC London Committee splinter group meeting!) where I finally collect my match tickets. As I set off for the match, the patchy drizzles that had blighted the day morphed into outright monsoons by the time I reach the Noevir Kōbe Stadium, But it mattered not, the roof was going to be closed and my Rugby World Cup had started at last. As the crowds entered the Noevir Kōbe Stadium (renamed the Kōbe Misaki Stadium for the purposes of the tournament) I could finally get a sense of the occasion. Kōbe folk, who couldn’t have been nicer and helpful to us visitors as it was, had turned out fully to support the Irish team. Many of them decked out in Ireland rugby jerseys, and a significant few were wearing Ireland football shirts (a curious number of them unsponsored!). The 10,000 travelling Irish fans were clearly going to be augmented with local support. Collectively we roared on Ireland to a win over Russia that was not as comfortable as it might have been. The Irish team clearly took their foot off the pedal in the second half and only when the Russians threatened to get back into the game did Ireland pull out a couple of tries to round off a 35-0 win. I had a great time here, not least because proper SLR cameras were allowed in the stadium, and telephoto lenses too. So I made full use of my 70-300mm zoom and captured some spectacular shots. And if that wasn’t enough, Maiko was here.
Maiko from Kanazawa did post-graduate studies at Galway University and became a fan of Galway United (and Supermacs onion rings!). For many years afterwards she travelled at great expense from Japan to follow the Irish national football team around Europe (so much so that Maiko was made an honorary member of RISSC London). These days such adventures aren’t viable now that she is married and with three children, but Maiko was determined to come cheer on the Irish rugby team, even if it entailed a five hour drive to get here. I knew she would be at this match but didn’t think I would see her as she was off home straight afterwards. But as fate would have it, Maiko and her kids were sitting just two rows away from me. It was a delightful unexpected bonus to see her before my visit to Kanazawa the following weekend. However it took forever to leave the stadium, because Maiko and her three children were togged out in Galway GAA jerseys for the occasion and so many Irish supporters wanted photos with them that it was nearly two hours before I was finally able to see them off in town.
I hadn’t eaten yet, and here begins another unplanned night out with Irish fans. I stop for a bite to eat at a cheap diner near my hotel and got chatting to pair of siblings from Cork. They persuade me to come join them for a quick drink afterwards. That ‘quick drink’ involved squeezing into an absolutely heaving Hub pub, where getting a drink at the bar is a non-starter and we resort to illicitly smuggling in cans (hello again , Family Mart), fuelling a sing-song the likes of which has never been heard at this basement bar.
For all that, I have no difficulty making it to Shin-Kōbe station the next morning. Kōbe was wet, boozy, delicious fun. It’s nine days until Ireland’s last pool match against Samoa, so I’ve planned out an entire schedule before then; first to Matsuyama (for a J-pop concert), then all the way up to Kanazawa (to visit Maiko), then onwards to Nagoya, Osaka and Yamaguchi before ending up in Fukuoka for the last game. Not a typical Ireland supporter’s itinerary. But then in so many ways, I’m not a typical Ireland supporter…