Kobe Luminarie

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On January 17, 1995, at 05:46 am JST, Kobe was shaken up by the Great Hanshin earthquake, otherwise known as the Kobe earthquake. Up to 6,434 people lost their lives; around 4,600 of them were in Kobe. According to wikipedia, this was the second worst earthquake of the 20th century in Japan.

I asked one of my Kobe language instructors, Ito-sensei, about his experience of the event, and this is what he shared:

Back in 1995 he was a student around my age, living alone in an apartment block on the second floor. At around 4 am he just finished writing a last-minute essay, and settled into bed to get some much-needed rest. That night he would not get any. Japanese people are very used to experiencing earthquakes in their sleep, so initially he did not think much of the shaking. However, when the first floor collapsed through to the ground floor car park, it was clear he needed to get out fast. Back then Ito-sensei wore glasses, but he could not find them in the dark, and he could not even use a lighter to help him search, as the electricity was out and there was a smell of gas in the air. After grabbing whatever he can, he had to jump out of his window, as there was no other way to get out. It took a long time for help to come, because the phone booths have fallen over and were unoperational. That night Kobe had some rare mid-January snowfall, though Ito-sensei could hardly appreciate it, waiting outside barefoot.

Most people of my parents’ generation and above seem to remember this earthquake, even in the West, and were concerned for me when I shared that my year abroad was going to take place in Kobe. However, the city today is fully revived, and only small tremors can be occasionally felt – I already experienced one in October and it felt just like being in bed on a train. Of course, today’s safety is no reason to forget the tragedy of the Kobe earthquake.

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This is why every year Kobe organises the Luminarie, which is a 9-day memorial, done by creating intricate light-up displays along the central streets. Moreover, the event attracts hundreds of tourists, promoting what a lovely city Kobe is. It happens every November and also helps create a bit of a Christmasy atmosphere as people start shopping for the holidays.

I went to see the display with some friends on a Monday night, and the crowds were huge, despite it being a work day. It probably took us 2 hours to walk through a street that normally takes around 15 minutes. Definitely a recommended experience, though. The light displays were breathtaking, and at the end of the street there were many stalls with food and souvenirs. There was a festive atmosphere, which is quite strange for a memorial, but I guess it is hard to remind people of the tragedy when all they want is to enjoy themselves. The organisers clearly tried to give it a more serious feeling by playing some dramatic Bach music, but the resulting mood felt a bit strange – a clash between celebration and mourning. I guess it gave the Luminarie a special charm.

P.S. Fun fact: after the earthquake, because the phone lines were down, the police struggled to help the citizens. Instead, the city was rescued by the yakuza, who were quick to offer supplies and shelter, and are still prominent in the city today!

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