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Chinatown in Kobe: Underrated and Exciting

Whether as a statement of fact, a derogatory connotation or an allusion to the exotic, Japan creates a palpable divide between that which is Japanese and that which is gaijin (foreign to Japan). Controversial discussions of the Rykyuan, Ainu and Burakumin communities aside, Japan is proud to identify itself as a homogenous society. There is extensive discussion online of mixed race Japanese nationals feeling their gaijin genes are to their detriment. I was therefore intrigued to take a trip to Kobe's Chinatown, Nankinmachi. One of only three Chinatowns in Japan, Nankinmachi turns this whole concept on its head–a neighbourhood dedicated to and celebrating its foreign heritage.

It also happens to be somewhere you can try the famed Kobe beef at a fraction of its equally renowned price tag (no small factor in my decision to go).

Having taken the train to Motomachi Station, head toward the East Exit. I passed an ornate lion's head on my way through, an unmistakable sign I was going in the right direction. There were also signposts in English outside. It was simply a case of crossing over the road and walking in a straight line. Two minutes later, there was a jolly Buddha statue on my right welcoming me to Nankinmachi.

Chinatowns conjure up a particular preconceived image and I'm pleased to say that Nankinmachi follows expectations. Red lanterns bob jauntily along a narrow street which is crammed with overloaded food stalls attended by their happily jostling shopkeepers. Swathes of sticky sweet steam billow out from braziers, glistening roast ducks (with heads still attached!) rotate in glass ovens. Even the vending machines colour co-ordinate and have pandas on them.

Another perk is how easy Nankinmachi is to navigate. Essentially set out on a crossroad, at its centre stands its iconic pagoda surrounded by statues of the different Zodiac animals - with a panda thrown in because, y'know, China. At the end of each of the four main streets is a large red gate. There is also a tourist information kiosk next to the pagoda but this appears to mostly cater for Chinese visitors, of which there were many.

The majority of Nankinmachi's establishments serve food but dotted in between were a few souvenir shops, an Owl Cafe, a Turkish ice-cream stall and several Spiderman figures for some reason. I enquire why but apparently it's just because they can–which is as admirable a reason as any. My favourite souvenir shop was Moon Dragon. It was a little bit smaller and more upmarket than the others. Inside were piles of pandas (as to be expected) but I was drawn to popular Pokemon characters that had been given a Chinese flourish. I picked up a cute Eevee phone charm for a reasonable 378 yen. It struck me as the embodiment of Japan-Chinese fusion.

I peered into a few restaurant doors but they were a little dingy and cramped inside. Some might argue that that is part of their charm. It was sunny, so I decided to grab lunch outside. There is plenty of seating around the pagoda. I enjoyed a bubbletea (coffee flavoured) from TenFu's teashop and bought the cheapest serving of Kobe beef (1000 yen) I could from the stand to the left of Moon Dragon.

It was a humble introduction to one of the most coveted, expensive foods in the gourmet world. Settled on a concrete bench, I wondered whether I had set myself up for disappointment. I had not. Although strangely paired with a side of pineapple, the beef itself was delicious. There was a little tangy sauce, perhaps yuzu and soy, over some of the meat but not so much that I couldn't choose between trying some plain cuts also. Its as melt-in-the-mouth as they say.

The highlight of Nankinmachi has to be its food. It is cheap and cheerful, street food at its most straight forward splendour. If you were able to try Kobe beef elsewhere in Kobe, then here might be the best place to try other quintessential Chinese-Japanese foods such as gyoza, ramen and longevity buns. Distastefully, I noticed a sharkfin soup stand but I was relieved to see that most customers tended to bypass this to go for the mountains of other options available - ones that involve less animal cruelty.

Nankinmachi is a lively, friendly neighbourhood which is a great spot to grab lunch on the go. It suits those with empty bellies and slim wallets, interested in a detour from the standard Japanese cultural day out. Definitely an under-appreciated ruby in the rough and an area I'd happily go back to.

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