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Kobe, Phoenix Risen From Ashes of Disaster

By: Chris Willson

Date Posted: 2001-03-23

At 5.46 a.m. on January the 17th 1995, just 16km beneath the earth’s surface, a 7.2 Richter earthquake shook the city of Kobe for ten seconds. 6400 people were killed, over 40,000 injured and almost a quarter of a million houses were destroyed. Estimates of the damage are over ¥9,000 billion (90 billion dollars)

Six years later a visit to the city of Kobe reveals few signs of the disaster to the casual observer. The city is a pleasant place to explore on a day trip from Osaka or Kyoto, being about an hour away by train from either of them. There are various shops from the large department stores to small craft stalls, restaurants, cafes, temples and parks. I would recommend however that any visit should first start with a look at Phoenix Plaza to learn more about what happened on January 17th and the days that followed.

The Phoenix Plaza museum is small but there are English speaking guides and the audiovisual presentation has English headsets. The most powerful image for me was the footage from a security camera inside an office block. The grainy image showed the ten seconds when filing cabinets, tables and chairs were being thrown back and forth as the whole building was shaken by the tremendous force of the quake. The other parts of the exhibition gave some background information on the cause of earthquakes, the aftermath of the Kobe disaster and the reconstruction of the city. Aerial photos taken just hours after the earthquake showed the immensity of the tragedy with whole areas of the city left as little more than rubble. One good thing that came out of the disaster is a greater knowledge of what happens when a major earthquake hits and it also lead to the establishment of the Asian Disaster Reduction Center which is now based in Kobe.

Close to the Phoenix Plaza is the Ikuta shrine. First you walk in through the large red “Tori” gate that you can see marking the entrance of most Japanese shrines. The Shinto priests may be leading worship inside the shrine hall and it is perfectly possible to stand and quietly watch the proceedings from afar. You can also see visitors making offerings by throwing coins into the wooden box just in front of the main worship hall before bowing and clapping.

Beside the hall several small trees are covered with strips of paper that have been tied onto their branches. The papers and various other hangings are bought at the small shops inside the shrine and then tied to the trees as prayers for good health, marriage, prosperity, exam success and of course for the people lost in the earthquake.

Just a few blocks west of the Ikuta shrine is the Sorakuen Japanese Garden. The garden is laid out in the typical Japanese style with a large central pond. The pond is filled with huge Koi carp that will come to the surface looking for food if you stand near the edge. It is interesting to remember that each one of these fish would cost about the same amount to buy as my car. The pond is surrounded by landscaped gardens through which various paths crisscross so that you can spend an hour or two exploring. Although there are more impressive gardens in Kyoto the Sorakuen garden is the perfect place to quietly sit and reflect before heading back into the bustle of the city’s shops and restaurants.

As the museum’s name suggested Kobe is like the mythical phoenix that has risen up from the ashes of a tragic disaster and is once again a pleasant city well worth a visit.

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